12th Assembly 2009

Church has potential for change

Uniting Church members may be surprised to know they are part of an organisation that values innovation and is open to change.

This finding, which runs counter to perceptions of the Uniting Church as ageing and stale, came out of the findings of research conducted by the National Church Life Survey (NCLS).

This and other information was presented during a lunchtime forum at the 12th Assembly, co-sponsored by NCLS and the Board of Mission (BOM) of the Synod of New South Wales and the ACT.

Dr Ruth Powell, Communications Manager with NCLS Research, said research focused on the Uniting Church was aimed at identifying, “the strengths and the life that exist in our church”.

Information was taken from three different sources: the NCLS 2006 Uniting Church profile, a Uniting Church operations survey which covered facilities, property and services, and a further survey of 1,082 randomly selected church attendees.

One interesting finding was that 67 per cent of people valued inclusiveness, yet congregations appeared not to be putting in place useful procedures to help integrate new people. For example, only four per cent of congregations ran a group or program for new Christians or new members. This compared with 22 per cent across all Protestant congregations.

Tina Rendell, Executive Director of BOM, said that was concerning because, “new people connect best with new groups, so we might be making it hard for new people to connect.”

However, she said the high value placed on inclusiveness had uncovered an unrecognised strength. She challenged people to imagine how the church could look if it really embraced this.

“What if we paid more attention to welcoming and integrating new people?” she asked. “What if we owned being inclusive as a strength and built on it intentionally.”

One aspect of inclusivity the research explored was the willingness of people to make changes to their worship style or time in order to accommodate other people or groups.

A third question related to willingness to share property with a separate group — an issue that would be discussed by Assembly later in the week.
The results of three questions reinforced information in the broader NCLS research that Uniting Church congregations are overwhelmingly open to change in order to be more inclusive. Only between two and three per cent of respondents were definitely against change.

Glen Powell from BOM said the results of the research had challenged his perception of the Uniting Church congregations.

One person suggested the reason change was difficult was that the small “anti-change” group was often made up of people who were in positions of authority.

Mr Powell responded, “We blame the gatekeepers for a lot, don’t we?”

He offered an alternative theory: that the Uniting Church is so inclusive “we refuse to upset anybody.”

He suggested what was needed was a pastorally-sensitive approach to change, adding, “I’m proud to be in a church that cares about the three per cent.
“All we have to do is find ways to unlock our potential.”