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Uniting Church in Australia nurtures shoots of growth in secular climate

Five personality traits of successful churches

Uniting Church of Australia president Rev Gregor Henderson says there is no single formula to create a church that attracts new members. Successful churches do share a number of traits, however.

They include:

  1. Worship that connects people with God, though that worship can be of any style.
  2. A welcoming ethos.
  3. Genuine connections to the local community. This creates connections to the next generation, and it contrasts with small dying congregations that are often remote.
  4. Some sense of belonging to the wider church so the congregation has a sense of belonging to something larger than itself.
  5. Complimentary leadership of lay and ordained people.

 Rev Gregor Henderson

Uniting Church of Australia (UCA) president Rev Gregor Henderson says his church is seeing some signs of growth but must become accustomed to being a faithful minority in a largely secular society.

Gregor attended Methodist Conference of NZ last month, and Touchstone managed to briefly corner him for a chat. He says about a third of UCA congregations have more members than they did three to five years ago, about a third are holding their own, and a third are declining.

"We see three main reasons some congregations are growing. One is that there has been a shift back to spirituality by the younger generation. We are seeing more married families with children and adult baptisms are higher than ever.

"A second source of new members is migrant people, many of whom have Methodist or Reformed church backgrounds.

"Thirdly, the relative peace we have had over the past three to five years on the issue of human sexuality has created a better climate for local ministry and mission. There is a sense that we don't want to be arguing so we can get on with being church," Gregor says.

Nevertheless, churches are declining in rural areas as rural populations drop, and some aging suburban churches have dwindling numbers and lack the energy to renew themselves.

"In some cases several churches have merged to create regional suburban churches. They are not mega churches but they have 200 to 250 members and can offer more than one worship services with different styles of worship. They have a bigger plant and more car parking than the churches built in the 1940s.

"Churches that combine have the resources to up-grade themselves and create more functional buildings that are more attractive to non-church goers."

Like other Western countries, Australia continues to move away from Christianity and towards secularism, individualism, and materialism, Gregor observes.

"I see us becoming a faithful minority. In some ways we will resemble the Christian Church in Sri Lanka or Indonesia, and we should look the Asian churches as we try to find a way forward."

Gregor says his visit to Conference left him impressed at the degree to which Maori and Pacific Island people are involved in the leadership of the NZ Methodist Church. Anglo-Europeans make up about 88 percent of the UCA, and they hold most of the leadership positions.

"Migrants are proportionally not as large part of the membership of our church and there is no single dominant group. We have 25 other languages spoken among our migrants. Nevertheless I think we Anglos have been holding onto power for too long and we have not found a way to harvest the talents of our newcomers."

The UCA is a large church and its Uniting Care is an extensive infrastructure of community services providers. UCA has 1500 ordained clergy and 35,000 staff who work in community services.

Uniting Care is a visible part of the Church and is the largest non governmental provider of social services in the country.

"We are well-known and respected for our community services. The joke is that people say the Uniting Church is the church I don't go to. Over the past 15 years there has been a separation of Uniting Care from the Church and now we are trying to reconnect the community services with the Church.