Renewal in Practice Image

Renew, refresh, restore, revitalise, redevelop, rejuvenate, regenerate.

What do we see here? A list of buzzwords, or a vital call to the church today?

From the very beginning, the Uniting Church has recognised the ongoing task of renewal. “[We] look for a continuing renewal” we say in the Basis of Union, “in which God will use [our] common worship, witness and service to set forth the word of salvation for all people” (Para 1). We prayed, then and now, for God to “constantly correct that which is erroneous in its life” (Para 18), knowing that we will always be on the way, never quite arriving. (Para 3).

For a Church this is a powerful place to begin: ask the Spirit to constantly guide us, correct us, renew us. Perhaps renewal begins with recognising we need God to guide us.

Renewal was the theme for the 37th Synod and is the core focus for this next time in our shared life. The Office of the Synod, for example, understands its purpose as being to “enable, equip, and encourage a renewed and growing church”. 

Renewal or regeneration is a common idea being explored in congregations and faith communities too, from north to south and east to west. As for the whole church, so for a congregation or faith community – renewal starts with recognising that we need God to guide us forward.

Renewal, regeneration, revitalisation; an idea in constant use in our conversations.

All of this begs some key questions if we are to avoid it simply becoming a buzzword or an idea we jettison when the next shiny new one comes along: What do we mean when we talk about congregational renewal or regeneration? What’s involved? Are we really committed?

What do we mean when we talk about congregational renewal?

If we’re honest, sometimes our talk about the need for renewal is driven by realising our state of health. Generally, that means numbers. People. Bums on seats. Money in the bank. Rosters filled or unfilled. We can be caught up in a sense of loss and failure through such metrics, and at times we seek renewal primarily to address those numbers.

That kind of approach to renewal and regeneration is in danger of missing the point. And that point is the journey of discipleship.

Writing for the Lutheran Seminary of St Pauls, Tim Hilpert defines congregational renewal as what “happens when a significant proportion of people in a local church grow closer in experiential fellowship with Jesus Christ, and with one another.” Numeric growth, he goes on to argue, “is a kind of side-effect of renewal.”

This fellowship with Jesus Christ, this closeness in relationship with one another – these are the outcomes of basic discipleship practices.

And according to Dr Paul Jones (Trinity College Queensland), “There will be no renewal in the church until we get this [basic discipleship practices] right. God has chosen to collaborate with us to be the church to the world. Find someone who might be a part of the body that you can nurture, support, and encourage. Talk about their passions, explore their spiritual gifts, and then give them an opportunity. This is discipleship, the main thing the church needs.”

In the Uniting Church, this reminder to re-prioritise the practices and culture of discipleship has been heard afresh since the Plenty strategic journey began in 2019. We need only listen to one another to be reminded that discipleship is the fuel that drives renewal.

To speak of renewal then, is to speak of a restoration in our discipleship, and our commitment to word, worship, witness and service. According to this understanding of renewal, numeric growth may indeed come, but it will be as a consequence - or Hilpert’s “side-effect” - of discipleship.

All of this might remind us of the story of King Josiah, recorded in 2 Kings 22.  During a temple re-building project, King Josiah’s team unearthed a lost copy of the scriptures. Reading those scriptures revealed to Josiah just how far the people had drifted from God’s purpose and practices. He was driven to call his people to repentance, and to what we might describe in our modern language as a return to the practices of discipleship.


What’s involved in congregational renewal?

If all this is true, then what does it look like in practice? We spoke with three congregations exploring and experiencing renewal.

Pastor Mandy Smith (St Lucia Uniting Church) points out that renewal for a congregation always begins with the personal journey of renewal for an individual. “Any one of us can only change our own heart, can only turn personally,” she says. “Renewal begins with a few people saying ‘Yes! I long for this.’”

Amid this longing for God, longing for personal renewal, Mandy says, we can sometimes feel a little lost, a little helpless, desperate even. Like God is far away. When that feeling becomes so powerful that “we turn and cry out for God, we discover that God is suddenly, actually very close.”

The experience for Pastor Smith, both at St Lucia and in other contexts has been that prayer is at the heart of renewal: “Asking God for renewal is the beginning of renewal itself. In the places I’ve seen renewal, it always happens when people are willing to be changed themselves. Renewal never happens when people just want to talk about changing programs, or the church sign or logo or website.” 

For Rev Wayne McHugh at Northside Mackay Uniting Church, this rings true. The task of renewal, for Wayne, begins with a congregation getting “its eyes back on Jesus, getting the gospel out in front.” 

Reflecting on experiences at both Northside Mackay and Proserpine-Whitsunday congregations, he observes there is a long, slow task for a congregation to refocus: “It is”, he says drawing on Nietzsche and Eugene Peterson, “a long obedience in the same direction.” 

Such intentionality and ongoing long-term commitment lead step-by-step to momentum, and momentum in turn to hope. “Mission will re-emerge” notes Rev McHugh, “when the right kind of energy is on the table - both because we are driven to mission and because the Spirit will draw it out.”

That’s been the experience at Banora Point Uniting Church, a congregation near the NSW/Qld border and several years into an intentional journey of renewal. 

It’s a journey that has led the congregation to a deeper discipleship engagement, to re-thinking its leadership, re-imagining its use of resources, and in time to refocus its community-oriented mission. New partnerships have emerged with community organisations, such as Fred’s Place, committed to serving and loving neighbours.

Rev Aaron Moad says that Banora Point has worked to carefully discern God’s call on the congregation. As a result, they’ve chosen for some much-loved mission and ministry initiatives to end to allow a clear focus to emerge. That fresh focus has led to new relationships, new energy and, ultimately, to new life.

This notion of hard choices, and of endings and beginnings was explored by Ps Katie Iles during a bible study at the 37th Synod. “If we want to renew the church,” said Ps Iles, “we need to look at what needs to grow, what needs to change, and what needs to die.”

Rising to the challenge of letting go has been real and challenging for Northside Mackay, Banora Point, and St Lucia. As Mandy says, however, “Every church that looks forward and outward becomes a place of growth, a place of bringing the kingdom.”

Is renewal actually happening?

In these stories from Banora Point, Northside Mackay and St Lucia (and a dozen others besides) there is, indeed, evidence of renewal. There is a fresh emphasis on discipleship. There is a deepening commitment to prayer. There are lives drawn toward Jesus. The church is at work in new/old ways, loving its neighbours in response to the love of God.

There has been no magic, no immediate revolution. 

In each case though, the call of the Spirit has been heard. In each case, there has been a determined, obedient journey that has a long way yet to run. Hearts have turned, one at a time. A congregation has been gathered to prayer – first in ones and twos, then in threes and fours, and eventually across the community. There have been obstacles, stumbles and challenges to overcome, and hard choices to make in inviting and allowing space for the Spirit to work. And in each case, as it turns out, that side effect of numeric growth that Hilpert talked about? It is being realised.

In each story, to draw on Eugene Peterson again, work towards renewal is “based on the conviction that God is actively involved in his creation and vigorously at work in redemption.”

That’s a sentiment Pastor Mandy Smith agrees with: “Ultimately God is the one who renews his people and his church. We have a small part to play to pray, to turn to God, and to follow, so that the renewing work of the Spirit can do its powerful work in and through us.”

Renewal then, sounds like a whole lot more than a buzzword.


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