Congregational Identity
The Church in the Heart of the City
First in the Series 


 Members of Scots Church Adelaide will be interested in the conversations that have taken place over the past eight years about the place and contribution of churches in the city. This article is the first in a series, reflections on the commitment city churches are making to their particular contexts and the way partnerships are evolving. While maintaining our traditional patterns of ministry we become a learning community by listening to the rhythms of city life, by sharing insights across congregations and from our efforts to connect and partner with others with similar goals and aspirations. “The imagined city… a space of openness, tolerance, and justice in which the nations of the world can gather and live in peace.” (Beaumont and Baker 2011).

Scot’s vision statement, called by God to be a welcoming, inclusive, worshipping community... committed to justice, learning and care, anticipating a world transformed by the love of God, is a profound declaration on your part and resonates with the vision of other city UC churches. We share common hopes and dreams and Darwin Memorial Church’s declaration, making a space for God in the city’s heart is similar. Pilgrim church’s mission statement includes, celebrating our unity and diversity, valuing worship, teaching, creativity and justice. 264 Pitt St Sydney is described as a progressive faith community of justice-seeking friends in the heart of Sydney.  In the weeks ahead I look forward to hearing about your experience and the contribution you are making to these common themes.   

All churches share common practices yet... 

Our liturgies, prayers, songs, traditions and practices link us with the world wide Christian community. In June for example we have been sharing with the world wide communion of churches by celebrating Pentecost and Trinity. In many diverse settings in Australia, in remote or small rural towns, in inner city and industrial towns, the suburbs, regional centres or in city centres we share songs, liturgies and readings in common. Yet in this midst of our shared traditions I am continually intrigued by discovering the unique identity, character, culture or DNA of each congregation.  Three perspectives help to create a congregations identity. 

1          Experience and History

 Congregational identity is shaped by experiences and history. Current practices, the way we do things around here, is the product of those who have made critical decisions and established patterns of behaviour and agreed procedures. These repertoires of community life enshrine values and express what is important and central to a congregation’s life. Those who have gone before have built community, celebrated faith and developed their own narrative or congregation story. This corporate memory includes moments when risks were taken, achievements celebrated and difficult decisions negotiated. There are times when members have worked together and found a strong sense of purpose and direction and there are moments when disagreements and conflict have been to the fore.

Above all we are the inheritors of those who developed and pursued a vision for the church and the gospel for the city, those who not only talked or imagined possibilities but developed practices that turned vision into reality.  As with individuals, memories and experiences become the foundations for our assumptions and shape our outlook. Sometimes we need to confront these assumptions, come to terms with them, affirm them or set them aside.

Congregations in the UC are also an expression of denominational identity and in the past decade this has become less important for people in the wider community. Being one of the first churches in the city of Adelaide Scots represents the ethos of one former denomination and its missionary policies and practices. This experience is an important continuing gift to the Uniting Church by the support Scots provides for the church’s key mission commitments. The monthly edition of Talk makes reference to these and brings members up to date on recent events.  

As part of a wider community congregations are sometimes at the mercy of life changing events which are beyond the control of the church council! Two defining events come to mind. Many have commented on the impact on families of the Australian commitment to WW1 and next year we will be remembering 100 years since Gallipoli. Of those who returned to our shores many were not able to reconnect with their home churches because of the trauma and tragedy they experienced. 

Last month we reflected on that other cultural change that came with the visit of the Beatles to Adelaide fifty years ago; I want to hold your hand! Many commentators have suggested that changing cultural attitudes and values were most evident when Adelaide changed from being a city of churches to a city of urges!  The first Dunstan labor government was also a major contributor to social and cultural life and Adelaide has become The Festival City.   

2          Context or Setting 

The second critical factor in a church’s identity is its context, the way in which its host community provides the framework and opens up vistas for ministry. Sometimes we take our local context for granted, a given, and we give up working or appreciating the implications this has for developing a ministry vision. In effect context or setting helps us ground our more general and aspirational vision.   

Over the past decade returning visitors are amazed to see the changes in Adelaide’s built environment and the growing 24/7 pattern of city life. A great deal of effort and money has gone into the North Tce precinct, the redesign of the streetscape with its pedestrian flows, a mix of locals and visitors, people here for the first time finding their way and those who are part of the daily routine.  Other recent developments to our context include the expansion of university campuses, the relocation of the RAH, redevelopment of Adelaide Oval and improvements to public transport with the city centre as the primary destination.  

The busy street scene, the faces on the street, represents the sociological makeup of the city. While quantitative or demographic data is helpful in analysing the big picture qualitative information and personal observation invite us to engage with our location, what that tells us about our mission. Do we have a young population, with tourists, international students, shoppers, people on the move, residents or commuters, those involved in the service industries and commerce? Cities are now global, diverse and pluralistic communities representing many traditions, interests and values.

Scots has been a very visible presence, a prime location close to the centre of cultural life since 1851! The respected cultural institutions of North Tce are symbols of our social capital and the commitment of city and the State government is generating new employment opportunities through our growing information and education economy. Another theme has been marketing Adelaide as a tourist and cultural destination. In the city centre voluntary groups, vested interests, peak bodies and civic life are co-located, centres of power with their administrative and decision making roles and responsibilities that impact the welfare of the whole community. These representative functions of government, cultural interests, media, sport, health, industry and commerce are almost all within our neighbourhood yet distant from another because of their specialised roles. 

When visitors arrived in Adelaide it is comparatively easy to show them the sights and introduce them to the function of our nearby representative city buildings: the Museum, Art Gallery, State Library, State Parliament, Government House, Convention Centre, Festival Centre, the Botanic Gardens, Town Hall, and sporting facilities. The challenge for us is to articulate the way the city church contributes to building community and developing social capital. (Some prefer to use the term, faithful capital). The vision of the city provides a powerful source of energy for the engagement of faith groups within the urban contexts. (Beaumont and Baker 2011).   

3          Building a Vision and Discerning a Mission Vocation 

A congregation’s identity is not fixed or immutable but is always emerging. The future of a congregation is shaped by the response we make to the situation we find ourselves in. We form our new identity by core pastoral practices, the reputation we develop in the neighbourhood, what people say about this place on the community grapevine, what we become known for and represent. 

The church’s voice in the city is one of many voices and today we cannot work on the assumption that city residents, visitors or work force will appreciate what the church stands for or represents.  When we view the city as an opportunity and a challenge and dialogue with potential partners we begin to discern many possibilities for ministry. We also know that we cannot be all things to everyone and we will find we do not have all the resources we need. We will need to make critical decisions about priorities and an open ended, vague or indeterminate vision does not help us focus and embody a gospel of compassion in a form which communicates. 

City church leaders in Australia have been reading and studying some of the work of Diana Butler Bass from the US. Her research work in mainline churches in North America has shown that established churches are made new again when they discern the way ahead and focus on two or three key pastoral practices. In her 2006 book, “Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the neighborhood church is transforming the faith,” she outlines the ten core practices covering a wide spectrum of ministry practices. These include those who are on the edges of the week day working world. Core practices are well thought through, have solid foundations, can be built upon over the long term and are generally the result of an evolutionary process.  Diana was guest of the Urban Mission Network in 2009. 

Other work in UK cities by Anne Morisy provides lively discussion about the importance of networking and developing a public presence. Her book “Journeying Out: A new approach to Christian Mission” provides further insights about connecting and engaging with the changing city landscape. Anne was guest of UMN in 2006. Other UMN conferences and workshops have contributed to our insights and concepts including the Church at the Centre of the City, conference in September 2010, Church on Main Street at St Andrews Glenelg, September 2012 and the visit of Chris Baker of the William Temple Foundation in 2013. 

By engaging in a discernment process congregations pause and reflect on current opportunities and future potential. The days of short term, quick fix solutions and experimentation are over. Through discernment practices congregations affirm again the gifts, strengths and assets already in place. 

We learn from our experience and history, we retain, enhance and build upon strengths. Our context is the field of engagement with its opportunities and limits. The visions we articulate translate into core ministry practices open up for us new directions and purpose.  

Rev Dr Dean Eland June 2014

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