Everything is changing so fast these days it can be hard to keep up. And the Uniting Church is no different. But change it must if it wants to survive. Meet Mat Harry, the man who is trying to point it forward.
Interview by Stephen Acott
What’s your title?
I’m the New & Renewing Communities Catalyst.
What does that mean?
The prevailing paradigm is for churches to have a building and a minister and assume that opening the doors to a worship service will entice people to engage with us. My role is to assist churches to transition into a new paradigm that recognises we – as disciples of Jesus – need to change how we behave and relate to each other and the world.
What was it about the job that appealed to you? Why did you say yes?
There are many people out there in congregations who know the way they are doing church at the moment is not being taken up and responded to – they want some direction and help connecting with people who are not involved with Christian community.
What was your experience coming into this job?
When I graduated (as a minister) from theological college in 2005 I was sent to a placement with a low socio-economic area and was told it was their last roll of the dice.
When I arrived I discovered the church had two child care centres and two kindergartens so they were already strongly involved in the community, but they weren’t necessarily doing anything with those relationships. So we worked closely with a local Uniting Church agency doing various projects and out of that sprang a Wednesday night church which was family-orientated.
We would eat a meal together and worship in a way that young families could engage with. And we invited some of the young kids to help us run it, for example six and seven-year-olds lead the prayers.
We were connecting with people, about 30 in all, who would not have come along to a Sunday morning service. The energy coming out of that community flowed over into the Sunday morning community – they discovered there were others who were interested in exploring Christian spirituality, they just weren’t interested in coming along to Sunday morning worship.
There were many other things we did, too, such as helping people who were lonely. Each Thursday we would provide a meal for anyone who wanted to come along and that’s now expanded to having two sessions of music in the morning, a food bank for people who need assistance to get them through the week, plus the Thursday night meal.
Why would people come to something on a Wednesday night, but not a Sunday morning?
The responsibility is for Christians to be the ones who cross the boundaries, cultural and social. When we stay in our traditional way of worshipping it’s reflective of a bygone era – using bygone music and speaking in bygone words.
We ask everybody else to shift out of their comfort zone because we are unwilling to. If we take the call of Christian discipleship seriously we are the ones who need to take the initiative and cross the threshold into other people’s worlds. So we need to offer communities that gather in ways that make sense to people.
How old were you when you became
Tell me about your calling.
My name is Mathew with one ‘T’ because my parents are such strong atheists they didn’t want anyone to think I was named after Matthew in the Gospel.
I was the kid in high school who thought the Bible was a load of rubbish. When I was 17, I went over to America on a Rotary exchange and became involved with the local church. That was my first experience of Christian community and it prompted me to start asking questions.
When I returned to Australia my priorities were girls, football and drinking – in that order. I was living in a small country town called Mirboo North in Gippsland and none of my mates were interested in church, so neither was I.
When I came to Melbourne to study economics at uni I started asking questions again.
In my third year I met a girl (now wife) who was part of the Uniting Church. I’d go with her to Sunday service, but sit up the back and say ‘don’t bother with me, I’m not one of you guys’. She ran the youth group and over time I started helping her.
I was still going to church and listening to the stories of Jesus and found myself saying “you can’t really argue with that” so I softened. But it was the experience of Christian community that made me really rethink my assumptions.
At 25, I decided to get baptised and when that happened I had this vision that I needed to be baptising people myself and it absolutely scared the crap out of me. I didn’t tell anyone, even my wife, because the last thing I wanted to be was a minister. About 18 months later I finally fessed up to my wife and said “I think I’m supposed to be a minister”. She said “I can see that”. When I said the same thing to others, they also agreed.
Do you think growing up outside of the church, in fact being highly sceptical of the church, helps you in this job?
Absolutely. The benefit I have is that I’m coming at this from being an outsider. The other thing is I appreciate the value of Christian community, which a lot of people take for granted. I have a very loving family but, growing up, I didn’t have that sense of community belonging.
You mentioned your parents are atheists. What was their reaction to you becoming a minister?
They were very supportive. I think they are proud I am a minister because, to their way of thinking, it’s about being selfless, compassionate and caring.
How long has the traditional church service been going on for?
Centuries, but there has always been other forms of church happening alongside that.
Within this Synod, what percentage of churches do you think are performing traditional Sunday worship?
There are about 600 congregations and, of those, about 50 are trying new ways of worship. I also encounter ministers who say “I don’t do traditional” but when I push them on that it’s still my definition of “traditional”.
When you go out into the field and talk to ministers about change, do you encounter a lot of resistance?
There are definitely ministers who are invested in the way things are – lots and lots of them.
Does that frustrate you?
Yes, of course, it does. But I also frustrate them. One of the things that is a challenge, but is fascinating at the same time, is that the world changes so rapidly because of technological advances. It has created a generation gap so wide it’s a chasm.
The way that people relate to each other is always adapting and changing. What this means for the church is I can’t come up with a way of forming Christian community that is going to be really engaging for 20-year-olds. It has to be the 20-year-olds who provide the vision. The world has changed that much.
We need to strongly empower people of different generations so they can offer leadership in developing relationships with people of those generations.
When you go to a church service,
who do you see?
When I go to a typical Uniting Church worship service on a Sunday morning and I look around, very often there are not younger people there.
Under the age of 60.
No offence to anyone over the age of 60, but 60 is not young.
There’s a quote that goes along the lines of “the church is the only institution that exists for those who are not its members”, but that is not the way most churches operate. We continually ask our members what would they like, instead of asking people in the community what would make sense to them. So we miss the point.
So the church needs to get over itself.
So when you walk into a typical Sunday service, how many people are sitting there?
That depends on whether you’re in the country or city, but if you’re talking city the average would be about 30.
If you return in 10 years, how many people are sitting there?
If nothing changes, then it will be less than 30.
So, if nothing changes, that church will have shut its doors in 20 years.
Yes, but that’s not new. We’ve been closing churches since Union.
So, how can anyone justify maintaining the status quo? It’s a deathwish.
I don’t see any argument for the status quo.
Do you say this to ministers who are unwilling to change or adapt?
I don’t necessarily have those conversations, but in the past I’ve said things along those lines.
And what was the response?
People are aware of this, but it doesn’t mean they want to change.
To take this to its logical conclusion, if the church doesn’t change it’s out of business in 20 years. Is that fair?
If you don’t succeed in your job,
the church dies …
I hope they’re paying you enough because you have a very important job.
You spoke earlier about hymns and music. Music has changed a lot since Elvis first appeared in the 1950s. The only place you hear hymns is in church – it’s not popular music.
Yes, if you flick on a radio you cannot hear organ music anywhere, on any station. Whenever I’ve gone to a worship service where the music has been more upbeat and not organ music, the people who are there are younger – without exception.
One of the really interesting dynamics of the Uniting Church is when you start talking about up-tempo music you get a lot of eye-rolling. They are anxious about their future yet they are unwilling to change something as simple as their music.
Of all the Christian churches that exist, what would be the most popular?
There is a general trend across western civilisation that all churches are losing numbers, but the one that seems to be holding its ground is the Baptists.
They are trying new and different things. Many of their congregations have moved to newer music and they gather in ways that are far less traditional than the Uniting Church.
If we, as a church, started from scratch tomorrow, what would it look like?
It looks extremely different in all different places.
When and where are we worshipping?
This is the point of New & Renewing. It is completely contextual so no two churches look the same because they are gathering in ways that make sense to their communities. In many cases the building would be irrelevant – relationship is everything. We would be gathering in ways that are not just for the sake of gathering, but for serving others. Discipleship is key and living lives that reflect the teaching of Jesus is the foundation. There may be no music.
As long as we are reading the Bible together, saying prayers together, helping people, then everything is up for grabs.
It’s about Christian community. The most underutilised resource you can find in a community is usually the church. Sometimes they are only used for an hour on a Sunday morning.
Our society has become so niche, but the church has this one-size-fits-all approach that doesn’t fit anybody besides the 30 people who are still happy to sing hymns.
How far-fetched is the picture you just painted? It’s idealistic, but is it realistic?
Can it happen? Absolutely. It has happened and it continues to happen. Look at Messy Church, for example. I’m an extreme optimist by nature and I’m very optimistic about the church’s future. If churches close and are sold off then we suddenly have the resources to do more than we could ever have imagined.
There are about 60,000 church-going members in our Synod. If this job didn’t exist, how many would there be in 20 years.
But you do exist, so how many do you think will be there in 20 years.
That’s very hard to predict ….
Yes, but I want you to predict.
More than 10,000?
Will it be less than 60,000?
Will we replace all of those older people? There is a good chance, yes. But one thing is certain – we won’t get them if we persist with hymns and don’t develop new contextual communities.