Mid Life Crisis

Notes on the Sunday address by Rev Ric Holland, 25 June 2017

Uniting Church in Australia: 40 years old. If one assumes a lifespan of any child is 80 years. Then the UCA is in midlife crisis phase.

But nevertheless picking up the latest census figures the UCA is declining at the rate of 5% every five years and adding to that the age of most congregations this new and exciting church will not exist in the second half of its expected life span. If we’re lucky we’ve got 40 years, probably much less. The other denominations are pretty much the same with the Anglicans suffering the biggest actual decline in numbers.

It was Elliot Jaques who coined the phrase “midlife crisis” referring to a time when adults reckon with their own mortality and their remaining years of productive life.

So it’s a good time to reflect on what appears to be the decline of our institutional church and our own life in the process.

It was Professor Daniel Levinson from Harvard who developed what he called the “Seasons of Life Theory”. In it he categorised 7 different stages of life, which we can apply to the church as well as ourselves: Think about our own lives and the church during these stages.

  • Early adult transition (17 – 22): within these years early decision are being made and relationships developed.
  • Entering the adult world (22 – 28): More concrete decisions are made, occupations are determined, friendships values and lifestyles developed.
  • Transition (28 – 33): Often significant lifestyle changes are made including marriages and partnerships, children with a range of differing consequences
  • Settling down (33 – 40): Life is settling down, routines are stablished, goals are being set for the future and we begin to behave like an adult. This is the time of conformity and conservatism. (The church has been going through this over the last few years)
  • Midlife Transition (40 – 45): O yes! This is often the time of crisis. Lives are being re-evaluated. Values may change
  • Middle adulthood (45 – 50): This is the time when we’re making those big choices about the future and possible retirement. In the church this could be the time when we’re making excuses as we see the end.
  • Late adulthood (60 +): Levinson talks here about reflecting on life and previous decisions made. But I would want to say this can be a time of decision making and even a time of new beginnings. It is for me. I reckon it is for all of us. I’ll leave the church, if it still exists then, to do that when it gets there.

In the meantime we’ll get to where we are.

When the UCA was born on 22 June, 1977 Dr Davies McCaughey, a Uniting Church minister, who was later to become Governor of Victoria, who was effectively the midwife of the new Uniting Church being looked into the eyes of this baby and said that “Church union meant nothing unless it drives us back to the fundamental questions”
Where do you come from? Who are you and where are you going?

So let’s re-ask those questions of 40 years ago:

Where do you come from?”

This is important. Think of your own parents and grandparents, without whom we would not be here.

Well the Congregational Union came from the spirit of the puritans. Men like John Bunyon, John Milton and Robert Browne who stood up to the orthodoxy of the Church of England and fought for an independent spirit…..taking it to the USA and then around the world where it reached Australia at the beginning of colonisation and to Melbourne in 1837 when Collins St. Independent Church was born.

Another of its parents was of course Methodism, itself a product of Church of England priests John Wesley, George Whitfield and Charles Wesley, who couldn’t stand the conformity and irrelevance of the Church of England establishment. Methodism was born in the late part of the 18th century combining evangelical fervour with social justice passion addressing huge issues of social justice, poverty and disadvantage.

The third parent was the Presbyterian Church. Owing its birth to the giant legal and theological figures of John Calvin and John Knox. Its history of strong organisation, education and pastoral care continues right through to the present Uniting Church.

“Who are You?”

So think now about the church as it is now and whilst we’re doing that think about ourselves also.

The Uniting Church is now a strange middle aged character, using Levinson’s theory it is well and truly in “midlife”…one could say “crisis” ….or if you want to be more positive “Transition”.

Well it looks like a church. Ask people passing by what the Uniting Church looks like. If they know what we’re talking about AND MANY WON’T, they’ll draw a picture of the church very much like that well known Rowan Atkinson sketch when he goes into church, barely keeps awake whilst the figure drones on, has trouble with outdated hymns and the accepted but totally irrelevant customs of the church. When asked to define the church people will probably describe it as a place where weddings take place, as do funerals and christenings. They’ll describe boring sermons, adherence to outdated concepts as described in their literal view of the bible, they’ll understand the church God to be one of justice and judgement detached from the world but somehow pulling the strings on its behaviour and events, and they might assume a catalogue of conservative policies such as what they believe is the church’s view of sexuality.

This is what the church looks like to them. And this group of people is the fastest growing group in the Census. So they are on the increase whilst we decline.

That to the un-churched ordinary people outside its stained glass is what the church looks like. That’s what it looks like but that is not quite what it is.

Those of us within the church see it a bit differently. The Uniting Church has a good record on developing a ministry which values the gifts of men and women. Its reconciliation process with our first people is good. It’s maintained a strong position in supporting refugees and asylum seekers. Decision that it makes within its councils is both open and inclusive.

Nevertheless it’s not ball grabbing is it?

I see a church consumed with process before action.

I see a church with an emphasis on guilt.

I see a church lacking vision and dynamism

I see a church like Rip Van Winkle sleeping through a revolution which will wake up too late

I see a church slow in decision making

I see a church with an outdated theology and liturgy

I don’t see a church consumed with fire and passion

I don’t see a church taking risks

I don’t see a church of dynamism and vision

I don’t see a church challenging the orthodoxy and the political climate like our forebears did.

I don’t see a church with a future.

This is the 500th year since the Reformation. Martin Luther hammering on the door of Wittenburg his declaration of belief…Here I stand I can do no other!

Where are we hammering???

We reflect on where we’re from and where we are.

Now where are we going?


It goes without saying that we need vision. Too long has the church preferred to look down at the pavement and to mooch slowly along, bumping into stuff from time to time. We need to look up and see what’s around us.

We need to be a visionary church.

And Visionaries have:

We need to start to look outside the square. We need to shake off the fetters and conventions of the past and look to new and unusual ways to get things done.

  • Visionaries are not afraid to fail.

Visionaries take risks and are not scared off by a monumental task or terrified by the prospect of an unsuccessful idea or activity. Visionaries recognise that risk is part of the adventure of progress and that failure is but a stepping stone to perfection.

  • Visionaries are driven to succeed.

For the whole of my ministry I have been up against people (and the church hierarchy is full of them) who reject a forceful, success orientated attitude.

I believe that people of vision inevitably exhibit an unquenchable need to push to the very limits of what is possible. Far too often church leaders are complacent and are happy just to keep the handle turning until they retire.

But look at the great visionaries of our history. They were all zealous in their efforts to get stuff done.

  • Visionaries are team players.

Show me a person who tries to do it all alone and I’ll show you someone who will cause rather than solve problems.

Visionaries surround themselves with the best available and get things done together. This is why in the church we should be building partnerships with like-minded folk in a whole range of different areas.

So here we have a future for our Church which will need to completely change direction. Behaviour, theology and bureaucracy, and if the establishment doesn’t want to play then we’ll do it on anyway.

This will be our mid-life transition.

As Harvey Cox said we “need to embrace the future rather than the past”.

We need to accept religious pluralism….whilst here are many faiths or ways of expressing spirituality, there is ONE humanity…..so whilst we may experience the source of energy differently we are bound together by our humanity.

The core understanding of Harvey Cox’s approach to the future of faith comes from the firm conviction that “the sacred can be experienced in the immanent”. The reign of God is not coming, it’s already here and around us.

So when the church grasps hold of this notion as it hurtles towards obscurity we at St Michael’s will open our eyes and see the world around us and the world ahead. We will be the churches visionary.

We will step into the unknown and continue to declare God’s presence in us and in the world and we will do this as we echo the words of John Wesley. ”Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can”.

We will do this by breaking down the barrier between religious and secular…..in the use of our buildings, in the work that we will develop with Mingary and its spinoffs, in the relationships that we will build with the city…..its festivals, its music., its celebration, its joy, its life.

We will be a church OPEN not closed to the world and we will do this in the spirit of John Wesley’s last words…”Best of all God is with us”

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