Eden is a town with a significant timber industry, so when I took up my role as a supply Minister of the Word at Eden Uniting Church I was drawn to some poetry by the ‘Lumberman’s poet’, Douglas Malloch. (May 5, 1877 – July 2, 1938)
If you can’t be a pine on the top of the hill,
be a scrub in the valley – but be
the best little scrub by the side of the hill
Be a bush if you can’t be a tree.
It’s always good advice ‘to be who you are’, and especially good advice, if you are a small Church community. It’s simply too easy to become anxious about reduced membership and small budgets and to fall back into a longing for a yesteryear when attendance was strong and our children and youth work was vibrant. It is a longing, which often sees an ageing membership ‘have another go’ at recapturing the past only to fall exhausted again with little result. Could it be that this backward longing, and its subsequent activity, distracts us from new opportunities which changing circumstances have brought to our churches- opportunities which long for a new twist to our mission and witness.
Like all rural churches, the Eden Uniting church has needed to respond and adapt to the changes confronting its town. We have sought to listen to our community and respond to the opportunities which change has brought us. There are significant stresses evident in the wider community as it struggles with both the downsizing of its stable industries, fishing and forestry, and the seasonal nature of the tourist industry. Under and unemployment, substance abuse, lack of affordable housing, and rising energy bills have beckoned the church to respond with the ‘bread and butter’ of Christian witness, namely, ‘acts of charity’ and ‘hospitality’. Eden Uniting has discovered afresh the vibrant space of food hampers, community lunches and hospitality. It is following the lead of others in setting up a community pantry. All these have stirred within us a deep sense of ‘rightness’ as we are drawn back into the generous love towards a hurting community – a love which our Lord Jesus so clearly demonstrated for us when he trod the dust of Palestine.
Changing circumstances have also seen some significant adjustments in our worship services in Eden. Small numbers of children combined with infrequent attendance makes a Sunday School impractical. But we have refused to give up on providing appropriate content for children and youth. Our new opportunity has been ‘Interactive’ – a short dialogue talk which follows one or other of our Bible readings. With open ended questions, visuals and story the congregation shares briefly in conversation. The interactive presenter prepares for children and youth, even providing an activity sheet which can be completed at the church entrance during a conventional ‘sermon’, The congregation appreciates that a dialogue with visuals and story will easily be enjoyed by everyone. Did not our Lord teach many an adult, to great effect, using dialogue, visuals and story? The conversational method also acknowledges that as at Pentecost, the gift of the Spirit has been poured out on all believers. The church now gathered’ has a capacity to discern the teaching of Christ, both its original meaning and its vibrancy for contemporary contexts. During an Interactive we explore together God’s love. We listen to one another. We laugh. Our imaginations are stirred and we appreciate one another, even as we glorify our Lord.
Change can be difficult and lamentable. But change has also brought blessing. It has enabled us to see afresh the mission and witness, appropriate for young and old, of hospitality and acts of charity. It has allowed us a conversational learning in our worship services and has brought laughter more broadly back into our gatherings. Old truths of the lumberjack’s poet have proved true,
It isn’t by size that we win or we fail,
be the best of whatever you are.
Or perhaps more poignantly, the truth of the ‘carpenter come Lord’ has been felt afresh, ‘I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.’