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Re-imaging God and Mission within Australian Cultures

Dr Anne Pattel-Gray

A diverse group of 150 mission leaders and teachers from many Christian denominations met at the Australian Missiology Conference in Melbourne in September, to rethink mission in the light of the rapid changes in Australian society.

Keynote speaker and National Director of the Forge Missional Training Network Alan Hirsch predicted that the traditional church will die within twenty years, but was optimistic that a new movement of small missionally-shaped churches will spring up to take its place. He urged the church to be shaped by a mission which is in turn shaped by Jesus.

Opening speaker Professor Stephen Bevans SVD from Chicago Theological Union set the scene by suggesting that all revelation and talk of God is inspired by imagination and metaphor, and that seeking fresh metaphors is needed for every context.

He explored the ideas of God as dance, as stranger and as persistent widow (Luke 18). He encouraged those present to re-imagine God and mission, emphasising that our view of God is intimately connected to the way we join the mission of God.

Senior Researcher for the Christian Research Association Rev Dr Philip Hughes outlined recent statistical trends in Australian religion. He said that the four fastest growing types of religious identification, in order of size, are “no religion”, ethnically-based religion due to immigration, Charismatic Christianity and nature religions.

Dr Hughes characterised the undeveloped religious views of many young Australians as “Whateverism”. Huge changes in Australian culture are being seen, including becoming an “options society” and dismissing the church, along with other institutions.

Ways forward in mission, he suggested, include offering spiritual options; identifying contact points and pathways towards belonging; and encouraging people to take their spiritual journey more seriously.

Associate Professor of English at Latrobe University Dr David Tacey said that younger people are interested in spirituality but not religion because religion had neglected its spiritual heritage. He suggested that we need to stop preaching the Word of God to people and start listening for the Word in other people.

The faith journey is really a mystical journey of interiority, opening our spirit to the Spirit of God.

Principal of Tauondi Aboriginal College in Adelaide Dr Anne Pattel-Gray told her journey of pain and hope as an indigenous person and encouraged Christians to travel alongside Indigenous people, listening and offering solidarity. Whether the church is part of the problem or part of the solution depends on the path it takes in the future, she said.

Director of Studies in Ministry and Mission and Director of Field Education at Trinity Theological College Rev Dr Neil Sims attended what he described as "significant event" and described his reaction to the presentation by Dr Pattel-Gray.

"When I signed up for five out of about forty workshops I chose not to go to ones dealing with indigenous issues," said Dr Sims.

"Then I sat with 150 participants from across the spectrum of the churches in the lecture room at Whitley College and listened to Dr Anne Pattel-Gray, now Principal of Tauondi, an adult Aboriginal College in Adelaide.

"At the end of her presentation, Frank Purcell, a Catholic priest from central Victoria, told of the city where he lived. There is an aboriginal football team that has received funding from Collingwood Club, but at the same time, is not really welcome in various leagues. No-one wants to play against them.

"In the same community, the Muslim population is about the same size as the indigenous, and yet the Muslim people are embraced by the town. Frank asked, ‘Can you explain this?’

"The immediate and passionate reply was, ‘Theft.’

"As I reflected on this, I was challenged about why I was keen to go to workshops that had multicultural perspectives, but I discounted the indigenous ones. The conclusion I came to was that my people, the dominant cultural group of Australia, have no history with people of other cultures, but we do have a history with the indigenous people – and that history needs to be addressed, not avoided!"

Out of the conference the Australian Association for Mission Studies was formed based in Melbourne and in place of the South Pacific Association of Mission Studies, an ageing body based in Sydney. This group will continue to publish the South Pacific Journal of Mission Studies.

Conference Director Dr Ross Langmead said that the conference achieved all of its aims well and was a significant event in Australian mission studies, the first for many years.

"It is likely that such events will become more regular."

Photo : Dr Anne Pattel-Gray