A reflection on our culture of discipling…


Rev Dr Michelle Cook

About the Author

Michelle Cook has been a member of the Uniting Church since union (born 1975). Until 2002 they were a member of a thriving suburban Uniting Church in Brisbane. Michelle candidated as a Deacon out of this congregation and served in Frontier Services ministry in Weipa, in remote Cape York Indigenous communities with Congress, as a Presbytery Minister for mission in Tasmania and now at Nungalinya College, Darwin. They have also been involved in various councils of the Church from the Congregation to the Assembly. Michelle has a PhD in Practical Theology from the University of Queensland and Masters in Theology from the Brisbane College of Theology. Their Masters is on the understanding of the atonement and the Work of Christ in the Basis of Union and other texts. Their PhD focuses on young adult leaders’ interpretations of what it means to be a covenanting and multicultural Church (‘On Being a Multicultural and Covenanting Church’).


“The theological culture of the Uniting Church is that network of practices, institutions and texts which resource, sustain and extend the Uniting Church’s particular conversations, doctrinal decisions and prophetic speech about God, Christ and the world.”

What is the theological culture of the Uniting Church in Australia?

The theological culture of the Uniting Church is probably best described as theological ‘cultures’. It varies broadly across Congregations, Presbyteries, Synods and theological colleges. Some places or approaches are haphazard. They are dependent on the personality and focus of the leadership and, consequently, change as leadership changes. In congregations that can mean change every five years which is perhaps too often. In theological colleges that change happens less frequently which is perhaps not often enough.

In congregations, I have engaged with across the three Synods I have found that, in general, people in the pews want to engage theologically. They want to deepen their discipleship in their everyday lives. They crave conversations that can help them understand what is happening around them and inspire them to action. Sometimes, however, they are unwilling to commit the time to such pursuits.

Simultaneously, Ministers or leaders who are trying to encourage their congregations to engage more deeply in discipleship find that time-poor people find it difficult to commit. The Ministers and leaders feel discouraged. In some ways, it is easier for Ministers to engage in pastoral care and preaching than in ongoing discipling relationships and activities.

Congregations that don’t have any usual intentional ongoing discipling relationships or activities can find it difficult to change their culture from one of comfortably receiving services to active engagement in discipleship. Commitment is required not only from the key leaders but also from the Church Council and/or Elders to keep encouraging people to participate in life-long engagement in their faith beyond Sunday morning.

Dr Craig Mitchell’s work on congregations as learning centres or theological hubs is really useful in examining this.1 I have also used 3D Movements (3DM) resources with various lay leaders.2 This more structured approach provides good scaffolding that leads people into taking responsibility for their own journey of faith and the journey of those around them.

Synods and the Assembly, as well as Presbyteries to some extent, have tried to encourage the development of Congregations as learning centres/theological hubs by providing material to be used in such contexts. This material is usually useful and engaging. It does not get taken up to the extent it deserves. There are probably a multitude of reasons why—time, effort, many other resources available. After being at every Assembly since 2009 I think one of the reasons why such good resources are not taken up by people in Congregations is the lack of implementation strategies from the Assembly and the Synods.

For example, during 2010 the Assembly put out resources on the new Preamble with a great written resource and videos for people to use for discussion. Many people do not know about these resources, and I am unsure of the number of people who engaged with them. What would it look like if people in various locations committed to running these bible studies/theological discussion groups and then encouraged others to do so in other locations and if this was part of the planning for the resource?

An example: In the Pilgrim Presbytery, we have recently run a Statement from the Heart discussion based on the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania’s resource,3 supplemented with the Anglican Board of Mission Resource.4 We did this over Zoom for six weeks. We had people participating from five different Congregations from Alice Springs, Darwin, Derby/Mowanjum and Nhulunbuy. This was run by volunteers following clear instructions from the resource itself and was advertised across the Presbytery through email.

We have a great history in rigorous academic-toned theological writing in the Uniting Church. At Assembly gatherings when we discuss such writing what I notice is that most people in the room do not have theology degrees and others have heart languages other than English. They can find it hard to understand the language of the written papers. This leads to the conversation being dominated by those who can quickly digest such papers and discuss them. The last few Assemblies have tried to use plain English but there is still some distance to travel to help all people at Assembly engage in the conversation. Use of plain English is not about ‘dumbing down’ the content. Instead, it is about writing to enhance people’s ability to understand what is being said.

To what extent is there continuity and discontinuity within our Church of the traditions of those churches that came into Union?

We are still captive to the structures of our founding churches. While the Basis of Union restated the faith of the church, the regulations and constitution had a more ‘ecclesial carpentry’ approach to our structures of governance. It has been much harder to undo the culture of governance and decision-making of the founding churches than I think the Joint Commission on Church Union would have expected.

Our theological culture on the one hand assumes that the more people involved in a decision the more ‘theological’ that decision will be, while on the other hand, laments the lack of theological engagement from Congregations in areas that have no direct impact on their day to day lives. For a local community of faith to maintain relationships with the Presbytery, the Synod and the various agencies within the Synod, and the Assembly is exhausting. There is so much communication that it is no wonder that the people responsible for communication in local communities of faith, or even at the Presbytery, discard this information.

Indeed, the life of the Presbytery, Synod and Assembly as councils of the church has very little immediate effect on Congregational life. The exceptions are, of course, any decision on sexuality or marriage from the Assembly where very robust ‘theological’ conversations take place and decision-making regarding the use of property when, usually, very pragmatic, financially driven and grief-legacy imbued conversations take place.

For example, at the last Assembly, a decision was made regarding new theological statements to be adopted by the Uniting Church. This has been sent out to Presbyteries to have a conversation about. These are very difficult conversations to institute given the language of such statements and the pressing needs of Presbyteries regarding other matters.

What will encourage a culture of discipling5 in the Uniting Church?

  1. Intentional life-long discipling processes/activities and relationships in local communities of faith.

  2. Intentional formation and education of people to mentor and lead discipling processes/activities and relationships in local communities of faith.

  3. Institutions which have the responsibility of discipling the Church (i.e., theological colleges) understanding that their primary responsibility is to help the people of the Church be discipled and disciple others. This includes the faculty of theological colleges understanding their roles as people who are discipled and discipling others for the reign of God. I am sure that no faculty member would deny that this is their intent, yet as a Church we still bemoan the lack of ‘theological literacy’ of people in congregations. It is interesting being at Nungalinya College where the faculty understand their role is to facilitate and empower those who attend the college to be disciples and to disciple others. Effective andragogy in cross-cultural contexts, practices that work in different contexts, encouraging life-long learning in the leaders who come to the College and evaluating whether the work we do is making a difference to people and communities of faith in the communities we serve are the crux of Nungalinya’s life.

  4. When the wider Church produce resources to use in local faith contexts to include in this planning implementation strategies—i.e., how will this resource be rolled out for use—not just mailed out.

  5. A coherent national approach to theological formation and education for our specified ministries.

After working in three separate Synods, it is apparent to me that the distribution of resources across the church is very uneven. This includes people as well as financial resources. Our Synod does not have a theological college for non-Indigenous members of the Uniting Church. Nungalinya College provides a central hub for members of Congress, who, with the support of local pastors, intentionally disciple congregations. The Pilgrim Presbytery of Northern Australia does not have a Presbytery Minister or other such person to produce resources and co-ordinate formation for Church Councils, Elders training, safe church training, continuing education for ministry agents, Lay Preacher training, Pastor training, worship training, justice and prophetic internships, Periods of Discernment etc.

As the Chair of the Presbytery, with experience in education and formation in other Synods, I regularly search through the different Synod websites looking for resources that are helpful for our Congregations. There are so many of them, all covering similar content with small adjustments or language differences. It can feel like we are drowning in resources, yet we have few people to implement the use of these resources on the ground. While the importance of local people to run formation activities and encourage discipling relationships cannot be overstated, it feels like a waste of resources to have so many talented Ministers duplicating resources for formation and training across the whole church.

Many in the Uniting Church are passionate about areas of social justice and are glad of new statements and public declarations from the Uniting Church nationally on these issues, yet those stories and the gospel connection are not made as explicit as they could be on the ground. The cultures of our Synods and states are different, but not so different that we cannot have one suite of Lay Preacher and lay leader training resources so that then we can focus on implementing these resources across the whole church rather than only in those pockets that can afford staff for implementation.

Imagine how exciting it could be to have people who are doing their Periods of Discernment across the whole Church meeting once a month on zoom to share with each other how they are going. Even meeting in person once a year or every 18 months to share and encourage one another in what God has been doing in this time set aside for discernment. Imagine how exciting it would be to have candidates for the specified ministries doing similar things—being exposed to the different contexts of the whole Uniting Church.

For more on Michelle Cook’s work see her article in the December 2022 issue of Uniting Church Studies (Vol 24, No. 2) on The Ecclesiology of a Covenanting and Multicultural Church.


  1. Craig Mitchell, (Re)forming Christian Education in Congregations as the Praxis of Growing Disciples for a Missional Church, PhD Thesis, Flinders University, 2018. Also see Craig Mitchell’s blog on Forming Disciples in Mission, accessed 17 August 2023. ↩︎
  2. For a summary of 3DM see Discipleship move in to the third dimension, JourneyOnline, accessed 17 August 2023. ↩︎
  3. Statement from the Heart Study Guide, Synod of Victoria and Tasmania, accessed 17 August 2023. ↩︎
  4. A Voice from the Wilderness: Listening to the statement from the heart, Anglican Board of Mission, accessed 17 August 2023. ↩︎
  5. In using the word ‘discipling’ I am both pointing to the primary focus of theological culture and seeking to include the range of institutions, practices and texts pointed to in the definition of ‘theological culture’. ↩︎