Reflections on Culture, Theology and Living


Rev Dr David Merritt

About the Author

Rev Dr David Merritt was national director of Christian Education in the Uniting Church in the years leading up to and following Union.


This paper attempts to clarify what we mean by ‘theological culture’ and offers some suggestions for understanding the decline of the Uniting Church and hopeful options for our future.

In the papers for Act2 there are a number of different ways to think about “the theological culture of the Uniting Church in Australia”. However, the initial point I want to make arises from an understanding of what we mean by “culture”.

At its simplest, culture is the ideas, customs and social behaviours of a particular group of people. It is a concept of enormous importance. Since 2010 culture is the Fourth Pillar of Sustainable Development by UNESCO and is defined by values and beliefs, language, symbols, rituals and norms.

The key issue that I suggest may help us at this point is whether we use the term descriptively about some aspects of what can be observed or described, or normatively about what is considered desirable or authorised or to be encouraged. Many of the papers about theological culture seem to me to adopt a normative stance. In the Zoom discussion of theological culture in the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) which featured people with a teaching or other authoritative role in theological education institutions, it should not surprise us that the focus was almost exclusively on what they consider essential or desirable for beliefs and practices in the Uniting Church. However, it should also not be surprising that for many (most?) people involved in the church such a perspective may seem strange, even alienating.

Take one confronting example. In that Zoom discussion, I cannot remember even one reference to the teachings of Jesus in the synoptic gospels or the significance in that teaching of “the kingdom of God”—a concept of a different way to live.1 In many years of experience in the educational activities of the Uniting Church at local, Synod and Assembly levels I have found those emphases very significant examples of “the theological culture of the Uniting Church”. Some years ago, at a meeting of the Northern Synod at Rum Jungle, when there was particularly high tension between mining companies and indigenous land owners, I will not easily forget hearing an indigenous leader of the Sunday service tell the story of ‘The good Samaritan’. The injured traveller was an indigenous man who had collapsed by the roadside after a few too many beers, the two religious leaders who did not stop to help the injured traveller were the moderator of the Synod [“a very busy man”] and a minister in the Synod hurrying to help a member of his church. The traveller who unexpectedly stopped to provide help to the semi-conscious indigenous man and take him to the local nursing centre was “a mining company man” in a ute! Here the story written in the Gospel of Luke towards the end of the first century was both ‘normative’ – accepted as desirable for a follower of the Way of Jesus—and exhibited here as a powerful example of the church’s culture that confronted contemporary Australian culture.

As a clarifying exercise, consider the current extensive focus on the culture of businesses and schools in Australia. A company head office or school Principal will likely have strong statements for their organisation about desirable behaviour towards women and girls and people of a different sexual orientation. But if you want to find out about ‘the culture of that organisation or school’, you have to go beyond the official statements of what management considers desirable to observe what actually happens in the treatment of women, girls and people whose sexuality differs from the male/female stereotype. A common definition of ‘culture’ is ‘How things are done here’.

It is ONLY in the lived life of people of the Uniting Church in very diverse activities that we can discern the “theological culture” of the Uniting Church. That does not mean that we should not clarify issues and strengthen education about what is desirable for the church in the changing life of Australia in the 21st century. But it does mean we should remember that at the level at which we write papers we are at least one step removed from lived culture.

Which brings me to a second basic point about theological culture in the UCA. There are not assured communication channels between decisions about what are desirable theological understandings or practices and the majority of people who ARE the Uniting Church in Australia. The latter exist strongly influenced by both the synoptic gospels and Australia’s attractive secular culture. It is worth noting that Australia’s secular culture, like that of many western nations, has been historically influenced by Christianity. Take for example the proportion of taxes that budgets allocate for assistance for those unemployed, aged, sick or with disabilities, and the strength of community compassion for people facing special needs.

It has been noted in several places in the theological culture papers for Act2 that the large decline in numbers of people in UCA congregations has also taken place in other denominations in Australia and in other western countries. These figures should make it abundantly clear that what has been the typical ‘good example’ of UCA congregations is poorly suited to contemporary life in Australia. I think it was Nietzsche who stated that you can’t teach anyone anything worth knowing. I think that is an overstatement and requires a particular understanding of what he meant by ‘teach’. However, it dramatically focuses attention on the learning process. In contemporary education there is an increased focus on the experiences of the learner that provide “live” connection points for learning. I continually have to remind myself of a simple saying that expresses a deep wisdom: ‘The door to the mind, like the door to the heart, has a handle only on the inside”.

In this regard I am puzzled that the Act2 Report gives little, if any, attention to the question that begs for attention. Why are there declining numbers of people involved in churches, both UCA and others? Consideration only of “our gathered life” misses the elephant in the room: Why has there been such a decline in people, especially people under 50 years of age, in the Uniting Church? Some of the theological statements seem to imply that it is not an appropriate question. What is presented is an apocalyptic theology that asserts the church ‘has no enduring home’ and is travelling to its appointed end. In the event that the Uniting Church vanishes, God will take appropriate action. This is so alien to the good news from Jesus described in the synoptic gospels that such theology will not galvanise me into action to help create the caring society that Jesus depicts as his focus and that is one of my sources of wisdom for living.

I will address some of that point in the following paragraphs:

The Uniting Church in Australia was initiated with a theological culture expressed in the Basis of Union but shaped by previous cultural events largely beyond Australia’s shores.

The dominant theological influences on drafters of The Basis of Union in Australia were the theologies of Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth and German Rudolf Bultmann. They were significantly affected by world wars initiated by the European country most admired for its cultural developments. Barth turned away from cultural developments in human life to emphasise revelation and the supernatural in Christianity. Rudolf Bultmann taught that Christian faith should be comparatively uninterested in the historical Jesus and centred instead on the transcendent Christ. Both almost totally ignored the gospel of Jesus in the biblical books of Mark, Matthew and Luke.

At the time of our Church Union in 1977 Australian society was going through dramatic cultural events that profoundly affected the involvement of Australians in the UCA. They have influenced the withdrawal of younger generation after younger generation from the church until the Act2 Report points out that today our 1672 congregations average 28 people with an average age of 68!

The period of planning for the Basis of Union was a time of enormous social change in Australia. This was especially evident among young people whose music and sense of an identity differed from the previous generation. As one person remembering growing through her teenage years in the 1960s and 1970s said to me, “We were the generation that didn’t look to our parents for what was important to us. We consciously wanted to be different from them.” (As a teenager this person dropped out of a Presbyterian Church before union.)

This pervasive change was assisted by some notable technological developments such as: more common international air travel (from 1955), CDs (compact disks from the 1970s) and widespread ownership of TVs from late 1950s—all of which made international culture more influential in Australia, especially for young people. In addition, the oral contraceptive pill, made available in Australia in 1961 and gradually becoming widely available, contributed to changed sexual behaviour. And lycra (the brand name for a highly elastic synthetic fabric) made body hugging/body display clothing possible in a way previous clothing materials did not. Younger generations in Australia not only looked and sounded different from predecessor generations, they were different. These details may seem trivial to those contemplating the life of the Uniting Church. However, they were a new cultural phenomenon. They still are—and are not likely to be found in many congregations of the Uniting Church in Australia. If Act2 does not address this issue effectively, it is turning its back on a very large section of the Australian population.

Take just one example that may seem unimportant for church planning but that has proved very relevant: The Beatles toured Australia in June 1964 and were welcomed by huge crowds in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide—among the biggest crowds they had experienced. In Adelaide, “the city of churches”, the welcoming crowd was 300,000 – half the then population of the city. They were well known, especially to young people, before they reached Australia.

More recently, when I search YouTube to watch Freddie Mercury stride to the front of the stage with the rock band Queen in front of a huge crowd of youth and young adults at the 1985 Live Aid concert who sing as if with one voice, “We are the champions”, the power of contemporary youth culture explodes before me. Yes, I know he died relatively young at 45 from HIV Aids but he remains a powerful expression of rock music and the phenomenon of youth culture.

This is not a small marginal observation about the UCA. It was into this world that The Uniting Church in Australia was launched and, in my opinion its neglect has been a major factor in its steady decline.

It may appear to be a strange statement but it demands attention: The Uniting Church was an intentionally culture-blind church launched into a country going through one of the most extensive cultural transformations in its history – one that disproportionally affected teens and twenties.

One of the biggest challenges for the Uniting Church today is how there is interaction between an historic understanding of being Christian (or to use an Act2 concept, ‘a theological understanding of the Uniting Church’) with a widely influential secular culture of being Australian which is now pervasive. How otherwise can you address the future hopefully?

It is assumed in some of the theological statements before us that such questions and assumptions should be resisted. Instead, we should project the arena of hope to coming hypothetical apocalyptic events and a transformed Christ.

Our current ‘life together’ (the focus of the Act2 Report,) is what is left after steady withdrawal from that life by successive generations,

The authors of The Basis of Union boldly charted a new way just as very big developments in our society changed the social and values bases of that society. We need to be inspired by what they achieved for the last quarter of the 20th century so we can make equally big changes for our time. Anything less for our time in the 21st century risks betraying their bigger vision of a Church changing to be dynamic in the contemporary world.

The recent article “Issues of faith and figures” in the Uniting Church magazine Crosslight June 5 2023, referred often to research insights from Phillip Hughes. He is one of the most experienced researchers into religion in Australia, Hughes identifies desirable changes rather different from the tone and content of the recent report of Act2. We should read, listen and learn.

At one point in planning a national education staff training course in the late 1970s, the UCA national Christian education agency brought to Australia an author whose new book was attracting a lot of attention: “Will our Children have Faith?” by John Westerhoff. His answer to the question was: “Not unless they experience actual expression of faith in the adult community”. Such experience, he stated, was essential for effective learning. Many Ministers loved the proposal and “intergenerational church services” flourished. It was about 10 years later we realised we had asked the wrong question. It should have been, “Will our churches have children?” and the answer was “Not likely unless children encounter a more dynamic life-changing experience of being Christian in today’s culture.”


Some top issues that I suggest need to be addressed have a large measure of agreement with Act2 findings:

  • What is the good news that the UCA offers to Australians today?
  • What is the gospel we share with the missing generations from our churches today? That will need to be in concepts and language that communicate. The test for communication is not just what message is transmitted but more importantly what message is received.
  • What are desirable changes to the organisation of our present local churches? What new opportunities can we offer to Australians, particularly younger generations as they have led the exodus from the UCA and other churches across the western world? Act2 suggests a focus on new forms of “mission” and “discipleship”. That is an example of unfounded hope that old language that has not communicated will communicate in the future.

My own view after visits to many congregations across Australia and encouragement from some parts of Act2 is that at least two new developments could be encouraged:

  • New styles of local groups, different from congregations, and sometimes instead of congregations, not necessarily focussed on that rather oddly named event we call “worship”, but focused on sharing life experiences and the ways the teachings of Jesus offer life enrichment and involvement in justice and care for others.
  • New styles of larger regional groups offering different styles of larger gatherings to inspire and assist individuals and groups to find and celebrate the Way of Jesus. Such groups could be varied in ‘liturgical’ style, music, and times of gathering so that people of various ages, temperaments, social outlook and ‘learning styles’ could find a lifestyle ‘home’. Such a ‘home’ is not likely to be supplied by our dwindling congregations focussed on old 20h century perspectives of the Basis of Union. If Geoff Thompson’s hope is correct that the Uniting Church can change because it has not finished uniting, much of the necessary change could be widely collaborative by people who have more in common than their old denominational name.


  1. It is widely agreed that there is not enough evidence to be certain of the words Jesus used. However, recent biblical scholarship has provided evidence of the kinds of teachings Jesus used that would have survived in a largely oral culture: easy to remember short stories often with an element of surprise (parables) and aphorisms (short pithy sayings that startled hearers). ↩︎