Evangelism in the Uniting Church: the possibility of an order of Christian initation of adults


Rev Prof Glen O’Brien

About the Author

Reverend Professor Glen O’Brien is a Minister of the Word in the Yarra Yarra Presbytery. He has an ecumenical placement to The Salvation Army where he is Research Coordinator at Eva Burrows College within the University of Divinity. He is a member of the Methodist-Roman Catholic International Commission.


One of the things I noticed when I first joined the Uniting Church was that there seemed to be no interest at all in evangelism. Having come from a Methodist denomination that obsessed over, and reported assiduously on, statistics—number of conversions, number of baptisms, number of new members, number of new churches—this seemed an odd omission. Neither in congregations, Presbyteries, Synods or Assemblies did I observe any reporting on these sorts of things. Aware of the rapidly declining membership of the Uniting Church, I wondered why some attention was not given to arresting this decline and attracting new members.

Each of the precedent churches of the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA), but especially perhaps Methodism, had engaged in evangelism as a high priority. I understand, of course, that much of the theology that drove evangelistic activity in previous centuries—the threat of eternal punishment, for example—is now passé in the Uniting Church, and so it should be. Even those who hold to the traditional doctrine of hell as an item of their faith don’t really believe it in its traditional formulation (who could do so and remain sane?) In any case, it is no longer at the forefront of the preaching and teaching of even conservative Evangelicals. Hell was not a favourite doctrine of John Wesley’s who (though he formally subscribed to the idea) told his preachers, ‘Little is to be gained from the profuse throwing about of hellfire…Preach first the love of God.’ Most Methodists and Uniting Church people have followed that advice ever since, placing the reconciling love of God for all people at the forefront of their messaging. But even if you’re a thoroughgoing Universalist, don’t you have good news to share? We seem to have lost the art of inviting people into the lifechanging adventure of following Jesus Christ. It’s as though we know we don’t want Billy Graham style evangelism (focused almost exclusively on ‘personal salvation’) so we’ve decided we won’t do any evangelism at all.

The Uniting Church’s profound commitment to social justice, its recognition of the holistic reach of the Gospel to every area of life, its greater openness to sexual diversity, its awareness of the challenges of climate justice, its desire to decolonise church and theology—and so much more—resonate with much of the wider culture (especially among young people). You would think we would be appealing to people seeking a spiritual home and yet we are not. A large part of this may be that we have simply lost the art of initiation. We no longer know how to invite people to follow Jesus Christ in the church community. On the rare occasions when a person shows interest in joining the UCA, congregations are left to put ad hoc arrangements in place with who knows what results. Perhaps we need a different word for evangelism. Catholics use the terms ‘evangelisation’ which is more about the conversion of culture than the personal experience of individuals. In any case, when one compares our relative lack of readiness for evangelism to the situation in the Catholic Church, there is a significant contrast.

The Order (until 2021 ‘Rite’) of Christian Initiation of Adults (OCIA) is one of the most significant resources developed by The Catholic Church to meet the realities of a post-Christendom world.1 Its reinstitution of ancient catechetical processes is a recognition of the parallels between the first and the twenty-first century worlds, in which the church sits, not at the centre of culture and society but as a minority religion in a religiously plural world. It can no longer be assumed (at least in the developed world) that children will be baptised and raised in Catholic (or Uniting Church) households, congregations, and parishes, before presenting for Confirmation at the appropriate age and then continuing a life of service in the church and to the world. Many adults wishing to join the Church have not been baptised as infants or confirmed as adolescents, presenting the need for an alternative approach to initiation. In the early Christian centuries, a person was initiated into the church by first entering the catechumenate. Before being baptised they would undergo a period of learning, on the assumption that Christians are made, not born. During this period (which could last for as long as several years) the catechumens attended the earlier part of the liturgy (prayers and readings) but were not admitted to the Eucharist until they had been baptised at the culmination of the catechetical process. The baptismal rite encompassed both the washing (remission of sin) and the invocation of the Spirit (for strengthening grace). Once infant baptisms came to outnumber catechumenate baptism, the two stages of the single rite came to be separated into two separate sacraments—Baptism and Confirmation, where originally the two actions belonged together in a single rite.

In early Methodism, something akin to the catechumenate was instantiated through class and band meetings. Typically, a person would be drawn to Christ through a Methodist preacher’s declaration of the love of God in Jesus Christ. They would come under conviction of sin, experience remorse, and, curious to learn more about what they had heard, would be directed to join a class meeting. Here their spiritual formation would take place in a context of accountability to fellow believers. The culmination of this process would not be in baptism, as it was in the ancient catechumenate, but in a direct and immediate personal experience of the ‘new birth,’ accompanied by the witness of the Spirit that one was now a child of God. Though large crowds gathered to hear Methodist preachers and often responded with great emotion, warmth of feeling and even physical responses, the experience of this new birth typically came only after a period of from one to three years of participation in a class meeting. This mirrors the ancient church’s conviction that Christians need time to be formed, to learn a new set of responses to the offer of divine grace and to undergo a process of transformation. Though the objectivity provided by baptism was absent from this model, when a person was ‘saved’ it was evidenced by an enthusiastic testimony to a deep sense of assurance, and a renewed life marked by holiness and an earnest pursuit of perfection (understood in terms of love for God and neighbour). At least notionally, the earliest Methodist converts were expected to be connected to their local Anglican parish church where their Eucharistic life was to be nurtured. This was essentially a catechetical process where the class leader and fellow members functioned as sponsors for the initiates. Presbyterians and Congregationalists, of course, had their own particular modes of initiation and nurture.

Methodist and Uniting/United churches today practice infant baptism and provide a rite of confirmation. However, many Evangelicals influenced more by a revivalist than an Anglican heritage, have given so much attention to instantaneous experiences of conversion and ‘baptisms in the Spirit’ that sacramental means of grace have sometimes been neglected. The model of organised revivalism adopted on the American frontier as well as throughout ‘Greater Britain’ in the nineteenth century was an effective model of gaining new converts and a cycle of continuous revivals was the lifeblood of Methodism in its glory days through the nineteenth century. Arguably, the model has been taken up and used to good effect by Pentecostalism, which could be seen as the continuation of the earlier Methodist revivalism. However, many Methodists and most Uniting/United churches consider revivalism a spent force. At least it does not match the theological DNA of today’s Uniting Church (and probably never did). The challenge is to find an appropriate substitute rather than continue to languish with shrinking congregations and little missional impact on an increasingly non-Christian world. A Uniting Church Order of the Christian Initiation of Adults might offer a fruitful model in our present context.

Of course, the Uniting Church has offered study materials and educational programs designed for Christian initiation and nurture (The Emmaus Road, Alpha, the Disciple materials from the United Methodist Church etc.) but none of have these has become constitutive of Uniting Church identity. Imported resources are not always a good substitute for locally prepared material. In my view, the Catholic Church has simply done a better job at providing a catechumenate model of evangelisation in the contemporary context. We could learn from their experience in the creation of our own resource.

I have explored elsewhere, as a member of the Methodist-Roman Catholic International Commission, the possibility of a shared OCIA between Catholics and Methodists. This seems unlikely to get much traction, but the possibilities for a genuinely ecumenical Uniting Church Order of Christian Initiation of Adults (UCOCIA)—we could call it something else—would be an expression of the UCA’s capacity to think though church initiation in a genuinely ecumenical way. Imagine, if you will, a Uniting Church congregation or Presbytery leading a cohort of catechumens (seekers/enquirers) through a UCOCIA. The participants would learn from the very beginning of their formation that being ecumenical is a constitutive element of being Christian. They would learn that, though there presently exist distinct ecclesial communities known as ‘Catholic’, ‘Orthodox’ and ‘Protestant,’ there is only one church, one Lord, one faith, one baptism and it is to this baptismal community that they are called by Christ. Each participant has a sponsor/friend, a more experienced Christian who is journeying with them. Each is connected to a particular local congregation/faith community. Together they study the Scriptures, The Apostles Creed, and the Basis of Union. They explore the meaning and practice of the Church’s sacramental and liturgical life. They think through the variety of responses Christians may have to the complex ethical questions the world faces. Along the way they would learn something of the ecclesial shape of the Uniting Church’s interconnecting councils and orders of ministry, but the weight of attention would be on the catholicity of the church and its core confession and convictions. This process might take a year or more, after which the cohort would gather, perhaps on Easter Sunday to be formally welcomed into the Church, either through Baptism or Confirmation. Traditionally, this is the point when the new believers would be admitted to the Eucharist for the first time. The Uniting Church’s preference for an open table would situate Eucharistic fellowship differently, perhaps as nurturing the initiatory journey all the way along, rather than at its culminating point. This would match Wesley’s understanding of the Eucharist as being both a ‘converting’ and a ‘confirming ordinance’.

A lot of work would be involved in developing such a resource and it would need input from all the Circles of Interest (if the Circles continue much longer), all the interconnected Councils of the church, and UCA theological colleges. Following the same principle of ‘ordered liberty’ that guides the use of Uniting in Worship, a UCOCIA could not be made mandatory. If it existed, however, it would be a valuable resource that could help reverse our current decline. It seems to me at least to be worth trying. Wesley’s missional pragmatism led him to distinguish between ‘established’ means of grace (prayer, searching the Scriptures, Holy Communion) and ‘prudential’ means of grace (class meetings, religious societies) and between ‘ordinary’ (ordained ministers) and ‘extraordinary’ (lay preaching) forms of ministry. We have heard this year that Christianity is now a minority faith in the United Kingdom, and we know a similar pattern has emerged here. Perhaps we now face a missional emergency that requires a matching missional pragmatism, resulting in creative new approaches to Christian initiation. A UCOCIA might serve as one such approach.


  1. Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults: Introductory Material, https://www.liturgyoffice.org.uk/Resources/Rites/RCIA.pdf ↩︎