Thinking Theologically About Church Property


Matt Julius

About the Author

Matt Julius is a member of Northcote Uniting Church, a graduate of Pilgrim Theological College, and a member of the Synod Standing Committee of the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania, and a candidate for the Ministry of the Word. Some of Matt’s sermons, theological reflections, and commentary on church and culture can be found at:


“When it comes to church property there are two kinds of white people: those who hold on at all costs, even when it clearly doesn’t makes sense; and those who want to sell it all and live off the money.”
“This conversation is very difficult for us [Pasifika], because these buildings are sacred. Back in Samoa the community comes together and builds the church, and then dedicates it to God. Once it belongs to God it’s God’s, you can’t just sell it.”

This reminiscence of a conversation with a Samoan friend helps to identify some of the theological considerations of the church’s connection with property—albeit naming somewhat ironically the extremes of my own white culture. The driving concern of the church’s relationship with its property and buildings ought to be the service of God’s mission to the whole creation: such a claim, however, is often construed in ways which favour majority culture concerns. Thinking theologically about property raises questions about the relations between key ideas: secular and sacred; culture and place; divine presence and divine work; common identity and local individuation. The relations between these key terms can helpfully map the contours of the culturally located concerns which dominate current approaches to property—driven by the majority culture of the church. At the same time, theological reflection can open a renewed and shared conversation about how we move forward together as a church in the context of our shared legacy of property wealth.

Secular // Sacred

The terms secular and sacred are often treated as antonyms, and unhelpfully conflated with particular views about religion. The secular is seen as a rejection of beliefs, practices, and institutions associated with religious traditions; while concern for the sacred is an appreciation or acceptance for these things—and perhaps also a range of nebulously defined “spiritual” beliefs and practices as well. This reductive understanding of the secular and sacred is often shared by both ardent opponents of secularisation, who seek the return to a more explicitly religious society, and those religious adherents who are more willing to accommodate secularisation and the rise of those who identify as “spiritual but not religious (SBNR).” These simple understandings of secularisation fail to appreciate the breadth of theoretical approaches to secularisation in social theory, and reduce the ways that sacrality operates beyond the spheres of religion and spirituality.

Social theories of secularisation have 3 main strands: (i) the decline of explicit religious identification, belief, and practice; (ii) the functional differentiation of society into discrete spheres or domains; and (iii) the simultaneous decline of traditions and institutions regulating social life, and the rise of an autonomous social or civil sphere. The first of these maps onto the common, reductive way in which people often think of secularisation, so our focus will be on the other two strands of secularisation theory.

Secularisation is a creature of modernity. Modernity itself has its roots in the revolutions of Western Europe. Already, in naming this historical location, we should be wary of too easily supposing the universal applicability of modernity and the processes of secularisation. Nonetheless, secularisation can be understood as the process engendered by the revolutions of mediaeval Europe, each differentiating spheres of society and culture which were unified in the ossified complex of the Roman Church as inheritor of Empire.1 These cluster of revolutions include:

  • Renaissance increased autonomy of artistic and cultural production
  • Reformation reconfiguration of religion and politics
  • Enlightenment refounding of human reason and intellectual pursuits
  • Revolt differentiation of religion and politics
  • Industry transformation of economics

This is, of course, an oversimplified account, and each of these overlapped and interacted in complex ways. Nevertheless, each of these revolutions can be seen as set within a period of early modernity in which different spheres or sectors of human society were differentiated. This differentiation led to the construction of new institutional forms which regulated these spheres of Western European society in new ways: nation-states, political parties, modern universities, corporations, churches (as opposed to the Church), labour unions, and on and on. The early modern period established a trajectory of social differentiation in which different spheres of society became regulated in more specialised ways, according to their own norms, logics, and institutional apparatus.

This proliferation of discrete social spheres generates new questions about social structures. Is there anything which holds together social life across these differentiated spheres? How do these differentiated spheres interact and intersect with each other? What of the old unified world-picture or social imaginary of the pre-modern world: does its ghost still haunt us?

It is in this confluence of questions (and many more) that we all find ourselves today. Though the history of modernity begins in Western Europe, the globalising and colonial projects of Western Europe have made this now a global history of which we are intrinsically a part. The broader conversation of globalised modernity, and “multiple modernities,” is often a question of how non-Western European locations receive and respond to the globalising tendencies of the moderns. Here the questions of the universal applicability of the social configurations received from Western European need to be addressed—some of which will be engaged in the next section.

This broader picture of the context of modernity is pertinent to the question of church property because our properties are the intersection of several differentiated social spheres overlaid upon each other:

The church building is a site of religious devotion; it is an object of economic value; subject to state regulatory apparatus; a feature of the cultural landscape of local communities; and set on land fundamentally shaped by colonisation as an ongoing system of social, legal, and political dispossession.

Much of the disputes about church property reflect a contest about which of the logics of society will dominate in the decision-making of the institutional church. Charges of the wider church—particularly Synods—becoming too “secularised” or “bureaucratic” often reflect what is seen as the imposition of “secular” regulatory and economic considerations onto church matters. Such claims, especially in the places which fail to negotiate the complexities of the church’s place within wider social systems, themselves reflect the trajectory of secularisation which runs through modernity.2 The project of “religious freedom” is a deeply secular project, seeking to reinforce the walled garden of religion’s differentiation from other concerns in society.3 Presupposing the incommensurate nature of economic, secular political, and religious logics of decision-making. Such an approach does not do justice to the complex situation of the church within the context of the wider world. It is also ultimately futile as the church’s reinforcement of its own atomised autonomy steadily erodes the lingering goodwill towards the church reflected in broader social and political institutions: a walled garden is a shrinking garden.

Part of what hampers a way forward through modern complexities is that alongside the differentiation of society itself is the decline of a shared framework for making meaning in the world. That is, it is unclear what scaffolds the connection between different spheres of society. Theorists of secularisation often refer to this tandem dynamic within secularisation as the “individualisation” or “detraditionalization” thesis. As the social institutions which govern society become more fragmented and complex, so too the shared frameworks for adjudicating questions of meaning or value become fragmented.4 There is a material dimension to this fragmentation as well: more affluent individuals, places, and communities can opt out of shared ways of decision-making, and adjudicating disagreement, because they are less reliant on sharing resources to achieve their aims. The material successors of globalised (that is, colonial) Western European modernity have become more self-reliant, and so more able to shirk the obligation to work communally through the questions facing society at large.5 Wealth is a particularly effective insulator from negative social externalities.

The broad context of secularisation sketched above helps us to understand just how difficult the questions surrounding church property really are. They are set within an incredibly, and increasingly, complex social system which overlays competing norms and logics onto decision-making. At the same time, the church’s property is part of the legacy of the church’s place within the unfolding history of globalised Western European modernity.6 Compounding this complexity is the increasing fragmentation of communal meaning-making, both within broader society and within the church itself.7

The context and complexity named here risks having an air of inevitability. That the church’s life will simply be swallowed whole by the secularising forces of society which fragment our meaning-making, reclaim the church’s property for technocratic economic rationality, and reduce the church to one among many private interest or hobby groups in society. Against this inevitability we ought to turn our attention to the ways that this narrative of modernity is culturally located, and therefore socially constructed and socially constructable. We will also attend to some of the forms of counter-cultural resistance reflected in non-Western European perspectives.

Culture8 // Place

The Uniting Church’s pursuit of contextualisation to Australian culture has generated significant benefits. The church’s integration into white, middle-class9 Australian society has historically enabled the church to make significant contributions to Australian civil society,10 to benefit from the skills and expertise of secular professionals in the church’s corporate life, and to gather resources to undertake building projects and mission activities a plenty. So too, the UCA’s reflection of white, middle-class Australian culture has generated constructive dialogue with broader social movements regarding the empowerment of women, action on climate, and the broader inclusion of LGBTQIA+ people. All of this notwithstanding, contextualisation also risks adopting the various shadows of the culture to which one is adapting one’s life. So too the Uniting Church.

Much of the Uniting Church’s institutional life reflects the cultural norms of public institutions of mainstream Australia: bureaucratic processes, arcane regulatory apparatus, and governance structures akin to the civil service. Many of these things bring significant goods: increased transparency, accountability, and safety for vulnerable people. At the same time, the shadow is precisely that these are features of a particular culture: white, middle-class Australia; and so a culture which can be alien to people with different class and cultural backgrounds. The point here is that the UCA’s culture is particular and not universal, precisely because it reflects its context. Contextualisation opens the way for new forms of connection, and at the same time engenders other forms of alienation.

The culture of the Uniting Church is not an ahistorical, trans-contextual entity: it is a creature of the Australian culture in which it was birthed. A culture which sacralises economic rationalism, even when this rationalism risks tension with the vitality and values of what it means to be a community of faith. A culture which sacralises individual autonomy, even when this means a lack of resource sharing which reduplicates social stratification of rich and poor within the church itself: undermining our call to be the body of Christ. A culture which sacralises bureaucracy and process, pursuing modes of discernment in ways alien to many practices and modes of discourse from minority cultural traditions.

A clear example of this cultural dynamic can be seen playing out in the verbatim at the start of this piece (albeit representing caricatures of particular extremes):

There are two kinds of white people: those who hold on to their individual autonomy at all costs, their trust in the collective processes of the church eroded (perhaps with good reason); and those who want to sell it all and maximise the economic output of stolen and gifted property assets.

The challenge is that these perspectives are filtered through the cultural prism of white middle-class culture. They do not represent the only, or universal way of configuring questions of property, finances, church process, and theological discernment.

One of the implications of the cultural nature of the church’s response to property is that it rarely acknowledges that the church building itself is sacred. That is, sacred as a building that has been dedicated to God, not simply as a repository of local identity, or wider community sentiment: the church building is a sacred object dedicated to God’s service. If this is true, then—without denying the complexities our property decisions must inevitably deal with—we must view everything from and through this lens. Everything else is secondary if God is primary: church process, financial considerations, local autonomy. All of the communal need expressed for building from migrant and non-Anglo communities often find their heart in this claim: the church building is a sacred place, for sacred things like family, community, worship, prayer, Bible study, service, and on and on. The local community stewards the church building not on behalf of the wider institutional church, but on behalf of God. The release of church buildings for purposes beyond those of the church itself, that is, beyond the purposes of God, raise serious questions about de-sacralising God’s holy place.

In what sense, then, can we develop a shared understanding of the church building as sacred?

Divine Presence // Divine Work

Much of the attempts to speak theologically about church property centre on the idea that, “property should serve mission.” While this is undoubtedly true, the UCA’s perennial problem is a failure to clearly define what “mission” actually means. Typically accounts of mission assume a distinction between worship and mission: mission is what we do when we’re not gathering as a community of faith, it is our engagement with “the world.” Such an account of mission uproots mission from its theological foundations, and bifurcates divine presence from divine work.

Mission finds its centre in God’s own being: God is mission. The missio Dei. More pointedly, God’s being is constituted by the life of the Trinity, in which the Father eternally sends the Son into the world by the power of the Spirit. When we confess the Trinity we are confessing that God’s very being is constituted as mission.11

Mission comes from the Latin missio, meaning “sending.” It is this term which is used in technical theological discourse to name the relation between the Father and the Son in the divine Godhead: the Father sends the Son. So it is that God’s very nature is defined by an eternal and relentless self-sending beyond Godself. We can know no other God than the One who pours out Godself in the act of creation, the faithful journey with God’s people through history, the arrival of God’s fullness in Jesus Christ, and the ongoing outpouring of the Spirit.

The Trinity can be no self-contained community floating in an eternal ether: the Trinity is an open and unfolding event which for its own sake relentlessly pours life and light and love beyond itself. God’s very being is defined by God’s self-sending nature, it is this self-sending beyond Godself which opens the space we call creation, and which persists even in an incorrigible creation to form the world towards life, love, mercy, justice, peace, joy, and hope. This is what it means to talk of mission, and God’s being as mission: missio Dei.

Whenever we read the term “mission” we might helpfully replace it with: “God’s life for the world.” Because it is God’s dynamic life, which is always a self-sending out into the world that defines mission. The secondary question of the church’s mission derives from our participation in this eternal and relentless movement of God out into the world. The common adage is correct in saying, “the church does not have a mission, God’s mission has a church.” Which is to say that God’s self-sending love forms communities of worship, witness, and service. That is, communities who drink of the deep well of God’s love, narrate the persistent forming work of God in the world, and share in this forming work themselves.

These theological foundations for our understanding of mission allow us to see the problems with the presumed bifurcation between worship and mission, and so between divine presence and divine work. If mission is God’s self-sending life for the world, then gathered worship—particularly in the sacraments and proclamation of the Word—are the single most missional things the church does. At the table and at the font, and in the hearing of the Word, Jesus promises to be present. In those acts, which are fundamentally acts of receptivity, Christ promises to be fully who Christ is: the One who comes to be present in the midst of the Christic body. If we do not see how mission begins with our reception of God’s life for the world as God’s life for us, then we cannot begin to undertake the work of mission for the wider world. We are, after all, not something alien to the world: the church itself is a creature of the world, and individual members beloved creatures of a loving God.

The work of mission which extends beyond the gathering of the community of faith is not some extra work of ours or of God. As if God is simply found “out there” in the world, but we gather week by week in some reserve away from the world itself. Before we can begin the work of mission it must seep into our bones that God is who God says God is: I am that I am … and will be. God is who God says God is in Jesus Christ and the outpoured Spirit. There is no God behind this self-sending loving One who cares for the poor, heals the sick, releases those who are bound, and seeks after love, mercy, justice, peace, and hope. God’s being is inexhaustible, to be sure, but never less and never other from who God shows Godself to be.

Reframed in this way, the adage that, “church property should always serve God’s mission,” tells us very little about the place and purpose of church property. Church property ought to enable our active participation in God’s life for the world: feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, caring for the sick, meeting the needs of the poor. So too property ought to enable the narration of God’s work through all creation: storytelling, and music, and art, and testimony, and evangelism. Yet all of this rests on our encounter with divine presence in the proclamation of the Word and administration of the sacraments. Not as if our sacramental prayers were conjuring tricks, so much hocus pocus.12 But as a site of God’s promise to dwell with God’s people.

The Protestant churches are often uncomfortable with the idea of naming God’s presence in a particular place or building, often employing the idea of a “temple” as pejorative. The risk of idolatry is one Protestants are right to be attentive to; at the same time, there is no biblical evidence that the resurrection meant Jesus’ early Jewish followers ceased to engage in temple piety. Our discomfort is perhaps more of a cultural affectation than a well-founded theological claim.13 Taking seriously the idea of church property as the dwelling place of divine presence, and so bearing a sacrality not easily revoked, reflects the missional nature of God.

We are often too quick to jump to an operational, functional view of property that enables our participation in divine work that we forget that first and foremost we are recipients of God’s mission. As such, our approach to church property should begin not simply with how our property can be a tool for the human response to divine mission, but also a tool for God to be who God is: the self-sending One who dwells with God’s people. This is a theological insight much better understood by minority culture communities within the Uniting Church than the majority culture. Minority culture communities who often seem more readily to encounter God when gathering for worship; it is this, in turn, which animates the outward work of the church’s participation in mission.14 Divine work, in other words, is the outworking of an encounter with divine presence; and divine presence is the sustaining force of divine work.


What then for church property?

The complexity of the issues surrounding church property has been named by embedding our discussion of property within the broader context of modernity’s competing logics. So too, the status quo of the majority culture approach to property has been shown to be culturally contingent, and therefore limited in certain ways. Thus a retrieval of the theological foundations of mission points to unity found in our resting in God’s presence, and rightly ordering the church’s active life as a response to God’s prior mission to and for us.

The criteria for thinking about church property in this light, then, ought to begin with communities of faith in their receptivity to divine mission. Counter missional criteria which prioritise resourcing human action, property ought to be in service to divine action. God’s mission, that is God’s life for the world, ought to be the guiding light for thinking about property. God’s life for the world which nourishes us at font, word, and table; which upsets and disrupts the privileges of the rich; which yearns for mercy and justice; which unceasingly propagates out into the world in creative wonder.

In more concrete terms, how we treat property ought to respond to material need of poorer communities—particularly our vibrant migrant/non-Anglo communities who have not benefited from intergenerational inheritance in this land; and First Nations communities who ought to have benefited from their connection to place and had their birthright stripped by colonial dispossession. So too, beginning with our receptivity to divine mission, we must be unembarrassed in our commitment to buildings for worship: which serve ambiguous utility, which prioritise aesthetic beauty, and which attends to the legacy of faithful threads extended through history. That sacred places have been dedicated to sacred things—that is, to God—ought to have substantive impact on how we discern about church property.

At the very same time, when our gathering places no longer gather communities who are receptive vessels for divine presence—who anticipate divine succour at font, word, and table—and when divine presence does not lead us to divine work, then we must be bold in calling the church back to mission. A clear vision of and commitment to mission ought to enable bold action when the church fails to participate in mission, and so fails to be the church. A commitment to being a missional church should always make us bold to name when the church fails to be the church, and so must release what we steward into the hope of God’s life for the world coming in new ways.

We must never underestimate the beneficence of the missional God, relentlessly pouring out God’s life for the world. This is both joy and horror. Such trust in God gathers, rather than refuses, the complexities of the world. Trusting in God’s hands we seek to be drawn into the self-sending life of God—first as alien, then as kin.


  1. The point here is not that the Church of Rome was at all static or uniform: quite the opposite! (Indeed a more detailed account than is possible here would trace how it was precisely this dynamism and internal diversity which sowed the seeds of ferment.) Rather, this was held in a single complex of related institutions centred in Roman authority—though perhaps less hierarchical and more rhizomatic than often assumed. ↩︎
  2. Another key example of this secularising move is the development of unions of ministers and faith workers: there is a lot of good to be gained from this kind of organised advocacy. There are significant benefits to secularising moves such as this, which is the point here: secularisation is a way of making sense of various trajectories within globalised modernity, it isn’t necessarily good or bad in itself, we simply need to negotiate secularisation as our broader context. ↩︎
  3. It should be noted that this project of religious freedom is not inherently conservative or liberal in attitude: conservative species of this project are well enough known, with groups seeking exemptions for churches around discrimination laws, responsible speech, and so on; more progressive versions also exist, such as projects which see the church as a so-called “radical” alternative polis. There are also unaligned versions of this same logic in communities who reminisce about how things “used to be,” before regulatory norms, and changing social attitudes gave churches free reign to do a lot more with less accountability. It is always worth noting in the Australian context that the period of the church’s greater autonomy was also the period under interrogation by various Royal Commissions into societies historical failures to protect vulnerable people, including children. ↩︎
  4. Perhaps the most stark example of this were the varied responses to scientific and governmental authority during the COVID-19 pandemic: regardless of the adjudication of the merits of any particular view, the incommensurable nature of the perspectives expressed shows the fragmentation. ↩︎
  5. This dynamic plays out in the life of the church too. Congregations and faith communities who rely on resource sharing through property use and grants are much more attentive to the missional and strategic frameworks set out by Presbyteries and Synods, because these are the criteria against which they are measured when seeking to sustain their communal lives. More affluent “sustainable” congregations are able to hold these discussions with more ambivalence, because they don’t “rely” on the wider church for their regular existence. No shared theological culture is likely to be possible without acknowledging the need for a “common-wealth” approach to the material life of the church. ↩︎
  6. One of the key inheritances of the Uniting Church, as set out in my earlier piece for the Act2 project. ↩︎
  7. These, of course, are dynamically related: being socialised into a culture which emphasised individuality and autonomy inevitably shapes how individuals and communities participate in the corporate life of the church. And again, this is also set within a broader material reality. ↩︎
  8. When the language of “culture” is invoked in the Uniting Church it primarily refers to migrant/non-Anglo cultures: minority culture communities and perspectives in the church. This section tries to address questions of culture by naming the majority culture of the Uniting Church; without our ability to name the majority culture as contingent and located, we cannot move to a truly intercultural place. If “culture” is always a descriptor of a minority or “other” it becomes a tool to reinforce, rather than overcome, alienation in the church. For this reason this section is really not aimed at surveying minority cultural perspectives: other voices are better placed for that work. (As an aside, it is telling the cultural profile of the contributors to the UCA’s theological culture conversation.) ↩︎
  9. Here the force of the term “middle-class” carries more of a cultural, rather than simply socio-economic, valence; the best analysis of this dynamic in Australian society is found in: John Carroll, “Lower Middle-class Culture”, Ego and Soul: the Modern West in Search of Meaning (Scribe: 2008), pp. 93-117. ↩︎
  10. A point explored in more depth in my previous Act2 submission. ↩︎
  11. For more detailed and rigorous work on this point see: John G. Flett, The Witness of God, The Trinity, Missio Dei, Karl Barth, and the Nature of Christian Community (Eerdmans, 2010). ↩︎
  12. The term “hocus pocus” possibly coming from the Latin eucharist: hoc est corpus meum, this is my body. ↩︎
  13. Potentially rooted in a history of anti-Catholic polemic, and latent European anti-Semitism. ↩︎
  14. An embodied echo of Martin Luther’s account of the Christian life: “We are all mere beggars showing other beggars where to find bread.” ↩︎