regional ministry

Next year…

For those who came in late (I’ve always wanted to start something that way), this year is my last year at Queensland Theological College.

My last year of being a “Candidate for Ordination” for the Presbyterian Church of Queensland. And it’s almost September.

It is traditional, at these times, if one is a college student, to be thinking about one’s future. To be thinking about next year – and the years after, and where one might end up serving the body of Christ, his church, and in what capacity.

Today I stood up in front of all four services at Creek Road, with my friend Joe, and we spoke about next year – and where we’re headed. For a bit more on what Joe is doing see this post on the Creek Road blog.

Long long time readers might remember some things I wrote in my pre-college years about ministry in regional parts of Australia. And might remember some of my passionate pleas for people to take the gospel to regional Queensland.

You may also remember some of my cynicism about missional theology centered on “the city” – as if inner city ministry is hugely transformative and thus, of more value.

You may remember some of the things I said about “church planting” and the types of people who are attracted to the glamour and excitement of not having to deal with “traditions” and stuff.

It’s all here in the archives.

You may know that Robyn and I have continued to champion the cause of Queensland’s regional areas in our time at college.

You’ll be happy to know – on the basis of these well documented commitments – that our immediate, and probably short to medium to long term future has been sorted.

God, it seems, has a sense of humour.

Next year, and beyond (subject to me passing college, my trials for license, and a congregational meeting) Robyn and I will be continuing to serve with the saints at Creek Road in a new campus. Creek Road is going multisite (don’t worry – all the stuff I said about video preaching and the need for a preacher to have a flesh and blood presence with his congregation still stands).

This campus is in South Bank. Brisbane’s cultural hub. Brisbane’s inner city.

We’re very excited about serving with Creek Road – it is a church that is serious about the gospel, and is serious about reaching the lost. It is a church that has a clearly articulated theology of ministry, and philosophy of ministry, and approach to ministry that I’m more than on board with. It is a church that makes sure Jesus is at the heart of each sermon, each song, each Growth Group study.

If you come to Creek Road on a Sunday – you’ll hear about Jesus.

Which is great.

South Bank is a really exciting part of Brisbane. It’s where a lot of the good cafes are. It’s where culture happens. We’re even meeting at the Queensland Theatre Company.

We’re going to be opening a campus, a church, in the heart of Brisbane – where stories are told – and we’ll be sharing the best story in the world – the gospel of Jesus.

Which is exciting.

This may all seem something like a slap in the face to regional Queensland – but it’s not. At least not in my head.

I still love regional Queensland. Especially North Queensland. I’m still keen to see great ministry happening outside of the south east corner, I’m hoping that I’ll be able to be a part of that in a more effective way than I would be were I to head somewhere else (and there aren’t a huge number of competing offers out there this year).

I’m particularly excited about Creek Road’s commitment to partnering with, and resourcing, churches all around the state, and even all around the country. There are concrete examples of this happening already – in regional Queensland and beyond. That is one of the things that really excites me about joining the team at Creek Road.

There are a heap of synergies in terms of things I’m passionate about seeing our denomination do to share the gospel and this role at Creek Road.

One of the things I’ve become really passionate about since I wrote all that stuff about regional ministry is the sort of public Christianity sphere this blog has started to occupy, that represents a significant aspect of my thinking about ministry, and there have been a few conversations I’ve had with people around the country in recent weeks on that front that make me think this is an area I should continue exploring and developing.

There’s huge scope for developing this stuff further in this role – producing things like this, and working with our team on things like this smart phone app, and helping think about how we share and distribute these videos.

A better analogy for church planting

Stuart didn’t think much of my Woolworths v 7/11 analogy. I admin that it has limits. He has called for a better analogy. And I think I’ve come up with one. We’ll see.

The gospel is only useful as a piece of communication. This communication requires metaphorical communication technology – think of your ubiquitous mobile phone. Mobile phones work all over the country because there is infrastructure all over the country to support them. Mobile towers create the ability for people in regional Australia to be linked to the service. If you lice in an area with no service it’s really frustrating. You see the service that city people enjoy and you get a bit mad that nobody loves you.

We should be thinking of churches like broadcast towers. We want to be a country that has full ministry coverage – ministry available in every area. It’s right to have strong signals and good infrastructure where there are more people – like in Sydney – but the reason people previously griped about many telcos is that their rural and regional service is so poor.

This metaphor also highlights the problem with the “for the rest of the country to be strong we need to keep Sydney strong” line. It’s a given that we want to keep Sydney strong. What these people are suggesting is that in order to keep Sydney strong we need to overinvest in infrastructure in Sydney. It’s a build it and they will come mentality. Building heaps of communications towers in one place doesn’t improve the signal in regional Australia – it improves the signal locally – and regional Australia packs up and moves to the city. Especially when one of the prevailing messages people who attend evangelical conferences in Sydney hear is “you need to find a good church you can serve in” what do you do if you’re somewhere with no good churches? You move to Sydney.

If the government feels the need to legislate and create a company in order to service the needs of all Australians – why are we not treating the issue in the same manner?

Go west (or to any other point on the compass) young man

There are times when I engage passionately in arguments when I don’t really mean it. There are other times when I engage passionately because the stakes are incredibly high and I think the issue is both theologically and strategically important. This, friends, is a case of the latter.

I’ve stirred up a veritable hornets nest of criticism both here and elsewhere for daring to question the assumption that people should stay in Sydney to do ministry. I thought it might have been one of those cases where I took an argument too far and risked causing offense. So I read my comments on Izaac’s blog a day later and in a rare moment of clarity and conviction found that I still completely hold on to every word I have written both here and elsewhere.

I did unwittingly cause Izaac some offense by quoting his post in an email to Phillip Jensen seeking clarification on his position. This was by no means my intention. Izaacs editorial surrounding the comments is balanced (and far less polemic than mine). I have no bone to pick with his contextualisation of the quotes. And I want to, in a public forum, apologise for the way in which I presented his views. I do think before I go further in criticising the statements attributed to Phillip I should find out if my criticisms are on the mark.

The irony of this situation is that I had heard recently, on another matter, that Phillip himself was critical of someone for speaking what everybody was thinking because “every statement is political”.

I wonder about the political wisdom of making a statement – polemical or otherwise – suggesting that areas of the country where there are more people than sheep (and I suspect removing the hyperbole this can be translated to rural Australia) – are of less strategic importance than the city. That’s not the attitude demonstrated by the ministry of Jesus, nor is it the attitude expressed in the parable of the lost sheep. People of all stripes and locations are important to God and need the gospel. Which means people of all stripes and locations need gospel workers with a heart for sharing the message of the cross.

It doesn’t seem to serve the cause of the gospel in reaching the rest of Australia and the world – but it does seem to serve the cause in Sydney. Phillip’s statements are fine in that they represent political statements that further his cause – gospel ministry in Sydney – I don’t really get the flack I’m wearing for disagreeing and presenting an alternative priority for growth in Australia.

It’s all well and good to suggest that other regions and states should be looking after themselves and setting up sustainable cities – but if you choose the Billy Graham crusades when the Jensen brothers were converted as the start of a groundswell of evangelicism in Australia, or if you choose any other moment in Australian history, the influence of Moore College as Australia’s premiere and premier training institution for evangelical workers needs time in order to create a cycle of self replication.

Here are a couple of potential case studies.

Case Study Number 1 – Maclean

Maclean, the town Izaac and I grew up in, has a population of about 3,500 people. It’s not a “strategic regional centre”. When my family moved their 20 years ago there was a night service meeting in Yamba (population 5,000) and two morning services – one in Lawrence (population – from memory less than 1,000) and the other in Maclean. We stayed in Maclean for ten years and by God’s grace left a thriving and gospel centred church family behind when we moved to Brisbane. Maclean has been vacant for almost half of the last ten years (by my guestimation). The strategic regional centre for the Lower Clarence is not Maclean – it’s Grafton. Grafton is the natural hub for small towns in the region. And holds the lion’s share of the regional population.

The church in Maclean has, again by the grace of God, produced a number of Godly young adults who still live in Maclean and a number who are serving in churches around the country – in Perth, Tasmania, Brisbane, Sydney and throughout New South Wales. For a town of less than 4,000 people Maclean is more than punching above its weight in terms of people entering theological training and ministry apprenticeships. But there has been a pretty long lead time. It has taken 20 years from the moment an evangelical ministry beginning in Maclean for two of us to be entering Bible College (and I think we’re the first). I can’t even truly claim to have completely grown up in Maclean (and Izaac rightly credits the faithful ministry he has received in Sydney for propelling him to where he is today).

To suggest that Maclean should have produced its own ministers to sustainably and strategically (as some have done both overtly and between the lines) look after the future of the region is disingenuous and doesn’t really take into account the nature of regional centres where a high percentage of young adults leave to seek their fortunes (and education) in the city.

According to Wikipedia 3.2% of residents of the Clarence Valley earn a living in “sheep, cattle or grain farming”… there’s a pretty good chance that there are more sheep in the region than cattle. According to the Clarence Valley Economic Development stats page more than 7% of residents are engaged in agriculture. ABS census statistics indicate that the Mid North Coast region (which includes Maclean) is home to approximately 3,000 sheep. It seems going to Maclean is ok. But not if it is a question of cattle rather than sheep. There are 409,000 head of cattle in the statistical division and 297,000 people. The region extends from Taree to Grafton. Maclean is typically rural.

For it to produce its own sustainable gospel work (on the assumption that this requires a home grown college trained worker) either Izaac or myself would have to go back there. I can’t for at least 8 years (candidacy locks me into Queensland for six) and Izaac would have to do two years of PTC training at the end of a four year degree. The suggestion that these regions should fend for themselves is pretty laughable.

Case Study Number 2: Townsville

I’ve spent the last four years in Townsville. It’s fair to say that evangelical ministry in Townsville is in its late infancy. There are perhaps five churches in Townsville that could be defined as evangelical. Townsville has a population of 180,000 people. It’s growing at about 5,000 people a year. All the ministers serving in Townsville have come there from elsewhere.

Dave Walker has been working for AFES in Townsville for (I think) nine years. AFES Townsville, again by the grace of God, has trained hundreds of students in that time. A number of these students are in full time ministry in high school chaplaincy, others have left Townsville for graduate positions. None, at this stage (to my knowledge) have entered theological training at this point. Nine years of fruitful labour has not been enough to meet staff shortfalls with the student ministry – let alone going close to providing enough workers for church ministry in the city.

I don’t think Dave will have a problem with me pointing out that AFES have been trying to appoint a female staff worker for the last couple of years – pursuing a number of candidates but attracting none to this point.

According to the ABS, North Queensland has no sheep, but it does have 496,000 head of cattle. Compared to Sydney the North Queensland region is an evangelical baby. It is not in a position to be self sustaining – give it 150 years and perhaps the region will have a population, and training college, similar to Sydney’s now. Sydney apologists can’t forget that they owe their strength to missionaries who came to Australia in the first fleet. All regions around the world, since Jerusalem and Judea, require workers to come in from the outside.

There aren’t all that many sheep in Queensland. Just 3.9 million. Luckily there are 4.1 million people. We should have no trouble filling vacancies in regional Queensland now should we?

I’m sure my friend Mike from Rockhampton could share equal tales of unrequited ministry opportunity – which is why those of us outside of Sydney get a little put out when we see a map like the one featured in this post.

Keller on ministry experience

Tim Keller is cool. In a geek-chic kind of way. So when he talks about city ministry being important people get all excited and want to plant churches in the heart of big, pagan cities… just like Keller did.

But Keller has a piece of sage advice for those wanting the best ministry experience to build a platform of longevity on…

Young pastors or seminarians often ask me for advice on what kind of early ministry experience to seek in order to best grow in skill and wisdom as a pastor. They often are surprised when I tell them to consider being a ‘country parson’ — namely, the solo pastor of a small church, many or most of which are in non-urban settings. Let me quickly emphasize the word ‘consider.’ I would never insist that everyone must follow this path. Nevertheless, it is worth thinking about. It was great for me.

Yeah. Preach it brother.

Some will be surprised to hear me say this, since they know my emphasis on ministry in the city. Yes, I believe firmly that the evangelical church has neglected the city. It still is difficult to get Christians and Christian leaders to make the sacrifices necessary to live their lives out in cities. However, the disdain many people have for urban areas is no worse than the condescending attitudes many have toward small towns and small churches.

I’ve said it once (literally), I’ve said it a thousand times (metaphorically)… cutting the teeth of young ministers in regional areas makes sense on both the pragmatic and evangelistic levels.

It’s good for the minister – and it’s good for regional areas.

Movin’ to the country

Life in country Australia is pretty peachy. It’s just a shame that we can’t seem to convince Sydneysiders of that fact…

This topic of conversation always gets me in trouble in Christian circles – so I apologise in advance for the offense I’m about to cause you city dwellers. I know some of you know people who are going to regional Australia. I know some of you are keen to go overseas. I know some of you have good reasons to stay in Sydney and feel “called” to do so – but if everybody is “called” to be in Sydney you’ve got to start questioning where the calling is coming from…

My friend Mike, a minister in a regional centre in Queensland, posted a fairly innocuous appeal to city ministers as his status yesterday. And he got in trouble.

I’m going to play the role of cavalry.

This is what he said: Mike wants to remind my friends that the mission field is bigger than Sydney!

He copped a bit of a comment flogging. He was accused of empire building. Which I thought was odd. Mike is from Sydney. His family live there. He’s traditional Sydney staying fodder. And he left. Much respect to him…

And this old chestnut came up:

Australia’s population is not evenly spread – almost 1 in 5 Aussies live here. It would make sense then that 1 in five workers is here also. (There may be more than that I’m not sure).

Newsflash – that means 4 in 5 people in Australia aren’t in Sydney. Sadly two out of four of Australia’s reformed evangelical training institutions are in Sydney. I would suggest that more than 1 in 5 reformed evangelical workers are in Sydney.

Someone somewhere should do some research – but anecdotally speaking – I’d say there are only a handful of graduates from either Moore College or SMBC in Queensland. I’d say the case is similar in other states.

Off the top of my head there are only about 15 graduates from these colleges operating in Queensland (but this is largely limited to Presbyterian circles). That’s a rough head count.

According to this site Sydney occupies about 2100 square kilometres. According to this site Australia is 7,686,850 square kilometres.

I know there’s this big “theological” push to do city based ministry – but really, our regional towns are the size of Biblical cities in some cases.

Can someone tell me how we’re meant to reach the other 4 in 5 people in that sort of space with the concentration of good ministry stuff we’ve got going on in Sydney?

In the city

The 9Marks website has a great article on this whole “the city is where it’s at” “theology” that’s sweeping through city churches (and church planters) at the moment with nary a thought for those poor country cousins.

While I love and appreciate cities for all their goodness, and have lived in cities (excluding Townsville – which is regional) for just under half my life, I also think healthy, wholesome country towns are the lifeblood of the church and are often neglected.

A big part of my professional life involves helping the push for a regional area in Queensland to get appropriate per capita (and per revenue raised) government investment into infrastructure. It’s an eternal frustration. There are few votes in pleasing the country areas – so we’re the poor second or third cousins when it comes to government priorities.

There’s a real danger that the church ends up looking the same. It takes courage for a city raised ministry candidate to move to the boondocks. There’s no (real) program for sending graduates into rural service like there is for other vital professions (school teaching etc). City churches are too keen to snap up graduates for their vibrant and exciting “city” ministry.

And of course, as some good friends would itch to point out, these city churches could telecast their services into regional areas as a pragmatic solution.

There’s a lot to be said for feet on the ground ministry that’s engaged in community life – particularly when community life tends to be stronger the smaller the community (this is a generalisation based purely on my experience living centres with populations of 5 million, 3 million, 170,000 and 6,000). The opportunities for ministry are greater with greater natural community – but the opportunities for exciting ministry programs and huge growth decrease with the size of community.

So good on the 9Marks guys for pointing out this flawed hermeneutic (and particularly flawed Biblical proof texting) of city based ministry. It’s one of the few problems I have with the Mars Hill fan club. And in fact any city centric thinking.

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