Tag Archives: rural ministry

Groceries and the gospel

Have you ever seen a 7-11 in a country town? How bout a Woolworths? How about an evangelical church? When it comes to spreading the “bread of life” around the country the evangelical church’s (defined for the sake of this post as Bible believing and theologically reformed) strategy has been closer to 7-11’s urban focus than Woolworths’ approach of putting Supermarkets wherever it might be viable.

Woolworths has more than 700 stores in Australia (according to Wikipedia). 7-11 boasts more than 350 stores in Australia

At our college weekend away our principal, and brother in the Lord, Bruce Winter (he doesn’t like the “Dr” honourific) encouraged us to consider our ministry futures as a blank cheque – and specifically raised and criticised the attitude of some people he’d met who scoffed at the notion of leaving a city to engage in country ministry. This idea stands in stark contrast to Izaac’s report from the other day.

Here’s a quote from the post where Izaac quotes Phillip Jensen.

God cares for people more than sheep. So we need to send gospel workers where there’s more people than sheep.

Alright then. Guess I won’t be leaving the city. And New Zealand is definitely out of the question. On further explanation I understood Phillip’s point. He was just using the line as an introduction to his reflections on strategic thinking. He went on to inform us if we drew an imaginary triangle between three Western Sydney suburbs (I forget which ones), there’s more people contained within than in the entire state of South Australia – so we theoretically need at least as many workers in that triangle as in South Australia. Phillip wasn’t against country ministry, but highlighted the increased importance of regional centres rather than establishing a formal church in every tiny community.

Perhaps Phillip Jensen might reconsider his quote (boldened) if those in the country stopped sending their sheep and grain to the cities for food? I commented on the post suggesting that the church should not consider itself as 7-11 but rather as a supermarket. We don’t need an evangelical church on every corner of Sydney’s bustling streets. We need a supermarket mentality where we’re in every town in Australia. All Australians need to be able to shop for groceries – and all Australian’s need the gospel. If we’re convinced that the gospel is a necessity then like Izaac says in the comments on his post – we need to be thinking in terms of access rather than saturation.

Part of me likes to think in the category of access. Though churches need to operate evangelistically as individuals that “go out” with the gospel, it is also true that churches can have an attractional quality whereby people “come in” to hear the gospel. So there is a certain reality to a smaller town with a church gathering where the gospel is proclaimed, is doing a similar thing to having one good church per suburb in the city; namely providing an opportunity for those keen to hear about Jesus the chance to do so.

I disagree with the premise that you need one good church per suburb – I suspect you need one good church hub for every six or seven suburbs.

When I defined “evangelical” churches as “Bible believing and reformed” earlier you can be sure that most of these churches in Australia are enjoying the fruits of faithful men who happened to serve in Sydney. Most evangelical churches around the country can trace their roots to Sydney (just like any white settlement in Australia). But the same can be said for Woolworths.

In 1788 Samuel Johnson’s York Street Anglican was the “cradle” of evangelical Christianity in Australia, the first Woolworths opened in 1924, about 150 years later, just two streets away in Pitt Street.

I don’t want to toy around with counting up the number of “evangelical” churches in the country – but I’d say in Queensland there are a handful (more than ten, less than twenty) in the city of Brisbane and ten or less throughout the state’s regional centres. I may be undercounting in both cases. And I’m certainly not au fait with the number of evangelical Chinese Churches around the traps (I learned this over the weekend).

I’m not arguing that we should neglect the city – I just don’t buy the argument that the number of work(er)s should be proportional to the size of the population. Here are some stats from the National Church Life survey (NCLS)

“According to the Australian Community Survey (ACS), some 63% of adults live in urban areas. Of the remaining 37%, 10% live in large regional centres (population greater than 20,000 people), 15% in centres of between 2000 and 20,000 people, 8% in centres between 200 and 2000 people, and 3% in centres of 200 people or less.”

How many of those 37% of people have easy and convenient access to groceries thanks to Woolworths or Coles? How many have access to faithful Bible teaching? If there’s a disparity we’re doing it wrong. Bible teaching is as necessary for life as bread and milk.

The NCLS provides a further breakdown…

“Reported church attendance among people in urban and rural areas is similar, with 20% of urban dwellers attending frequently compared with 19% of rural dwellers. However, farmers and agricultural workers have much higher levels of frequent church attendance (28%) than others. This could be because churches provide opportunities for social interaction, although other community organisations do this too. Alternatively, the higher attendance levels among farmers could be because the way of life of farmers and their work in providing the necessities of life receives greater affirmation from the churches than most other occupations (Why People Don’t Go to Church, 2002, p 20).”

“Christian belief is average. Urban and rural dwellers are just as likely to hold a range of traditional Christian beliefs (30%). Rural dwellers (12%) are less likely to be interested in alternative or New Age spiritual practices than urban dwellers (15%). Urban dwellers are a little more likely to value spirituality, freedom and an exciting life than rural dwellers. But rural dwellers place more importance on national security than urban dwellers (69% compared with 62%).”

Extrapolating on denominational attendance figures from census data it’s a safe bet that a high proportion of these rural church goers aren’t enjoying the benefits of reformed evangelical Bible teaching.

Denomination No. of People (2001 Census) 2001 Estimated Weekly Attendance Percent attending of people identifying
Anglican 3881162 177700 5%
Baptist 309205 112200 36%
Catholic 5001624 764800 15%
Churches of Christ 61335 45100 74%
Lutheran 250365 40500 16%
Pentecostal 194592 141700* 73%
Presbyterian & Reformed 637530 42100 7%
Salvation Army 71423 27900 39%
Seventh-day Adventist 53844 36600 68%
Uniting 1248674 126600 10%
* NCLS attendance estimate for ‘Pentecostal’ only includes Apostolic, Assemblies of God, Bethesda, Christian City Churches, Christian Revival Crusade and Vineyard

If you don’t buy the 7-11 argument you should check out this map of Sydney Anglican Churches in North Sydney

How many staff do each of those churches have? How many overseas missionaries do they support? Probably heaps – how many churches around Australia could be created and supported by deconcentrating this presence?

How is it that Coles and Woolworths are caring better for the average Australian than the church that claims to adhere to the teachings and instructions of Jesus? If the gospel was all about reaching the most concentrated populations wouldn’t he just have stuck to Jerusalem or hit the road to Rome?

He was the guy who not only traveled the countryside preaching the gospel (Matthew 9):

35Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. 36When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. 38Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

He also sent 72 of his followers out in pairs to the countryside (in Luke 10) to reap a plentiful harvest, and then of course there are Jesus’ last words to the church prior to his ascension – it’s not an instruction to “go to the people of the earth” but the “end of the earth” – which despite my less than rudimentary understanding of Greek suggests a geographical element rather than anthropological understanding (I haven’t actually looked at the Greek at all – feel free to correct me). How much more plentiful is the regional harvest in our time – when our “country” centres (like Townsville) are the same size as Corinth in Paul’s day (according to Biblegateway).

If secular culture and corporations understand the value of getting groceries to consumers everywhere – why are we so good at saturating the city of Sydney and so bad at reaching the rest of the country?

Jesus: All about life in Sydney

Interesting survey stats about the state of Christian belief in Sydney verses the rest of the country.

Note – this is not the Christians – this is all people in Sydney surveyed as part of the market research for the Jesus All About Life campaign.

Compared with all Australians, Sydneysiders are more likely to believe:

  • Jesus was born of a virgin (56% SYD and 44% AUS)
  • Jesus healed a blind man (60% SYD and 51% AUS)
  • Jesus turned water into wine (56% SYD and 44% AUS)
  • Jesus walked on water (53% SYD and 44% AUS)
  • Jesus was crucified and died on a cross (80% SYD and 76% AUS)
  • Jesus rose from the dead (58% SYD and 47% AUS)
  • Jesus ascended bodily into heaven (55% SYD and 44% AUS)
  • Jesus will return to Earth one day (46% SYD and 37% AUS)

Now tell me again why such a disproportionate rate of reformed evangelical workers are required for the harvest in Sydney?

My friend Mike is always keen to talk to people about ministry in regional Queensland – you can find his church website here.

The regional solution

I’ve ranted and raved a little bit previously about how Sydney is oversaturated with good, evangelical ministers. It’s not entirely true. Sydney needs good evangelical ministers. It’s the lifeblood of evangelical work in Australia. But it would be incredibly nice to have them donate some blood elsewhere occasionally.

I’d be really interested to see how a model like the one education departments around the country would work when applied to ministry – where graduates have to go out into rural and regional areas to serve and earn their stripes before heading to the city. I think the Anglican system precludes this a little – so it’s a great opportunity for the Pressies with our statewide system of governance.

Sam, from thefountainside, posted something yesterday about some of the unhelpful tactics us country people use when we’re trying to lure people away from the bright lights of Sydney. I can understand his frustration – and he suggests a much better way to appeal to people when it comes to serving God – the glorification of God. I’m with him on that.

What I’m not with him on is the idea that staying in Sydney is not the default position of most Sydney based students, particularly Sydney based students who are from Sydney. This is largely anecdotal and based purely on the handful of people I know – but looking at the people in ministry, that I know of, the vast majority of evangelical ministers serving outside of Sydney were not from Sydney originally. There must be a little bit to this. Because every country area I’ve lived in, and every country church I know of, feels this frustration to a degree.

Jesus called for his followers to go “to the world” with the gospel. The world includes, but is not limited to, Sydney.

I’ve said far more than I should, far more aggressively than I should, over at thefountainside (and I’ve apologised – this issue makes my blood boil like one of those berserkers who goes nuts at the first signs of battle) – and I should have posted this here much sooner. But here’s a little summary of my thinking.

  1. Sydney has an abundance of evangelical churches – I said there that they’re like 7/11. Almost on every corner. There’s even pseudo-emergent independent church plants catering for every cultural need. Sure, Sydney needs the gospel. But curious Sydneysiders have ample opportunity to wander down to their local Anglican church and be almost guaranteed to hear the Bible taught.
  2. Nobody argues that city ministry is not important. That’s why it’s the default. Because it is important. If you’re committed to urban ministry there are plenty of urban centres outside of Sydney with only a little, or no, evangelical ministry occurring. I used the word myopia to describe the Sydney focus – and I stand by that. Sure, Sydney is big. But there are other cities crying out for gospel workers without the existing base to produce them. For these cities to turn around they need workers to go and start things up.
  3. I like the idea of ministry graduates doing a country placement before moving to the city. I think both the country and the city benefit from that model. It’s also the model the Government chooses for education. It works pragmatically. Apparently pragmatism is on the nose a little bit though.
  4. It takes a special person, with special passion, and a special calling, to leave Sydney. In Sydney, or in any big city, the need is more obvious. There are myriad gospel opportunities literally at your doorstep. I can see how wanting to meet those needs would be a compelling calling. But all ministry glorifies Jesus.
  5. People won’t go to rural areas if they aren’t asked, shown the need and encouraged to glorify God by doing so. People should make these calls – and they should do so with whatever means are at their disposal.