Formed to Forming

So 52 years on I’m still in church.  That’s an achievement in itself given all that’s gone down… But more than that, Christian leadership has become a primary focal point of my life.

If you’d told me as a child, while I was counting boards in the roof of the church during sermons, that I’d be a pastor for over half of my life I would have laughed. But life has a way of sneaking up on you and catching you off guard.

This series came out of catching a glimpse of a pastor who took me back to childhood. He had babysat me once when he was dating the pastor’s daughter in our church. I didn’t know him and I doubt he would recognise me in the street. But one face led me to remember another and another and another… and so on.

And I guess that’s the heart of what I’ve observed.

Faces…

Some faces have encouraged and inspired me. Others have bred a caution in me and a wariness. I’d like to think that generally I think the best of everyone until proved wrong, but some people push buttons way quicker than others. Some folks drag up memories of other people who were manipulative or abusive and I instinctively hold them at arms length. Some folks exude a natural authenticity that I warm to and that immediately connects us. I’ve become pretty good at reading people, but occasionally I get surprised.

But its more than faces – its structures too. Structures form us and give shape to our identity and beliefs. Those early days of church in formal structures formed some more rigid theology in me and some rigid attitudes. I imagine rigid structures still produce rigid people.

I think my connection with ‘lower’ church forms has been an intentional reaction to the churches that formed me early. They taught me facts, but often left me cold. I imagine lower church forms (less formal, more relaxed etc) will facilitate warmth, but the embedding of ideas and information is much harder in a looser system. I am willing to accept with the trade off, but I’d still like to see some better theological reflection and understanding of scripture in my more recent expressions of church.

I could write a list of people who have given shape to my own identity today, but I’d forget some of them… and some of them shouldn’t be in print because the experiences of them were negative.

One of the major shifts in the last 15 year of life particularly, has been the transition from church forming me to me now ‘forming it’ more consciously and thoughtfully. In the early years of pastoring I was still ‘falling in line’ and playing the game. But those days are long gone. I’m sure some of what happens in me is still a instinctive response to a past experience, but I’d like to think there is a bit more intentional leadership and a better thought out understanding of what church is and what its purpose is.

And in that is the hope that those who are part of communities I am involved with leading will not see their church experience as a time of dread and boredom, but may even be encouraged to see life in the church as inspiring and life giving. Well, that’d be nice…

 

 

 

End of the Road

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With Upstream winding up I was looking for something to do. I had begun my retic business, but I knew that running a business wasn’t my primary calling in life. I had been doing some preaching at Quinns to help them out while they sought out a pastor, and that is always easy. You can run thru your ‘greatest hits’ from the previous 10 years and give the appearance of being a much better communicator than you really are. You also get to go home after the service and think nothing more about the church community. Its easy and enjoyable at one level, but equally unrewarding at another level, because you only involve yourself in one small aspect of the community life.

When we agreed to join the church for a trial run we had no idea there were a couple of factions set on a collision course. I don’t think the people in the church even saw it that way, but the ideas we came with and the fairly direct approach with which we offered them certainly unearthed those issues very quickly. There was a very conservative, almost fundamentalist contingent and a more relaxed and earthy contingent. I didn’t come in gently because I wanted to leave no question as to who we were and what we were about and within a month we had stirred up a hornet’s nest.

The church had polarised and we were the catalyst for that. The next few months were painful and difficult as we worked in an increasingly untenable environment. We had people supporting us, but this rift was exactly what we were worried about when we indicated we weren’t a good fit. Things were unravelling fast and tempers frayed often.

Again this isn’t the time and the place to revisit the ugliness of that period. The short version was that we left for our lap of Oz in April with people due to vote on our appointment around July. One afternoon while walking the Strand in Townsville we got a call to say that the church vote had gone against us and we weren’t going to be re-appointed to Quinns leadership. While the support was about 50/50 there were enough voting members for us to be out the door. This event co-incided with news of a big financial hit that we hadn’t seen coming. So now we were a quarter of a million bucks down and out of work. We pondered whether to head home or keep travelling. We kept travelling and that was a good decision because it would have been another blow to have to cut our trip short.

While we travelled, the church had some further conflict that saw those who voted us out leaving, and then we had a phone call saying we could return. We really didn’t want to. We didn’t want to say that either, but we just didn’t like the tone of the whole situation and we were reluctant to re-enter a place we had been so badly treated, even if those who disliked us had gone.

But we couldn’t escape the sense that God was saying that he wanted us to do it. We also felt a sense of allegiance to those who had stuck their neck out for us. So whether it was a ‘god thing’ or a ‘duty’ thing, I don’t know for sure. But in the absence of anything else to do, we just went with it.

That was how things started and they got worse from there for a while, with more strained relationships, declining numbers and morale bottoming out.

It can only get better from there hey?…

The focus of these posts is the way in which the communities I have been part of have helping shape who I am today.

Quinns didn’t begin well and the way in which I was formed initially was into a guy with his guard up everywhere he went. I had a couple of good relationships, a whole bunch that were ambivalent and some that were still vehement and hostile. It was hard to relax. I didn’t lose confidence in who I was or what I was about, but I began to lose interest in simply being bothered. Within a year I would have happily left – even with nothing to go to, except that I would have abandoned a few others who had worked with us to try and restore health. So we stayed – that sense of duty, mixed with divine calling, but never really able to discern which was which. But I know for a period there I entered relationships cautiously – guardedly and of course that didn’t work well.

Simply enduring the struggle and absorbing the pain was in itself a formative experience. I had seen other people suffering in churches and I’d been part of churches where dumb stuff had taken place, but now I was leading one and on the receiving end of that stuff. I hadn’t been here before so I needed to learn how to process all of it.

Again hindsight is a wonderful teacher and I would have to say that my direct and at times intentionally provocative approach to leadership was a factor in my own struggle. I didn’t want to be misheard – to be seen as returning to a typical pastoral role – but in being blunt I also came across as somewhat arrogant and uncaring. In those days I don’t remember really getting to know people. I remember trying to both lead and survive at the same time and building friendships (we did have some good ones) was a bonus.

One of the reasons a good friend gave for staying at Quinns as a church was that he saw it as a ‘fixer upper’ and somewhere he could make a contribution rather than warming the pew of a larger church. He was right. We were a fixer -upper but I had never perceived myself as a renovator. I liked to start things – not fix them.

It was time to learn some more new stuff.

After a rocky start we prayed hard and some new faces joined our community – healthy, positive energetic people who came to build up and help us ‘renovate’. In time the culture began to change, I began to drop my guard and warmth began to spread rather than caution.

As much as I had been in the team leader role at Lesmurdie for a period and also at Upstream, this was a different situation. I didn’t have a ‘Garth’ who’d been around a while to help me figure out the situation and this wasn’t a bunch of long term friends like Upstream. It was a new environment and one that had begun badly.

As I write this tonight I can’t imagine any church I would rather be part of now other than QBC. I love who we are and I can’t think of where I’d fit if I ever left. I’m sure it wouldn’t be that hard, but I could actually see myself staying here until I hang up the paid ministry boots. I guess the question is how did it get to this from where it was?

Initially when we came back to QBC it was with the hope of moving the church in a very focused and creative, missional direction. In the midst of conflict and tension the ideas that accompanied that began to sound unnecessarily disruptive and misunderstood so we ended up shelving big dreams and instead sought to just survive.

That was disappointing, but I’d run out of energy and couldn’t be bothered any more. That’s not a good place to be, but I gave myself permission to just coast for a bit.

Slowly we gathered good friends and began to see a community form. It was a new community within an old one, but it was feeling healthy. We began to invest our energy here and it was rewarding.

One thing that happened in this time – and how QBC shaped me – was that I became better at being  a ‘pastor’ – an actual pastoral kind of person. That was what was needed in that time and I began to pastor more and lead less. (Yes I do see them as different skills and gifts).

As things began to get healthy again I moved back into leading and giving direction, but from a place of seeking communal discernment rather than the ‘visionary leader’ approach. In the last few years one of my most valuable learnings has been around the importance of the community in the kingdom of God and the way we have individualised faith so much in the western world. In QBC I gave myself to intentionally trying to figure out what a more substantial communal expression of church looks like. That doesn’t come naturally to any of us, but I sense we have made progress.

Being a part timer hasn’t always been intentional, but at QBC it has always been my preferred mode of operation. In the past it may have been a concession to a lack of funds, but this time it was a way of keeping myself earthed in everyday life, of allowing us freedom to employ a diverse staff and also a way of making sure that as a church we are never backed into a corner by rich people and their $$. The part time experience has been one of the most valuable learnings of the last 7 years and I reckon many more pastors should give it a go. It not only frees your church to have a range of staff rather than one paid guy, but it also gives you another string to your bow if all goes belly up. I know too many people who have no other options and that is a horrible place to be when church life is up the creek.

Having to work within the part time constraints also forces you to focus on the main tasks – the core things you need to do that no one else can do. I lead, teach, meet with blokes and do some admin. That’s pretty much it, but all those things are things I can do well and that add to who we are.

Then there’s what I call the ‘dad’ factor. Around the church I feel a bit like ‘dad’… and maybe its a reflection of how I have led for the most part. Dads care for their families, make decisions based on what’s best for them and they miss them when they have to go away. A family also notices when dad isn’t around… Beds don’t get made, dishes don’t get done quite as well… everyone is a little less at ease until dad comes home. I’ve  noticed that when we have travelled people have always expressed that it feels ‘safer’ when we are around and I guess that’s a part of the dad factor. I wouldn’t want to overstate that, but I sense it as a very real thing.

In all of that is a very settled sense of personal identity that allows me just to be myself these days and without the need to impress or wow. It means that if I have 8 hrs for a sermon and it isn’t ‘polished’ then I go with the raw version and hope it does the job. I know people love us and they would rather hear from our hearts than have slick, carefully crafted stories that have taken days to create.

How has QBC formed me? In a nutshell I feel like its given me a very diverse range of experiences, from the ugly and abhorrent to the rich and inspiring that have allowed me to learn to lead in a range of situations. If the time comes one day to move churches again then I know I will go with a sense of confidence in who God has made me to be and a settled knowledge of what I have to offer.

Perhaps this will be the last stop on the way to ‘retirement’ (whatever that word means) and we will enjoy the next 13 years with these people. Then again, I never predict the future any more because I am infamously bad at it.

I’m going to wrap this up later in the week with some final broader reflections on this idea of how communities form us and why they matter.

Becoming a Backyard Missionary

obj60geo43pg1p15It was in 2003 that I started blogging and the title of this blog ‘backyard missionary’ captures the essence of the journey I was on – to be a missionary in my own backyard – to figure out how we reach Aussies with the message of Jesus in a way they could understand and engage with. Initially the blog was going to be a way for those back in Lesmurdie to stay in touch with our journey, but it ended up becoming a place for me to think out loud and share my learning. There was a time when blogging was big, this blog was popular and I had 2000 readers each day…  Now it averages 30 and I am probably related to most of them…

I have thought and written more about this issue of mission than any other subject but you may need to go back a few years in the archives to find the guts of it. My early days were full of untested theory and pontificating, followed by some practical reflection and now the ‘distance’ from those years allows me a different perspective yet again.

Simply put, the plan was to go to Brighton as a missionary team of 5 families, to live in the community, love and serve people and develop a church community as people came to faith. I expected that within two years there would be 150 -200 people in our community and that most of them would be new Christians. We even dissuaded Christians from joining us initially as we didn’t want to get railroaded into the business of church too soon.

Early on I realised my expectations were going to be beyond us and the further along we went the harder it became for me.

When I reflect on this time I view it as a time of failure – because I didn’t achieve what I set out to achieve. By contrast Danelle sees it as the greatest experience she has had in regards to church community. When we left Lesmurdie she had become swallowed up by the program monster and had lost the ability to be her relaxed relational self. In this new space she came alive again and just loved loving people.

upstreamlogoI was more concerned with converting people. That’s a harsh statement isn’t it? And it took me a while to realise that that what was driving me was not love, but success. I wanted to do well at this missionary stuff and my mark of success would be people who came to faith for the first time. I went pretty hard at it and nothing happened.

I don’t want to dwell on all of that and re-tell the story of Upstream here. I have done that in other posts – but I do want to reflect on how this community of people formed me and helped me grow further.

It wasn’t a big community – 5 families or 6 at most, sharing a ‘more or less’ similar vision. And all were good friends – people who I deeply loved and cared for. But the ‘more or less’ similar vision became a problem as we didn’t seem to always be on the same page with stuff and in a small team that shows up readily and easily. You also can’t hide when you have conflict in a small team and we had our share of that.

I was thinking more new thoughts about mission, church and leadership and experimenting with everything. It was a very questioning and curious community, but as a result it didn’t make a very safe/predictable environment and by choosing to take a more collaborative approach to leadership I allowed the team to drift for quite a while. I couldn’t see at that time that I needed to give more leadership. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

As we went along I struggled to accept that people had time limitations, and sometimes just fears and apprehensions that paralysed them in mission and I wasn’t sure how to deal with that. During my time at Lesmurdie a friend called Mark – a middle aged man – had lunch with me one day and gave me a most useful piece of advice. He said ‘Andrew – you need to lead us – not drive us.’ Working with youth I did a lot of driving and they allowed me to drive them, but its hard driving adults – maybe even dumb… I was trying to implement that learning in this new space, but in the absence of being a ‘driver’ I wasn’t sure who I was again.

We had very supportive and loving relationships in the team as well as deeply strained relationships, almost to the point of being irretrievable with some of our closest friends. Perhaps one of the most valuable experiences in that time was being able to move thru that deep relational darkness and come up the other side and slowly rebuild those friendships to the point where they are strong and healthy. It helped me see the possibility of reconciliation when two parties are committed to the relationship and has led me to believe that very few relationships are beyond healing. There was a time when I may have given up on a dodgy relationship and walked away, but our commitment at the front end of the project was that we wouldn’t do that no matter how painful it got and grinding thru the relational struggles was formative.

As an aside, one of the interesting aspects of this journey was that our friends Gavin & Helen from Wagin who I met when I was 21, wrote to me one day and said they’d like to join us. I chuckled – what farmer sells up everything and goes to suburbia to be a missionary? Two weeks later he had an offer on the farm, had bought a bobcat and was getting ready to start a new life in the city. How good was that?

As well as leading Upstream, I was leading Forge, both at a state and national level and I was doing a lot of speaking at various gigs around the country. I was probably the most unsuccessful missionary I knew – the Eddie the Eagle of mission – but people kept on inviting me to speak in churches… I think it helped them to know that it was hard out there, and I always told the truth about where we were at, so at times it took its toll as I heard myself describe my inability to be who I wanted to be.

One of the real benefits of being in this team and in the Forge space was the freedom to question – to question everything – and we did. At times it paralysed us as we were in essence ‘starting again’ and trying to imagine what church and mission would look like if we weren’t constrained by our existing forms, by powerful people with preferences or by laziness. This was truly invigorating and exhausting at the same time. Being with a group of people where there was both permission and intention to question and think was wonderful. I could never have asked these questions or delved into these issues in my early church experiences. By linking my name to the emerging church some had already branded me a heretic and a lost cause, but this was a hugely valuable time. I never feared losing my way theologically or in faith as I had a real clear sense of grounding – probably courtesy of my previous church experiences…

Aside from the theoretical learning around missiology, ecclesiology I learnt that I could’t make ‘God stuff’ happen. I couldn’t do anything more than be faithful to the task and not quit. I was used to being successful in virtually everything I’d done and Lesmurdie had been a big win as we led the youth scene, so I expected that I would do well here too. I have heard it said that around middle age we often experience a great and significant failure and mine was here. I realised we were experimenting, pioneering and that failure was always a possibility but I didn’t ever think it was a real possibility…

At Forge we spoke of needing an R & D dept within the church (research and development) and we saw ourselves as that when we were planting Upstream. As we questioned a great deal together and formed new ideas it made it hard to simply slot back into regular church life because now we had experienced a whole different imagination of church. We took the red pill and discovered how deep the rabbit hole went…

Recently  as we holidayed with friends from that time, there was talk of an Upstream reunion and I must admit it brought a tear to my eye to think of being in the room with those folks again – to see how our kids have grown, how our lives have changed and what God has been doing.

I cannot say how valuable those years were both with Upstream and the crew of people who shared the road there and were willing to take the risk of failure with us. And also the incredible time we spent with the Forge crew, sharing learning with some of the sharpest and most creative thinkers in the world. It was hard to ever imagine going back to regular church.

That said, over time key people left the team and slowly it dwindled to a couple of families. We were too ‘out there’ for people to join and we weren’t making a dent evangelistically. I was also growing weary and needed a break. Gavin and Helen decided to move to the northern NSW and we decided to take an extended holiday travelling around Australia. It was looking like time to call it a day.

Then Quinns called us and asked if we would like to go and lead them. We told them we were the wrong people.

They seemed to think we would slot in just fine.

We told them that the previous 8 years had changed our thinking dramatically and that we were not a good bet.

But they insisted it would be ok – that they could roll with the way we were thinking and that all would be fine.

So we agreed to give it a trial run for 6 months before we took off on our big lap of Oz. As a result I have decided I will never do a trial pastoral gig ever again.

More about that next time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Didn’t See That Coming

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While others saw the need for me to get ‘out of home’, it took a while for it to register with me. But around the end of 1995 I began to consider moving on from Scarborough.

I had been working 3 days a week in church and another 3 teaching Phys Ed and both had become exploding jobs. I was struggling to keep up and looking for some sense of clarity as to where to from here. It was while I was meeting with the local community centre manager that it dawned on me. He simply asked me ‘what do you really want to do Andrew?…’ The immediate answer was ministry – not teaching and I realised I had just made a self discovery. My teaching days were over.

A freak conversation shortly after saw me about turn and decide to sign up for theological education at the then Baptist Theological College – now Vose. I had been avoiding study as much as I could, despite the efforts of John Randell to try and get me to consider it, but I had this realisation that if ‘this was going to be my life’ from hereonin then I better get prepared. Into that mix came a phone call from Lesmurdie Baptist Church and the question as to whether I’d consider going there as a youth pastor. I laughed and dismissed it. Do people really live that far from the beach?

However knowing I was finishing up I had to find somewhere to be a pastor while I studied. We spoke with Riverton, but the chemistry wasn’t there. We actually considered moving to Quinns Rocks as volunteers and joining the church up there that was in its very early days, but Lesmurdie called back and we agreed to a meeting.

We were surprised by the sense of connection we felt there and slowly found ourselves drawn to life in this far-off place. So in 1996 we packed up the house we had literally just built in Karrinyup and headed for the hills, where we stayed until the end of 2002.

It was the best move we ever made.

I was able to shake the the ‘boy’ feeling I had carried for most of my time at Scarborough and was now in a space where I was able to think for myself and experiment. I was also immersed in theological study and thinking thoughts I had never thought before. I watched some folks think those thoughts and actually come unstuck – a seminary is a tough gig for those with brittle black and white opinions. I was becoming curious and Vose (I’ll call it that because its easier) challenged me to think. I loved it.

The church at Lesmurdie had a definite ‘permission giving’ culture and in that space I discovered a side of myself I had never expressed in church life. I had been creative in school, but I hadn’t found much creative traction in my church experience. I was too concerned not to offend, mess up or get into fights with power brokers.

At Lesmurdie the staff team trusted me and encouraged me to do what I thought was best. I don’t think I scared anyone initially with my ideas, but it was the start of a new phase where I began to explore what was possible rather than what was permissible. It was nice to be in a community that viewed us differently. Scarborough was a wonderful church in many ways and I am grateful for the time there, but I couldn’t shake my own self perception of being a boy.

From young people to older people we felt welcomed and loved and encouraged. I know that happens for a while in church, but this kept on after the ‘honeymoon’. The result was that I grew in confidence and began to think differently. A combination of my time in study and a community of people who believed in me catalysed some new energy and my stunted imagination began to expand.

Our staff team was fantastic. Garth led us and was a wise, thoughtful presence in all we did. I didn’t appreciate his wisdom as much then as I do now. He was 50 when I was 35 and now I’m 50 I can see some of what he saw then. Colin was energetic and passionate, dare devilish almost when it came to risk taking. He had some unique prophetic gifts and in our staff team I felt comfortable exploring aspects of ministry that were unfamiliar to me with these men.

We were part of church meetings that were healthy – where the people contributed and cared for how they interacted with others. I didn’t witness any dummy spits – even in some difficult times. My belief is that Garth set the tone for how we interact and that simple observation has been valuable for me in my own role as a leader. I get to set the tone. More than that – I have to set the tone.

Another significant memory was of the 3 older ladies who attended the evening service every week without fail and who supported all that we did. Loud music, craziness and youthful silliness didn’t dissuade them. They came to encourage and support. I doubt they enjoyed the form, but I know they enjoyed seeing young people seeking God. And the young people loved them too. They saw their hearts and loved these ladies who were able to get over themselves and see what God may have been doing. That informed my thinking of who I want to be as I age. That old guy in church who doesn’t always ‘get it’, but who cheers on those who do – not mindlessly – but with heart and passion because its not all about me and my petty preferences.

After 5 years of youth pastoring and a long process of prayer and reflection as to where we were headed as a church Garth led us down the path of appointing me as the senior pastor with him as the ‘associate’ pastor. It seems weird to say ‘associate’, but he recognised that the form of leadership gifting I had was going to be helpful to the church at that time and he offered a role shift. Again this left a mark. How many older guys have the sense of personal security to do that – and then get behind the person they have let into their role? Its made me consider how I lead with grace and from a place of personal security rather than the need to be ‘the boss’.

There were some difficult times at Lesmurdie but without wanting to gloss over them I felt like the church handled them with good form. We had enough conflict to make sure people dealt with the stuff, but without manipulative behaviour or tantrums.

I lasted just two years in the new role and from the beginning was calling the church to plant another church. It was as simple as saying ‘either let’s do it  – or let’s fund someone to do it!’ After 18 months we weren’t getting anywhere and that was when I sensed that maybe God was stirring us in that direction.

I’ve written about all that happened there in other places. It wasn’t an easy time as we chose to be the ones to lead a church plant and to leave LBC with 4 other key families. Some felt confused and others abandoned. There was no simple way to go about things and we ended up leaving feeling ‘released’ but not ‘sent’. I’ve often pondered what I would do differently there, but whichever choice we made was vexed. We invited people into the process, but few joined in which meant that when we announced our intentions to move to Butler with 4 other families there was surprise, consternation and disappointment. Had we stopped and taken a more collaborative approach I’m not sure if the negative emotions may have prevented us from actually making the leap into church planting.

That said, one of my more recent learnings is around the importance of communal discernment. We made that decision within a small community – mainly leadership and others who ‘opted in’ or were part of the team. But the wider church didn’t travel the journey with us and therefor didn’t own it.

If I did it again?… Yeah, I’d definitely slow down and engage more people.

So the time at Lesmurdie was valuable for forming a sense of identity in ministry, for processing theological ideas in a practical context and for learning how to lead in a number of different ways.

As we left for our missionary work in Butler I did so with a great sense of confidence and anticipation. At that point I hadn’t clicked that the church wasn’t as behind us as I’d hoped, and I certainly didn’t countenance that the new venture wouldn’t go to plan. So there was some new learning to be done around failure and disappointment.

 

Lacking Imagination

So from being a church member all of my life I found myself a little unexpectedly in a pastoral role. I had no ambitions of this when I left UWA in 1985. I had finally made it to being a Phys ed teacher and I was loving the experience of teaching at Kingsway. I had a sense that Bible college was on the cards at some point, but it was with a view to heading back to the Philippines to work in sports ministry.

When I began as a youth pastor those ideas disappeared. In their place came the realisation that I really didn’t know what a youth pastor did, other than run youth groups and preach occasionally. So I called up the best bloke I knew at the time – Rob Cain – youth pastor at Mount Pleasant Baptist – and asked him if I could literally spend a week with him and just follow him around. He agreed, so I shadowed him for an entire week, picked his brains and learnt a heap. I chose Rob as a mentor and it was a good decision. I also read every book I could on youth ministry and learnt the theory pretty well.

Then began 5 years of leading a youth ministry and what I discovered what that I had a very limited imagination for what a church could be. I had never really given ecclesiology any thought. I had assumed that whatever we did on Sunday we did because that was how things were and they weren’t to be messed with. It was the era of seeker services and then seeker sensitive church (another mild controversy) and I remember being given permission to be creative but ending up in more of the same. I think I frustrated John the senior pastor in this way, who was trying to encourage me to take some risks and experiment, but I simply couldn’t imagine church any differently.

Our Baptist liturgy was pretty predictable and it had been ground into me. So I kept on doing what I was familiar with. The church’s evening service moved up the road to the community centre in the belief that being in a ‘non-religious’ building would break down barriers for those who wanted to come but couldn’t see themselves in a church. Turned out they couldn’t see themselves in a community centre either so maybe the building wasn’t the problem…

In the absence of my own original ideas, I rolled with what John wanted to do – seeker stuff. The theory made sense to me, because I actually  believed that maybe people would come if we got the formula right. At that time I had begun teaching again at Scarborough High School, the school I attended as a kid and I rolled into the Phys Ed office one day with a bunch of flyers to give to the other staff inviting them to a seeker service where I was going to be preaching. I still remember their faces. It was like I’d invited them to a nude knitting party.

As I reflect on those first years of Christian leadership I see a person so formed by the institution that he lacked the creative capacity to really explore new ideas. In a daring frenzy of fresh thinking I used a Simpson’s video in one of my sermons to make a point. That was a daring move. I sensed the disdain from some at this introduction of secular content into a holy space but I didn’t really want to get into conflict over it, so I just sucked it up.

Occasionally we would be allowed to have youth lead morning worship services. I’m sure part of it was in the hope that they would begin coming on Sunday morning – because for many this was considered ‘real church’ while the evening service was like a B grade option for the less serious. I imagine more would have come and stuck with it if some of the oldies didn’t frown or walk out on music they found unacceptable. I remember meeting one of those oldies down the shops after they had made an angry exit on a Sunday morning. The man started into me about the noise of the drums and the inappropriate type of music for worship. I had just started pushing back on those who were critical and difficult and this bloke got it both barrels, both for having the lack of awareness to think Woolworths was a good place to chastise me, but also just for being a grumpy, self centred traditionalist who couldn’t abide a different expression of church and couldn’t see the detrimental effect his attitude had on the young people.

I still dressed up for church occasionally – another way in which the culture had shaped me and I recall an older woman sarcastically remarking to me ‘nice to see you well dressed in the house of the Lord today…’

‘Well, that’s the main thing isn’t it?’ I replied, to which she huffed off insulted by that young pastor.

We made a pretty good crack of leading a youth ministry, but it was becoming apparent that I needed to ‘get out more’ and have an experience of church where I could lead unconstrained by those who still saw me as an 18 year old doing burn outs in the carpark. Or maybe that was just a self perception?…

John Randall nudged me towards study at Vose college – I shut him down. He also saw that I needed to get out from the culture I was in and begin to think for myself. As I look back I think he saw my potential but also saw the constraint of being ‘stuck’ in the church I had grown up in. But the thing was that I needed to see it.

It wasn’t that the church was forming me so much any more, but more that it had stopped me in my tracks and was limiting who I could become and where I could lead them.

Change was in the air

 

 

Changing Perspectives

So at 22 I came home in every way.

I came back to the city, moved back into the oldies place and went back to my home church in Scarborough. By this time both my brother and my parents had left Maylands and also moved back to Scarborough, so we were all there now.

I had spent the summer holidays in the Philippines playing basketball and had a significant God encounter that rocked my world and 4 years later saw me head off to Bible College to become a missionary.

But the next 9 years were all spent at Scarborough, 4 of it as a member of the church and the next 5 as the Youth pastor. I was old enough now to think more critically about all that was going on around me, and I had developed a passionate interest in leadership and discipleship.

I saw these two qualities fairly lacking in the church by and large and I was disturbed by this. I wanted to do something about it, but I hadn’t quite got out of my zealotry phase, so most of seeking to inspire people and move them often ended up in legalism and then disappointment. And I realise now that it wasn’t so much that leadership was absent, but simply that it didn’t present as highly charged and motivational as I thought it should be.

The church had settled somewhat after the Churchlands exodus and was now a much smaller, conservative evangelical church with few bells and whistles. Peter and Jill Birt had led the church very well and navigated the worship wars diplomatically. Based on my later experience of leadership meetings, I doubt it all sailed as pleasantly ‘below deck’ as it appeared above deck. Pete and Jill left to become missionaries in Indo and much of the energy that had been gained during their time in leadership waned again. In the time between pastors the church lurched a bit and while the stalwarts never twitched, those who came because of the leadership seemed to move on with the leadership. Such is church life so often. Even at this point in my life, I don’t think there is much we can do to negate that. People attach to the primary leaders and their presence or absence makes a difference.

I was in a stage now where I was able to do some more independent thinking, but I hadn’t been raised to do that so it didn’t come naturally. It was a church where you generally towed the line theologically and culturally or you didn’t fit in. No one exiled you maliciously, but if you questioned too much you felt like an outsider or a trouble maker, so it was easier just to ‘believe’. I began to explore more theologically, but within some fairly regulated boundaries. I wasn’t aware of the boundaries then – or if I was I didn’t see them negatively.

John Randall came to lead the church and he came with some ‘fresh ideas’. They hardly sound revolutionary or contestable now, but the idea of moving the evening church service up to the local community centre to be more ‘in the community’ was met with a very mixed response. There was still some ‘house of God’ theology strongly present as well as some clearer thinking but I’ve noticed that often in churches those who think clearly generally seem less firey than those who think dumb things. Sadly it often ends in poor thinking ruling the roost because the better thinkers also don’t want to end up in the theological equivalent of mud wrestling.

In the first 4 years back I was devoted to Phys Ed teaching and my life revolved around my job. I got better at teaching. While at the school I got invited to be a youth pastor at a local pentecostal church – I obviously wasn’t that Baptist… But I said ‘no’. It just felt weird… really… Even though they were great people I found it hard to see myself in the space.

I was still committed to the Scarborough and got a gig leading services occasionally, but I was always nervous doing that. It seemed a massive responsibility. I know I always wore a tie and watched my ps and qs when I led because it had to be done right and it was easy to offend.

There were some who always had a word of encouragement and some who would show their displeasure with facial contortions or as happened on occasions, by walking out during the service if something offended them. As a pastor now, I wonder if anyone confronted those folks and told them to grow up, or if their power and influence gave them too much leeway. I saw some terrible behaviour in my time in that church but having been there since the age of 18 I often felt like a ‘boy’ and unable to adequately confront the kind of power plays and tantrums that were destructive. I don’t know that I ever accepted it as ‘par for the course’, but I didn’t contest it until I became a pastor.

In 1990 I headed off to Perth Bible College and began preparing to be a sports missionary back in the Philippines. But the leadership thing was still strong in me and the church youth ministry was in need of some new leadership. The previous guy had done a great job, but he too had taken off to be a missionary too (ironically to the Philippines…) Thru a series of events, the church approached me and asked if I’d be up for a gig as Youth Pastor working two days a week while I studied. With one year of Bible college up my sleeve I was well prepared… not…

But I said yes anyway, as it really did feel like a God thing. I agreed on the condition that a young woman called Danelle could join me in leading the youth ministry. She was happy, I was happy and the church said yes to it. Within a few weeks we were engaged and I decided that one year of Bible college was plenty and that I’d launch into the pastoring and seek some relief teaching.

So the church that had formed me most significantly now invited me into the leadership realm. I got to see what happened behind that closed doors of deacons meetings, I got to hear the angst and frustration of our senior pastor as he tried to nudge the Titanic away from the iceberg and I got to put my toe in the water of Christian leadership in a paid capacity for the first time.

I’ve been reflecting on how the churches I have been part of ‘formed me’ and shaped me, and you may think that this was my opportunity to do some ‘forming’ and ‘shaping’ of my own. Maybe…

But more about that next time…

Zealotry 101

In 1981 at the end of year 12, I began to play basketball with Scarborough Baptist in the church league. I felt pretty special because it was ‘A grade’ and I was one of the youngest guys playing in that time.

I went to church there a few times… and a few more… and before long I was part of the youth group.

I diverged to Wembley Church of Christ for a few months because of a girl I was after who went there, but the minister of the time was strong on the whole idea of baptismal regeneration and I couldn’t buy it. He was an inspiring and very listenable preacher so I liked that, as most preaching I had heard up to this point had been pretty dull and dreary. I remember his tirade one evening on the evils of alcohol, dancing and pentecostalism, which was even a little convincing… I never did like dancing. But it was the baptism stuff that finally brought me undone.  I was beginning to form some more solid theological convictions and this one felt real dodgy. I met with him one day to thrash it out. He was 40 and I was 17 – what did a kid know? I left convinced that he was wrong and headed back to Scarborough. It was a big judgement for a 17 year old to make, but I’d stand by that one.

Scarborough became home very quickly and without my parents around I was a little freer to find my own way in faith. I began to make better sense of Sundays, as guys like John Thornhill and Bob Plum did their bit with the teaching and actually seemed somewhat interesting and relevant. I stopped counting stuff and I also entered what I would call my zealot years, where I got passionate about all sorts of stuff – some of it good and some of it just weird…

Punctuality was a big one. Talk to me about a theology of punctuality one day and I will help you see that punctuality is above love in the Christian virtues. At least that’s how it seemed back then… (And you know why?… Because I was good at punctuality…) Discipleship was another one – a bit healthier… I read David Watson’s book on Discipleship around 1982 and was inspired by it. He was arguing that many western Christians weren’t actually ‘disciples’ and that we needed to do a whole lot more self denial and cross carrying to cut it. This kind of reading material and music by Keith Green was influential in taking me to a place of zealotry. I wish I could call it discipleship, but with my fundamentalist upbringing and immature faith I simply veered into legalism and did a lot of dumb things in the name of Jesus. But then I don’t think I was alone… It seemed to be a bit of a mark of the time and the people I hung around.

I still remember a conversation with the pastor of that era – John Thornhill – who asked me to come and see him one day. He affirmed me greatly for being a passionate young man – spoke to me directly about what a knob I was being and then finished our conversation with great encouragement so I left feeling 10 feet tall rather than chastised. Nice job John. I heard all of it and I learnt from it. What a guy!

Scarborough went thru a lot of changes in the time I was there and possibly the biggest was around 1982 when Churchlands Christian Fellowship began and a large number of our crew drifted across there. Many of our ‘best’ people went and I felt the loss. I went too – to have a look and see what the fuss was about – and while I liked the more relaxed atmosphere and the sense of God’s spirit tangibly at work I just couldn’t make the shift. Two things kept me at Scarborough.

The first was that I kept hearing people in my church speaking disparagingly of the charismatic movement and being still theologically conservative I didn’t want to disagree. Who knows… these people may have been demonic… Yeah, that was the language that was being used and I didn’t feel confident arguing against it, even if it seemed bizarre. Best to play it safe and stay a Baptist.

The second was simply a belief that you didn’t just bale on your community if a more attractive proposition came along. I’m old enough now to know that wasn’t what people did – not without real angst and pain – but at that time it was how I felt. I was sad to see many of my older mentors and friends leave, but I took some time to really chew it thru and made my decision to stay. It was a formative experience as I made a ‘not about me’ decision and felt both the value of it and the pain of it in the years to come.

Scarborough could be a scary place at times though. I remember a members meeting c1982 where we were discussing whether people who drank alcohol and smoked cigarettes could be members. The old guard were vehemently opposing this possibility, while the middle aged folks who were becoming mentors to me were making coherent arguments for freedom and grace. I felt I should align with the firey fundies because they seemed so passionate about their position, but by now I was beginning to think theologically and I was realising that the ‘next gen’ were making sense – the kind of sense that was freaking out those who had gone before them. With grudging reluctance drinkers and smokers were allowed into membership. I was also beginning to notice shades of grey and cracks started to emerge in my fundy framework.

As well as arguing over alcohol and tobacco, the worship wars were in full flight and the issue of which songs ought to be sung in church somehow became a subject to die for. There was much bloodshed in this bizarre time and I can only look back in horror.

But times were changing.

My friend and mentor Peter Birt led us with us his wife Jill for a short period and I imagine many would remember this as a significant time for the church. Peter related across ages and led in a genial but creative way and brought some new energy to the community that was slowly recovering from the seepage to Churchlands. We held our evening services in the church hall rather than the main building and tried to get a bit more relaxed in style. These all seem like funny things to comment on now, but at the time they were significant steps in a new direction.

In hanging around I found myself digging in a bit more and willing to put my shoulder to the plough where I could. The trick was not to go over the top with with whatever idea caught my attention at the time.

I left in that time in 1986 to take up my first teaching post at Wagin and so began my first extended experience of a non-Baptist church.

 

City Boy in the Country

wagin

In 1986 as a graduate teacher, I packed up my (very small) life and headed down to Wagin. I knew little of this town. I had hoped to be posted to Margaret River… like every other surfer I knew.

But Wagin it was! Woohoo…

I had heard it was hoped that this young teacher would lend his energy to the local Baptist church at the time, but my first evening in the Uniting church saw me stopped in my tracks. A 32 year old farmer called Gavin was preaching that night to about 15 of us and he was calling a spade a spade. I don’t remember what he said but I remember thinking ‘we’re gonna  be mates!’ And so we were – and still are. I never made it to the Baptist church once in that year.

The Uniting church had a fairly stock (for the time) liberal minister who dottered around and preached some pretty insipid stuff, but I found I was able to look beyond this because of the wonderful people I met there who welcomed me into their lives and their homes. Gav & his wife Helen were my lifeline in that year where I got engaged and then ‘unengaged’ again all in the space of a few months. Its as dark a place as I have been in life. That said, the girl who dumped me made a very good call. I was in no state to be marrying anyone.

I have wonderful memories of an atheist dude called Rod who loved to fire up an argument with anyone silly enough to take the bait. I don’t think I was much of a threat to him so he was quite kind to me, and his wife Sylvia was a godly woman who was part of the church and always very hospitable. I joined the Pederick’s home group and again found myself in a community of people who were willing to welcome me in, even if I was a prickly, arrogant knowitall city kid. I’m sure they knew that, but they never said it or made me feel it.

The church let me preach – first time ever – and I thought I did ok, but another young Christian teacher in town tried to rip my sermon apart right there after the gathering. I didn’t really know how to respond. It was all a bit devastating. Fortunately my ego was so inflated during those years of my life that I was able to dismiss him. Who knows – he may have had something useful to say… but then ‘how you say it’ matters far more if you want to be heard.

The Wagin year was my one significant departure from the baptist mob I had been associated with for the years before and ever since. But it was valuable for getting perspective on God being much, much bigger than my small denominational world, for learning to be part of a community where there weren’t many other singles – if any – and for hearing some different theological perspectives on things yet again. I saw the dedication of the country folks to their small church that was not at all sexy, but that oozed soul and heart and that left an impression.

I spent a year in Wagin but after the engagement bust up in May it was all uphill. I had left UWA with a Phys Ed degree and a Dip ed with just 4 weeks of practical teaching experience and it showed in my classroom management. I was young, over confident and badly prepared for any kind of teaching. Add to that emotional devastation, and to get a fresh start after just one year of teaching was an undeserved bonus.

I headed back to the city – where I belonged – to teach at Kingsway Christian College and rejoin Scarborough Baptist, grateful for some country folks who loved me and cared for me when I was raw and ragged. While I wasn’t all that enamoured with what happened on Sundays, the experience of a loving community sustained me during some dark days and I still have good friends to this day from that time.

Basketball, Girls and a Car

When we left Northern Ireland in 1974 and sailed for Australia on a 28 day all expenses paid cruise, courtesy of the Australian government we finished up at Scarborough Baptist, the same church as our Irish friends who had gone before us. We didn’t spend any time looking around, we just followed them as they knew us and figured they would probably lead us in the right direction.

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I think we lasted a year at Scarborough before the church hit a bump and split. I had no idea at the time what was happening – simply that one week we were meeting with these people and the next we were going to a new church. I knew there had been a bit of a kerfuffle over the interim minister whose call was not renewed and some folks were pretty dark that he had been tossed out.

Later I learned that he was a ‘hypercalvinist’ (which would have been very scary – modern day calvinists can be frightening enough!) and this theological issue was enough to break the deal. I’m not sure if this was the real issue, or just the one that got a public airing. I’ve been around long enough now to know that theological differences are often a mask for the fact that we just don’t like someone.

Either way, it seems we sided with the ‘hyper-calvinist’ – or we didn’t like the way he was treated – so we left. I say ‘we’, but as a kid I had no say in the matter. I just hopped in the car when asked and finished up at the church of my parents choice.

In those days Scarborough was a large church, with a big Sunday School and I even recall sitting Sunday School exams (and yes they felt like exams). I have fond memories of our church camp and the odd picnic but church itself was fairly forgettable yet again for a 10 year old.

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Maylands Baptist Church

From Scarborough we moved to Maylands Baptist, after a short period meeting in the family room of our home where it seems we tried to start our own church – but that fizzled pretty quick.

At Maylands  the pastor was an Irish bloke by the name of George Blayney. Our friends came too and we settled in here for the next 6 years. Maylands was an energetic church in the 70’s and always seemed packed full of people.

At Maylands I learnt to play basketball courtesy of an older guy called Steve who picked me up in his mini each week and took me to training. He was my first basketball coach and a bloke who showed some interest in a young kid who didn’t enjoy church much but was willing to suck it up to play basketball and hang with the girls who went there. I liked Steve and am grateful for his influence at that time.

On Sunday mornings I discovered Maylands had a similar boarded ceiling to my old church in Ireland so I went back to counting boards until I could leave. In those days I dreaded communion because that always meant that after the service there was another ‘service’, because communion was always at the end (to allow the ‘unworthy’ to leave quietly). I wished I was more unworthy, but instead found myself blocked in my pew by my parents. I didn’t start taking communion myself until my early teens, Unlike the practice today where kids are often invited to participate early, we were of the era that saw taking communion inappropriately as ‘eating and drinking condemnation’ to ourselves… Whatever we thought that meant I wasn’t sure, but it felt bad and just not worth the risk.

Another quirky memory of the time was of the odd person who smoked outside the church – usually during communion (because they were unworthy) and how we viewed them. I’m surprised they stuck with church as it must have been a harsh space to try and survive in.

We went to church religiously every Sunday morning and evening and then there was the Wednesday night prayer meeting which the oldies went to. When Sunday church was over I got to hang with friends and that made it worth it, especially Sunday nights which always ended with a youth after church supper before someone went out of their way to drop me back home.  I made some great friendships in that time and the youth group of the time was significant in shaping me and helping me see a more engaging aspect to faith. On reflection I would say the willingness of those young adults to give me a ride wherever was needed – at the expense of their time and fuel – was a key in me hanging around and becoming part of the church rather than attending resentfully with my parents.

The church service was still a place where I experienced little connection or meaning, but the people around me gave me cause to return. In those days church occupied much of our life and was in many ways a little sub-culture and community of its own, so we saw a lot of each other and I know that was valuable. Church camps, Country / city exchange weekends and BYF camp and rallies were all significant experiences for a young Christian whose faith was shady at best.

Maylands had the whole ‘Christian Endeavour’ thing going on and again in the absence of knowing about chubby bunnies, nerf wars and iceblocking we spent Friday nights leading one another in Bible studies. I still remember my first attempt at 12 years old of leading a Bible study in 1 Corinthians. The dread I felt at having to teach people older than me was palpable, but it was what we did… so I did it… I hate to think how I must have bored those who were there.

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In that period I became a Christian at one of the Serpentine Baptist camps. Ironically it was also the most rebellious part of my teenage years. I no longer have most of my high school reports from years 8 & 9 as I burnt them when I was 20 years old. But this one slipped thru the cracks and I still have it somewhere. The grades were great… the attitude not so much…

There were some pretty girls at Maylands too and I guess I made it thru the teenage years still in faith partly because of sport, girls, and older youth who made me feel valuable. The church experience itself still held little appeal but it was all I knew so I just accepted that this was as good as things got and kept on counting.

I didn’t have much capacity for theological reflection in those days, but I do know we were a deeply and proudly conservative church and we ‘stood against’ things that were worldly. I was in that faith stage where I adopted the faith of the community I was part of and as a result I became deeply conservative theologically, probably closer to fundamentalism, a position I was to hold for many years to follow. It was very important to be right.

While the Maylands of the 70’s isn’t a church I could sit in theologically or culturally these days, I still remember it very fondly. We ‘only know what we know’, so even if church was a 3 hymn sandwich with a fair smattering of fire and brimstone and exegetical preaching, it was still a period that was really valuable in my own spiritual development and I’m grateful for the folks who were a little older than me who were willing to invite me into the life of the church and nurture my fragile faith.

Maylands was the last time we attended church as a family for several years. At 17 I got my license and began to wonder why we were driving half way across town to be part of a church in Maylands when there was a perfectly good church just a km down the road back in Scarborough. A car meant I was now mobile and able to make some of my own decisions about church.

Why did we leave Scarborough again?…

And was there any reason we couldn’t go back?…

 

 

Hats, Ties & Counting Stuff

As our Baptist Pastor’s conference ended recently and we were singing together  I looked across the room and saw a face that took me back to my early church days as a young teenager in Maylands Baptist. It began a cascade of memories… and then other faces I landed on reminded me of the various other churches I have been part of over the years and the various ways they have shaped me.

52 years of churching is a long time. And as I pondered the memories I found myself smiling. Some memories are fond, some are kinda quirky and others are just steps along the way, neither good or bad, but all of it has been formative in different ways…

As the music rolled on I found myself revisiting in my head the various experiences of church that have shaped me and brought me to where I am today. I have had friends who have grown up ‘pentecostal’ and finished ‘high anglican’, or taken the opposite direction (not that those two are the ends of a spectrum) but my own journey has been less dramatic. Its been a very ‘Baptist’ experience, but within that there has been significant variance and diversity.

So theses posts are as much for me and my own reflection as they are for anyone who may read them…

grove

My introduction to ‘church’ began in a Baptist church back in Belfast – Grove Baptist. I don’t have many solid memories of this time but I do remember faking sickness at times in the hope of being allowed to stay home. It never worked – in the 60’s unless you were dying from typhoid and coughing up blood, you went to church morning and night without fail.

It wasn’t so much that I didn’t like church, but more that I didn’t like all of the stuff that went with the ‘Lord’s day’ experience, as it was called.

I remember ties… and not with fondness. The female corollary was the hat and many in that culture still wear them. A few years ago my aunt from Belfast came to Perth and in chatting I asked her what the major issue was for the church in Nth Ireland at this time. She said ‘hats’ and I just remember thinking that this was a conversation that wasn’t going to go any further. We were clearly in different culture and dealing with very different issues.

I remember Sunday as a day when I couldn’t kick a soccer ball. Nor could we go to shops, watch TV or do anything else that might be seen as worldly, or (as I perceived it) fun… That left a definite mark – the link between church and solemnity, or the absence of enjoyment. The distinct impression of God as being generally unhappy with the world and looking sternly on us if we seemed to be enjoying life. I would never once have seen church as a fun place to be, although I’m guessing there must have been some enjoyable experiences along the way.

I remember Bible memorisation in Sunday School. I once learnt Psalm 23 and recited it the following week. The Sunday school teacher told me it was ‘excellent’, but I was 6 years old and had no idea if I had done well because I didn’t know what excellent meant. True… I had to wait until I got home to ask mum. I can still remember the Psalm. That was useful.

I do know that in those first 10 years I at some point realised I wasn’t a Christian, because our pastor asked me directly one day ‘Are you a Christian Andrew?’ and I said ‘Yes’ and instantly knew I had lied.

I knew… and I felt embarrassed. Like I should have been, but wasn’t. I’m sure he knew. It wasn’t a case of growing up in a church going family and feeling like I could call myself a Christian because of them. I knew from a young age I needed to make it personal.

I remember the Sunday church experience as a silent, ‘reverent’ gathering where you sat still and quiet… verrry quiet… as it was ‘God’s house’ (and clearly he didn’t like noise). It was in this church building that I first took to counting the timber boards in the ceiling as a way of passing time. I’d count them each week during the sermon and then check them the next week. I don’t think I ever thought they would change, but in the absence of paint to watch drying this was the next best thing.

As I said, that was the 60’s and was probably par for the course for any church in Belfast, so my reflections are less a critique than simply observations. The church I grew up in was a product of the culture of the time and the broader church culture that we found ourselves in. I just assumed this was ‘church’ and it was what I was going to be doing until I had some opportunity to have a say in the matter.

That time came when I got my license but in between I went wherever my family went…

To be continued