It 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.
I 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.