Archive for April, 2014

Searching for church in Williamstown

April 20, 2014 1 comment

I am spending Easter in Melbourne this year with my grandchildren, three year old Ruby and one year old Huxley, along with their parents. Like many of their generation my son and daughter in law were raised in the church but have been non-attenders for nearly a decade and a half. The arrival of children has, as with many, brought a renewed interest in faith and meaning along with concern about how to transmit those to their children. Being involved in this with them has sadly reaffirmed for me how challenging it is for a couple like this to find what they are looking for in church today.


They moved from Brisbane to Melbourne recently and had decided they wanted to find a church to belong to. Ruby has been going to a play group run by the pastor’s wife at a nearby Baptist church. It is pretty good and mum has enjoyed the other young parents and the pastor’s wife. Grandad was allowed to come along on a visit last year and Ruby certainly loves it. I enjoyed my conversation with the pastors wife and also the pastor when he dropped in. However when they attended the church on a Sunday there was a great disconnect between the playgroup atmosphere and the church. It was very traditional, mainly older people and they were made to feel like terribly bad people. Huxley, only about 9 months old, was a handful also and they decided to wait till he was a bit older and try somewhere else.


Granddad arriving for Easter, 6 months later, was deemed a good time. They had done a bit of scouting and a charismatic and a Pentecostal church were deemed the best options. Their websites were very attractive and indicated they had a focus on children and families. We turned up at the first but all we saw going in were a number of grey haired older people, matched by the old bluestone building they were using (formerly a Uniting Church). Se we quickly headed off to the Pentecostal church. The building looked much more modern in style and two car loads with children turned up at the same time. All very promising.


When we entered apart from 4 of 5 leaders we and the other two carloads were about all who were there. Was this it? There were not that many seats in the auditorium we noticed. All looked so different from the images the website conveyed. The service got underway and a few more arrived but still only about 25 adults and perhaps 10 children.  Ruby immediately made a friend and attended the highly publicised children’s programme, which as it turned out was watching videos, mainly Pippa Pig. At least she enjoyed it especially with an Easter Egg hunt afterwards. Huxley was a model toddler.


The service was interesting to observe. Everything was high tech, done mainly on a big screen, dimmed lighting and spots focussed on the front. We began with high powered worship songs lead by the Hillsong worship team on the screen performing (sorry ‘leading’ worship) at a packed out Hills Christian Centre of several thousand. We twenty odd voices didn’t quite create the exciting experience that was happening on the screen in front of us. It was all a bit flat. At last we got to one song I could sing. After some prayer this was followed by the notices, again done high tech visually on the screen. No personal relationship or community feel about it. I quickly realised that what the pastor was doing was creating for himself a sense of the church he wanted to lead, not the church he was actually leading.


So the service went on. A forty minute sermon with all the usual Pentecostal phraseology and dramatic presentation, complete with calls for amen’s and that’s right from the congregation, offered in an orchestrated kind of way by a few of the faithful, and then a ten minute appeal. The content of the sermon itself was ok but the style so totally out of place with a small congregation of a bit over twenty, where it is actually relationships and personal connections that really matter rather than slick performance and adrenalin soaked experience. From reactions I think the people there were rather surprised to have some strangers turn up and didn’t quite know what to do apart from giving us a card to fill in. There was no attempt to engage in conversation, even asking where I was from.


The experience caused me to reflect on the tragic situation that unfortunately is so much of church life. Here is a young couple wanting to find a church that has some life and vitality, other young couples and children like themselves, but also which connects with real life. Not just going through the motions. The style of this service was such that unless you were a part of that particular subculture already you would feel rather uncomfortable. It was hard to imagine a typical aussie or kiwi under 40 connecting, and certainly there were no others there with whom they might be likely to connect. There are plenty of smallish Pentecostal and charismatic churches like this around (despite the stories about big Pentecostal churches, such as in the Herald on Sunday this week  ( ). On the other hand there are also large numbers of declining traditional churches full of graying older people, like the Baptist church they tried out earlier. They have not given up and are going to try some others, although I must admit I have spent some time doing a bit of google searching and am not terribly optimistic, at least in this part of town.


However it has made me wonder how many times this experience might have occurred over this Easter (or indeed on any Sunday) for younger people in whom the God of mission has begun to stir into life the still warm embers of faith in ways that make them want to reconnect with a faith community to help their children find faith and to grow in their own spiritual journey. Lesslie Newbigin’s comment that “the local congregation is the hermeneutic of the gospel” is profoundly true and sadly in many cities in countries like Australia and New Zealand the gospel that is “interpreted” in so many of those congregations is neither attractive to younger people who have begun to respond to its tug nor is it particularly authentic to the wonderful reality of new life that the death and resurrection of the Easter Jesus proclaim.

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