There was no sermon in our worship service this week, but this important story/announcement was shared afterwards by Alison Sampson
I’d like to tell you a story about our summer holiday! Last year, a friend of ours moved to Warrnambool for work. We thought it might be nice to see her in January, so she arranged for us to house- and dog-sit for friends of hers who live in Cudgee, which is a hamlet about 20 minutes east of Warrnambool. We quickly realised that we knew two of the families who lived in the street where we were staying. Next door lived friends of friends. We ended up spending time with them, and the conversation revolved around theology and church. Over a couple of days, they talked about their frustrations and disappointments with the local churches, and their deep hunger for worship, prayer, singing, and pastoral care in ways which spoke their language, and understood where they were at.
Across the road lived a woman I shared a house with way back in the 90’s. She is now married with children, and she and I caught up for a cup of tea. We hadn’t seen each other for over ten years, but again the conversation quickly turned to church. She had tried local church, house church, messy church, bush church, parachurch networks—and she was tired. She told me of all the things she and her friends had tried, and how hungry they all were. We also spent time with our friend who had moved to Warrnambool last year, and she told a similar story of not being able to find a home in the churches. By the end of the week, I felt like I was seeing a flock without a shepherd. “Poor them,” I said to myself, “I guess that’s what happens when you move to the country”; and I went back to the city, safe and sound.
A week later, I had lunch with a friend who is a pastor here in Melbourne. “I hear you were in Cudgee,” he said. He had gone to high school with one of the people in the street. “Yes,” I said. He asked me what I had thought. And I kind of looked at him, and then I said, “It was weird. I felt like I was seeing a flock without a shepherd.” “That’s it!” he cried. He pointed his finger at me and waggled it in my face. “That’s the story of those people, and you’re the shepherd!”
“As if,” I thought to myself. And then a few days after that, a friend of mine called from Adelaide, and we had almost exactly the same conversation.
Well, I don’t really know what calling looks like, but if good friends in Melbourne and Adelaide were telling me to contact the people in the Warrnambool area and talk about church, I thought I should. So I wrote to the people I had spent time with, describing my experience and saying that it felt like seeing a flock without a shepherd. I acknowledged that I was, of course, an outsider, but friends were encouraging me to pursue it, and I invited people to contact me if they wanted to have a conversation about it. That was in late January.
Since then I have had numerous phone calls, emails and skype conversations with people from Warrnambool and the surrounding district. Some of them are the first people I talked to; others have had my name and contact details passed on to them. I have had late night phone calls with total strangers, and exchanged long emails with people I have not yet met. I have visited the area three more times, been invited to eat with acquaintances and with total strangers, and have talked about church.
Again and again, people have told me that they are hungry: hungry for ritual, scriptures, prayer, silence, and song; hungry for the total inclusion of children in the church. They are hungry for a place where they can ask big questions and not get pat answers, just ask the big questions they need to wrestle with. They are hungry for a place to share life in all its hope and sorrow, frustration and joy. One man said to me, “I’ve been going to church all my life, and I haven’t felt nourished for over ten years. And my faith is just shrivelling up. It would be okay if I thought my kids’ faith was being fed, but they’re not being fed, either. I’m so hungry.”
This flock without a shepherd is made up of intelligent, critical thinkers who have not found a home in a local church. They come from different denominations: Catholic, Baptist, Uniting Church, and others. Many of them are involved in parachurch faith networks, but that hasn’t been enough. Many of them have left the church altogether, some for over a decade; and yet they long to be gathered up into what more than one person has described as ‘the arms of mother church.’
In the face of such hunger, I hear Jesus’ words loud and clear: “Do you love me? Then feed my sheep.” And so our family went back to Warrnambool two weeks ago to talk some more. I’d sent out an invitation to meet for a potluck dinner in a home, and over 40 people turned up. This, from a conversation that had been going for just a month. We held a short liturgy on the deck, which was lovely and chaotic and wonderful. Little boys shot through on tricycles, twelve-year-olds huffed and pouted and said the words of the liturgy anyway, and several people were in tears. We followed the liturgy with dinner and cake for somebody’s birthday, with 40 voices raised in song—the baby doesn’t sing yet! Then we talked and listened and talked some more. By the end of the evening, I was being asked how to form a Baptist fellowship, whether it could be ecumenical, how such a fellowship could call me as its pastor, and how much it would all cost. Very practical questions, for which I was not prepared!
And so I have been talking with the BUV about a church plant, since our Baptist structures make it possible for a local congregation to gather up and honour people of various denominations. Needless to say, the BUV is very excited at the prospect.
That same weekend, I also spent time with the senior pastor of Warrnambool and District Baptist Church. By the end of our conversation, he could see that the people I was meeting were not being served by any of the local churches, and that the way I would serve them was not something that any other church would offer. He blessed me, and prayed for the gathering, and promised to introduce me to the local ministers’ fellowship if the time comes.
Meanwhile, Paul and I have found a property in one of Warrnambool’s main streets. And so that Saturday we inspected it with our kids. It’s an 1890’s sandstone hall, attached to an 1870’s four bedroom house. It’s a rambling rabbit warren, crazy-good, with disabled access, disabled toilets, and enough space for sixty or eighty people to meet comfortably in the hall, and enough space for our family to live out the back. We have not bought it yet, but it has enormous possibility as a house church for now.
Our children have been part of all this exploring, and while they are very happy here in Melbourne, they tell us that they are also happy enough to move. All they will need are surfboards, new wetsuits, horse-riding lessons, a van, and a dog, and that all seems pretty do-able to Paul and me. The other weekend, while we were staying with a family in Cudgee, I glanced out the window and saw a crowd of kids aged seven to 12. They were riding bikes up and down, then they headed off as a group to feed the horses around town. Then they came back, grabbed their bathers, and headed off to the creek for a swim. So my kids have already found a little spot of paradise, and some good friends: other kids who like bikes and horses and tree climbing and books and word games and other good things.
Paul, too, says he’s up for the move. In our marriage, we have long agreed that he will have a big career, and then one day my work will take precedence; and we are now approaching that stage. It will be hardest for him, as he will need to travel to Melbourne to stay two nights a week for a year or two, until he works out the next step for his work. But on the other hand, he’ll get five nights a week in Warrnambool, living, we hope, three minutes from an excellent coffee shop, and fifteen minutes’ walk to the beach and all that it offers in terms of restoration and renewal.
We don’t yet know the timeline, but I feel that the call to start a new church in Warrnambool is very strong. As the joke runs in my family, even the atheists are affirming it! That is, even our atheist friends with whom we have tested the idea have sensed the spirit, and are encouraging us to move. So the people seem right, the call seems right, the property seems right, and my family seems right. I haven’t spoken to this congregation before now, because these stories can be unsettling for a church. I had to be more certain of the call before I could talk with you all. However, it is time to ask whether you feel you can support the project, and Nathan will explain more about that. But before he does, I’d like to leave you with an image.
Whenever I pray, I see a big wide road through the fields, heading right on down to the sea. The wind is blowing, and the air is fresh. Even so, I am scared. I don’t want to move, I don’t really know how to start a church, and I’m overwhelmed by the many doors which are being thrown wide open. It would feel easier if they were bolted shut. I have the support and encouragement of those with whom I have tested the call, in Warrnambool, Melbourne, and even Adelaide. I have children who want to move, a husband who is willing, a loose network of thinkers and artists and carpenters and social workers and teachers and parents and gardeners who say they want to be gathered up, even a property which seems perfect. It makes me think that God’s spirit must have been preparing the way for a long, long time—and that scares the living daylights out of me.
Last week, in my hope and my fear, I asked in prayer where God is in all this. Clearly, God is present in so much that I have already told you, but still I wanted more. “Where are you, God?” I cried. And thanks to God’s infinite tenderness, what I sensed was a warm embrace patiently waiting for me to get my act together, not sharing my doubts or my fears of the unknown, nor mocking my anxieties, but instead just waiting patiently with arms outstretched, at the end of the road to the sea.
Comments from Nathan Nettleton
Mixed feelings! Mixed feelings! Mixed feelings! This story is exciting and it seems to have the fingerprints of God all over it and, as Alison has said, as she has embarked on a proper process of sharing this story with trusted friends and mentors, the responses have been overwhelmingly positive and encouraging. But we here are one of the groups that is inevitably going to have rather more mixed feelings, because whatever else it may mean, for us it means the loss of a beloved family of five. There is going to be some real grief in that, and nothing that I am about to say will diminish that. The sense of loss, and in a church as small ours, the consequent feelings of vulnerability and uncertainty for the future, are real and need to be acknowledged and owned. If and when this happens, the departure of this family down that big wide road down to the sea will leave a gaping hole here.
But actually, this need not only be about loss for us. There is also an huge and exciting invitation for us to be partners in a wonderful new venture that flows very naturally from who we are and what we are on about. It is an opportunity for us to contribute generously to the growth of the culture of God, and very likely, to be blessed by the partnership ourselves in ways that we can’t yet know or imagine.
Alison mentioned that she has had some preliminary conversations with the Baptist Union about this, and particularly with their church planting workers. Planting new churches is one of the Baptist Union’s big priorities at the moment. They are urging churches to identify areas where something new is needed, and to commission and release gifted individuals and families to go and form the nucleus of new ventures. For the most part though, the Baptist Union think they are addressing this challenge to the big churches, to the churches that are already over-endowed with resources and gifted people. And one of their frustrations is how few of those big churches are responding. Some of them just want to keep getting bigger, and they are not willingly going to release anyone. So imagine the surprise of the Union and the challenge to some of those churches if a little fringe church like us can step up and meet the challenge. It will certainly unsettle the prejudices of those who write us off as irrelevant to the missional directions of the Union.
But more important than our reputation is the opportunities that this offers us in terms of partnership. If Alison was just going to leave to become pastor of an established church, we probably would just be losing them. But there is a community of people down Warrnambool way who share a lot of our values and hunger for the way of being church that we have developed here over the last 15 years. And that community is inviting us to help them create something similar down there. It won’t be a clone – we’ve never been on about being clones – but it will be a community with whom we share a sense of common values, common identify, and even some common life. We have often taken pride in the way that what we do here has enriched other churches through their accessing of our resources from our website. But here is an invitation to do something much bigger and much more tangible than that, and with people who we will know of and hear from regularly, and perhaps from time to time join with in shared events.
And despite the loss, I reckon we stand to benefit and grow enormously from embracing and blessing an opportunity like this.
At a very practical level, what might this look like from here in terms of money and hours. Alison has been sharing this news with the Host Group as it has been unfolding, so the group have had a chance to give it a little consideration. The Host Group wishes to recommend that we continue to employ Alison, but that we make working with the group down in Warrnambool to explore the formation of a new church there a major focus of the work we employ her for. Alison needs to continue to be employed by a Baptist Church for her progress towards ordination to continue, and so until a group in Warrnambool can get itself going and go through the processes necessary to become a recognised Baptist church, we can continue to employ her to work both with us and with them, but probably increasingly with them. As the group down there gets established, they may begin sending us money to cover the cost of her wages, but in the mean time, we are recommending that we continue to pay her as we do now, but make working down there a key component of her job.