Phil Smith is a lay pastor in a Queensland school and he is also helping to grow a faith community around a barbecue.
We are based on Australia's Sunshine Coast in a new real estate development where there is no church building. I work half time for the Uniting Church as one of two campus ministers at the Unity College ecumenical school in Caloundra.
In Bells Reach and Bell Vista, people are moving from the colder southern states to live the dream in Queensland but many find it's just another suburb – like the ones they left behind.
The estate surrounds the school, which is supported by Roman Catholic and Uniting Church parishes, and those involved in BELLS are people who live, work or go to school in that area. Using the College, BELLS has connected with 65 people in its first six months, meeting fortnightly on Sunday afternoons to hear one another's stories and ask where we see and hear God at work in our lives. We don't have a building or rows of pews; instead we get together either at Unity College or in the nearby park.
Our first big breakthrough came just before Christmas 2013 when the developer asked us, as the local church(!), to welcome people and provide a short chat and some worship songs at the open-air carols and movie evening. We introduced ourselves to 1,000 people, with the help of the Uniting Church, Churches of Christ, The Salvation Army and a local Christian radio station which provided cards and CDs to give away.
BELLS (Belonging, Eating, Listening, Learning and Serving) is an acronym which describes what we stand for:
- belonging together and within the community, a blessing we share;
- eating, always part of our gathering, whether that's barbecue or breaking bread;
- listening to one another's stories;
- learning where Jesus' story intersects with ours;
- serving and sending us out into the community.
BELLS originally grew from an occasional discussion group for senior high school students from Unity College in 2012. It became known as The God Stuff amongst eight or 10 regulars who said they couldn't cope with a traditional church service. Why? Their comments included, 'We don't know when to sit down and stand up' and 'We only usually sing when we're a bit drunk at karaoke nights'.
It was all very different with us because of it being story based. We would have coffee by the beach in late afternoon and explore how our experiences that week had been touched and shaped by what Jesus said. Christians in their mid-20s would come and tell their stories.
Then, at about the same time as Caloundra Uniting Church started praying about mission in the development around the school, a handful of 'non-church' staff, parents and students at Unity College also began asking about developing The God Stuff.
A group began to explore these issues on the understanding that there would be no plans for a church building (with a big cross at the front of it) or expectation that people would drive in from all over the place to sit in pews there.
Our questions and discussions centred on the nature of church, an understanding of Luke 10, and Jesus sending 'beginner disciples' into the villages where he had not yet been – to build relationship with people of peace, engage with them and accept their hospitality.
Rather than create something and ask people to come to a specific event, we put the word around that we were simply going to buy pizza one Sunday evening in June last year and see who turned up. We hoped for 15 but instead 37 people came to tell us what a gathering might be like and what it would achieve. Their main message was, 'don't call it church'.
Caloundra Uniting Church endorsed this organic development and sponsored us. Members donated some $5,000 to support what we were doing, and a handful of them come each fortnight to make the coffee, turn the sausages and pray for the group.
That same church is now seeking three years of funding to create a half-time pastor's position for me to grow BELLS as a faith community, a fresh expression of church. This neighbourhood is set to grow dramatically over time with Caloundra South housing 50,000 people in the next 15 years.
Eating is a major part of what we do! People relax and talk when there's food and for Australians a BBQ is standard. Bringing food to a BBQ is an act of sharing; this may well be a ritual/liturgical aspect of BELLS, although one might not recognise it!
At the moment, we are focused on Luke's gospel for the messages to think about in our fortnightly meetings; considering how the Jesus story can be lived out in a culture that does not take it as 'given'. We prepare for that by putting out a trailer out on our YouTube channel a week before the meeting. The BELLS crew then begin to think of their own life experiences in relation to the message. We put up posters around the place and on the school noticeboard; it's also in the school newsletter and Community Association website.
Our meetings start with a 'sixty Seconds with…' slot when a volunteer is asked three questions in a minute. This not only acts as an ice-breaker but it provides an opportunity for an initial personal reflection on the message theme. The table groups then chat around those questions as we eat.
Two of our team sing for us and we now have some neighbourhood kids who are beginning to bring their guitars and jam along.
Someone will tell their story related to the message, perhaps on how they have experienced forgiveness – or something similar, then I talk about the scripture for five minutes. We pray simple thanks and requests in different ways, talk about our next opportunity for belonging or serving… and finish our dinner.
When we think about how we might grow the faith community, the school connection is certainly a 'foot in the door' and we have also had much encouragement from many other people of peace locally. The school principal offered the covered BBQ and canteen area for us; the real estate developer now views us as the local church; the publican and the Community Association advertise our gatherings and we actively engage with them in community events, such as park concerts and Christmas carols.
In seven months, four core households have emerged. Younger couples with kids have taken on the leadership in exploring opportunities for belonging, eating (looking at hospitality), listening – as in leading our worship times – and finding ways for us to serve.
As the pastor, my responsibility is the learning content. We also have three older, mature Christians – including two retired, ordained ministers – who pray for us and seek the big vision. They help give a framework of theological understanding to what we are exploring.
In the light of Caloundra Uniting Church being our supportive 'mothership', I attend their church council meetings. Their insurance and finance people also look after our necessary bureaucracy.
At this stage I add all preparation for BELLS to my workload at school – hence our meetings being fortnightly. We very much want to become a weekly gathering and develop some discipleship/home groups. If funding becomes available in June 2014, I will be paid a stipend to spend half the week in the neighbourhood.
Our costs as this stage only involve the provision of food because our venue is free. Donations from individuals with a vision as to what we are doing here have amounted to about $7,000.
Long-term commitment is very important. A significant part of building relationships of trust with community groups, the local council, and so on, is the assurance that we will be here in 15 years' time. God knows what the neighbourhood, or our faith community, will look like then but we are here to grow with the neighbourhood from stage one.
I first heard of fresh expressions of church when researching new forms of church online and then followed up on that with a call to a couple of Uniting Church ministers in South Australia. It's exciting to see what God is doing in Caloundra as part of that fresh expressions movement worldwide. Our accountability is formally through the local Uniting Church but we are also blessed by encouragement and regular contact with other denominations with a heart for the new neighbourhood.
How might things develop from here? Well, after six months, and – it seems – the ongoing possibility of personnel and time resources, we have a few challenges and questions to consider.
- More than 100 people have connected with us but the fortnightly gathering is always around 30. Half of that is core and constant. How will we go beyond that initial contact to build good daily friendships?
- How will we offer discipleship/faith exploration programs and what will they be? (Our neighbourhood isn't asking the questions Alpha is answering, yet).
- We are being deliberately engaged in the Community Association, events in the park and so on but there are new opportunities too. There are hoops to jump through but the developer's former sales office may be handed to Caloundra City Council to become a small community hub. Could we become the managing agents? If so, we could engage with many other community groups, have a highly visible venue for gatherings of different kinds.