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Patrolling the frontiers of the future

Cunnamulla Patrol Minister Pastor Dennis Cousens. Photo courtesy of Frontier Services

WHAT are the new frontiers of ministry, in both remote and urban settings?

It's always been personal relationships that encourage people to explore faith.

Australia's 2011 census figures show that the category of no religion has grown.

If you're a member of a congregation you've probably seen empty pews standing forlorn and the struggle to finance the upkeep of buildings, infrastructure or even to afford a minister.

But if people are choosing to attend a church less frequently, it doesn't necessarily mean they have lost interest in things of the spirit.

Rather, discovering God differently presents a unique challenge and a significant opportunity for Christians everywhere.

An increasingly familiar phrase throughout Australia is "I'm not religious, but I guess I believe in spiritual things. And I couldn't have survived without someone to support me during the hard times".

Certainly they're familiar words to Frontier Services patrol ministers.

Deep and lasting relationships with significant people of faith who express the love of God in deep and practical ways will continue to prevail, even while the concept of organised church will probably continue to matter less.

So, perhaps unsurprisingly then, the new frontiers are not really new at all.

Finding the spiritual in the everyday

Cunnamulla Patrol Minister Pastor Dennis Cousens says he has never been one for setting up a building and expecting people to turn up.

"Look at the way Jesus did things.

"He spat on the ground and made mud for a poultice.

"He performed a miracle from the water on hand at a wedding.

"He was earthy and natural.

"There wasn't this artificial divide between what's 'religious' and what isn't.

"Out here, I think people sense that the line is finer than it's traditionally been made out to be."

When you live on a 2.2 million acre property; when town is a three-hour drive along a dirt track and fuel costs more than you can afford; when you live in a mining camp six weeks out of every eight and then fly home to your family – what does it mean to find spiritual connectedness?

Uniting Church President Rev Prof Andrew Dutney says remote Australia has plenty of people of faith.

"What's different is that some of the normal mechanisms of

faith are not available. You simply can't gather together inside a church.

"It's a different experience of being Christian."

Prof Dutney describes patrol ministers as "among the most creative, reflective people I've ever met".

"They express their faithfulness to Christ in crutching a sheep, getting a car started, baptising a child, conducting a wedding – any and all of those things are part of the work of their ministry.

"Their experiences are vital for us as we think about how we approach ministry into the next decade."

Mr Cousens recently presided over a surprise wedding on a sandhill with the bride arriving on the back of a ute accompanied by a kelpie.

The hundred-odd guests, who believed they were attending a joint birthday party, stood under a full moon in hushed awe.

By the light of lanterns, they joined in the couple's sacred vows to rousing 'Amens'.

"It was one of those moments we all felt we were in a cathedral not built of bricks and mortar," he says.

"An entire community was caught up in what was definitely a spiritual moment, without needing to be openly defined that way.

"Similarly, we've had the most fantastic baptisms around a barbeque on the back porch of the pub.

"They're authentic experiences of the spirit."

Forging connections in a transient world

Clearly, this kind of ministry involves dedicated, one-on-one relational work.

It goes on the road and whatever it encounters it deals with, heart to heart, hand to hand.

Increasingly, however, in almost every setting people are scattered.

Urban churches can no longer open their doors and expect to be the centre of community life.

And it is here that patrol ministry is on the frontier of future models of ministry for the Uniting Church.

By reflecting on faith over a cup of coffee, lending a hand in the cattle yard or helping to clean up after a devastating flood, we bring the love of Christ and the presence of Christian community to people who live away from a local congregation.

This sense of belonging and connectedness to a wider spiritual body is vital, as we live out the love of Christ in a world of increasing transience.

This is an edited version of a story that appeared in August Frontier News. Visit frontierservices.org

Photo : Cunnamulla Patrol Minister Pastor Dennis Cousens. Photo courtesy of Frontier Services