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Rev Kath Behan.
Rev Kath Behan. Photo: Holly Jewell

Building faith communities for the future

As the Uniting Church celebrates the 40th anniversary of Australia’s first home-grown church, Journey explores three different examples of innovation and renewal in Queensland congregations. Dianne Jensen reports.

Ripley Valley: a season to begin

A new town is rising in south east Queensland. Ripley Valley will have a bigger downtown area than the nearby Ipswich central business district and house approximately 120000 people in 50000 houses.

There are no plans for a church building and no place to hang a sign, but there’s plenty of room at Ripley Valley for adventurous Christians interested in creating a faith community from the ground up.

Rev Kath Behan is the face of a bold initiative to embed a Uniting Church presence into the early stages of the new community. The Ripley project was initiated by Bremer Brisbane Presbytery which received strategic development funding from Synod for a half-time ministry agent for three years until August 2018.

“It’s a different way of looking at church planting, particularly in the Ipswich area where we already have five Uniting churches,” says Kath, who also has a part-time placement with Ipswich City Uniting Church.

“This is a season to begin. It’s an adventure in learning the humility and the vulnerability of not hiding behind church walls. Your time is not invested in property issues and you are freed up to be able to just be engaged with the local community. My time is spent building relationships with the developers, local council, with other ecumenical partners and with neighbours.”

Kath has chosen to personally invest in Ripley, becoming one of the first residents and helping shape the growing community. She and a Baptist colleague have started a community Facebook group which has so far generated an emergency meals initiative, fitness groups, neighbourhood barbeques and a residents’ committee.

The next target is embedding a sustainable faith community. Wesley Mission Queensland (WMQ) is partnering with Bremer Brisbane Presbytery through the Ripley Valley faith community to provide four subsidies for families to relocate to the Ripley Valley.

“We are looking for people who are stirred by the possibility of relocating and becoming part of an intentional faith community embedded in the local community,” says Kath. “There are some guidelines but there’s no age limit. While there are certainly a lot of young families moving into the area there are also retirees who are downsizing and single people so there is a cross-section of society and I would want the faith community to reflect that.”

Chief executive officer Geoff Batkin says that WMQ is keen to support the initiative as it unfolds.

“As part of the Uniting Church, our purpose is to participate in the mission of God towards reconciliation, transformation, justice and hope for all people. Working alongside people who are committed to building intentional faith communities that will find new ways of engaging with people in their local community is one of our priorities.”

Contact kathbehan@outlook.com for more information.

Blackwater: Small is beautiful

Beth Baker has a down-to-earth approach to church. She’s a layperson helping to keep the Uniting Church alive in the central Queensland mining town of Blackwater, and no stranger to rolling up her sleeves to get things done.

“I’m the gardener, the cleaner, I baptise and I serve Eucharist … I’m the last one standing, basically,’ she says. “I think God uses us all in the way that God wants us to be, and I just keep answering that.”

Like many mining towns, the Blackwater community is struggling to survive the ups and downs of the economy and the harsh realities of a transient workforce.

“I just heard we have 40 new students at our high school—while that shows growth, those 40 kids could be gone next month if something doesn’t go right with one of the contractors,” says Beth.

The story of Blackwater Uniting Church could end here, but it hasn’t. By encouraging community groups to use the facilities, the congregation has managed to keep the doors open and connect with new people. It also re-imaged what church might look like in the local context.

‘Cuppa with Jesus’ just happened,” says Beth. “There were a couple of us gathered one morning and we just started talking about how can we do church differently and this was an answer. All the churches are going through the same thing—if you want a big congregation singing all the hymns on a Sunday morning, it’s not going to happen. Is there a wrong way to do church? I don’t think there is. Does it suit who we are? Yes it does very much.”

Most Sundays, the church door is open to whoever wants to drop in. The usual congregation is four adults, one teenager and five children, plus people passing through or anyone who needs a listening ear. Beth sets out the Bible, lights a candle and reads the lectionary. There’s always prayer and the discussion ranges from what the Bible reading means, to family problems and the ongoing hot spell.

Every couple of months, Beth holds “real” church to give the children an idea of what to expect when they visit a big church.

When Carolyn Kitto from Spirited Consulting visited Blackwater as part of her recent report for the Presbytery Synod Interface, she found a faith community which defied the paradigm that a “successful” church is defined by “money, members and buildings”.

“When I think of church, I think of warm supportive communities intentionally connecting with those who are beyond the life of the church, and a sense of prayerful worshipful engagement with God, and [Blackwater Uniting Church] do all those things,” says Carolyn. “I found a warm hopeful encouraging place where I loved being—it’s the kind of church I’d love to go to.”

Buderim: Top of the mountain

With the help of strategic planning and a focus on mission and outreach, the Uniting Church in the Sunshine Coast hinterland town of Buderim is reclaiming a central role in community life.

“We have moved from an inward-looking congregation to a congregation which focuses its ministry outside the walls of the church,” says Rev Brian Nagel. “This is translated into every area of our ministry, from forming a partnership with the local chaplain at Buderim Mountain State School to the training and deployment of mentors under his leadership, a weekly brekkie club (in partnership with the local Anglican church) and training RI teachers.”

The church offers youth and children’s programs on Sundays, and has been running the children’s music program Mainly Music for seven years.

Ten years ago the congregation took the bold step of planning to develop the adjacent property into a community centre. Brian says that the vision is near to completion, with funding at 90 per cent.

“This community centre will become the hub for all our local mission activities, such as holiday clubs, after-school activities, youth worship events, healing rooms, community events, woman’s ministry, and a venue for large funerals as well as organisations currently using the hall,” he says.

In addition to its youth and children’s ministry, the church has a range of niche groups including men’s breakfasts, several women’s groups, a weekly walking group, and weekly lunches tailored to older singles and couples.

Ruby’s Room, a monthly ministry to older women now in its fourth year with an average of 60 attendees, was set up by convenor Carol Berry.

“I wanted a meeting where unchurched women could join us and experience God’s Word and presence in an atmosphere of unity and fun. Every woman is made to feel loved and accepted as soon as she walks in the door,”
says Carol.

Retired minister Rev Peter O’Connor and his wife Barbara have been part of Buderim church ministry since their retirement 22 years ago. Peter conducts a mid-week seniors’ service as well as nursing home ministry and Barbara is involved in the Ladies Open House, a monthly fellowship group for newcomers.

“Contrary to recent doom and gloom predictions for the Uniting Church, Buderim is a growing vibrant church,” says Peter. “We are witnessing the changing face of the church as Buderim seeks to present the Gospel relevantly to today’s generation while maintaining a ministry to the ageing membership of the church.”


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