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Holding all things in common

The Bible Society’s Steve Davies tells his story in the pub church at Central. Photo by Phil Smith

A FEW years ago the Jerusalem City Christian Church didn’t have its own building.

They used another denomination’s facility, and shared everything they had, selling their property and possessions to give the money to the poor.

They broke bread in their homes, praising God each day.

Today the River Gum Ridge View Estate Uniting Church (Journey’s hypothetical church) is an average suburban congregation.

One member owns a trailer he’s glad to lend and three retired couples operate a relief pantry with groceries for poor families.

But most of the time, most members are focused on their three bedroom brick homes, mortgaged to the hilt, with enough left over for a flat screen TV or a coffee machine.

RGRVE Uniting Church has a data projector and instant coffee.

The community sees a brick building where the offerings pay off the building loan. Can church life too closely mirror the comfortable, materialistic, real estate-based spirit of the age?

In Queensland there have been various attempts to discover what a suburban church could look like without a building.

The Emmanuel Community began in February 1975 as four families, living in close proximity, committed to sharing a lifestyle including a daily commitment to fellowship, teaching and prayer, and the breaking of bread.

Others came quickly from around Australia and within months there were 300 members.

Today Emmanuel is a recognised part of the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Brisbane.

Community elder Mike Humphrys recalled the long term intention of the community.

“I think they were hoping that this was something that would have an impact, renew and change the church,” he said.

“I think earlier expressions of life were probably more radical in terms of witness.

“I think some of us would think we’ve retreated or even been evangelised by the world in that sense.

“The early experience was of households of people and the close sharing of life and the development of what we called clusters. People consciously chose to sell houses and move closer together, to come together for prayer, meals and sharing of goods.

“To be frank I’d have to say some of that first fervour has been lost.”

At one stage, it grew to about 800 people.

Emmanuel Community is now much smaller with some of the original people in their fifties and sixties.
A few are in their eighties.

“So life is probably not as radical a witness of that Acts Two vision,” said Mr Humphrys.

“But there’s still enormous generosity that outpours from that commitment to that ministry.

“We have a ministry to Uganda and a range of initiatives, in the last few years, to youth. In some ways I think there’s a challenge to us to regain some of that original fervour, particularly with the young people we have an outreach to.”

On the Sunshine Coast, a church known as Joshua Tree cannot meet every week because its members are spread from one end of the coast to the other.

The members are committed to prayer and devotion and keeping each other to account.

When this congregation does congregate the service might be a council creek clean-up rather than a ‘church service’.

“We have a mission in the local community,” said Steve Turner of the Forge Mission Training Network.

“God’s grace is for all people and what we do should be a kingdom exercise in goodness because goodness is a sign of God’s presence.”

Mr Turner said many congregations try to squeeze themselves in to some other faith community’s model of church.

“The keys might be getting to know the rest of the community, in which your community belongs, and developing some spiritual disciplines that say, ‘No’ to things that don’t matter and ‘Yes’ to time with God.”

Time and place are perhaps the most obvious considerations for congregations trying to establish a church without real estate.

Central is a group that meets in a pub near Brisbane’s Central Station on Tuesday evenings.

More than a year ago Stewart Harris asked how to put church in the way of city office workers who would rather spend Sunday with their children or on a golf course.

“The commuters finish work at five and stream into Central Railway Station for the next two hours,” noted Mr Harris.

“So why not stop at the pub for a drink and a yarn about God for forty minutes or so?”

Central isn’t a songs and sermon session. It’s about finding and following Jesus within workplace water cooler conversations.

Newcomers meet Christians and swap stories of life.

For Christians who worship regularly in a suburban congregation there is an opportunity to gather in the weekday world.

Scholars from G.K. Chesterton to Michael Frost agree that since Christianity became the official state religion under Emperor Constantine, the Church has drifted toward the status quo, often taking on the material trappings of the secular world.

Perhaps more important than buildings is the value we place on our church’s possessions and wealth.

How do we measure our effectiveness in the world, or does the world have our measure?

As for the Jerusalem City Christian Church – God added to their number every day, those who were being saved.

Photo : The Bible Society’s Steve Davies tells his story in the pub church at Central. Photo by Phil Smith