A prominent Sydney clergyman was once quoted as saying: “God cares for people more than sheep. So we need to send gospel workers where there are more people than sheep.”
There were plenty of sheep and quite a few people in western Queensland sixty years ago when wool was a pound a pound and the church was a central plank of community life in thriving towns such as Longreach.
In 1953, Rev Ron Smith (the reporter’s father) was the superintendent Methodist minister in Longreach. Communications technology consisted of a Ford utility for an area that stretched for hundreds of miles.
“There was a mile and a half of bitumen either side of town,” Mr Smith recalled. “After that you hit the dirt.”
The minister in Winton travelled as far as Kynuna (over 90kms). The minister in Blackall had congregations in Alpha and Jericho.
Church social activities included swimming and fishing in the river or occasional shooting trips.
In 2010 the Uniting Church congregation in Longreach still holds its place among the social activities of the town, but Sunday worship competes with sport and quick trips to the coast.
The congregation is exploring an online Sunday School, using internet resources for its children’s ministry.
Minister Rev Jeanette Gillam rejoices in her congregation’s love of fun and vitality when they gather on Sunday.
“We’re not a young congregation,” said Ms Gillam. “It’s great when we get outside our own four walls.”
Ms Gillam is one of only a handful of ordained Uniting Church ministry agents west of Rockhampton. Other denominations are in similar circumstances.
“I’ll be doing a baptism with the nuns in ‘Barcy’ next month,” she enthused. “A while back I helped out the Lutherans, who don’t have a pastor at present.”
Once a month the Christians of Longreach enjoy Churches Together and gather to celebrate Easter and Christmas.
‘Big Smoke’ exodus brings challenges
In the 21st century tens of thousands of people have left once robust rural centres, heading for the ‘big smoke’, leaving local churches to face significant challenges.
The Australian Community Survey showed that 63 per cent of adults live in urban areas. Eight per cent live in communities of between 200 and 2000 people and three per cent live in centres of 200 people or less.
The Christian Research Association (CRA) said the move away from traditional farming industries contributed to a decline in church attendance.
While population has stabilised or increased in areas focused on tourism and mining, the ageing farming population has retired to the coast and urban fringes.
Farmers have the highest level of church attendance of any work area or profession, according to CRA’s Philip Hughes.
“Anecdotally churches in the broadacre farming areas seem to have the most vitality,” he said. “They may no longer be central to the community’s social life, but they are foundational, providing fundamental values for community living.”
Mr Hughes said that was evident when small communities face crises and hold together to support one another.
“This could be because churches provide opportunities for social interaction, although other community organisations do this too.
“Alternatively, the higher attendance levels among farmers could be because the way of life of farmers and their work in providing the necessities of life receives greater affirmation from the churches than most other occupations.”
Dealing with big issues
According to the CRA the decline of stipended church agents in country Australia has left a patchy response from the organised church to issues including mental health and suicide.
The Uniting Church’s Rural Mission Planning initiative has had low-key success on some country show circuits, providing ‘pit stop’ stalls where people can drop in for a casual health and emotional wellbeing check.
Mr Hughes recounted an example of a church member recently holding a street party in rural South Australia, along the length of his 35km road.
While the event was not an official church activity, the farmer’s ministry was to help neighbours look out for each other, watching for signs of isolation or loneliness.
Ms Gillam recognises times have changed yet despite statistics, demographic trends and social patterns, some things do not change.
“We’re still here, the church – the body of Christ – ready to welcome every man and his dog,” she said confidently. “In fact we had a woman bring her dog to church for a few weeks, but that’s another story.”
Photo : Rev Ron Smith (left) with the members of the Longreach Sunday School and Youth Group. Taken on a box brownie circa 1953. Photo courtesy of Phil Smith