The Church for Those Who Aren’t Here Yet
by Nathan Brown
Seventeen years ago, a Seventh-day Adventist church in a struggling Australian community had dwindled to just three members. Today, in the midst of this typically secular, urban neighborhood, a vibrant congregation of more than 200 members is focused on demonstrating Christ’s love in practical ways and is training every church member for active ministry.
Wyong, New South Wales, Australia
The smells of fried onions and vegeburgers hang in the warm afternoon air. People young and old are working on packing up the hall—stacking chairs, cleaning away the barbecues, emptying rubbish bins, sweeping floors. Most of those who worshiped in the morning are still there. The work seems unhurried and likely to be interrupted by conversations. The tasks seem less important than the people and, amid the quiet busyness, there are still a number of groups whose conversations continue.
It has been a long week for most of these people. Severe storms swept across their region, and the wind uprooted trees and downed power lines. Most people have spent some days without electricity, and they share stories of their week and of good-neighborliness. Some of the men are involved in the emergency response teams still out working in the surrounding communities, so they didn’t make it to church this week. Amid it all, the calm of this Sabbath afternoon is something that can be felt among the groups having quiet conversations, and it’s something that many seem unwilling to leave.
Appropriately, the Central Coast Community Church meets at the Oasis Youth Center in the business hub of Wyong, about 100 kilometers north of Sydney, Australia. The center itself has a story; it was built in response to the region recording the highest rates of youth suicide nationally for three years in a row. Wyong is one of those in-between communities, close enough to big-city social problems and suburban isolation but with too many small-town limitations and a struggling community identity.
It’s a place in which the Adventist Church has always struggled. The story of Central Coast Community Church begins with the closure of the Wyong Seventh-day Adventist Church—and later the sale of the church building. The three remaining members voted it unanimously.
But they were also among the 30 people who signed up to the vision, mission, and values of a new church—and a new kind of church—that same day. One of them continues as an active member more than 17 years later.
Also among this group was Pastor Wayne Krause, now director of the South Pacific Division’s Center for Church Planting. He had been the pastor of Mt. Colah, the most northerly Adventist church in Sydney, and his ministry had attracted a small number of families from the nearby Central Coast. Between them, they began talking about the challenges and opportunities for the church and community in their region.
“Our focus right from the start was to create a church that was for people who didn’t normally go to church,” Wayne says. He contacted the Conference administration, and the idea of a church plant began to grow. “We talked with the three members of Wyong and asked them what they wanted to do. They said they didn’t care but that they wanted to reach the community, and we agreed that, by closing the church, we could get a new start. A lot of credit must go to those three faithful members and the sacrifice they were prepared to make.”
As the transitions took place, Wayne and his wife, Tracey, and another family from the Mt. Colah church, moved to live on the Central Coast. Some 15 additional Mt. Colah members, some who lived on the Central Coast already, and others who were prepared to commute each Sabbath, joined this core group. They met together for almost a year before their first public worship service in February 1998, meeting in rented facilities. For the past 14 years, they have met in the Oasis Youth Center, which includes an auditorium and other meeting rooms, a gymnasium, and a skate park. The center was built by the local government and is operated during the week by the Salvation Army but rented by the church every weekend for Friday night and Sabbath.
Even the setting itself reminds the church members of what they set out to become. “We are very conscious that anyone might walk in to our worship service,” explains head elder John Sanburg. “We expect it to happen every week, whether it is someone just curious about what is going on in here or some of the young people using the skate park. That changes how we welcome people, how we talk, what we do—everything we do is intentional.”
And people have been baptised whose first contact with the church was simply walking in the door to see what was happening. Wes had been visiting family in Ukraine when he first visited a Seventh-day Adventist church with a friend. Returning home, he went looking for an Adventist church, asking at the Salvation Army youth center if they could direct him to such a church. They told him to come back on Saturday morning. The first few weeks, he says, he sat as close as he could to the door—in case he needed to get out. Now he is part of the family.
Wayne explains that the early meetings were crucial to setting the DNA of the new church community. “We trained in how to share our faith with people, and learning that every member is a minister was a huge thing for us—and it still is,” he says. “Everyone see themselves as a minister in whatever role they are fulfilling. Whether it’s at home, whether it’s at school, whether it’s work, they see themselves as a minister. Their role is to make friends and to build authentic relationships.”
After a number of public evangelism programs had been tried without success in the history of the Wyong church, the new group decided to invest their resources and time in other ways. “We decided that we would run no public programs for the first few years, and if anyone came to church, it would be because people brought them,” Wayne recalls. “So the issue of making friends with unchurched people—friendships of integrity and authenticity—and people coming to church that way was important. We were not going to grow without that.”
The way this was going to happen was by intentional involvement in the community. Wayne says he has never been part of a church with a higher proportion of people in some form of ministry, with church members involved in more than 100 different ministries in the church or the community. Not that the church necessarily runs all these ministries. As one member comments, “We don’t drive many of these, but we support many things.”
Many of the people are quick to share the stories of other church members. “You should talk to . . .” and mention someone’s name. They are proud of how they see each other serving. There’s the family who fosters boys short and long term; one of these boys brought his birth mother to his church, where she, too, is now a member; the young guy who has grown up in this church now heading off to a two-year commitment with a travelling music ministry; and the leader of the annual mission trips that many young people from the church make to a small town in rural New South Wales.
Grant is a young man who has chosen not to play football on Sabbath but has been signed to play semi-professionally because of the strength of character this stand demonstrates (as well as his ability on the field) and is using this as a way of connecting with his teammates and of bringing young people to the games to interact with better role models. He’s also the church youth leader.
This kind of engagement with the community has brought opportunities the church would not have received in any other way. After the church ran a breakfast program at the local public school over a number of years, the school community insisted that if the school was to have a chaplain it had to be someone from Central Coast Community Church. Recently, the local police have invited the church to run a program on weekend nights at the local railway station. Wayne says, “We have developed a reputation for being part of this community, working with the community, not just for them—and people respond to that.”
The church leaders are quick to emphasise that this has not happened by accident. As pastor of a church without a permanent building, Wayne has taken this opportunity to set an example of simply being in the community. His office is a coffee shop at a nearby major shopping mall. He conducts Bible studies there, meets with people for pastoral visits and counselling, and church leadership meetings happen there during the week.
As opportunities have arisen in the past, Central Coast Community Church almost purchased a permanent facility on at least one occasion, but the deal did not go through. John says this is one of these ideas that comes and goes. They see the potential for a more comprehensive ministry with a permanent base but also the risks of becoming too settled and perhaps too focused on maintaining a building and all the issues that come with that. “We don’t argue about what color our church carpet should be,” John jokes, “because we simply don’t have any carpet.”
Like a number of the other long-time Adventist church members, John was looking for a more positive church environment after some difficult personal experiences. He found a home at Central Coast Community Church and was soon involved in leadership. Drawing on his professional background, he leads international mission trips to Cambodia, supported by the church, every second year. “We didn’t want this focus to be all consuming, because it is a big task to get a group of us over there with planning and fundraising,” he explains. “But we have seen the benefits of these trips in the impact it has on our people, as well as the projects we have been able to work on there.”
Such a sense of mission also plays out at home. From the original group of 30, Central Coast Community Church has grown to as many as 300 people, although now has a Sabbath attendance near two hundred. Part of this “decline” has come with support of or contribution to six other church plants during their 17 years. These plants generally happen organically, when a group or family feel they would like to step out into this kind of mission, and they take different forms and styles. “It is often people who have been involved in leadership who want to take this next step,” says Wayne, “so we have to have a culture of leadership development.”
This begins in their weekly Kids’ Church program. The 10-to-12 year-olds are encouraged to help run the program for the younger children, and when they move on to the teen and youth programs they are rostered to come back to assist with Kids’ Church once a month. “We seem to keep our kids,” John says, as he shows the Kid’s Church set up and introduces its leaders. Wayne agrees. “Having been here 17 years, I am now baptising young people who I dedicated as babies,” he says. “This is the only church they have known, and it is part of who they are.”
Kids’ Church has been key to the church from the outset. On Sabbath mornings, the worship service begins at 10:00 a.m. with music and other worship, then splits into the sermon or Kids’ Church for the under-12s, which then continues through the after-church Sabbath School discussion time. Kids’ Church is interactive and energetic, focused on teaching basic Bible knowledge and values, as well as offering the first opportunities for ministry, service, and leadership.
Meanwhile, the main worship service is contemporary in style and based in the Bible, without assuming that worshippers have familiarity with what the Bible is or says. Page numbers are announced and come up on the screen to assist worshippers in finding their way through the Bibles that are made available to visitors. And one of the Sabbath School options is a group with the preacher of the day to talk about the sermon and ask questions they might have.
Lunch is served every week. It’s a ministry in itself—dubbed “The Garden of Eating.” Rather than a regular church potluck, it is organised on a roster basis with a rotating menu. The food is good and often attracts kids from the skate park and other passers-by. A relative newcomer to the church, Catherine leads this ministry. Recognising its significance for the church community, she volunteered for the role when the previous leader moved away.
Because of the different format, the overlapping involvement with children in Kids’ Church, and the offer of lunch, about 85 percent of church worshippers are actively involved in Sabbath School. A similar percentage of the church are also involved in small groups during the week. I am told that if I turn up at church for a few weeks, I will be invited and encouraged to join a group near where I live. These are considered a vital component of the life of the church. For some, this is their introduction to the community of faith, as well as what it means to be a follower of Jesus, and some of these groups have grown into house churches of their own.
Community is important, and John tells me how Facebook has become a valuable tool in keeping church members connected and connecting others. His wife, Melissa, takes photos of as many people as she can each week, and they are soon on Facebook. “If members are unable to be here one week, they can see who was here and what we did,” John explains. “But we are also connecting with all our members’ contacts. We’ve had people approach our members to ask about our church and about our faith purely because they have connected with our Facebook page.”
So while there is a healthy reluctance to leave among the church members who are taking their time packing up on a calm Sabbath afternoon, Wayne is quick to point out that this is not primarily what their church is about. “We exist for those who aren’t here yet,” he says a number of times during our conversation. “As a young person, I wanted to be part of a church that reflected the biblical idea of community and that I would feel comfortable bringing my friends to—and I feel like I have been part of that for the past 17 years.”
Wayne admits that working with unchurched people is often messy but that it also brings the greatest opportunities for transformation. “Seeing the power of the gospel to change people’s lives has been the biggest thing for me,” he says. “To watch the light go on in somebody’s eyes when they actually realize how much God loves them.”
When I ask how Central Coast Community Church avoids settling into a church routine after those 17 years, Wayne repeats the same line. “We exist for the people who aren’t here yet—we are in a lower socioeconomic area in a borrowed hall that we have to set up every Friday night and pack up every Sabbath afternoon, so it keeps us feeling like we are in a mission field. That keeps us on edge.”
Involvement Is Not Optional
Lessons from the front lines of urban mission
- If you’re a member, you’re also a minister. That’s the credo that CCCC uses to foster member involvement in every aspect of the church’s operations and ministries.
- Look beyond internal dynamics. Caring for the internal dynamics of the church is important, but it’s not an end in itself. There’s a reason for building a strong spiritual community—and that’s to better reach the wider community for Christ.
- A permanent church building isn’t always necessary for a growing, active church community. In fact, there can be definite mission advantages to not getting too “comfortable.”
- A long-term urban ministry requires a culture of leadership development—a deliberate focus on giving individuals responsibility and training, early and often, starting even in the children’s Sabbath Schools.
Find out more about Central Coast Community Church at www.cccc.org.au or www.facebook.com/cccchurch.