In 1836, while his party baited their horses at the Weatherboard Inn, Charles Darwin trailed a nearby creek down to “a view exceedingly well worth visiting”[i]. That view was the Jamieson Valley at what is now the village of Wentworth Falls. The trail, now called “Darwin’s Walk”, is about a hundred metres from the doors of Wentworth Falls Anglican Church.
We do our evangelism in a town made famous by a hero of secular humanism. That’s a fitting start for a community of mostly Anglo-Europeans who are deeply mindful of nature and see Christianity as an evolved form of social welfare. Most of our neighbours are instinctively sure they know what Christianity is – and it’s not for them.
On the other hand, our ethnic roots and a significant community of retirees mean a larger-than-average number of box-ticking Anglicans. The census says there are 1,351 of us in town, but less than a fifth darken the church door. There’s a well-respected Anglican grammar school in town, but for eighty-five percent of the staff and students that is also just a tick-box allegiance.
We’re also the official start of the Upper Mountains, which makes us a holiday destination and generates a steady stream of tourists retracing Darwin’s steps. Having a sandwich board on that route brings a drizzle of one-off visitors, but our ministry to them is mostly a sermon and a smile before they rush off to see the Three Sisters. Location can be overrated, as Darwin himself observed: “From so grand a title as Blue Mountains… I expect to have seen a bold chain of mountains crossing the country; but instead of this, a sloping plain presents merely an inconsiderable front to the low land near the coast.”[ii] For us there are bigger mountains to climb than tourist evangelism.
Instead, our location brings the dual challenges of cold weather and geographic isolation. People love the idea of communal village life, but our older residents are loath to come out too early or late, while the younger residents are commuting early and late. Most young adults move down to university, leaving a void of young adults in the community (and in our youth ministry).
So how do you do evangelism in a cold, post-Christian town on the margins of Sydney with few young adults and an entrenched ‘Anglo’ hardness to the gospel?
A key strategy for us is the ‘overlapping fields of fire’ found in small communities.
People usually encounter our church not just in one area of communal life, but in two or three: the single parent who drops her son off to Boys’ Brigade on Friday night was here in the morning browsing at the op shop, will come to carols in the park, and her daughter’s school teacher will be one of our members.
This overlap influences ministry structures.
Here are two examples:
For many years we’ve had an on-site op shop each Friday morning, drawing about a hundred community members each week. Recently a separate ministry team has begun a ‘Community Hub’ at the same time. It adds a café, fresh food giveaways, counselling, workshops, and Anglicare’s mobile community pantry.
This naturally connects with people on the way to and from the op-shop and expands the overall surface of our ministry to them. The rosters for this ministry include not only baristas and packers, but ‘chatters’ and a ‘host’ each week, who each add a little breadth and warmth to the overlap of church relationships. It has been wonderful to see school parents, public housing residents, and retired hobbyists mingling on-site.
Another newly-minted ministry is a weekly Craft and Coffee morning which draws people to learn and practice various arts and crafts in community. It’s a ministry repeated across many churches and would be a fine stand-alone outreach.
But it also promotes a number of overlaps.
It draws people from other on-site ministries like the op-shop and gives them a stepping-stone into the main church building. It also draws older people out of their homes with a warm place to socialize during the day.
Additionally, it allows some on the fringe of church and faith to teach a craft and find themselves tasting the goodness of ministry fellowship. Stanley Hauerwas suggests many people come to faith by being ‘apprenticed’ first, rather than being converted as a rank outsider. He suggests that Christianity itself can be like a ‘craft’ to be learnt, with conversion occurring mid-stream.[iii]
Of course each ministry needs its own ‘cutting edge’ of evangelism. But the long-term strategy is to erode abstract assumptions about Christianity by a chain of close encounters with real members of a real local church.
Then, when their child or grandchild asks a question about God, our church is the natural option. When their world implodes, they know where to find people with both care and hope.
A non-Christian attendee of a recent The Reason for God course says he keeps coming back because he’s struck by the caring community – despite the bad press he sees for Christianity in general. Another attendee shared abusive experiences of church in her childhood and marriage, and yet she’s now at church every week. A third said her friends would disown her if they knew she was coming to church, but she’s found something moving in Christ’s teaching and in seeing it lived out.
Relational evangelism has lost its novelty, but by God’s grace the overlaps with church members start to pile up in people’s minds.
And it’s bearing real fruit.
My wife presently has four school mums in her Bible study who have found that an easier place to investigate faith than church itself. What makes it a soft landing is the half-dozen other school mums in the group, including two teachers. In fact, almost 10% of our local public school students attend church. That’s a lot of overlap!
There are also only two other established churches in town. So another Bible study has ended up with representatives from multiple denominations who have no other place where they can study the Scriptures. They’re drawn in through Christian friends at Garden Club, Probus, book clubs etc.
It makes for a messy, porous kind of approach to evangelism. We don’t have a linear “integration strategy” so much as a long list of relationships in progress.
It means our staff are constantly riding the boundaries, match-making people with the nearest stepping-stone of ministry.
It means I don’t get to lead a Bible study – I’m cycling through evangelistic and special-interest groups and then grafting attendees into long-term groups.
It means constantly prodding our ministry leaders about what their ‘next step’ is for their attendees – and equipping them to defend the gospel to a colourful crowd of New-Agers, friendly doubters, and cultural Christians.
It means we can never assume someone on-site is converted. But that’s a good thing, no matter how neat your membership model.
It also means our challenge in evangelism is not making more contacts in the community. It’s helping them take the next step.
That’s a very difficult concept for our members to grasp.
Our calculation is we have around 250 non-Christians on site every week for various activities – both those mentioned and our various children’s and youth ministries.
But the brutal truth is only one or two people a year make the leap from any of these events to a regular church service.
Those ‘found sheep’ are an angelic praise point, of course. But what tends to happen is our exhausting activity quiets our consciences to the next step we’re failing to offer. For most people church is a big leap forward (or back), and we haven’t laid enough stepping-stones for them to get there.
I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been asked to consider a weekday kids’ club “to make more contacts in the community”. I have to remind people we’re long on contacts and short on converts.
Overlapping fields of fire is a hard strategy for people to see and persist with.
It’s hard because when the fruit comes, we credit the immediate cause and not the accumulation of causes.
It’s also hard to keep trusting the Final Cause. We keep such a close eye on relationships that we can stop expecting and praying for miraculous conversions.
It’s hard not to feel guilty that we don’t hold more one-off outreach events and have a greater variety of guest services like other churches.
One encouragement to persist comes from our founding secular hero, who recalls his career’s most “influential encounter” was with a science professor at Cambridge. The professor was also a devout Christian, passionate about the Thirty-nine Articles, the poor, and the humane treatment of criminals. “My intimacy with such a man ought to have been, and I hope was, an inestimable benefit.”[iv]
Whatever Darwin’s final benefit, we trust the
intimate overlaps of village life in the Upper Mountains will lead to eternal
benefit for many.
[i] Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle: A Naturalists Voyage Round the World, London: John Murray, 1913, p464.
[iii] Stanley Hauerwas, Discipleship as Craft, Church as a Disciplined Community, The Christian Century, October 1991, pp. 881-884.
[iv] Charles Darwin, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin: From the Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Edited by Francis Darwin, 1887, Page 22.
This article was originally published in the ACR’s Journal for Spring 2019.