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Laying the foundations at Church by the Bridge

On the 6th February 2005, a small group of 42 people from St Thomas’s North Sydney met for the first time in the little church building on the main street of Kirribilli. According to their pastor, Paul Dale, the focus was to try and be a local church in the community, living out the gospel and trying to reach people in Kirribilli with the good news of Jesus. Just over four years later, Church by the Bridge has five congregations meeting in the building and about 400 people who are part of the church. Paul Grimmond spoke recently with Paul Dale about his role as pastor of this church plant and the place of one-to-one ministry in his busy life.

Paul Grimmond: Paul, I know that you’re very personally aware of the extent of God’s grace that has been at work in the growth of Church by the Bridge. What are some examples of where you’ve seen this?

Paul Dale: I think the most obvious evidence is unbelievers in Kirribilli coming to faith. Our church building is on the main street, and we get a lot of people who just come and sit in the building. They’ll come once a month for the first three or four months. After a while, they start coming regularly, they sit under the Word, they sign up for Simply Christianity and God graciously saves them. I can give you many examples of people from Kirribilli who have come to faith in the last four years.

Another example of God’s grace is the way he uses weak people to grow his church. Just after I started the church in 2005, I went through a very tough time in my own life. It was really hard just to stand up and preach each week. And yet that time was when God chose to grow his church the most. I’m really thankful for that because it taught me a valuable lesson: it’s God who grows his church through his word. Even when the preacher is weak, God’s word goes out, and that word saves people.

PG: You’re the senior pastor of this church—you’ve been here from the start of the church plant. What do you see as your key roles?

PD: My role has changed significantly over the last four years. Pastoring a church of 40 people is very different to pastoring a church of 400 plus. When we started, I knew everybody individually. I was involved in the lives of the people, and they were involved in the decision-making of the church. But that has changed dramatically. As the church has grown, I’ve employed more staff. We now have a team of seven—an assistant pastor who looks after the morning services, family ministries, marriages and baptisms; an administrator; a full-time women’s pastor; a community pastor who works three days a week, thinking through outreach and evangelism and the best ways to connect with our community; a worship pastor who looks after music for three days a week; and a full-time MTS trainee. Now my role has changed to more of an overseer. While I know about 95 per cent of the people at church by name, I just can’t be involved in their lives in the same way I used to be.

Instead, my main role is thinking through the big picture strategy of church, working out what we should be preaching (that is, overseeing the preaching programs and doing the majority of the preaching at Saturday night church and at our two Sunday night congregations), and discipling and pastoring my Connect group leaders. Connect groups are our Bible study groups. Discipling my leaders is a really important part of my job because I’m entrusting 10-12 people to them and giving them the responsibility of pastoring, teaching and training them. So the focus of my job has shifted to discipling, training and pastoring the leaders to enable them to do pastoral work with the rest of the church.

PG: Tell us about your pastoring and teaching role: in terms of leading the congregation, how much do you view it as a public role and how much is it a personal, private role?

PD: It’s both. You need to make sure that at the public meeting, the word of God is central. So we seek to shape our gatherings around the public reading of Scripture and the preaching of the Word. In turn, this shapes the songs we choose to sing, the prayers we pray and the way we encourage people to apply the Scriptures in that public setting. Nothing can replace the public proclamation of the Word week by week.

But that doesn’t just happen on Sunday; it happens on Monday nights through the Moore College Preliminary Theological Certificate course; it happens on Wednesday nights preaching Simply Christianity; and it happens in our Connect groups. We encourage people to study the same passage they’ve been hearing at church. If they look at the passage before the sermon, it teaches them how to wrestle with Scripture themselves. And so they come to the sermon on Sunday having already looked at the Bible, grappled with the text and formed their own questions about it. Or if people look at the passage in their Connect group after the sermon, it allows them to dig a bit deeper and be more specific about the application of the Word to their lives.

There’s that setting for the word of God, and then there’s one to one. I meet between eight and ten blokes one to one most weeks. They encompass a whole range of people. I meet Connect leaders once a fortnight; I meet mature Christians who I want to be leaders in the future; I’m currently meeting with a couple of guys who have become Christians in the last month; and I’m meeting with another guy who’s not yet a Christian. So there are different settings—the greater public context of church, the small group, and more personal one-to-one meeting.

PG: You’re leading a big, growing church with a large staff team, life’s busy and you’ve got a lot on your plate. But you’re making time to meet one to one with eight to ten blokes a week. Why have you decided to do that? Why do you think that’s important?

PD: There are a few reasons. Partly it’s because of my own Christian walk: I became a Christian when I was 20 back in the UK. I didn’t come from a Christian family, and I’d spent two years looking at different religions—Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Atheism, Christianity. It was through my private reading of the Scriptures that I met the person of Jesus Christ. And although something about Jesus gripped me, I needed help to understand exactly who he was and what it meant to follow him. I was blessed in that I had a guy meet me one to one once a week in my very early days as a Christian. He helped me see that the word of God was my authority and the way that I grow in my relationship with Jesus. He was also very patient, answering lots of questions I had about understanding the Word, because I found it really hard to read the Bible by myself. He laid down some really good, solid foundations in terms of doctrine, lifestyle and Christian living. It’s a real blessing that I had that for the first couple of years of my Christian life.

I went on to read the Bible one to one with other Christians. I’ve done that with Christians every week for the past 19 years of my life. I’ve experienced personally the value of somebody discipling me one to one, and I’ve seen the impact it has on other people when I do it with them. I’ve also seen the ongoing effect on me: as I meet young and old Christians alike, I am personally encouraged, and grapple with the Scriptures myself.

But the second reason I invest in one-to-one ministry is because I’m entrusting Connect leaders with the privilege and responsibility of pastoring and teaching others. I need to make sure that they themselves are standing firm in their faith and walking closely with Jesus—that they’re maturing and growing. The best way to do that is to meet one to one to read the Bible and pray.

By one to one, I don’t mean that we sit down, have a cup of coffee and chat. I think a lot of people think that’s what one to one is. That’s part of it, but not all of it. By one to one, I mean opening the Bible together, working through one of the books, grappling with what the Word is saying, and being very honest about the application of that particular text to our lives. I share my life with them, and they share their lives with me, and then we pray with each other. We do that week in, week out.

There’s lots of things I could be doing: I could be spending more time sorting out admin, I could be spending more time planning, I could be spending more time doing talks elsewhere. But I think it’s a priority for me to disciple
the leaders I’ve got in place here—the leaders God has given me. In addition, I love the thrill of being involved as people get started in the Christian life: I love seeing them grapple with who God is as I read the Bible with them.

PG: As you look around Church by the Bridge, how many of the people in your congregations would you like involved in some sort of one-to-one relationship?

PD: I’d love everyone to be involved. The reality is, they’re not. Why not? One of the main reasons they give me is “I don’t know what to do”. When I first arrived in Australia, I asked somebody, “Do you want to meet up and read the Bible?” For them, that was a bizarre concept. I think one to one is more common in the UK than it is over here. People here usually say they don’t want to do it because they don’t know what it is. So I try and show them.

I invite people by saying, “Let’s meet for two months once a week or once a fortnight, and then we’ll evaluate. And if you think it’s worthwhile continuing, we’ll continue for a year. If it’s not, that’s okay.” Once you actually do it with someone, they see how very natural it is. We meet in a coffee shop, in my home or in my office. The office is not so good because it makes people feel as though they’re a kind of ‘ministry project’. For me, it’s not that; it’s just building a natural friendship with the people in my church.

We’ll spend about 10-15 minutes catching up, and then we’ll open the Bible. I don’t do any preparation; they don’t do any preparation. We just read the next ten verses in whatever book we’re studying, and grapple with them together. What I try to do is model and teach people how to have their own quiet time. I don’t come with prepared questions like in a Bible study group. And I don’t come to preach at them as though I were giving a sermon. We just open up the Bible, read ten verses and say, “Okay, what does this mean? What does it say? What’s the application for us?” When we do this, I hope I’m communicating that this is what we should be doing day in, day out, because this is how we grow in our relationship with God.

The other main response I get from people is that they’re too busy. Obviously I acknowledge that. But I’m talking about one hour a week, or one hour a fortnight. If everybody in church gave one hour a week or one hour a fortnight to one to one, everyone in the church could do it. I think we make time for things we think are important. I also think that when someone has done one to one with someone else, that’s when they see the value of it, and therefore they’ll be more likely to go and do it with someone else and show them the value of it.

PG: Do you feel as though your example and model has affected the culture at Church by the Bridge?

PD: I’d like to say yes, and I hope that I’ve affected it in some way. I think it’s been much harder to change the culture here than it was in my church in the UK. I know that probably half my Connect leaders are meeting one to one with others in their groups, and that’s great. But, again, there are times when I’ve been disappointed—times when I’ve invested a year in someone’s life, modelling for them how to do it, and then when we stop meeting, they don’t go on and do it with someone else. However, that said, I’ve also experienced great joy when blokes I meet one to one see how valuable it is and then, in a year’s time, I see them doing it with four blokes—training them so that they know how to do it with still more blokes. That’s exciting!

PG: What are one or two moments of real joy that you’ve experienced as a result of your one-to-one ministry with so many people over the years?

PD: A guy came into Saturday night church in February this year. He sat there for two Saturdays and then came up to me at the end of the second Saturday and said, “Can we meet for coffee?” He didn’t have a church background. He was just walking past, and something gripped him about the people, the music and the sermon, and he wanted to find out more. I offered to read the Bible with him one to one. We read through Mark’s Gospel and about six weeks later in early April, he gave his life to Christ. I’m still meeting him one to one to lay the foundations for the Christian life. I’ve even seen him make some big lifestyle changes as the word of God has gripped him.

That’s the other great thing about one to one: when you meet people and you read the Bible together, the word of God confronts lifestyle issues. It’s not me the pastor having to be the policeman who lays down the laws. The word of God actually changes people: they read the Scriptures and go, “Oh, I’ve got to change that in my life”. And that’s exciting.

Another joy for me is seeing blokes go into college. Of the guys I read the Bible with five years ago—even seven years ago when I first arrived in Sydney—four of them are now at Moore College. Back then, they were younger Christians. Seeing them do a ministry apprenticeship and then go onto college has been a real joy.

Do you want another story? Recently I received a letter from the wife of someone I read the Bible with one to one. I’ve been meeting him early in the morning once a fortnight for a couple of years. His wife wrote me a letter thanking me for investing time in her husband, and explained how our meetings have helped their marriage. For the first time in their married life, he is now reading the Bible with her.

PG: Paul, you’re someone who has a lot of energy. Do you think that everyone in ministry could meet one to one with as many people as you can?

PD: That’s a great question. One of the ways I’m different to the majority of ministers I know in Sydney is that I’m single; I don’t yet have a wife and family. Being single, I’ve had struggles, but I’ve also experienced real joys. Taking 1 Corinthians 7 seriously has opened the door for me to do lots and lots of ministry, and to serve the Lord in ways that I couldn’t do as a married man. I’m a triathlete, so I often train early in the morning. I get up at around 5 am and go for a run. But then I meet guys at 6:30 or 7 am most days a week to read the Bible with them for an hour before they go to work. If I was a married man with a family, I couldn’t do that. It would be irresponsible of me to do that. So I do thank God for my singleness.

I think I’ve also been blessed by God with energy. I don’t require the same amount of sleep as most people; I’m very happy on five hours a night. This means I can meet people one to one early in the morning, late at night and on the weekends. It’s partly because of my energy levels and partly because of my marital status. I don’t want to discourage others—I think I am unusual, being able to do one to one with eight to ten guys a week. That’s not the norm. But I think if every minister—or, better yet, every person at church—did it with just one person—committed to just one hour a week, that would transform our churches. It might mean getting up at 6 am one morning a week so you can do it before work. Or it might mean going to the city at lunchtime and spending an hour doing it with somebody.

PG: One of the things we’re hoping The Briefing will be over time is a way for us to encourage and pray for each other. What are some things that Briefing readers could be praying for you and for Church by the Bridge?

PD: I’d love you to praise God and thank him for his kindness to us as a church family—thank him for the people he’s brought to us and the people he’s won for himself, because they’re with us by God’s grace, and we need to thank him for that. You can also thank God for the place that Church by the Bridge has in the Kirribilli community. Please ask him to make us a church that doesn’t just know our community, but is also bold in preaching the gospel to our community.

For me personally, as the church continues to grow and as I shift into more of an overseer’s role, ask God to help me adapt well and give me the skills I need to do that. Ask him to help me not to grieve some of the loss of relationships that necessarily comes from pastoring a larger church.

In addition, part of our mission is to plant new churches; we’ve planted a church every year since we began. That’s our aim: to plant another church again next year. So please ask God to give us wisdom so we can know the best place, time and target demographic for that kind of church.

Discussion questions

  1. What fears do you have that stop you from reading the Bible one to one?
  2. What examples have you seen of the power of God’s word at work in your life and in the lives of others?
  3. What do you think would happen if everyone in your church was reading the Bible one to one?
  4. If you’re not currently meeting one to one with anyone, who could you read the Bible with? (Remember it doesn’t matter if they aren’t Christian!)

Pray

  • Thank God for Paul Dale and Church by the Bridge—for bringing together this group of people by his grace and for establishing them in Kirribilli.
  • Ask God to give the people of Church by the Bridge boldness as they preach the gospel in their community. Ask him to give them wisdom as they prepare to plant a new church.
  • Ask God to help Paul to adapt as his role as pastor changes. Ask him to comfort Paul as his relationships with church members change. Ask him to equip Paul for the work he has given him to do.

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