Twelve years ago I had a ‘vision’ which in hindsight appears prophetic, but in reality can be put down to youthful enthusiasm. While holidaying on the New South Wales Central Coast, my wife and I read of its staggering growth rate (around 5% p.a.) and became aware of the needs the place would have in the years to come for a growth in gospel ministry.
One day when we were driving out of Erina Fair (the major shopping centre), I leant across to Cathie and said, “That’s where we’re going to plant a church!” She, of course, wondered what on earth I was talking about. Looking back, I wonder what I was talking about too! And yet we have now planted a church at Erina—not quite where I said, but at least in the same suburb. As we think back to that day we shake our heads in wonder.
The church itself began in February 1996. While I was assistant minister at Christchurch, Gladesville, my wife and I and another couple travelled to the Coast and started our first Bible Study group in a house at Ourimbah. At the first meeting 17 people came—eight of whom I knew beforehand and had encouraged to join us with the aim of being partners in establishing the church. The others were people who, one way or another, had heard about our venture.
From the beginning we started with a very clear goal—to establish a Bible-teaching ministry that would fire people’s hearts for gospel work. And so we met regularly to look at the Bible. At first we met fortnightly at Ourimbah. We did that for three months, travelling up from Gladesville for each meeting. Average attendance was around 17. Eventually, however, we needed to make our meetings more accessible to strangers and so we moved to a classroom at Erina High school. This was also the place we intended to hold our Sunday meetings.
In August 1996 we had our first Sunday morning church service. At that first service 45 adults came, 12 of whom we probably shouldn’t count since they were young people from Gladesville come to run our children’s ministry! They helped enormously and continued with us for four months. This enabled us to not only run a parallel children’s ministry but to study the Scriptures regularly with those who became our core members.
In effect, we started with around 30 Central Coast people. Now, two years later, we average 230 adults on Sunday mornings (with over 140 kids looked after in six Sunday School classes). We also have a night service with around 80 young adults. We have a Friday night youth program, seniors group, mid-week women’s ministry and a small group network with around 150 people.
We have come a long way!
Of course, numbers aren’t everything, but they are some evidence that God has done great things. In the midst of all this we have seen people converted. Revival hasn’t broken out yet, but around 20 people have come into the kingdom. Let me tell you about just one of them.
We were studying 2 Corinthians and considering the issue of tolerance. I had suggested we ought not tolerate teaching that adds works to grace. Surprisingly, this caused a disagreement. People felt it was too narrow and divisive to suggest adding works to grace destroyed grace. However, we stood by what we understood the Bible to be teaching—it is either grace alone, or no grace at all (2 Cor 12; Gal 1).
A woman called Wendy later told us that hearing this was like a bomb going off in her head. This was the first time she had ever heard you are saved by what God does for you, not your own works. She told us later it put her in such a spin she doesn’t know how she drove home that night! Three months later I sat in her dining room and led her husband to Christ. They now host a Bible Study group in their home. God has done great things!
In all this, let me assure you, we have done nothing remarkable. We have performed no great tricks to bring it all about. We have been doing what many churches do every week. We proclaim Jesus from the Scriptures, we urge people to live in light of that word, and we pray. God has given the growth. In our circumstances it has been dramatic growth.
It has led me to ask a number of times—why here, why now? There are probably a number of reasons, but one stands out.
There are good churches on the Central Coast. They are working hard. But there are very, very few where people can go and be taught the Bible. Many places have the Bible, but it is just one ministry option among many. There’s the Bible, but there’s also worship, counselling, spiritual experiences, and so forth. The Bible has somehow been shifted from centre stage. Biblical ministry is sometimes considered ‘too limiting’, too bookish and not engaging enough.
As a result, what we do is remarkable. People come to church and remark on what is happening. They say they have never heard a Bible passage explained before. They say they have never heard the great Reformation statements (faith alone, grace alone, Christ alone, Scripture alone) taught and applied. After a sermon on Philippians 2, someone remarked they had not heard a sermon on Jesus for eight months. I said it was unfortunate they weren’t able to get to a church in all that time. They said they’d been going to a church the whole time!
We have done nothing special or unusual, except the remarkable activity of ministering the word of God.
The effect on my own faith has been enormous. I am more fully committed to preaching the word as the centre pin, the foundation, and the heartbeat of church ministry. It cannot simply be one ministry among many. It must be the ministry on which all else is built and fuelled. There is no better testimony to the foolishness of being distracted from Bible ministry than the hunger of people who have lost it and long for it.
Secondly, you can’t be involved in planting a church without pain or controversy. Planting churches is by its very nature controversial and threatening. When a new church appears near you, it is a very natural response to fear the impact it will have on your own ministry. You will feel judged. Does their arrival mean they think we can’t do it ourselves?
Our arrival quite naturally aroused all these reactions. The local press, because of what others said of me, labelled me “the sinister minister on the Central Coast”. Rumours circulated, not maliciously, just as a reaction to these fears. They tended to look for and seize on any negative gossip they could find. I heard through the grapevine that I had been kicked out of Sydney because I was married to a woman who was divorced. I heard I had never received a theological degree. I heard I didn’t believe we could have any security in our relationship with God. My favourite was one some friends heard at a local party. Apparently, I wrote to all the churches on the Central Coast and said if they gave us two families to help get started we would reimburse them for any lost offertory. I just wish we had that much money!
We tried to smooth over these fears. We met with Presbyterians, Baptists, Churches of Christ, Anglicans. There is no doubt we could have done it better. But I have learnt that there will always be people who are negative. No matter what we did or how we did it, there would be those thoroughly opposed to it. This is in part because there are many who do not share our passion for the lost, or see the massive need that cannot be reached by the small numbers of churches already established. If we had waited for the negative feelings to go away—if we had waited for everyone to think planting churches is a good idea—we might as well have decided never to do it.
Early on, some of our steering committee spent an evening with the Anglican ministers on the Coast. It was very heated. But as we talked, it became more and more obvious we shared very little in common. It confirmed us in the need to act. One minister was concerned we were not a real church: we had no bishop. He felt we would cause great damage to people who may come to us thinking we were a real church only to find we were something less. Ultimately, one minister admitted to me his great fear was the loss of protection that our arrival would mean. He perceived Anglicans on the Coast had enjoyed a monopoly for a long time and our arrival would provide a viable alternative for evangelicals moving north.
In point of fact, almost no one from Central Coast Anglican churches has joined our church. People who want what we are offering would not usually go to an Anglican church up here. They end up in, for example, Baptist or Presbyterian or Assembly of God churches. If the Anglican church up here is struggling and in danger of sinking, our arrival has had little to do with it. All of this has taught me we can’t plant churches without controversy. In hindsight we might have done some things differently. But we still had to do it. And we have to keep doing it.