Paper presented at the 2006 National EFAC Conference
The 'tyranny of distance' is a well recognised feature of Australian experience, and it is an area of pastoral need EFAC is well placed to both recognise and address. One of the goals of the recent National EFAC conference was to assist in connecting evangelicals across Australia, and this was prominent in the discussions as part of the workshop on this topic.
Isolation is experienced in a variety of ways: geographically, culturally, socially and even emotionally. There is also an ecclesiastical version of isolation, where those with differing theological or ecclesiological perspectives can be left out in the cold. While this can be the experience of any who are a minority presence, this article will focus primarily on evangelicals experiencing isolation in Australian contexts, but many of the observations are applicable more broadly.
It is quite possible to feel isolated in a crowd – in some cases, especially in a crowd. One significant aspect relates to a sense of identity. A sense of being a nobody, of being invisible or of minimal significance can be a painful part of feeling isolated. It is important to feel as though you haven't been forgotten. The following suggestions (arising from the workshop discussions) are not in any priority order, but collectively can be packaged as our 'top ten' suggestions.
Be intentional in responding to this area of need – don't just hope to bump into people from time to time. Make an effort to keep in touch, with an ongoing interest in people's lives and an assurance of prayer. The need for support includes spouses and whole families, and is not limited to clergy. Let people know they aren't forgotten!
Recognise the value in supporting events like the National Conference. You personally may have plenty of support, fellowship and resources in your own context, but you have much to offer and also much to learn by making the effort to join in such events. Those in isolated contexts often feel they are a low priority for those who are too busy in well supported areas. Make time to hear the stories of those who are in more isolated contexts and listen carefully before you jump in with what you assume people need.
Hear from those with Australian cross-cultural experience. The skills are in many ways the same, even when it is ecclesiological culture in view. Differing language, customs, symbols and the like may need introduction. Not everything that is different is automatically suspicious and to be dismissed. Other church traditions and expressions can very often be employed to point to and serve the gospel and be a platform for ministry. Old hands can be a great help for those stepping into differing forms of church culture and ministry.
You may have more friends than you realise! Evangelicals are just as prone to employ caricatures and simplistic labels, which often results in holding those who are different from us culturally at a distance. Don't make assumptions, and make an effort to get to know people and be willing to respect their own genuine Christian experiences, and (with due discernment) recognise that God IS at work in and through people well beyond our own corner of the kingdom. Not every believer wears an explicitly 'evangelical' badge!
Extending the arm of fellowship. The EFAC network of members (lay and ordained) is better placed than almost any other to extend a welcome and ongoing contact throughout Australia, especially if working in coordination with BCA, CMS, Bible Society and like groups.
Consider the fellowship of financial, practical or material support. Mission work occurs within Australia as well as beyond, and support for ministry in isolated areas is a very real need.
Support and guidance. Sometimes it is helpful just to have a phone number to call in some situations. Perhaps some of our retired EFAC bishops and other leaders with experience might be asked to respond on occasion to a 'helpline' phone number (1800?). They may not be able to resolve every problem, but know of others who might be in a position to help, and certainly offer spiritual counsel.
Communication (1) – technology is available to assist with connecting EFAC members. The creation of a national EFAC web page as a portal to resources, bulletin boards, notices of jobs vacant or ministry availability would provide a presence that is broader than any single diocese. Work by someone with the technical know-how could make a significant contribution in this area – a mission activity for those who cannot travel to isolated contexts -any volunteers out there?
Communication (2) – e-mail groups are also cost effective and extensive. A regular e-mail compilation of evangelical news in dioceses throughout Australia to EFAC members, including (appropriate) prayer requests and encouraging a stronger sense of Anglican evangelical fellowship.
Ministry facilitation. A greater awareness of what is happening Australia wide may help linking people to ministry opportunities. Who would be interested in receiving a short term ministry apprentice, or of gaining some on the job experience? Who is available for locum work during holidays, or would consider a fixed term ministry swap? What about being available to relieve for a six month spell while someone in an isolated context undertakes further study or ministry development?
There is indeed a tyranny of distance in more ways than one, but given serious consideration and some creative initiatives, much more could (and should) be done to support evangelicals in isolated contexts, and EFAC is particularly well placed to address this – more so than any individual diocese. But do the members of EFAC have the time and inclination?
Tim Harris Archdeacon for mission, evangelism and church growth, Adelaide Diocese, senior minister at Kensington-Norwood, and chair of EFAC-SA.