Earlier this year I had the opportunity to ask a senior Melbourne evangelical leader a question. He had just spoken on the theme of church leadership and repentance, and I was curious. “What would you see as a characteristic sin of the Melbourne Church? His answer came quickly, and was not a particularly surprising one. Tribalism. As a whole, Melbourne Christians stick to their denominational and theological groups, and have little time for others. I came to Melbourne in 2010 to study for ministry at Ridley College. Since then I’ve heard the same diagnosis made countless times. Sometimes accompanied with other words to the effect that they would love things to be different, at other times with the unspoken sentiment that this is just the way it is and things won’t change.
Not once have I ever heard someone posit a solution. Of course ‘ecumenicalism’ - cross-denominational relationship - has always been a thing. There are pastors networks all over the city doing good work in encouraging each other and occasionally collaborating together. But I think it would be fair to say they are not making much dent in changing the tribalistic culture of Melbourne.
A few years ago I was at a conference hosted by City to City Australia. The speaker was Neil Powell, a pastor from Birmingham, UK. Ten years ago Birmingham had few healthy churches, and no culture of church planting. A random meeting between Powell and John James, pastor of a charismatic church just a short walk away from Powell’s church, led to a conversation about what would happen if dozens of churches across denomination and tribe began partnering together in a new way for the sake of the city. From that conversation came a church planting movement – 2020 Birmingham - and a book - Together for the City.
Powell’s story really captured my imagination, and got me thinking about my own context. I planted a church in the inner west of Melbourne in 2015, and I soon realised how under-resourced the western suburbs are when it comes to Gospel ministry. Churches are few and far between and there are some newer suburbs that do not have a church at all. Pastors I met were generally unaware of what other churches are doing to see the Gospel go out, and there is very little communication outside of denominations.
Inspired by Neil Powell, in late 2019 I decided to email every western pastor I knew and invite them to a meeting. Eighteen turned up, some of them people I didn’t know, from churches I didn’t know existed. That meeting sparked something we now call Together for the West - a movement of pastors, planters and leaders with a clear vision to see 20 new churches, 20 renewed churches and 1000 new Christians in the western suburbs by 2031. Currently we meet weekly to pray for revival in the west and look for ways to partner together for the sake of the Gospel. We deliberately put aside issues of secondary disagreement to build genuine friendships out of a commitment that so much will not happen, unless we do it together.
Tim Keller, founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church and Co-Founder of Redeemer City to City, has said on numerous occasions that it takes a movement to reach a city. Movement is a buzzword at the moment, but in Keller’s definition no single church, network or denomination can be a movement. A movement of the Gospel happens when the churches of a city move from being in ignorance and competition to cooperation and collaboration. It’s when the Holy Spirit convicts us that, far more important than our differences, is what we share in common - the same God, the same Gospel, and the same Mission.
The church is the Body of Christ - made up of many members with essential gifts. This is true, not just of the universal Church, nor just of the local church, but also the church of a city. We count Presbyterians, CCCVAT, Churches of Christ, Australian Christian Churches, Gideons, AFES, Anglicans and FIEC as members of Together for the West, and each one adds something unique and wonderful to the movement. Yet we are not satisfied, we long to welcome members of all tribes who share our vision for the West.
Perhaps tribalism is not just the way things are. And perhaps the solution is not actually that complicated. It can start with a coffee, or with an email, or with a Zoom call. To quote Andrew Katay, CEO of City to City Australia, it starts with the dangerous question, “What won’t happen if we don’t do it together?” Then it continues with a determination to chase after a razor sharp vision of what God just might do if we do do it together.
Rev Peter Greenwood is the minister at Inner West Church, Melbourne