At the Anglican Future Conference Mark Short sought to turn assumptions about life in the bush on their head. Here’s how he went about it.
Mark Short is the National Director of Bush Church Aid Australia (BCA).
Earlier this year Monica and I were in the audience for the ‘When the Bush Comes to Town’ edition of Q and A. The makeshift studio was decorated with hay bales, there were a couple of bemused-looking alpacas greeting us as we walked into the venue and before the broadcast we were warmed up by a bloke with a guitar singing 80’s rock covers with a generic country twang. Clearly the producers had their own assumptions about what life in the bush looks and sounds like!
In mission our unspoken and untested assumptions are generally the most misleading. When the AFC organisers kindly invited me to share at the conference I was given the title ‘The Future of Rural Ministry’. I asked if I could change it ‘Rural Ministry and the Future of Mission.’ The change is subtle but significant. We often assume that the bush is sheltered, at least for a time, from the cultural and technological changes sweeping through the rest of western culture. It can even be comforting to imagine that somewhere over the ranges there is a rustic backwater where life is simpler. If we want to understand the challenges facing the church in the west we are told to look to our big cities, because as goes the city, so goes the culture.
I’m going to turn that assumption on its head, for two reasons. Firstly, in an era of rapid globalisation there really are no backwaters. The modern farmer who follows the weather on the Bureau of Meteorology website, who makes decisions based on movements in the Chicago futures market and who downloads GPS data before sowing is under no illusion that the reach of capitalism and technology stops at the farm gate. Secondly, there is what you might call the ‘localised diversity’ of the bush. The Australian bush is every bit as diverse as our cities but the different aspects of that diversity are often concentrated in particular geographical locations. Let me unpack that final point by describing five different types of rural communities we encounter at BCA and how each one highlights a pressing missional challenge for all of us.
Mining communities and the challenge of fluidity
If I were to ask what are the main features of our big cities I reckon you’d come up with a list that included mobility, cultural diversity, a young age profile and a blurring of the boundaries between home and work. I’ve chosen the label fluidity to sum up those trends — everything and everyone seems to be on the move. Then let me tell you about places in Australia that are even more fluid than our big cities. It’s not unusual for a BCA minister in one of our mining towns to farewell half of their congregation each year. And that congregation will be young and culturally diverse — when I visited the church at Newman there were something like 20 nationalities in a congregation of 60. Members of that congregation will be engaged in a variety of working arrangements — not only FIFO, where the mine worker leaves home in the city to relocate to a mining camp for up to two weeks at a time, but the emerging pattern of reverse FIFO where a worker sets up home in the mining town and flies to the city every couple of weeks to catch up with his wife and family.
Our Anglican parish structures originally developed in a settled world, where people were born, lived, work and died within a few square kilometres around which we placed discrete parish boundaries. But that is not our world and it is certainly not the world of our brothers and sisters in mining communities. We have much to learn with them and from them as they adopt a generous kingdom perspective that equips Christians for ministry wherever life and work might take them.
Farming communities and the challenge of faithful innovation
For many of our farming communities the challenges are different. Their populations are older and less mobile. Declining terms of trade and increases in productivity mean that many of them are experiencing steady declines in population as young adults have to re-locate to larger centres for education and/or work. Here the great challenge is both to tend inherited structures of ministry and mission while also developing new expressions to engage those not yet Christian. You could call this the challenge of faithful innovation — recognising the good in the old so it becomes the inspiration for the best of the new. By God’s grace, we have seen this happen in some of our BCA locations both through the renewal of existing ministries and the establishment of new ones. Of course this is a challenge for many of us regardless of where we live and so once again we have much to learn with and from one another.
Regional communities and the challenge of networking for growth
Larger regional centres like Bendigo, Ballarat, Wagga Wagga, Tamworth, Toowoomba, Mt Gambier and Geraldton are often called sponge communities because they have a tendency to soak up resources and people from their surrounding districts. They become the places people must go to for health care and shopping and to deal with banks and government departments. The great challenge for ministry and mission in these regional centres is to squeeze the sponge so that some of the resources and maybe even some of the people begin to flow outwards again.
What might that look like? It might look like a church in a regional city becoming a hub for the training and support of Christians in outlying towns. It might look like a regional university campus becoming a centre where young people are discipled and given a vision for servant-hearted ministry in the bush beyond graduation — as we’re seeing in BCA-supported ministry at Launceston. It might look like Christians dispersed across a wide area engaging and learning through online technology. In a world where people wish to connect through networks rather than serve under hierarchies we have much to learn with and from the bush.
Lifestyle communities and the challenge of scepticism
We live in an age of increased scepticism and even hostility toward the Christian faith, but we often assume that the bush is somehow immune from those trends as if closeness to creation gives you a head start in knowing the creator. But the reality is that many rural communities, and particularly those with a high lifestyle component, are notable for their high level of scepticism towards what they see as organised religion. Locations like Maleny in Queensland, Nimbin and Byron Bay in New South Wales, Daylesford and Castlemaine in Victoria, Kangaroo Island in South Australia and Denmark in Western Australia have the same mixture of aggressive secularism and diffuse spirituality you might associate with inner city Sydney or Melbourne. At BCA we are learning to engage with these communities through friendship and courageous, clear and creative gospel proclamation — there is much we can learn from each other.
Indigenous communities and the challenge of partnership
I find it fascinating that people often imagine that issues of justice for our Indigenous brothers and sisters are uniquely relevant in the bush, as if the land on which the AFC was held isn’t also colonised/invaded/stolen. Having said that, ministry in Indigenous communities in the bush does (or should) force us to engage with the issue of genuine partnership. How can we create sustainable pathways into leadership for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Christians so they are not burdened with almost crippling obligation and expectations? How can we move beyond paternalism and into a genuine partnership where ministry with and from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Christians is the norm rather than ministry to them? How can we engage the mixed record of our church in this area in a way that both acknowledges the past and does justice in the present? Surely these are vital challenges for all of us. At BCA we are beginning to learn what God is asking of us in response as we seek to support booth the current and the new generation of Indigenous Christian leaders. We would love you to learn with us as we learn from them.
You may have noticed that I’ve asked many questions and given few answers. For now I want us to sit with the questions and the challenges because it’s from here that I believe that we have our best opportunity to strengthen our partnership in the gospel. I would love to see a network develop around each of these questions, or adaptive challenges that I’ve outlined: a set of networks that are solidly grounded in God’s word; that reach across diocesan and cultural boundaries; that are committed to mutual learning and courageous experimentation under God; through which the city and the bush discover they have more in common than they might ever have imagined. Of course, the real challenges facing the church in the West are not organisational and neither are faithful responses. The key issue is profoundly theological — will we drive our foundations deep into the bedrock of God’s gracious sovereignty revealed in the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus? The goodness, the power and the wisdom of God are to be found where our world least expects to see them — in a man condemned to death on a cross. Now, as then, God turns our assumptions on their head.