What does contextual ministry to the Western Suburbs of Melbourne look like?

The western suburbs of Melbourne have always been my home. If you know Melbourne, it’s not exactly a brag; my municipality–the City of Wyndham–is mostly know for the water treatment plant that processes Melbourne’s waste, colloquially referred to as the “poo farm.”

The West has traditionally been made up of working class suburbs, and over the last century seemed to be the place where the “Aussie battler” found his or her place in the world; waves of migrants settled from all over the globe; and lower socio-economic communities were placed in government homes or flats until they could find their feet.

And yet the place has its charm.

The people are “salt of the earth” folk who don’t have a pretentiousness often found in well-to-do areas. It’s a melting pot of different people who have a disarming honesty to match their self-deprecating senses of humour. Commission housing is happily interspersed between middle class homes. Migrants from different cultures and continents live side-by-side, starting families, building business, and making a life for themselves.

More recently, young middle-class families have flocked to the area–cheap housing with a backyard for the kids close to central Melbourne is too good to resist. Some of the areas are gentrified, yet they’ve retained a Western suburbs edge which makes them endearing.

But there are not many churches.

In part, the churches that are currently here have struggled to keep up with the growth. Thirty years ago, 40,000 people lived in Wyndham, today there are over 250,000, and by 2036 there will be 440,000. Christian denominations and networks either haven’t prioritised planting as a needed strategy for reaching the city, or have failed in efforts to do so.

My friend Andrew caught the vision for Church planting before I did. He had seen Tim Keller speak at a conference in Melbourne and had been sold on the idea of Church planting to reach a city. He was saying words like contextualisation, grace renewal, and gospel eco-system–I didn’t really know what to make of it all.

Fast-forward three years, we started meeting as a new church on the 7th of April this year. From a seed a few years ago, God has nurtured and grown a Church plant in Wyndham. Andrew and I are co-pastoring and have the wonderful privilege of being part of a team of people who love Jesus and want to see him glorified in our little patch of the world.


Team Ministry and Gospel Catholicity

I was working at the Church Andrew attended at the time. He was a chaplain at a school and we had both recently completed our theological education at the same institution. But we were in an odd spot, I had grown up in the Australian Reformed Church, Andrew the Presbyterian, we had attended an Anglican college, but had found ourselves at a great Baptist Church in our area.

This was not a great recipe for planting a Church: Andrew and I had Reformed convictions regarding Church life and practice, we were not a bad fit for the Anglicans except we had almost zero ability to plant a Church in Wyndham under their structures, and yet the Church community we were involved in was Baptist.

It was a perfect knot that only God could untie.

Our Senior Pastor Tim Loftis had also been at the conference with Andrew. He too had caught the vision for Church planting. He had also caught the vision for one of those buzz-words Andrew had come back with: Gospel Catholicity.

Gospel Catholicity is the idea that no one Church can reach a city. In fact, not even one type of Church can reach a city. We need various churches of various styles in various denominations and networks, striving together in the same direction for the cause of the gospel and the city.

Tim’s story is amazing. A planter from North Carolina, he had come to the West of Melbourne thirty years ago through the Independent Baptist Missions Board. He was one of the few planters whose Church had not just survived, but thrived. But here he was, with two Reformed upstarts who would baptise babies if they planted a Church!

It’s a testament to the grace of God working in his life, that he commissioned not just two Reformed upstarts, but fifty people from the congregation to begin meeting as a new Church in Wyndham–that would be different in style, expression and even some theological convictions from his own sending Church.  

This was possible because we shared an all-important theological conviction: the good news of Jesus.

The motivation of his heart was to see more people experience the grace of our Lord Jesus; we were able to put other things aside.


Contextual ministry to the heart

As Andrew and I began being trained and resourced through City to City, we started asking the question, “What does contextual ministry to the Western suburbs of Melbourne look like?”

It wasn’t a simple question.

The city was not demographically homogenous: what united this patchwork of migrant Australians from all around the world? Who ranged from welfare class, to working class, to middle class? Who had different religious, cultural and societal expectations?

We quickly realised we could not be all things to all people, and determined to provide a Reformed Evangelical expression of worship that balanced historical rootedness, with contemporary forms, and a laid-back family friendly environment.

Although demographically the area is not homogenous, we did think the spiritual profile of the area had some points of connection.

People in the western suburbs of Melbourne are restless. They are living for the next holiday, for their children’s future, the aspirational jump up the social ladder, or the place down the coast where they can finally relax. But for most, the dream is always out of reach, or is unfulfilling when attained. 

The Western Suburbs is full of sojourners or wanderers who don’t know where their true home is. 

Our wandering hearts are desperately in need of rest, a rest we will only truly find in Jesus.

We called the church Sojourners Church, and our motto statement is, “Wandering hearts finding rest in Jesus.” We meet at the local footy ground, and our prayer is that we can connect with those in our community who don’t know Jesus.


Ministry to Young Families

As diverse as Wyndham is, a commonality across the demographics is that young families have predominately settled here. This was represented in the makeup of our launch team–we clearly had a group of people who took the Genesis very seriously and had decided to multiply and fill the earth. But ministering to young families seems to disrupt many strategies for planting a church. 80% of the adults in our launch team are made up of young couples who have kids from the ages of 0-6. About 40% of the Church are these kids! It is a great blessing to have children in the Church, but they make life a bit more complicated. Try running a launch team event at 7:30pm and see how many people show up. It’s a gift of God that I’m content with my own company.

We quickly realised that the common definition of a good Christian – someone who attends Church (and serves with a cheery smile), participates in a weekly bible study in the evening, and makes it to a Church training, a practice or prayer event – would seemingly exclude most of our congregation from the Kingdom of God. 

Sleep deprived parents who dearly love their children but use your sermon as a day-dreaming session about what they would do with 2 hours of free time, aren’t exactly the high capacity, kingdom builders envisioned when putting together the Church plant dream team.

Except they are.

They were called by God, built up as a new body, and formed into a new Church. They are people who love Jesus and want to serve and honour their Lord through this stage of life. The team God forms is the A-team.

It just means as a ministers we have to be adaptable.

For us services go for an hour, kids and parents can’t last much longer (it could also be my preaching). We have a strong emphasis on including children in our worship because they are the Church too. Night sessions must be repeated two weeks in a row to give parents a chance to rotate staying at home with kids and coming along. Conventional evening bible studies must be adapted to ensure they work for parents.

There are a range of other things that we have decided to do in our context which will be different for the reader. It’s not really a matter of the ‘what’, the key for us as ministers is to equip and build up the saints for good works which God has prepared for them to do. We are encouragers of the Church as the congregation is equipped to do ministry of various kinds in their homes, workplaces, and schoolyards.

The journey for us is just beginning!

So please join us in our prayer that God would move mightily in Wyndham, and bring many people to Himself.

Author: Mark Tibben - Mark is the executive minister at Sojourners Church.

Visit https://www.sojo.org.au for more information