Helen and I have just returned home after almost eight weeks in Sydney. The Dee Why church there invited us to assist them while their Pastor couple took up some long service leave, a delightful and refreshing fringe benefit that is part of permanent work in Australia.
Although I have lived in and around Sydney on and off for over 30 years (20 of them with Helen), we have always lived well south of the harbour. So this short-term assignment was amongst other things a window of opportunity to get to know “the Northern Beaches” better.
It has become a beautiful part of our retirement that we are free to work part-time as well as volunteer – as in recent months, with travel and accommodation provided. And because the assignment left us with considerable free time we could catch up with family and friends, walk, explore, enjoy the bush, the coast, the city, our special interests, etc. etc.
In the next few posts I’d like to share with you some of the highlights of our Sydney stay for us. The first was…
Our time with the church was delightful in many ways.
- We enjoyed making new friends and catching up with several good friends from our past periods living in Sydney and Wollongong.
Each Sunday I organised and led two worship meetings (not one), something I haven’t done for several years. There was very little difference in attendance between 10 am and 6 pm – quite unusual in my experience! Giving two sermons (talks) again reminded me how time-consuming and tiring this is – and that I’m ageing!
- Whilst there was no expectation of our getting involved in pastoral care, we were able to make some valuable visits and join some great groups.
- It was so good to be in a small church that has been struggling in recent years with people moving away and the core ageing, but which has welcomed a healthy number of new people in recent years. The newcomers comprise different age groups and racial and cultural backgrounds: the church is an international family, and we saw a positive side of current church life in Oz! God is still doing good things.
There was also some nostalgia for us in Dee Why. During the 1950s my father began as the pastor of all the new and growing Dutch migrant groups around Sydney and New South Wales. Every second Sunday for several years and as needed thereafter he would go to Dee Why to lead a 1 pm worship service, and I often came along to help keep Dad awake and alert – and to take the load off Mum at home. We would pick up one of the DY members and her young son on the way to church – and now 60 years later I helped this son move his very elderly mother into hostel care. Some of the names of the founding families are still represented, although Sydney land prices have forced the great majority of originals and the families to move elsewhere. My father set the foundation stone of the church’s Fisher Road building they still meet in – although updated: the bricks above the pulpit I could never line up have long gone!
A warm-hearted church is a flourishing church. Helen and I visited at Dee Why church 20 or so years ago when I was rostered for a preaching exchange. I was given the usual churchly niceties – but Helen still remembers that nobody took any notice of her. The church has certainly changed (as have we)! I don’t know fully what caused this, but churches that are not friendly, welcoming and on the lookout for guests do not do well in the 21st century. We talked about this and identified at least several factors –
- The present pastor and his wife are some of the friendliest and most hospitable church workers we have come across anywhere – and the church is grateful for them and loves, admires, supports and emulates them.
- Most Reformed churches have changed their attitude to growth, friendliness and evangelism. Twenty years ago you heard far too often that old Reformed mantra: If God wants to bring people through our doors He will do it without your help or mine. Today, the Reformed churches I know best still believe that “God is sovereign” (in control) and many may be wary of using management practices to work for church growth, but they have also come to recognise that God’s people must work harder and be smarter and more friendly and outgoing if they want to actually see (rather than just preach) about what God can do.
- In Australia (as in many countries) brand loyalty has declined – for the corner grocery store, the bank, the local petrol pump, and also for churches. As part of this loyalty shift people will look for a church that meets their felt needs: a good “feel”, friendliness without pressure, heart-engaging worship, possible friends, inspiring, meaty and memorable sermons, programs for their kids or age group, etc.
- Dee Why church is well located on one of the main arteries and just outside the busy town centre. Many Australian Reformed churches in the 1950s settled for land and building wherever it was cheapest, usually in quiet suburban streets. Almost every week in Dee Why we saw new people dropping in for a “look-see”, and this has gone on for some time: the church has grown because some have stayed – as they will if people like what they experience.
Next week: some observations on the “Northern Beaches” of Sydney