Growing a Church in the Spirit’s Power
The Rev Jack FrewenLord, a Uniting Church minister was the founding pastor at Praise Chapel, Townsville, and former Associate Director of the Methodist Young People’s Department and Department of Christian Education in Queensland.
May our Lord stir us into courageous ministry
through the power of his Spirit
in his church and in our lives
‘Attempt something so big that unless God intervenes it is bound to fail’ says Jamie Buckingham. That challenge is one of the texts on the office wall in Praise Chapel.
I’d like to think that was the kind of goal I set for the Townsville West Parish in 1976 when I found myself there as pastor after serving for 12 years as Associate Director of the Methodist Young People’s Department and then the Department of Christian Education in Queensland.
I didn’t set such a goal. In fact, I concluded that the parish was not viable with its average age of 65 and a membership of 40 in an industrial area of decreasing population. Yet ten years later we had 450 people and had helped establish an aboriginal church as well.
My initial realistic agenda was to give the parish a decent burial, acknowledging its faithfulness over almost a century. My hidden agendas were more like fantasy than dreams and visions. As the Christian Education officer for the area, I saw an opportunity to experiment. I wanted to have a go at the different programs that I had tried for years to get other parishes to do, and I wanted to prove that team ministries can really work.
So I proposed that we amalgamate the parish work and the Christian Education ministry for the North Queensland Presbytery with one office and support base. Remarkably, this idea was totally accepted by all concerned. A creative team of ministers, education officer and secretary went to work on Townsville West.
Those poor parishioners could be forgiven for wondering what had hit them. Every service had something different. Each monthly Family Service was something else again from 8 metre plastic blowup whales that swallowed up all the Sunday School when the lesson was on Jonah, to moving back all the heavy wooden pews to accommodate a menagerie of huge stuffed animals with children wrestling them on the floor. I wondered whether the aged spinster ladies’ eyebrows would ever come down again.
We survived that first year. The team worked beautifully, sharing parish work and regional Christian Education activities together, including many camps. About then, we made some bold decisions such as focusing on the family. This seemed unrealistic as we had about four families of Dad, Mum, and children. Nevertheless we decided that church and Sunday School were for the family.
So the decree went out that no child would be accepted in the Sunday School unless accompanied by a parent. That raised more eyebrows. It quickly reduced the Sunday School to a third of its former handful.
At the same time, however, I made a commitment to introduce a cooperative Religious Education program which catered weekly for almost all the 900 pupils of four primary schools. We did this in cooperation with other churches and the school principals. It was a more useful Christian Education program than Sunday School. I believe it was a ministry which God honoured as Catholic, Anglican, Uniting, Salvation Army and Pentecostal people worked together in beautiful harmony. That program is still working after 14 years.
Speaking of families, I give credit to the tremendous backing of my own family with a very capable wife (who had seven leadership positions in the church at first) and four committed and musically talented children. Their charisma and music began to draw other young people. Many came in off the street bikie leathers, sun glasses and all.
The spinster ladies did not find it easy to accept some of the tattooed, tanktop, bare foot people who began to fill the seats at church. We encouraged the young people to love them as a real ministry. Soon these older ladies were clapping and praising as much as anyone.
It became obvious that we would not have a burial. The Body was coming alive. I can’t say we were very much aware of the Holy Spirit at this time, but we knew we had received the kiss of life.
So it was time to set some goals realistic ones for rebuilding a church. Our first was a five year plan to establish a biblical base through the Bethel Bible Series and to preach the Word in association with this. By the end of that five years the congregation had quadrupled with 80% involved in serious Bible study. We had many new converts.
We hosted a number of visiting ministries from within and outside Australia. One of the strangest things was that we did not invite these ourselves. They either asked if they might come, or other interstate churches asked if we could accommodate them. We did so with open arms, and were greatly blessed by the variety of ministries that kept moving us on to renewal. I believe it was a gracious provision of the Holy Spirit preparing us for his personal visitation at the right time.
When renewal begins to hit a church there tends to be hurts and divisions and walkouts. Some people find it hard to live with the new enthusiasm. We lost only one family for this reason.
One of the interesting factors holding the church family together was the overflowing offering plates. Instead of the meagre offering easily absorbed in the bottom of the huge offering plates, now the stewards found someone following down the aisle picking up the notes overflowing and falling off. That was manna to the hungry for those faithful members who had struggled to keep a church alive with cake stalls and endless fetes.
Now we were able to consider worth while missionary gifts. We set a new goal to establish an aboriginal church, beginning as a part of our congregation and then gradually working to independence. That was achieved in 1981 when the Rev. Charles Harris, our aboriginal pastor, was added to the team. The aboriginal church became independent in 1984, well within the five year plan, and the buildings at West End were handed over to this church.
I would say that 1981 was the time of the Holy Spirit’s visitation. Again, this was totally unplanned by us. A neighbouring parish, Hermit Park, had invited the Rev. Harry Westcott with a team of elders from O’Connor Uniting Church to hold a tent mission in their church grounds. We decided to support this mission totally. We did so, to our blessing. Many of our leaders, including myself, were baptized in the Holy Spirit. That mission gave a good watering to the seeds of renewal which had been planted by our various conscious and unconscious choices.
This was a major turning point for our parish. Instead of sticking to our nicely ordered, time prescribed worship, we allowed the Spirit to do what he wanted in the services. These were exciting days with further growth in numbers. We saw many healing miracles and the release of gifts of the Spirit.
We discovered again that the church is truly the body of Christ. Jesus Christ moves in his church, his body, by his Spirit. Our identity can only lie in Christ Jesus, not in buildings or places or communities. This is strongly seen in the underground churches overseas and especially in the vibrant house church movement throughout Asia.
Home cell groups
Our next phase of goal setting was to explore church growth principles. Our leaders attended seminars and visited other churches in renewal to catch the wind of the Spirit where it blew strongest.
We added another person to our staff. In biblical language, it seemed good to us and to the Holy Spirit to separate Bruce, a young Bible College graduate, to the ministry of establishing home cell groups. I believe we were led by the Holy Spirit to make this a total program for the whole church.
Our members were commuting to West End from all over the city of Townsville. So we had a vision of the church in the neighbourhood meeting midweek in cell groups, evangelizing in the neighbourhood, then gathering for corporate fellowship, worship, teaching and the sacraments on Sundays.
We trained and dedicated home cell leaders. Our church in the neighbourhood was launched, with 80% of the congregation meeting in home groups which we named home church. They met for worship, prayer, pastoral care, teaching and fellowship. The church continued to grow.
Our lovely brick building on the corner became inadequate. We regularly squeezed 180 into the sanctuary built to hold 120. For a while we had two congregations there. So we decided to move to a kindergarten hall which was a converted warehouse that could hold 250. We wanted to make one congregation out of two and commit all our operation to one centre, leaving the West End property for the use of the aboriginal church.
With this extra space the church continued to grow. We decided to rename our church Praise Chapel Uniting Church Family Fellowship.
One of our early decisions in setting missionary goals was to spend as little as possible on buildings and to concentrate on people. We added a youth pastor to the team. A number of ministries were added to the weekly program, including counselling with prayer for deliverance.
Despite our good intentions not to spend money on buildings, it soon became obvious that we would need larger premises and car park facilities. We searched for a larger warehouse, unsuccessfully. So we finally decided that we should look for land to build on. After many weeks of earnest prayer, miraculously a five hectare block became available within the parish.
We held a dedication service in tents on the land with a commitment to build a centre to accommodate 1,000 people.
It was a daunting prospect. We faced a cost of half a million dollars with a bank balance of nothing. I must admit that my faith was severely tested. My heart is that of a pastor and I knew that almost every family in the church had a mortgage on their home.
Where was the money to come from? ‘There must be some financial Christians around who would be willing to invest in Praise Chapel,’ I reasoned.
So I took the project to a number of my friends and acquaintances who would be worth at least a million. The money of every single one was tied up, and unavailable. So we were back to basics!
God supplied through his faithful people in this low income congregation. Almost overnight they made $100,000 available in gifts and another $100,000 in interest free loans. Nine months later we opened the new Praise Chapel at a cost of $600,000. ‘Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts’ (Zechariah 4:6).
Since that time, again and again, the faithful with their meagre income have shown that the Holy Spirit has taught them to give. Those who are faithfully committed to the principle of tithing have fully supported all our commitments.
Church growth principles
Someone studying the growth of our parish from a congregation of 40 in 1977 to 450 in 1987 would probably say we stumbled on church growth principles by accident. I prefer to believe it was openness to the Holy Spirit that led us to make right decisions at the right time. We were also able to learn from churches of various denominations that were moving in renewal.
The church growth movement of the 70’s and 80’s has had a marked effect on many churches in this nation. We did study church growth principles and organized seminars with international speakers. These had some influence on our thinking. Perhaps Kennon Callahan’s 12 Keys to an effective church encouraged us most. That enabled us to systematise our situation and helped us set mission objectives and a realistic five year plan.
However, my own feeling is that we can over emphasize organisation. The church is not primarily an organisation, but an organism, a body of believers. Unless its moves are God breathed by the Holy Spirit, and unless there is utter dependence on the Holy Spirit, it will not move in truth and life.
By the early 90’s this church had plateaued at a membership of 450. Some of the cause of this is mere organisation. We constantly need a fresh move of the Holy Spirit.
A further observation is that only a handful of members remain who were here at the first move of the Spirit among us. The turnover of population in Townsville is 80% every three years. So we have almost a new congregation every three years. That makes heavy demands to continually train new leaders.
It is easy to slacken off and go soft on the need for fresh infillings of the Holy Spirit. We are always tempted to stay in a comfort zone. We can spend a lot of time comforting the afflicted in counselling and deliverance, when there may be a greater need to afflict the comfortable.
I know Jesus said he would send another Comforter to be with us, but that does not mean he makes us comfortable. None of Jesus’ leading or teaching has the remotest resemblance to being comfortable. I have found him to be the stirrer of the church, and we surely need a stirrer in every age and generation.
May our Lord stir us into courageous ministry through the power of his Spirit in his church and in our lives.
Now available in updated book form (republished 2011)
Renewal Journal 2: Church Growth