September 18, 2016

Part 7: Zombie Nation

Even by early November Perth’s scrubby landscape was brown. Jill and I looked at each other as the plane bumped and rocked over the wind-blown Darling Escarpment that separates the city sprawl from the bushland and townships of the eastern hills, and just said that one word: “Brown!”  Here and there shocks of green in the form of cricket pitches and football ovals, but little else of vivid colour.

Brown and empty and flat. Glaring sun.  Summer still a month away, but already a 40 degree day just to shock us.  The drive back to our house, after three days acclimatising on the beach at Jill’s parents’, was the biggest shock.  Where was everyone?  It was Zombie Nation.  Empty streets.  Empty parks. Shut up houses. A few cars meandering along gridded roads.  A city built for the automobile.


My house from the air in 1965 (the light dot in the middle of shot).  The park to the left, Brown Park, is still the local park.

So where was everyone?  At work probably.  We were back in lower middle class/working class suburbia on the edge of the world’s most isolated capital city.  No nearby university, no students in share houses, no refugees (still not many refugees, but that’s another story).  Suburb after suburb of single-storey dwellings, interspersed with pockets of McMansions and apartments.

Christmas came and went in a blur.  It was 46 degrees on the day and Jill, with just a week to go before giving birth, blew up like a balloon in the heat as we sat around the table.  The aircon packed in for good measure.

I got a job a few days after our son Declan was born working as a project officer for a federally-funded education program. Moderate pay, full-time, not the most exciting role, but a great bunch of people. Jill had had a caesarean and  Sophie and I would drive to the hospital playing The Fray’s How To Save a Life on high rotation.

Never mind how to save a life; how to restart a life!   We’d thrown the car into reverse and we hadn’t been wearing seat belts. We felt all over the place,  culture shock after just one year away.  Now with 9-5 work, a new baby, and re-engaging church community it was feeling more grey than brown.

What I should have done, of course, was to take a year to draw breath, to reassess and not think about church planting for a while.  Not think about missional life and how to put it together. Just let life get back to the normal life of Perth.

To seek the rhythm of the city for in its rhythm I would find our rhythm, as Jeremiah would have put it.

I should have done that.  I didn’t.  I’d become a bit of a junkie. Although I didn’t start to put together a plan for how to do church immediately, my default plan was to recreate an outpost of what we had just experienced.

The missional community expression of church was just gaining momentum, and church planting was the new black, even in Perth.  Conferences were being organised and it seemed that any young bloke and his wife who had a penchant for reaching their neighbourhood was being encouraged to set something up.  All you needed was a Macbook, a front lounge room, a core group of three close families, and a desire to be a missionary to your suburb.  After all, it’s the lowest key way of doing church isn’t it? Surely church burnout is the domain of the big church machine?  I think time has proven the fallacy of that position.

But for me there was probably something more.  I was overlooking the context of the setting in which I now was, and was in a sense intent on creating a city in my own image. To some extent I was guilty of trying to make the city fit my rhythm, rather than first take the time to listen to its heartbeat. And when we do that we tend to end up despising the setting we are in.

I got hooked on “Community Porn” – a photo-shopped air-brushed idealised version of the community I would like to reach with the gospel.  Community Porn can, in time, do what normal porn will do: despise the very thing in front of you, highlight its short-comings in relation to the ideal and lead to a growing dissatisfaction and restlessness.

If I am honest, my “Community Porn” is a highly educated inner city youngish crowd who live in medium to high density settings, drink good coffee and read Dostoevsky. or something like that. What I had when we came back was the least tertiary-educated shire in Perth, with the highest number of workers with a trade certificate, who all lived in an ageing suburb on the fringe of city; who drank a carton of Emu Export over the weekend, and read for information not leisure.  Not everyone was that, that’s for sure, but it was, and to some extent still is, the tone of the area.

In our time away I had thought precious little about our long-term context.  We had simply plunged ourselves into another context. I had fallen in love with a beautiful ecclesiology, but had reflected all too little on whether it would fit, how it would fit, or with whom it would fit in a place like Perth.

I wasn’t the only one enamoured at that time with the missional community expression of church as a means – perhaps the means – to more rigorous, engaged and successful evangelism.  There was a growing interest that this might be the way to go. Of course there was plenty of pushback from traditional models of churches, but that’s grist for the mill for young(ish) turks isn’t it? In fact it feeds the vision.

Before we’d even left Perth I’d spoken to a group of theological college students about the need for a more missional approach to evangelism and seeking a way for the church to do missional life together.  After the talk an older, retired traditional church leader who’d been observing came up to me.

“I remember in Canberra many years ago ten or so young men went off to do this sort of thing together. Ten fine young men, all theologically trained.”

“Yes?” I replied waiting for some words of wisdom that would offer me a way forward.

“Of course they’re all either apostate or divorced now,” he mused airily, “Terribly sad.” He then wandered off to an office or a library or something.

Not the most Barnabas moment in my life I have to admit. But also a clear insight that if a missional expression of church was going to take root in a conservative evangelical context it wasn’t necessarily going to be showered with love from above.

And now here we were just over a year later.  Apostasy or divorce?  Which was it going to be?

Up Next: Part 8: A Local Expression of Church


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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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