This week – this past Sunday in fact – we left our beloved Providence Church network after a decade of life and ministry in a church setting that morphed from three households and thirty six people, to three churches (one starting in a month) with five congregations and some 500 people.
And it’s painful to leave.
Back ten years ago I never thought I’d try my hand at church planting again. It was the start of 2011 and I was just getting over a serious illness that required major surgery. More than that I was getting over our The Crowded House experience, and the end of a church plant that was connected with it. That plant broke up, painfully, but not destructively, and we all went our separate ways.
A friend of mine then asked me if I wanted to start working a day a week with his three household church plants that had been planted out of a local Anglican church here in Perth.
I was nervous. WE were nervous. Jill and I had sworn off doing too much ministry stuff going into the future. Watching the pain she had gone through after The Crowded House experience had resulted in a “never again”.
But here we were, with long term friends asking for some help. So we took the plunge.
Straight off the bat things were different. That angsty, slightly toxic taste that we became used to at TCH was missing. Here were three ordinary household churches – Providence Church – seeking to do mission while working and raising families and doing all the stuff of normal life, but with an intentional desire to reach people with the gospel.
There was something healing about those first couple of years for us at Providence, as the actual gospel (as opposed to a bad strain of it that wasn’t the gospel at all) started to shape our communities into honest, open, trustworthy places that others desired to belong to.
We were open about our failings and we were able to find grace in time of need, shoulders to cry on, meals on tables when needed, small acts of mercy, places for prayer. The slow drip, drip of a Christian community in a secular city that had determined to include those who did not know Jesus within their settings.
I’ve always loved household church models, and even now look at them with a kinda wistfulness, because Providence, over the years we have been involved has morphed into a more traditional model of church, even though it has keep strong intentional gospel desire.
I am no longer convinced that household church is the model to reach a secular nation, but then again I’m not convinced that any model is. God alone, by His Spirit, saves people, and for sure He uses means to do so, but some of those means are pretty ropey (especially if the means I am involved with are any indication).
Providence Midland – our church – began in the lounge room of our old cottage in the eastern hills of Perth, and as I leave it is meeting weekly as a gathering in a school performing arts theatre. We’ve grown – of course – otherwise we’d still be in the house, but the numbers are almost a side issue.
We’ve grown in love as a community. I’ve seen God shaping and shifting people through difficult times, and watched them as they have gone against the “up and leave” trend, hanging in there when it gets hard. Some even returning to us after having left.
It has grieved us to leave this year, especially after having had to take on the senior pastor role again just after COVID lockdown in early April, after our senior pastor left at short, and unhappy, notice. I had still been an elder there, but had relinquished paid work, while taking on a national communicator role with City Bible Forum.
We’ve also grown in knowledge and love of Jesus. I never just wanted Prov to be about serving Jesus, I wanted it to be about loving Jesus, and keeping his name front and centre of all we do. Seeing people respond to that, and in turn loving Jesus more, and therefore loving people more has been exhilarating.
What I have most loved about Providence is that it has been a place of healing and safety for many who have been burnt by churches. Perhaps that’s off the back of our own experiences, but I vowed that we would never crush a bruised reed, or snuff out a smouldering wick in my time there, and I have confidence that our new senior pastor won’t either.
But here’s what else I have loved. Two of our elders and their families are from our previous The Crowded House church plant. They have become our right hand people. And our other elder and his family? He was a former bad-boy/drug-dealer’s enforcer converted three months before I started at Prov, and whose wife at the time was not even a Christian. Now? They both love Jesus, serve His people in deep and costly ways, and their son is my son’s best friend.
And as I finish, what adds to the sweetness is that the husband of the one family in our original TCH church plant who did not join us at Providence (primarily because they moved interstate), is training for ministry while helping re-pot a church in a NSW country town that was all but dead. I wrote a reference for him for college, and he has a scholarship this year – the very year his job as an international airline pilot went – understandably – belly up.
Of course it’s bittersweet to leave Providence, and we will dearly miss our people. There’s something about just hanging in there with a bunch of God’s people over a long period of time, doing life, sorting out family and life problems, praying in painful times, burying people you love, seeing the birth of children, baptising people once far from God. We talk a lot about trellis and vine in our church settings, but we often don’t hang around long enough to see the long term fruit of faithful lives shaped by an even more faithful God.
Perhaps in my ten years at Providence Midland, that’s what I have noticed that is missing in our Christian communities – making a commitment to doing life together for the long haul. How do we even think we are going to form thick and rich counter-cultural communities if we keep shifting and moving to meet our perceived preferences? It won’t happen.
It’s been a big last year to be honest, and that’s not even mentioning COVID. The whole exposure of the Steve Timmis abuse matter occupied a lot of my time. Did I feel vindication? Partly. But to be honest I just felt relief, and a whole lot of sadness as people from both TCH and other church expressions contacted me with depressingly similar stories. For evangelicals of my stripe, 2020 was bookended by the Steve Timmis and Ravi Zacharias matters.
And now as 2021 begins, I will be helping out as preaching pastor for another local church, North Coast Church, which has a big staff hole in it this coming year. Jill and I and Declan will be switching from a local community church that has a family feel to it, to a much larger setting further from home. Our daughter Sophie has decided to remain and serve in the Providence network. As a kid growing up with a whole bunch of different church experiences, and a pretty bad one in the midst of it all, she is a testament to God’s grace in her life that she is sticking with Jesus and his people! People ask me how she turned out so well and I usually reply “Benign neglect.”
It will feel strange to leave. But it will feel right too. God has gifted Midland with a new senior pastor – Jordan Thyer – who brings gifts into the mix that I don’t have – particularly around structure and team building. If there’s one thing I have learned over a decade at Providence, it’s this: Stay in your lane! A lot of pastors – especially planters – could save themselves and their congregations a lot of grief if they knew their limits, especially as their churches grow. I’m a two trick pony – I can write and I can speak. And at 53 it’s “stay in your lane” time for me. That’s why I am taking on a preaching role in a pastoral team where the other stuff is done by other staff!
Oh, and writing. I finished my book and it’s available for pre-order if you want a copy. The next couple of weeks before its official launch will be a round of podcast interviews and articles about the book for the public relations. The Good Book Company run a tight ship, so I’ll be holidaying down on the coast with my phone and Zoom ready to go, as the interviews need done while I am away.
On Sunday we had our last time together at Providence, a quiet catch up service which was more a morning tea and encouragement time than anything else. I read these words from Lamentations 3:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”
Another word for “portion” is “inheritance”.
Here’s one thing I have learned in all my years as a Christian – that the primary benefit of belonging to God is that you get God! Israel’s experience in Lamentations is that all of the hallmarks of God’s blessing, notably the inheritance of the Promised Land, has been stripped away. For Israel, you could measure God’s presence and blessing by the actual physical inheritance of the land allotted to you. But once that was gone, then what?
Here’s what: You come to realise that God – and God alone – is your inheritance. That other stuff? Well it’s good and fine and it’s helpful to have. But when it’s stripped away? When you’re either sick, or dying or friendless or shattered, or broke? What then? Then you get to realise that God alone is your inheritance, and that that is enough! More than enough, in fact, to satisfy you for eternity. And that’s what we have wanted people to realise during our time with them at Providence.
To forget that, to focus on the gifts that the Giver provides, rather than the Giver Himself – who in the greatest act of mercy provided us with the gift of Himself in Jesus – would be to waste a golden opportunity that He has afforded people. And what is that opportunity? For humans – frail, weak and sinful – to gather around their strong, powerful and holy King, week in, week out, day in, day out, and marvel at His wonder and love. And that’s what church affords us – an opportunity to do that together (something we have realised we have been missing out on during this crazy COVID year).
And that will keep me going for another ten years, and another ten after that, if the Lord should provide them.