Looking Forward, Looking Back: Brisbane and the Gospel 3 decades on (1987-2017)

No doubt churches across the city have begun discussing and planning out what 2017 will look like for their ministry. Well I picked up a very interesting study from the Brisbane School of Theology Library this afternoon, which considers the state of religion across Brisbane and suggests strategies for reaching people in each of the city’s many suburbs with the gospel…

castlemaine_perkins_brewery[1]

The problem is, Brisbane: Resistant or Neglected? was compiled almost 30 years ago – meaning that of course the statistics are outdated and many of the proposed strategies are of limited contemporary use. And yet reading through the study’s account of some of the suburbs provides a great insight into where things were at in the city 30 years ago – allowing for fruitful reflections on what has changed and what remains the same.

I wanted to provide a sample from the profile for St. Lucia (where I attend church).

“St. Lucia

The home of Queensland University, St. Lucia’s population pyramid reflects student residents. 39% are in professional employment, while 7.5% make $26 000 per year. The university and golf course and club are unique to St. Lucia. This strongly rejuvenating suburb has a substantial Asian and Malaysian population. Strategy to reach students and these two ethnic groups should be carefully mapped out.

What Could be Done?

…The characteristic population decline has reversed, and is currently on the increase. The majority of these people are professional and have not declared a religion. The Asian population needs to be evangelized. Coordinating church outreach with campus ministries would strengthen the existing work here. Drugs and immorality are prevalent problems in such an area and need to be dealt with aggressively.

Older age groups are concentrated here, as well as young adults 20-29 years of age. Therefore effective evangelism strategies must include outreach to both of these predominant age groups. The housing stock of this area has been through more than one cycle of ownership. Single persons or childless couples occupy rental accommodation in old houses or multiple dwellings. The majority of residents are lower middle class…Evangelism strategies for young adults need to include the development of friendship and interest groups. From these, share groups may emerge in which the Gospel may be effectively presented.

Outreach to the elderly population may include yard and home maintenance, social activities and home visitation to build relationships. “Meals on Wheels” and home nursing care could provide vital inroads into the lives of the families. The elderly population in this area must not be neglected at the cost of outreach solely to the young. Evangelism strategies for young adults needs (sic) to include the development of friendship and interest groups. From these, share groups may emerge in which the Gospel may be effectively presented.”[2]

 

Significantly, many of the general observations here still ring true. The presence of the university means the age demographics and population of international students have remained a constant feature (though we can allow for shifts within broader categories over the decades). Then there’s what I nickname the “landed gentry” of the area – the (often elderly) non-student population whose families have owned houses in the area for some time – perhaps pre-dating the dominance of the university over the suburb. The suburb is still significantly irreligious. And while the assertion that “Drugs and immorality are prevalent problems in such an area and need to be dealt with aggressively”, may raise an eyebrow in 2016, the problem certainly remains real, even if one hesitates to speak of “aggressive” engagement with it.

uq_bus_station
The University of Queensland dominates the suburb of St. Lucia [3]

My feeling, having been involved with churches in this suburb for the past 5 years is that the target groups for evangelistic engagement probably remain very similar 30 years on, but no one church is attempting to effectively reach them all.

The churches I’ve been involved with directly, more or less have the Asian demographic covered, and certainly attract a great number of university students. But there’s limited on-campus or residential community engagement and we gain most of our new members through (pre-existent or newly established) friendship connections; being seen by newcomers to the area who are passing by; word-of-mouth/reputation (eg; as a predominantly “Asian”, “Chinese” or “Singaporean/Malaysian” church or a solid evangelical church with expository preaching); and the internet.

Other churches in the area have greater campus involvement, including co-operation with para-church student ministries or running their own student outreach in the residential colleges. But I’m not aware of their strategies for reaching the wider, non-student and/or elderly community members – or how effective any such initiatives may be.

My suspicion is that the churches in the area which service and engage the most with the long-term residents and elderly population are those which we would not typically identify as evangelical in their theological outlook. These more traditional and long-established churches are reaching out to the older and equally established community members, but perhaps not with the good news of Jesus. Those of us of the evangelical persuasion should also not under-estimate the potential capacity of these churches to “out-outreach” us when it comes to migrant and minority communities in the area, through social programs, English classes and friendly community engagement.

Significantly, the study doesn’t mention anything about strategies for building relationships and gospel opportunities through local schools and community clubs and organisations. I know that some of the best engagement with the local St. Lucia community – from members of churches I’m reasonably acquainted with – has been through making the most of the opportunities that come from being a parent at a local school, or serving as a chaplain or volunteer RI teacher. English classes have also been a more recent innovation that allow great relationship building opportunities for international students and residents from diverse ethnic backgrounds, who may be lonely and isolated by their poor grasp of English.

Reflections

Looking at Brisbane: Resistant or Neglected provides us with food for thought:

I wonder what’s changed in the suburb where you live, work, study or minister over the past few decades?

What was the ministry outlook and evangelistic goals of your church when it began ministering in your area?

Are we addressing yesterday’s trends and issues? Or are we well-acquainted with the changing face of our communities and the contemporary challenges and needs in our area?

Is your church ministry team working hard to ensure your whole congregation is making the most of opportunities they have to advance the gospel in your local area?

Is there a group or subculture in your suburb that’s not actively being engaged with the gospel? What kind of ministry could be started to ensure they have the opportunity to connect with Jesus and His people?

Can we co-operate more effectively amongst evangelical churches to ensure we are reaching out to everyone with the gospel and not just one group or another?

These are questions that churches and their leaders must consider and re-visit from time to time to ensure we’re being faithful in the place God has placed us. More work can be done on ensuring there are local and city-wide strategies for reaching the maximal amount of people with the gospel. And I think a 2017 revision of Brisbane: Resistant or Neglected 30 years on would be a wonderful endeavour for someone to take up!  

 

[1] Kelly Hunter “Castlemaine Perkins Brewery” flickr/wikimedia CC BY 2.0

[2] Ralph W. Neighbour & Lorna Jenkins [eds.] No Room in the Inn…Brisbane: Resistant or Neglected (Brisbane: Touch International Ministries, 1987): pp. 268-269

[3] Bilious “University of Queensland Bus Station” CC BY 2.5 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/University_of_Queensland#/media/File:UQ_Bus_Station.jpg

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