On one level, the challenges for churches in a suburban coastal context aren’t that different from other parts of Sydney.
We are in an increasingly post-Christian secular age, described by Melbourne pastor Mark Sayers as people searching for meaning, building their own versions of a kingdom without a king – which means they generally look for purpose, fulfillment and meaning in what captures their attention: the things they love.
I have served in ministry for nearly 12 years as rector of two coastal, suburban Anglican churches in Sydney, and during my decade at Cronulla I pursued a Doctor of Ministry, exploring the challenges for churches seeking to minister to those in a suburban coastal context.
As summer arrives and people increasingly head to our beaches and coastal cafes, I want to suggest two particular challenges and areas on which our parishes can focus as we think about reconnecting with our culture in a post-lockdown, or post-pandemic, context.
First, as we reconnect with our communities, it is worth taking a moment to consider what was driving people before COVID-19 struck. Author James K.A. Smith has written a couple of books that outline how we as humans “are what we love”. As we seek to point people to Jesus and show them what the good life really is all about from the Bible’s perspective, we (in Smith’s words) want to show people how the gospel reorders their disordered loves.
The “blue-green cathedral”
For example, in the microculture of the beaches, the lifestyle offered is one of the larger factors in the shift of people’s focus and desires. The pull of the beach shapes people’s actions, decisions and habits: it has become a way of life and has been described to me on a number of occasions as the “blue-green cathedral”. It is, for many, their religion, their way of describing the good life in almost spiritual terms.
We could think of it like this. The beach – like many other things people “go to” because they “love” it – has a connected ritual. We go to the beach in summer because that’s what we do and there’s almost a liturgy attached to that.
For Smith, the use of the term “liturgy” is important because it raises the stakes of what is taking place in a practice or ritual like going to the beach. So, while we tend to think of liturgies in terms of religious practice, Smith says that “some so-called secular rituals actually constitute liturgies” that are “formative for identity”, “inculcate particular visions of the good life” and “do so in a way that means to trump other ritual formations”.
That is, as our churches attempt to understand certain suburban microcultures and what drives them, this will better place us to pursue the common good and seek the wellbeing of the suburb by becoming a faithful presence.
This, according to American sociologist James Davison Hunter, “is in keeping with the instruction that the people of God are to be committed to the welfare of the cities in which they reside in exile, even when the city is indifferent, hostile or ungrateful”.
So, the challenge – especially as we seek to reconnect with our communities and paint a picture of what the good life looks like according to Jesus – is to consider the various touchpoints that make up the tapestry of the suburban coastal areas. They might be ones that we were already seeking to connect with. Since emerging from lockdown new ones may have even come to light.
Be a faithful presence in your area
My research showed me that churches seeking to embrace a faithful presence are seen by their example of being good neighbours or guests of local community hubs – whether it be fostering a faithful presence in the school community through working bees or providing other services, or church members joining the local Surf Life Saving Club and even being trained as chaplains for the purpose of embracing those in various beach communities.
The medium-term presence of a chaplain from one local church in the local Surf Life Saving Club meant those in the club felt a connection with that church to the point where some surf club members came to church-run events like a Fathers’ Day breakfast and the church’s Christmas carols.
Piggybacking on community mental health initiatives, as some churches have done, can have a profound effect – or just seeking to provide meals and/or clothes (one church I interviewed runs an amazing soup kitchen) to those who live on the fringes.
It’s recognising, identifying and using these societal touchpoints that can have a deep and lasting impact upon such coastal contexts, as the church becomes a gospel community with a missional focus – serving its neighbourhood together.
Connecting with these requires embracing what one missiologist describes as an “urban spirituality”, as we seek to be that “faithful presence”.
While this isn’t necessarily a new notion, as we live out these truths we are embodying real community because of where the mission takes place: in the neighbourhood, on the beach, in the school – not in the meetings of the church.
Reach out, wherever you are
We can reach our suburbs whether they’re near the beach or elsewhere by living good lives in the context of ordinary life: showing people the real difference Jesus makes in the context of everyday mission. And in doing so we work with God to bring the message of the salvation, peace, justice, mercy and love that come through him into the community.
By the way, even if you don’t live near the beach – or it’s not your “thing” – God’s people can still be that faithful presence in whatever circles they mix. In the end we want to build those deeper relationships with people in our local sports and Probus clubs and schools, and get to know local shop owners well, as a way of supporting them all post-pandemic.
We need to know what makes people tick in our local areas and pray for opportunities to speak the gospel into those situations.
As we seek to reconnect it is important to grasp the longings and the loves people in our suburbs have, whether that’s Bondi or Seaforth or Stanhope Gardens. As our churches work hard at understanding people’s loves, longings and hopes we are then better equipped to show how the gospel of the risen Lord Jesus speaks powerfully into that.
The Rev Dr Rich Wenden is rector of Seaforth and chaplain to the Queenscliff SLSC.