There goes the neighbourhood!

A few weeks back I told the story of Samuel Pearce Carey, the 5th pastor of Collins Street. Carey arrived at the church at the turn of the 20th century, a time of extraordinary social change. As the 1900s kicked into gear, Melbourne’s suburban development was gathering speed, soon to be an unstoppable force in the city’s rapid growth. While Collins Street may have began in the 1800s as a local parish church—its members walking to worship from the surrounding neighbourhood—a serious makeover of its identity was now vital to its future.

There was no end of advice for Carey and his deacons as they stared down this challenge of demographic change. The national publication for Australian Baptists, The Southern Baptist, detailed Collins Street’s challenge: ‘How does one get in touch with the community when there is no community to touch?’ The answer, the editorial concluded, was in the drawing power of the church’s pulpit.

For decades to come, it was this strategy that Collins Street embraced and with considerable success. Though it would never again reach the heights of membership it knew in the previous century, Collins Street remained a bastion of fine preaching and traditional Baptist worship, a combination that drew people from the suburbs in significant numbers. Its metropolitan identity—a church of broad horizons—was mirrored in the ministry of the other city churches facing precisely the same challenge.

What’s fascinating is that the turn of the 21st century has witnessed an equally radical change in the city’s demographic, but this time in reverse. While in the late 1980s there were just 700 people living in the CBD, today there are more than 20,000. Add to this the burgeoning populations of Southbank and Docklands and we once again have a city with a thriving residential life. What’s more, this growth shows no sign of slowing. Just last week The Age reported that while new home approvals across the state have plunged 25% in the last year, approvals in inner Melbourne have almost doubled, that’s more than 5000 new homes in the CBD, Docklands and Southbank in the last 12 months. The city now claims 10% of Victoria’s new homes approvals. The most recent projections estimate a CBD population of some 50,000 people in the next 20 years.

It seems to me that the challenge for a church like Collins Street is one of identity. Who are we and what do we aspire to be into the future? No doubt, a central city church like ours will always retain a metropolitan aspect to its ministry. But increasingly we must rediscover our parish identity—that most local sense of connection to our neighbourhood as it is today. For us, it’s a process that’s already begun, but an evolving sense of self is always challenging for a community. What do we hold onto and what do we let go? It was a challenge Carey faced a century ago. Now the challenge is ours.

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