Today begins my 14th year.
For thirteen years I’ve been pastor of a city church, one of the nation’s oldest. Fronted by tall white columns, it stands temple-like on Melbourne’s most prestigious street. With neighbours like Versace and Prada, we’re surrounded by theatres, gleaming office towers and clubs full of old port and even older money.
It’s not always been that way. When the settlement’s first residents lived down by the river, they complained about the churches being out in the bush. Back then our street, Collins Street, was nothing but a dirt track. There are stories of potholes large enough to swallow a horse. But not anymore.
I often wonder how I ended up here. The church’s heritage is one of great names and influence. Its ornate pulpit attests to a grand tradition of oratory and the calibre of its ministers to leadership far beyond the church’s front doors. I’m a decent pastor, I know, but my skills in oratory are middling at best and, if I’m honest, my influence as slim as the railings on the front steps.
What I have in spades, though, is a love for this city and a continuing belief in the role of the church at its heart. Certainly the church’s place in the public square is different today than it’s been. Though still a privileged keeper of real estate and tradition, its historic ‘entitlement’ to voice and political influence is mostly spent. What a local church like Collins Street maintains is its God-given identity as an embedded community of courageous faith and generous belonging. We may not be as prominent as we once were, but we persist as a living sign of hope and of God’s all-embracing grace in this neighbourhood.
There are moments when I crave just a little of the church’s past glory. But I know much of that is driven by self-interest. The church does not function for itself and certainly not to stroke the egos of those that lead it. In whatever place it is, the church exists to glorify God and love its neighbours. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “The Church is the Church only when it exists for others.”
Perspective is the rare benefit of age. For 185 years this church has shared Melbourne’s journey from fledgling settlement to thriving city. We have tracked with its ups and downs — we’ve not just watched the roller coaster; we’ve ridden it. And now as our city claws its way back from the disabling impact of the last few years, we are here, as committed to the city’s flourishing as we have always been. Another year of that sounds good to me.
[My thanks to Geoff Maddock for a beautiful image]