Tim Foster and the ‘burbs

FosterCover_Catalogue_Screen_WithBorder-180x273When there’s ‘bugger all’ on the bookshelf that addresses the unique challenges of Australia’s urban and suburban neighbourhoods for the mission of the church, the arrival of a book like Tim Foster’s The Suburban Captivity of the Church is worth cheering for.

Books like this one flow in a steady torrent from North America, but the cultural differences are vast. Given that we are among the most urbanised societies on earth and take first place in the propagation of suburbia, it’s always frustrating to me that we’re content to let the thoughtful missiology of other places set the agenda for us to the extent it does.

Tim is an Anglican minister who currently shares in the leadership of Melbourne’s Ridley College. His book arises out of his own transitions in ministry, from the leafy surrounds of Sydney’s middle suburbs to the cultural and social diversity of the inner city. With this move comes the challenge of understanding the nature of ‘the good news’ in a community whose values and perspectives on the world contrast so starkly with those of the near but distant ‘burbs. Given how much the values of suburbia have shaped the church’s understanding of the gospel, Tim makes the case that we are pressed ever more urgently to the work of contextualization.

In part, I would think, the test of a good book it that it spurs a reaction. Tim’s book does this for me. Though we have never met, I have a suspicion that Tim and I might have some theological differences. Perhaps Tim has a clearer sense of the gospel as ‘a message’ — a clearly defined and methodically presented outline of truths —than I do. The book is written in two parts. As helpful as Part 1 might be, I came to the end of it feeling as though Tim’s priority on a right ‘understanding’ of the gospel message and a better ‘presentation’ of its truths was not one I could embrace with enthusiasm. To be honest (and probably unfair), his alternative readings of ‘the gospel’ left me feeling as though those ‘four spiritual laws’ were hovering ominously in the background.

That said, Part 2 was more engaging read. Tim’s attempts at exegeting the cultures of the inner city ‘yuppies,’ ‘hipsters’ and ‘battlers’ (among others), points the reader to the importance of taking our contexts and communities as seriously as we do our sacred texts. What’s more, it’s here that Tim looks for ‘gospel themes’ that emerge from this engagement. There is much here that is challenging for an urban pastor like me. I would only long for a more sustained engagement that Tim can provide here.

As someone who attempts to write about similar issues, I commend Tim for the book. If it helps practitioners like me to engage more intentionally and intelligently with our own neighbourhoods, and from a distinctly local perspective, then it has served us well.

Tim-Website_370x370Tim Foster, The Suburban Captivity of the Church: Contextualising the Gospel for Post-Christian Australia, Moreland: Acorn Press, 2014.

No Home Like Place

NHLP-coverJust two months ago the book No Home Like Place:  A Christian Theology of Place was launched. The work of Canadian scholar of Christian mission and formation Leonard Hjalmarson, it’s a book worth commending.

Though I have never met the author in person, I have long admired Len’s voice in  significant conversations on the nature of Christian mission and the role of the local church.  His early books — including Missional Spirituality and An Emerging Dictionary of Gospel and Culture — have been thoughtful  contributions to my own thinking, so when asked to add some words of endorsement to this one, it was an easy ‘yes’.

Here’s what I said:

‘There are many of us in places far and wide, practitioners seeking to live God’s call to the neighbourhood. We are committed to the most local expressions of discipleship because we have a gut sense that place matters to God and to the nature of Christian mission. What Len provides in this book a wonderful resource to those of us committed to the neighbourhood, a cogent, carefully researched and sensitively written theology of place that will sustain and strengthen our commitments.’

There are many more notable responses to the book,  some of which you can find here. I can only assure you that for those committed to deepening the church’s most local commitments to mission, this is a book worth reading.

‘The New Parish’: a book worth reading

Some time back I was asked to endorse the book The New Parish: How Neighbourhood Churches are Transforming Mission, Discipleship and Community by Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens and Dwight J. Friesen. It was one of those times when a ‘yes’ was easy.

book-image12I’ve followed the ministry of these three from afar for some time. The growing influence of their Parish Collective in calling the North American church to rediscover its local identity has been significant. Back when my own God Next Door came out, I was heartened to hear stories from people far and wide who were similarly passionate about the neighbourhood identity of the church and the renewal of rootedness in local place and community at the heart of  Christian mission.  Sparks, Soerens and Friesen were three of those.

My own words of endorsement were these:

‘The New Parish is a gift to church leaders like me. Though the authors challenge the most fundamental understandings of the church’s mission and its presence in the neighborhood, they do so as practitioners deeply invested in its flourishing. This book sets out a challenging agenda for the local church, but with such encouragement and hope that one is left in no doubt that the challenge is within reach. In fact, it’s right outside our front doors.’

But you don’t need to take my word for it. Others of far greater insight have said much more. I certainly recommend it to anyone seeking to better understand the mission of the church in our day and the distinctive impact that genuinely local communities of faith can have on the wider city and, indeed, the world.

There’s an introductory PDF here, including excerpts from the first chapter.  And you can purchase the book here.


A Neighbourhood Tapestry

I love this tapestry.

It hangs just outside the La Trobe Reading Room in Melbourne’s State Library and each time I walk down the stairs I admire it. Not only are the colours striking, but it’s this beautiful representation of my own neghbourhood. It says so much more eloquently than I can manage in words what I feel about where I live.

Though my few blocks of the CBD are so far from the images of suburban neighbourhood—the sort of community in which I was raised—it’s still a neighbourhood, a place full of residential memory, story and life. The longer one lives in a place like this the more one comes to know that life. This tapestry celebrates that fact. There’s a richness to it that the ‘weaving’ both represents and embodies. It’s beautiful.

Title: Spring Street End
Design: indigenous artist Ben McKeown
Weavers: Pamela Joyce, Milly Formby and Emma Sulzer (2010/11)
Description: ‘It represents a reimagining of the Spring Street end of Robert Hoddle’s grid plan for the streets of Melbourne.’

Home: An Australian Dream?

I feel like a grump.  An urban grouch.

Here I am sitting in my city apartment, listening to the happy sound of empty bottles being dumped into the industrial bins below my bedroom window and wondering why on earth people would chose to live anywhere else. I like it here.  The city centre has been my neighbourhood for a long time now.  Though I am a product of suburbia, I can no longer imagine it as a place to live.  Home is here, tucked in at the corner of Russell and Flinders.

Apparently, though, I shouldn’t be so content. As a dweller, I’m abnormal. Marginal. Out of step with real Australia.  Here in the most ‘relentlessly suburban’ nation on earth, my residential ideal should include ‘the buzz of bees, the sweet smell of mown grass and children playing in the garden with a dog yapping at their heels.’  Because it doesn’t, I am dismissed as one of those central city elites, the ‘affluent minority’ that knows nothing of the aspirations of ordinary Australians.  There is, apparently, a stark social divide, and here I am standing on the wrong side of the fence.

You think? Really?

I’ve just finished reading the beautifully produced book Home–Evolution of the Australian Dream: An Illustrated Review of Housing in Australia.  Written by three notable architects / urban planners, it’s an exploration of the ‘dwelling’ as the basic element of our cities.  As such, it presents an interesting picture of residential life in Australia and its overwhelmingly suburban forms.  Further, it highlights the challenges we face in meeting the ever-increasing demand for housing across the nation.

I am grumpy, but not because this is a bad book.  Granted, it’s not as revelatory as I had hoped when I first saw it, but I bow down to the combined expertise of these three voices, most especially for their insightful review of the history of housing types in Oz.   I am grumpy because, yet again, I feel as though my own housing choice is treated as some sort of apparition, and one that illustrates a cultural divide rather than a legitimate alternative for healthy neighbourhood living.

It’s true: the authors don’t intend to do this.  In fact, they argue for accepting a range of housing choices in Australia, but along the way the ‘normalisation’ of suburbia leaves all other choices somehow marginal or insignificant when seeking to understand Australian residential culture.  In my view, it’s the diversity that is much more telling about the health and well-being of our cities than the normalising of one housing type over all.  The truth is, while city apartment living may still be a minority choice, the staggering growth of residential life in Melbourne’s heart over the past two decades is nothing short of extraordinary.  This is opportunity, not apparition.

And as for that ‘affluent minority’ that calls the city home … I can only say the writers really should get out more!


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.

Gardens & Suburbia

I don’t have a backyard. Nor do I want one. Not for me the blokey back shed and the weekly round with the lawn mower. No, my sixth floor city balcony suits me just fine. But from the reaction of friends and acquaintances, I’m routinely reminded that my housing choice, while fascinating to some, is viewed with narrow-eyed suspicion by others. Inner-city vertical neighbourhoods like mine may well have sprouted left, right and centre, but they’re still marginal. As cultural commentator Bernard Salt says, the backyard barbecue is still ‘the main game’ when it comes to understanding mainstream Australia.

It’s true. Suburbia’s mythological ‘quarter acre block’ continues to host some of our deepest and most ingrained social longings. Though recent versions may well have shrunk, the suburban backyard is still gathered up in our cultural expectations of the good and decent life.

A great read on all of this is Peter Timm’s Australia’s Quarter Acre: The Story of the Ordinary Suburban Garden.  It’s been out for a few years now, but it remains a fascinating defense of the suburban backyard at a time when suburbia and its sprawl is under considerable attack. Timms wants to say that while there is much to be critiqued about contemporary suburban forms, there is much about the suburban garden that is worth maintaining.

Timms begins by tracing the origins of our infatuation with the suburban block and the numerous ways we’ve invested meaning in it. Through both backyard and front, Timms traces the subsequent changes to the Australian way of life and the ways we function privately and communally. He argues that despite the changes, our suburban gardens are still embedded with values important to what’s good about our way of life. Along the way he calls into question ‘the homogenising, rationalist approach to urban consolidation’ that, he says, ‘fails to take into account the subtleties and varieties of human experience’ embodied in the backyard.

It’s evident Timms does not have much respect for apartment dwellers like me. Nor much hope. He is critical of the move to consolidation and bemoans the local development of ‘the sort of housing estates that blight the outskirts of Seoul and Beijing, where thousands of identical high-rise apartment blocks line up in military formation … and where one’s only contact with the natural world is a half-dead ficus in a plastic tub on the balcony.’

While my ficus is doing quite nicely thank you, I am happy to concede that Timms main argument is not really to do with me or my balcony. In the end, Timms is a great believer in what the suburban garden represents. He grieves the gradual internalizing of suburban life as residents retreat within, primping their gardens only as displays of status or expressions of urban lifestyle.

Timms calls politicians, architects and urban planners to take suburbia more seriously as an environment to be nurtured for the best that it can be rather than simply a ‘plague’ that has to be stopped. Given that it now covers some 70,000 square kilometres Australia wide and shows no sign of abating, ‘perhaps it is time we started to treat suburbia as something more than the vast accumulation of little private Edens spreading like a plague, and to realize [its] environmental and productive potential.’

All in all, this is a fine book. If you have any interest at all in gardens, suburbia, or even a potted ficus, this one’s worth a read.

Rethinking mission

At CSBC, we’re rethinking mission. Inspired by GIA’s ‘moved’ campaign, we’re spending five weeks wrestling with what it means to be a missionary community. It’s tall order in a church like ours. We’re a diverse bunch, some of us understandably jaded by approaches to Christian mission we can no longer embrace. Still, we hear the bidding of Jesus to be salt and light in the world and to ‘make disciples of all nations’ and we know mission sits at heart of our identity and calling. So rethinking is a must.

Thankfully, for every cringe-worthy story of mission, there are multiple others that inspire. One I read a few years back comes from the ministry of a Baptist church in a poverty stricken neighbourhood on Chicago’s southside, a community historically beset by struggle and social dysfunction. The pastor James Meeks tells the story of the church’s early life and the role it played in the transformation of its neighbourhood.

Among other things, every summer the congregation took to the streets to pray on every street corner; they provided educational support and job placement services for local gang members wanting a new start; they actively lobbied to see the number of neighbourhood liquor stores reduced; they provided support services to local prostitutes, offering alternative means of income to those who wanted change.  Most notably they targeted the specific block where violence, shootings and prostitution were rife–church members systematically cleaned up the block, painting every front porch, putting in new sod and replanting gardens, and installing lights in front of every home.

Today, nearly 30 years later, Meeks’ church is one of those burgeoning mega churches that has, to a significant degree, lost its local identity. Still, all credit to Meeks and his congregation for an approach to mission that sees salvation as more than preparing souls for heaven.

Two quotes from Meeks worth repeating, one on the nature of the church and the other on the nature of faith.

” … you can’t build a healthy church if it isn’t working to improve an unhealthy community. Many people have built ‘healthy churches’ while the community around them is destitute. How then am I my brother’s keeper? No, in that case, I’m just my own keeper. How can a church see a community week after week and be oblivious to what’s happening in that community? That’s not a healthy church! Our mission is always to build a healthy people, and that automatically means that you are concerned about what else happens on your Jericho road.”

“Faith is like air. You can’t keep air. I tell people, ‘Hold your breath …’ And everybody inhales and holds it. Then I say, ‘For a week.’ They all exhale immediately because they know they can’t keep air for a week. In order to get more you have to release what you have. Likewise when you tie a string around a finger to keep the blood there. You eventually destroy the finger. You can’t keep blood in a certain spot; it has to circulate. Faith is the same. If people just come to church and ‘keep the faith’ but never put it to work in some way, we’d lose it. Faith dies. For our church to flourish, we have to keep finding ways to put our faith to work! Otherwise church would be like training and training for an Olympic meet, but the Olympics never come. I’m the coach, getting people ready for the swimming event, but if I never schedule a meet, the training is futile.”

Blubberland and Suburbia

Last week I rattled on about Elizabeth Farrelly’s Blubberland: The Dangers of Happiness.  As the Sydney Morning Herald’s critic of architecture, Farrelly has been a strident (and much maligned) voice calling to account the quality of Australia’s suburban development. Though sometimes overwrought, Farrelly’s words are worth considering.

In Blubberland, Farrelly describes the mutual human longings for enclosure and openness. ‘Humans crave interiority,’ she writes, but that craving is matched by the longing for connection. Ideally, she says, the home offers a protective arena–a refuge for those within–but in times of bewilderment and uncertainty, we’re tempted to withdraw completely into refuge and remain there. Before we know where we are, ‘the refuge becomes a prison’ and we are no longer connected in any meaningful way to anything beyond.

With this in mind, Farrelly is critical of both contemporary suburban homes and the developments in which they’re built.

On the suburban home: when our homes are fronted by two or three car garages with no clear sign of relationship to the street, there is cause for concern. According to Farrelly, such ‘faceless architecture’ offends on three levels: behaviourally, connectively and symbolically: (i) where neighbourhood interaction is discouraged, behaviour is modified ‘equal to foot binding’; (ii) where flow between neighbourhood homes is prohibited, connectivity is broken; (iii) when the expressive and relational persona of the resident is denied, there is an unspoken contempt for public culture that denies humanity itself.

On suburban development: when our new masterplanned–even gated–communities are built around the logic of avoidance, the neighbourhood itself becomes a place of exclusion. And when architecture becomes a tool to this end, it fails: ‘Fear makes us turn things like beauty, materiality, architecture—gifts, if you will, of transcendence—into weapons of exclusion. Exclusion, of course, is the essence of tribal lore; we are us by virtue of being not-them.’

Whatever we make of Farrelly’s criticisms, she has a point. Where community becomes a code word for the exclusion of difference, we should be wary of its promises. Chances are it can’t deliver.

‘… today’s developers flog not houses but homes; not estates but community. Community, though—real community—is not about rules, exclusion and conformism. It can’t be made overnight, and it can’t be sold. It requires common goals, civility and above all that most precious of commodities, time. In a pluralist democracy this kind of cohesion can be hard to come by, but one principle should be non-negotiable: if community means sacrificing pluralism, openheartedness or democracy—in other words, if it enforces conformism, prohibits dissent, or declines to be inclusive—it’s a fake.’


A while back my daughter and I were sitting together on a tram. She was texting; I was reading.  Looking up for a moment she noticed the title of my book, and gave me one of those looks. ‘Seriously Dad,’ she said with something between mild pity and eye-rolling despair, ‘who would read a book about that?’

She’s right. I do make some odd choices, but when I saw this one on the shelf at Hill of Content—one of the most reassuring bookshops in Melbourne—I smiled and slipped out the credit card. Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking was first released in 2000. Old news I guess, but it’s such a good book it keeps reappearing.

Perhaps my interest is tied to how much I walk. Willingly. In fact, it’s one of the pleasures of life. No mountain treks, nature trails or anything quite as virtuous. My nightly routine is to simply roam the streets and laneways of the city where I live. For me, walks like these are endlessly fascinating, space to think and breathe. To risk overstatement, it’s life restoring.

Solnit walks too, but just as significantly, she writes beautifully. What’s more, she is passionate about the place of walking in human development, cultural history and in our individual and communal wellbeing. Solnit ranges broadly in her book, from the evolutionary beginnings of bipedalism to the religious significance of pilgrimage and labyrinths. Following the poets and writers of great literature, we begin in the garden and journey beyond to the country lanes and then the mountains and wilderness. And finally we walk the city streets. Along the way we discover walking as creativity, pilgrimage, restoration, celebration, discovery, protest, endurance and achievement, well-being, consumerism and citizenship.

All in all, I was struck again with just how spiritual the act of walking can be.  And it is that for me, as much as any more explicitly religious practice of my life.  I often think of walking as a spiritual discipline of presence: presence to self and presence to place.

Presence to self: there is something about the pace and rhythm of walking that syncs the way I think and feel … slowly!  Solnit says the same: ‘I like walking because it is slow, and I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness.’   For me, walking is a choice to give the mind and heart the space they need to talk to each other.  In a way, it’s a practice of being present to myself, a means of personal awareness and wellbeing.  But its benefits, thankfully, go way beyond me.  What I am able to give to others deepens as a consequence.

Presence to place: for me, walking is also a routine discipline of being present to my neighbourhood … really noticing it.  It’s certainly true that we see places when we walk in a way that we would never see them otherwise.  As Solnit says, when we walk we give ourselves to places and, in turn, they return the favour: ‘when you give yourself to places, they give you yourself back; the more one comes to know them, the more one seeds them with the invisible crop of memories and associations that will be waiting for you when you come back, while new places offer up new thoughts, new possibilities. Exploring the world is one of the best ways of exploring the mind, and walking travels both terrains.’