Becky and I recently had the great privilege of traveling to the land down under for about 12 days of ministry and fellowship. While we’re still a little bit tired from the return trip jetlag and still processing all we met and all we saw, I thought it might be interesting to some to jot down some notes from our time there.
The trip was organized by a collection of (mostly) Brethren churches that affiliate under the organization Christian Community Churches of Australia (CCCAus). There is a great move toward gospel-centrality ongoing in this evangelical tribe, and we had a blast getting to know many of the pastors and leaders at the forefront. My friend Chris Thomas who is a vocational elder at Raymond Terrace Community Church in the Hunter Valley on the mid-coast of New South Wales was our primary contact point for the trip, and he and his colleagues facilitated an experience for us that was both fruitful and joyful.
Becky and I departed Los Angeles on March 8 and, despite flying for only 13 hours, we landed in Brisbane on March 10. (I’m still a little bitter with the Aussies for stealing a day from me.) There we met up with Phil and Adele Thomas (Chris’s parents), who were our incredible hosts for the first few days of our trip. Phil and Adele are dear people we connected with very much just in our short time together. They took us first up into Queensland, into the Bunya Mountains, where we joined them on a retreat for the elders and wives of Bundaberg Bible Church, where Phil is a vocational elder.
While the first few days in the mountains were largely intended for rest and recovery from the trip over, a way to catch our breath and prepare for the upcoming itinerary, I spoke a bit on the material in my book The Pastor’s Justification at a couple of the elders’ gatherings. Most of the time, however, Beck and I had the chance to explore the mountains. We went for a hike in the Bunya “scenic circuit,” drank coffee on the back porch of our villa serenaded by countless songbirds, hung out with all the wallabies, fed the parrots and cockatoos, and just generally enjoyed the company of our hosts.
From Bunya we traveled with Phil and Adele down to Bundaberg, where I preached Sunday morning at their church. The reception to the gospel there was sweet, and our first taste of corporate worship in Australia was a joy. After church, we had some delicious fish and chips with our friends on the shores of beautiful Hervey Bay. That night Phil and Adele took us to Mon Repos, where we witnessed the transcendentally adorable sight of sea turtle hatchlings making their first journey into the ocean!
It was sad parting ways the next day, but it was time for the next leg of our journey. The Thomases drove us back down to Brisbane, where we met up with John Fleming, a bivocational elder at Wollongbar Christian Church, which is located in a beautiful village on the coast of New South Wales. The church hosted a gathering of Christians from a variety of local churches that Tuesday night, and I spoke to a packed house on the topic of “Keys to Discipling New Believers.”
The work in Wollongbar is particularly interesting and peculiar, as the local area is becoming more and more discriminatory to churches, especially in the area of building and zoning. The story behind Wollongbar’s building space is nothing short of a miraculous answer to prayer, and the place is growing so much, they are already planning to build a larger sanctuary on their current property. Being smack-dab in the middle of a developing neighborhood puts them in the center of community activity, as well, which is ideal for their missional aims.
We stayed with John’s family during our time there and met his wife and grown children. We were incredibly blessed by their hospitality and Becky especially enjoyed exploring the Flemings’ lush backyard gardens with her camera, looking for kookaburras and cockatoos.
From Wollongbar, John drove us further down the eastern coast of Australia. We ate chocolate and drank coffee on the Sunshine Coast, took pictures of some fabulous beaches, and ate salt-and-pepper squid at a cool little cafe on the Gold Coast. The sights were beautiful, despite it being a pretty dreary, rainy day. Parting ways with John, we flew from Brisbane to Newcastle, where we finally met up with Chris and journeyed to Raymond Terrace.
We had dinner with the elders and wives of his church on the night of our arrival. The next day was purely a fun day. Chris and his wife Kath took us to Oakvale Farm, which is managed by members of their church. Becky finally realized her dream of cuddling a koala! Several of them, actually. And we fed the kangaroos and kept our distance from the crocodiles and cassuaries. That evening we ate shrimp stew overlooking the Hunter River and walked back to our hotel through downtown Raymond Terrace at dusk under the ominous and intimidating cloud of thousands of fruit bats on their evening frenzy.
The next day Chris drove us down to Camp Toukley for the BUILD Conference. This event was the primary reason for our trip. I preached 4 times at this men’s conference, which has been running for nearly 50 years! The conference has seen a resurgence in attendance in the last few years, owed largely to a renewed commitment to cooperation among area churches and to the sweet gospel renewal taking place in these parts. The preaching was very well received. The men of these churches are characteristically sweet, humble, teachable, and full of life and joy. (In addition, Beck and I just loved the laid-back, largely casual, “no worries” demeanor of basically everybody we encountered during our visit. Nobody seems particularly infected with the hurry sickness epidemic in the United States, and we noticed the difference most starkly when we later returned to the San Francisco airport.)
At the close of conference that Saturday afternoon, we traveled with a CCCAus leader Bradley Scott, another key organizer of our trip, to his home in Sydney. On Sunday morning I preached at One Community Church, a Samoan congregation in the city. The congregation was lively and enthusiastic and we heard some of the best music of our time in Australia. This church is growing quickly and they are rapidly outgrowing their warehouse space, which is prompting both a desire to expand their facilities into the neighboring warehouses and an intensified pace in church planting. They have already planted several churches and have a strategic plan for 12 more in the next 12 years!
I don’t know if you’ve ever been to an Australian tea. What we discovered is that when Australians say “Would you like to have tea?” what they mean is “Would you like to have a meal?” The Samoan “tea” after church conisted of sandwiches, rice pudding, salad, fruit, and donuts. Pastor Tom Meredith and his family treated us so warmly and affectionately.
After a brief rest that afternoon, including a quick jaunt to a Sydney flea market, I preached that evening in a suburban Sydney church, West Pennant Hills Community Church, pastored by Tim Kirkegard. Tim and his team were fantastic hosts, and while they don’t normally have a Sunday evening gathering, his sanctuary was full that night with people eager to hear the word. I preached from 2 Peter 1, and the response and ministry time afterward was very encouraging.
Beck and I had one more day to enjoy the coast before heading back home, and it just so happened that I had one free night as an account holder with a particular hotel chain that was about to expire, so we figured, When are we gonna be back in Sydney, Australia? I booked our free night at a hotel on the Sydney Harbour and we spent Monday exploring. We took the ferry across to Manly and toured the shops and cafes on the beach there. We went to the sea reserve on Manly and saw the sharks and rays and penguins. Beck took a lot of pictures.
On Tuesday we boarded our plane for the 13 hour flight back to the States. In all, I spoke 10 times in those 12 days, so while we had lots of fun, it was not a little tiring. The jet lag on the return is no joke, by the way, and while it took me a few days of daytime exhaustion and overnight wakefulness, we both came home with full hearts and many fond memories. The Lord is doing something wonderful and exciting among the churches we visited and many more besides. I am looking forward, Lord willing, to returning to the country next Easter and hope to see many of our new friends again.
Pray for these dear brothers and sisters. In many ways, Australia is a few steps behind the evangelical gospel-centered movement of the states, but they are also a few steps ahead of us into the uncertainty of post-Christian culture. But even though, as I learned, there are no “big cats” in Australia, Aslan is on the move there.
(If you read this whole thing, I thank you. I knew it would be of limited interest, but it was helpful to me to process this way. I hope it was helpful to you in some way, as well.)
Here are some pictures: