In 2014 we planted our church on the urban perimeter of a gentrifying industrial area in Sydney, Australia. Like many of Australia’s fastest growing cities, Sydney is filled with many young professionals, students, and creatives. We’re also home to huge numbers of people who immigrate annually to Australia from all across Southeast Asia.
These factors makes Sydney both a remarkably large and highly diverse city. In fact, we’re home to nearly 20 percent of Australia’s total population. Our city is like one giant melting pot of cultures, worldviews, and languages. None of this changes the core of our church’s mission. But it does affect the shape church planting takes in our city, making the contours of the Great Commission distinct from elsewhere in the world.
The Island of Misfit Boys
Like many modern Western nations, Australia has a strong culture of anti-authoritarianism and resistance to power. Our history as the primary penal colony of the Commonwealth realms, however, means that Australians openly celebrate this rebellious spirit. For example, many Australians still venerate “criminal heroes” like Ned Kelly, an infamous escaped convict, gang leader, and murderer of police officers.
“It’s hard to convince a nation descended from prisoners that there’s One whose authority is for their good.”
To this day there’s a strong larrikin culture in Australia’s inner cities, where gangs still glorify the old outlaws and imitate their ridicule and defiance of authority figures. The vast majority of Australians aren’t gang members, of course. But it’s hard to convince a nation descended from prisoners that there’s One whose authority is for their good (Matt. 28:18).
Tall Poppy Syndrome
Australia is a highly egalitarian culture, where equality is prized above all. This means we’re uncomfortable with self-promotion, we love to support the underdog, and we even ride in the front seat of a taxi (lest we be accused of being chauffeured by someone not our equal).
This radical love of equality has produced a social phenomenon called Tall Poppy Syndrome. It’s a disdain of uniqueness and success such that Australians will cut down any person who tries to “rise above” the rest. Effectively, it’s communism for the ego!
For this reason, Australians will often talk down their achievements. At times, this makes leadership and entrepreneurial endeavors like church planting quite difficult. Starting a new church is often met with suspicion and tentativeness, even—or especially—within the Christian community. This means we have to remind folks of the biblical precedent for church planting and the goodness of gifts employed for the glory of God and the good of others (1 Cor. 12:4–7).
Australia is a highly secular nation, and urban Sydney is one of secularism’s strongholds. Our city values individual expression and personal autonomy above all. People here also uphold much of the secular humanist narrative. That is, most believe that we don’t need God to give us purpose, significance, and meaning in life. Faith is, therefore, seen as a very private matter that shouldn’t enter the public square.
Naturally, this also means Aussies aren’t comfortable with “celebrity Christian” sports persons, artists, or film stars. Likewise, there’s little to no political advantage for a political candidate to identify as a Christian. This “hidden faith” component only worsens the growing tensions between religious and secular worldviews in Australia, which continue to spark ethical debates similar to those flaring up in many Western nations today (such as same-sex marriage, religious freedom, and abortion).
On top of all this, the spiritual climate in Sydney is enormously apathetic. We have some of the best culture, beaches, climate, quality of life, and standard of living in the world. We also have a massive welfare system, which means we have relatively low levels of poverty. Instead of gratitude to God for all this abundance, people simply do not perceive their need for him (Prov. 30:9).
“The spiritual climate in Sydney is enormously apathetic.”
How can we bring the gospel to a pluralistic population like ours when interest in spirituality is so low? We’ve developed five strategies for church planting that are tailored to our context.
1. Send Them Out
As many as 70 percent of Australians say they would never set foot in a church, and only 8 percent of Australians attend church regularly (at least once per month). That stat includes attendance at any church that would fall under the broad “Christian” umbrella. In the urban centers of major cities like Sydney, however, regular church attendance is as low as 1 to 2 percent.
Because of this, we simply cannot rely on a “come to us” strategy for reaching our city. So we’ve developed a simple tool to equip our church to be intentionally evangelistic in their everyday life. We call it 5-for-5, because we ask every church member to identify five friends and do five things.
- Pray for them every day.
- Contact them once a week.
- Bless them once a month.
- Invite them to celebrations, gatherings, and events.
- Share your faith whenever a good opportunity arises.
In addition, we’ve trained our people to share their testimony using the four movements of the gospel (creation, fall, redemption, restoration). While some will always feel more comfortable sharing the gospel than others, everyone should be able to tell their own story through the lens of what Jesus has done for them.
2. Meet Them Where They Are
Because many Aussies won’t step foot inside a church, we try to meet them where they are. As a part of this strategy, our church hosts a recurring four-week course on Monday evenings in a local restaurant. We cover the basics of the Christian faith and allow room for unbelievers to ask questions. We actively encourage our church members to bring friends to this course. We’ve had around thirty unbelievers attend over the last two years. That may seem small to some people, but for a church in a thoroughly post-Christian culture like ours, it’s an occasion for much praise.
“Because many Aussies won’t step foot inside a church, we try to meet them where they are.”
3. Invite Them In
In a large, frantic city like Sydney, people ironically feel isolated and lonely. To make matters worse, there has been a significant rise in single-person households. Many have described our cultural moment as an epidemic of loneliness. Thus, our vision has been to create authentic communities where we live out the gospel-formed identity as a family. These gospel communities (small groups) have been hubs of community and mission. We also have a church-wide strategy of hosting quarterly dinner parties where people invite their friends to encounter authentic Christian community.
4. Anticipate Their Objections
One of the ways we seek to engage our city is to anticipate our culture’s objections in every sermon. For example, before preaching on the wonder and hope of the resurrection in this year’s Easter sermon, we gave six reasons why we believe the resurrection is a historical reality. We have to show Aussies who think religion is irrelevant that the resurrection matters for their lives. But we also have to demonstrate that there are good reasons for believing the resurrection really happened. Both are necessary. This sort of approach not only speaks to any unbelievers we have in our gatherings each week but also equips our people to assume too much in conversations with their unbelieving friends.
5. Pray Without Ceasing
In truth, this probably should take the top spot. We recognize that all our strategic attempts to engage the people of our city are fruitless if they are not saturated in prayer. As such, we’ve tried to develop an intentional prayer culture. We contend for our city and plead for an outpouring of the Spirit as we ask God to bless our faithfulness and stretch out his hand to accomplish what only he can do.