Around the country, beach side campsites have once again played host to thousands of Australian Christians seeking out the sun and the surf for a higher purpose.
For regular campers, tents teeming with Christians are not unusual. Beach and family missions run through Scripture Union have been a staple of summer camping holidays for over 120 years.
It’s also become a regular feature on Joshua Maule’s annual calendar. A Bible college student and regular regular contributor to Eternity, Josh has just returned from Huskisson on the NSW South Coast where he served for 10 days as a director of the Huskisson beach mission team, and where he has served now for eight years.
His team of 70 Christians joined hundreds of teams and thousands of volunteers on the coast of Australia, making the most of the holiday season to serve their tented (and caravanned) communities and tell people about Jesus.
In Huskisson, a new feature of the beach mission was their café, complete with professional barista and coffee machine. Josh estimates the team handed out over 300 coffees in their 10 days in Huskisson, and drew many more adults to the mission tents than they’d seen before.
“Adults who normally would be intimidated by our big tents or who didn’t have kids to drop off [to our programs], they came along…so we had way more connections with people than ever.”
Miriam Dale’s beach mission experience at Lakes Entrance, on Victoria’s Gippsland coast, five hours east of Melbourne, also saw a changing demographic with its ‘Theos’ mission program that aims to connect specifically with young adults and teenagers.
It’s Miriam’s first time as part of the team at Lakes Entrance, where the mission has been running for just three years. and this year the activities were more “chilled”, with a zone for hanging out, free henna tattoos, pancakes and tea and coffee, a bit of music, basketball out the back and games to play. “Nintendo 64 was a big drawcard,” she said.
“Mostly it’s a combination of trying to just make them feel safe and comfortable and show God’s love by creating a good space for them, and as much as possible trying to talk to them about how they feel about God and whether that’s a part of their life or not.”
Conversations and relationships are the name of the game at beach missions, and the friendships forged over barbeques and beach cricket or, in Miriam’s case, over a fake tattoo table in the Theos tent, have laid seeds for the kingdom.
“One kid asked me to do a yin-yang on his hand, and I wasn’t sure about the theology of doing that at beach mission. But I sort of thought, well you know, here’s an opportunity. He wasn’t going anywhere because I was tattooing his had, so I asked him, ‘What do you reckon about this stuff? And what about good and evil and how they work together?’ And then I explained what we believe.”
Another conversation saw Miriam reading Psalm 139 with a young man who’d been doing a lot of travelling, but who spoke of not feeling like he had a sense of identity.
“Psalm 139 … talks about God knowing us and what it means to be known. Hopefully he’ll keep thinking about it. That’s what we hope for.”
As for Huskisson, Josh says some of his greatest conversations this year came “out of the blue”.
“I was just standing there one day and got introduced to this guy. We were talking about his life and his work, and very quickly, he started telling me some really deep things about his life and what’s happened to him. He ended up in tears, divulging to me some of his biggest fears and hopes in life. One thing he said to me was ‘I just want to have peace’. I got to have a good chat and prayed for him.”
For Josh, genuine conversations with people who, at other times of their lives, would never stop to talk to you, is an opportunity he just can’t pass up. At the campsites, “people don’t have much to do, they’ve got a lot of time on their hands. They’re happy to sit around doing crosswords, or drinking beer, or at the beach, and they’re up for a chat… to think about the big questions of life.”
But there are other reasons that beach mission has a lasting impact well into the new year, and well after the tents are packed and sites begin to grow new grass.
“You’ve got a team of people who love Jesus, who need opportunities to grow in their service of him, opportunities to share the gospel for themselves and share their testimonies, take risks, try new things, make mistakes. And mission just has a huge impact and flow-on effect in the churches for that reason.”
The challenge of close quarters, heat, dirt, events every night, and throwing yourself outside your comfort zone to meet dozens of strangers everyday can be overwhelming, but Josh says the experience constantly teaches him more about God.
“I think [beach mission] is a microcosm of the Christian life generally…God’s taught me about that verse in the Bible where it says to preach the word in season and out of season (2 Tim 4:2). Sometimes you’re really feeling it on mission and you want to share the word, and other times you don’t – you’d prefer to sit down for awhile and rest your feet. But God’s been teaching me to strive to love people even when I don’t feel like it.”
Just as in John 3:8, Josh says he trusts in God’s power, desires and timing to see people’s lives change as they submit to Jesus. “God works as he desires, and we’ll see the fruits of that.”
In Victoria, as Miriam prepares to head home, it’s with renewed awe at seeing the “master storyteller” at work.
“Everyone has got their story going on, everyone whose lives we’re interacting with. It’s not in a vacuum, we’re stepping into the middle of their lives and the middle of their experience of church or God, or faith or spirituality and it’s just this amazing sense of not knowing what God’s been doing up until now, or what their experience of church has been like, but we get the chance to be a part of it, and that’s exciting.”More