The praises of CityLife Church were sung by some of the most influential international Christian leaders on the weekend.
The church held five 50-year celebration services at its 2000-seat auditorium in Wantirna South in Melbourne, with the final Sunday 5pm service live-streamed online, as members tuned in from overseas and across Australia.
Churchgoers heard video messages from popular pastors Bill Hybels, Brian Houston, Phil Pringle and Wayne Alcorn, who congratulated the church on hitting the rare milestone.
…there was a palpable sense of thanksgiving and gratefulness to God for all he has done.
The atmosphere buzzed, and there was a palpable sense of thanksgiving and gratefulness to God for all he has done.
It isn’t often that a church can celebrate such an anniversary, and C3 Church Global leader Phil Pringle noted this in his video message to CityLife, saying, “50 years, what an achievement! Not a lot of churches are still alive, and zesty and reaching out like you have proven yourselves to be.”
From humble beginnings in a small shopfront with just 11-12 people, the then ‘Waverley Mission’ now has close to 10,000 members made up of 105 nationalities, 2600 volunteers, and more than 540 life groups.
“Not a lot of churches are still alive, and zesty and reaching out like you have proven yourselves to be.” – Phil Pringle
Over a 90-minute church service, the milestones of CityLife Church were celebrated in three chapters, corresponding to the three successive Senior Ministers.
Chapter One: 1967-1986, Richard Holland
Richard John Holland founded Waverley Mission in 1967, meeting in a small shopfront in Glen Waverley. Richard was married to Margaret, fondly known as ‘Garry’ and they had two children, Robin and Hilary.
One long-term CityLife member, Joe Liow, remembers Richard Holland as a warm gentleman, and “one of the nicest people on earth. He is someone who when you rub shoulders with him, you can’t help but feeling, ‘yes! I can do this!’”
The multiculturalism of CityLife Church is striking, and it’s apparent that this welcoming heart towards all cultures stems right back to the earliest days. Aussie families were encouraged to ‘adopt’ Asian students and make them feel part of the family, taking them out for lunch and welcoming them into their homes.
“…he would look at each individual and always see the good, and what the person could become, and not what they are now.” – Joe Liow
“To the credit of Richard and the team back then, a lot of those Asian students have now gone back home to wherever they came from, to become pastors and church planters,” says a church member.
Richard encouraged everyone to exercise the spiritual gifts they’d been given by the Holy Spirit, but perhaps one of his most distinctive traits was his vision.
“He was a guy who had so much vision, not only for the church, but he would look at each individual and always see the good, and what the person could become, and not what they are now,” says Liow.
When the church had 350 members, Richard Holland had a vision for a church of 1500 people, which at the time was “way out there” in the words of a long-time member. People were saying that to have a church of 1500, “you must be crazy.”
The 350 members all pitched in to purchase the huge 9.6 acre block of land in Wantirna South, and the church changed names to ‘Waverley Christian Fellowship’.
Chapter Two: 1986-1995, Kevin Conner
When Richard’s health began deteriorating, he decided to step down and hand the leadership on to Kevin John Conner. The church had 600 members by this time, and Kevin Conner had already been assisting Richard in leadership for many years.
Kevin brought a different style of leadership to what was then known as Waverley Christian Fellowship. “They are two different personalities. Richard very much the pastor, and the prophetic aspect to his ministry, and Kevin the teacher,” said one member.
“Kevin had a different style of ministry to Richard. He brought in the teaching, and the constitution, which was great,” recalls another.
In Richard’s book, From An Acorn to An Oak Tree: A history of Waverley Christian Fellowship, he says, “Kevin was a teacher, but who, I wondered, would pastor? Would the sheep be cared for? The answer of course was YES. When I think of the apostle Paul, I usually think of a man who was a theologian, who was an organiser, who instructed through all his epistles. But when I read those epistles and listen to the prayers he makes, I see the heart of a shepherd with a care and concern for his sheep.”
“[Kevin Conner] taught me to love the word, and his teaching brought the Bible alive.”
Kevin’s wife Joyce played a key part assisting Kevin in pastoral care and women’s ministry, and the church really felt the loss when she passed away suddenly in 1990. Kevin remarried in 1992 to long-time friend, Rene Arrowsmith.
Under the leadership of Kevin, the church grew to more than 1500, and the building was extended to seat 1250 people. The Leadership Bible College and Key of Knowledge seminars were also started during Kevin’s leadership.
“He taught me to love the word, and his teaching brought the Bible alive,” said one member.
Chapter Three: 1995 -2017, Mark Conner
If Kevin was known for his biblical teaching, order and systematic approach, his son Mark Conner has been known for his strategic leadership and communication.
Mark was 33 years old when he was appointed Senior Minister. Married to Nicole, they had three young kids, and Mark had been on the church staff since 1985 in a variety of roles. Nicole served alongside Mark on the Senior Leadership team for 15 years, and Nicole’s significant contribution was acknowledged over the weekend at the celebration services.
“Mark [Conner] continued the legacy of his earthly dad, Pastor Kevin Conner, and he followed the footsteps of his heavenly father, helping CityLife to become an even brighter light on a hill.” – Bill Hybels
Well-known pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois, Bill Hybels, said this in his video message: “I have long held Mark and Nicole in high regard, for their selfless dedication to the advancement of God’s kingdom. When Mark took over as Citylife Senior Minister in 1995, he followed his father’s footsteps in more ways than one. Mark continued the legacy of his earthly dad, Pastor Kevin Conner, and he followed the footsteps of his heavenly father, helping CityLife to become an even brighter light on a hill.”
Mark Conner took everything to a new level. In the words of Richard J. Holland from his book, “He is the multiplier.”
Under Mark’s leadership, the CityLife Community Care programme was launched in 1995, and in 2004, the major $7 million building expansion grew the auditorium to seat 2000 people, and included the name change from Waverley Christian Fellowship to CityLife Church.
Mark introduced multi-site campuses, with the first campus being launched in 2006: CityLife Casey. Today there are four CityLife sites in Victoria: Knox, Casey, Manningham and Whittlesea.
Ray Henderson, the previous Chair of Board of Elders (2007-2016), said, “I think casting vision is one thing; seeing it through over a number of years, and doing that effectively, is another, and he did both of those things extremely well.
“So the vision wasn’t just the church, it was all of the ministries of the church: CityLife Community Care, World Impact, different sites – that wasn’t even thought of, and now we have four different sites.”
Mark built on the firm foundation laid by Richard and Kevin, according to pastor Gurmit Gill, who says, “I think what Richard and Kevin started, embracing people from different backgrounds, and different cultures, Mark took it to a whole new level.”
Pastor Daljit Gill attributes the 540 life groups that CityLife now has to Mark’s vision.
But apart from being a visionary, Mark is known for being down-to-earth and personable. His long-term personal assistant Sue Veal says, “as well as an amazing communicator on the stage, I saw him as a very authentic and real person to work with.”
“Everyone’s got this feeling that like we’re about to take a step somewhere; we sort of don’t know where, but we’re excited because we know God’s building the church.” – Judd Field
Another member adds: “People said to us when we first came here, in a big church, the Senior Minister will be aloof, because they have to be – there are so many people, how can they get to know everybody? But, in fact, we saw the opposite. We saw Mark greeting people like a pastor in a small church would, going out his way to see a visitor put their hand up and say hello, and at the same time, lead in a pretty spectacular way.”
The Next Chapter: Andrew Hill
Next weekend, CityLife Church will farewell Mark and Nicole Conner, and reflect on all the good memories and significant contributions they made to CityLife Church.
Mark will hand the baton on to Andrew Hill as the new Senior Minister.
The church is in great shape: more than 10,000 members, more than 500 life groups, and global and local outreach ministries making significant impact.
With the next chapter about to be written, there is a feeling of anticipation in the air.
“Everyone’s got this feeling that like we’re about to take a step somewhere; we sort of don’t know where, but we’re excited because we know God’s building the church,” says Judd Field, a worship leader.
Some prayer points to help
Thank God for 50 years of ministry at CityLife Church in Melbourne, and pray that people would continue to grow in maturity.