Finding new life in the Uniting church

There’s a big car park with a clean white conference-centre-sized church behind it, with a modern-looking curved white roof. It’s not Hillsong but, if you squinted a little, it might be. In fact, it is Newlife Uniting Church on the Gold Coast.

Lead pastor Stu Cameron heads a church which attracts 1700 people each weekend to the river-side campus, down the road from the main shopping centre of Australia’s fastest growing city. About 2500 to 3000 regard Newlife as their church home. The church has 110 small groups, runs the evangelistic Alpha course regularly, and 91,000 volunteer hours per year. It has grown 7 to 11 per cent annually over the last decade. Amazingly enough, about ten per cent of the UCA’s Queenslander church attenders go to Newlife.

“… a rapidly growing proportion of our society has no experience of church.” – Stu Cameron

“I’d describe us as a contemporary evangelical church,” says Cameron. “Just like many in post-Christian Australia, it is a post-denominational church.

“I’d describe the make-up of the church as the ‘unchurched’ (those with no experience of the Christian faith), the ‘de-churched’ (who have drifted out of the church for, possibly, 20 or 30 years – often baby boomer seachangers, looking for community), and the ‘over-churched’ (people who have been hurt by the Christian church; for example, by abusive leaders)

“Some time ago my wife, who runs our playgroup, had one of the mums say, ‘I’d love to come to church’ and she asked, ‘Do I have to buy a ticket?’ It was a healthy reminder to me that a rapidly growing proportion of our society has no experience of church.”

“It very much was a ‘field of dreams’ church; ‘build it and they will come.'” – Stu Cameron

“Without trying to be trite, what is going on here is that God is at work” says Cameron. “What this church has been about since it started 23 years ago is creating the space that God can work by the power of his Spirit in people’s lives.”

“It very much was a ‘field of dreams’ church; ‘build it and they will come.’” The local Presbytery (regional council) made a tough call to tell four small churches to come together, selling the church buildings and buying nine acres of prime waterfront land in a not-yet-developed part of the Gold Coast.

Asked what is special about Newlife, Cameron nominates strong leadership – but not the sort of leadership that has all the ideas or makes all the decisions.

“There’s been a strong focus on leadership. This church has had strong leadership across its life. There’s been seasons of challenge but right from the outset, people have prayed, and continue to pray every week that God would develop and send strong leaders here.”

“Whatever good happens here, is a work of God’s Spirit.” – Stu Cameron

“I had a moment of revelation I suppose about a year ago, when I was reflecting on some of the more significant ministries we now have here. None of them started with a strategic plan. None of them started out of a pastor’s office. They all came out of a heartburst of a leader in the life of our church.

“So, Crossroads – our ministry for people with disabilities, which is very significant – started with a couple that had a son with a disability and wanted to do something for him and for his friends. From a handful of people, that is now a ministry that touches 300 people every week.

“Newlife Care was pioneered by a remarkable couple, John and Annette Tully, who worked at the margins of this church. A ministry for people coming out of domestic violence situations was started by a couple of women in our church, not pastors or leaders. Rahab Ministry, which visits women in the sex industry, was started by a couple of young women in our church.”

“It’s a crossroads moment for the Uniting Church.” – Stu Cameron

He adds: “Whatever good happens here, is a work of God’s Spirit.” Newlife’s vision has four building blocks: Developing leaders; a healthy growing church; church planting; being a ‘lighthouse’ church that blesses others. Newlife already has planted two churches. Their Pacific Pines campus is now a separate church called Uniting North and, earlier this year, 50 people were sent to plant a new church at Burleigh Heads. Newlife has begun conversations about a plant in Brisbane. Such a move is radical in the UCA world because it crosses into another region.

Cameron’s ‘lighthouse’ church vision is modelled on London’s Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB), the home of Alpha, which has planted or revitalised many new churches in the Church of England. The UCA has plenty of underused church buildings and a HTB movement to fill them again is in Cameron’s sights

“It’s a crossroads moment for the Uniting Church,” he says. “One way is pointing towards a radically missional future for the Uniting Church, but the other one –I fear that if we are not courageous in this moment, we are in danger of having a very expensive funeral, where the assets we have, mostly in property, will be gradually sold off to manage our decline.”

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