It’s hard work sharing the gospel in the bush
New director says Bush Church Aid needs your help
In modern Australia, where two-thirds of people live in capital cities, it’s easy to think of the “Aussie bush” as a construct belonging to old-fashioned legends such as Ned Kelly and The Man From Snowy River.
But new head of the Bush Church Aid Society, Greg Harris, is on a mission to remind Australians that “bush” communities are still a vital part of our nation, and they play a key role in spreading the gospel of Jesus.
“A significant proportion of Australians still live outside our capital cities and larger centres,” Harris tells Eternity.
“I realise how easy it is for the needs in the country to be out of sight and out of mind. We need to keep reminding people of the bigger picture of what’s happening in Australia and what God is doing.” – Greg Harris
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“‘Who will go to the rural, regional and remote parts of Australia and share God’s grace?’ is one question that needs to be asked. A second question to be asked, and pertinent for those living in our city and urban areas, is, ‘am I willing to support that work prayerfully and financially?’
“Having only been back in the city now for a little over a month, I realise how easy it is for the needs in the country to be out of sight and out of mind. We need to keep reminding people of the bigger picture of what’s happening in Australia and what God is doing, and that they actually can play a role in that.”
While Harris grew up in western Sydney, he thinks of himself as “a bit of a country boy”, and his experience of living and working in the country has lent him a good understanding of the many challenges in sharing the gospel in these areas.
Harris steps in as BCA’s 12th national director at a crucial point in the organisation’s history – the centenary year, when it celebrates 100 years of its mission: “going the distance to reach Australia for Christ”.
It’s also perfect timing, as it means BCA has come full circle. Harris, who moves from church ministry in South East Bendigo, points out that 100 years ago BCA’s first national director, another boy from Bendigo named SJ Kirkby, moved to Sydney to take up the reins. Harris believes the words and vision of his predecessor are more important today than ever for those willing to serve beyond the increasingly urbanised areas of Australia.
“Kirkby talked about the grace, grit and gumption needed to be BCA field staff,” he explains to Eternity.
“I think that’s an awesome summary because not only does it speak about the grace that we have in Christ, but also about the grace that you need to serve people. Sometimes you need grit because it’s not always going to be easy and you need the gumption to find creative ways of being able to reach people in various parts of Australia.”
Harris discovered his innate love for country life when he moved to Armidale in northwest NSW to study a Bachelor of Natural Resources at university (which he describes as “environmental management before it became trendy”). While there, he became involved in the uni church and its missions to small towns in the area. Not only did this experience change his plans to become a park ranger, but it also inspired him to become a youth worker in an Anglican church in Moree, where he served for a couple of years while working on cotton farms on the side.
“When I moved to Armidale for university, I thought to myself ‘I’ve been born in the wrong spot.’ I’m not saying that God made mistakes, but I just really feel at home in the country. I thought ‘this is where I belong, this is what I’m passionate about and this is what I enjoy.’”
He went on to become a minister and returned to the Armidale area, to lead a church at Collarenebri, where he encouraged the congregation to support the work of BCA.
“I always had a soft spot for BCA; it always resonated with me,” he says.
“I challenged the parish to increase our giving to BCA to support other rural ministries and see if God would honour that. The very next year, 12 months later at our AGM, our bank account was exactly the same but during that year we had doubled our giving to BCA.”
“If a small, marginally viable, country church gave generously so that other country churches might benefit and God honoured that, then could not urban and city churches take up the challenge too?” – Greg Harris
In recalling this story, Harris challenges city churches to consider the question, “if a small, marginally viable, country church gave generously so that other country churches might benefit and God honoured that, then could not urban and city churches take up the challenge too?”
His support for BCA continued during his next church leadership roles at Guyra and South East Bendigo.
In fact, Harris admits: “I always wondered if I might actually end up as a BCA field worker myself one day, but I think God obviously had other plans – he wanted me to work for BCA but in a role I totally didn’t expect …
“Here I am back in the city, but I think God is bringing the jigsaw puzzle pieces together – with the experience of living and working in the city, as well as knowing, experiencing and living in the bush, and being able to draw from the experiences of both in order to fulfil the role. I’m feeling comfortable in both, being able to be all things to all people.”
“I think God is bringing the jigsaw puzzle pieces together.” – Greg Harris
Although he certainly won’t be stuck in a Sydney office for long. Along with his wife Karen – now empty-nesters with two adult sons – Harris is looking forward to “getting around to the different places that BCA is part of, and seeing the things that God’s doing around our nation in rural, remote and regional parts of Australia”.
This will involve visiting many of the 40 locations where BCA field staff are working (on top of the daily phone call he tries to make to a BCA team member to hear how things are going “one the ground”).
“It’s not always easy; sometimes it’s very isolating,” says Harris, who believes his experience of living and working in the country has given him a good understanding of the challenges facing many BCA field staff.
“While you get to celebrate with and encourage God’s faithful people, you also become, in many ways, the chaplain to a whole town in some places, particularly in small, remote areas …
“You also become, in many ways, the chaplain to a whole town in some places,” – Greg Harris
“One of the challenges in reaching people in the bush is that there’s always limited resources. And then there’s dwindling populations in some areas but exploding populations in others, like mining areas and the new tree-change areas …
“BCA is always trying to do is ask how do we respond to that? How do we use the resources that people graciously donate to go into those areas and to be strategic in reaching people?”
He identifies some of the creative methods BCA has employed to stretch its resources, including a digital church pilot project in Tasmania to deliver virtual Bible teaching and leadership training, and employing area evangelists – James and Brittany Daymond in Narromine, NSW – to “visit every single person in the district” and work alongside the local Anglican church. In addition, he notes, “we’re always continuing to look at new opportunities for helping SRE in schools, plus diocesan youth ministries.”
“You can’t do ministry by email. You’ve got to also have people on the ground who will walk alongside others.” – Greg Harris
Another major challenge is the drought, although, ironically, Harris says it’s both a blessing and a curse when sharing the gospel.
“The drought is all-consuming in some parts of Australia. Some BCA staff are in really drought-stricken areas and people are really struggling. At the same time, that actually can provide the impetus to ask the bigger questions. So it’s both a challenge and, especially, an opportunity to walk beside people and care for them.”
This leads to the greatest challenge of all: finding people who are willing to serve in remote parts of Australia. While technology can solve a small part of the problem in taking the gospel to remote areas, Harris notes “you can’t do ministry by email. You’ve got to also have people on the ground who will walk alongside others. I think we’ve seen that seeing that through the millennia. God has always sent people as well as his message.”
As much of the Australian population continues to gravitate to cities, large regional centres and the coastal fringes, Harris admits that he has asked the question, “Who’s going to come out and be a minister to all these people in all these different parts of Australia?”
“It’s a dangerous question to ask,” he says, “because it might be that God’s actually putting it on your heart to be the one …
“Finding good people who are willing to go to remote parts of Australia is always a challenge. But I have such a trust in God that he is always preparing people for his good purposes … and raising up people for his church. We just need to be sensitive to that still, small voice.”