An important man in an overlooked town
The joyful discoveries of being a minister outside the big smoke
As the minister in a small mining town in central Queensland, Luke Collings enjoys being seen as a positive force – an authentic witness of Christ – in the local community.
“When there are opportunities for Christians to be a good practical and personal support to families, it does get noticed,” says the minister at St Francis Anglican Church in Moranbah, a remote coal mining town inland from Mackay. The sort of lesser known regional Australian town that isn’t at the top of lists as an in-demand destination.
“The gospel is still going in many of these places …” – Luke Collings
“A number of times we’ve had families in a crisis or difficult situation and … we still have that role to play which is quite well accepted and even encouraged. In a small community, there are opportunities that you just wouldn’t get in a big suburban parish. The boundaries are drawn pretty tight and everyone knows each other.”
Luke and his wife Julia, with their three children, left the comfort of a parish in West Lindfield on Sydney’s north shore to take up ministry in Moranbah in October 2017. The Collings family is supported in Moranbah by Bush Church Aid Society, which will celebrate its centenary in May.
Collings says it is wonderful to be part of a ministry that was founded to serve Christ in the sorts of places which can be overlooked.
“The ministry of BCA was set up because of a real conviction that reaching really remote communities and places which might not look to the world as ‘strategic’ or ‘important’ was actually important in God’s plans for the world,” he says.
“I think that’s what everyone in BCA does have a conviction for – we go to the remote places, the difficult places. We keep on preaching Christ and the gospel is still going in many of these places that have been supported by BCA for many years – and that’s a wonderful blessing.
“It’s wonderful to be part of that and, if this is where we are at 100 years, it will be amazing to see what happens at 200 years and beyond because it has such a wonderful role in seeing Christ go out into this country.”
“I’m ministering in an environment where I feel very happy and where I can use the best of my gifts.” – Luke Collings
Collings says he was always open to the idea of going bush with his ministry. He spent a lot of his formative years outside Sydney and also acquired a broad occupational background, which encompassed not only ordinary pastoral work in parishes but working with Anglicare in a regional capacity and finishing a masters of theology degree.
“So ministering in Queensland felt like a really good fit for my experience and the sorts of things I was interested in. I’m ministering in an environment where I feel very happy and where I can use the best of my gifts,” he says.
He gives the example of working with a young man who had been referred to him by a member of a community group because Collings previously worked as employment consultant for the long-term unemployed.
“His name is Wayne* and he had a pretty rough trot over the last few years including some troubles with the law. He’s trying to put his life back together, trying to get sustainable employment and to move on from the problems that have [sent him] down bad roads in the past,” he says.
“So that was where our conversation started, but the conversation led on to the nature of faith and what God means for our lives and so forth. Those conversation are ongoing, but Wayne is now helping us out quite regularly at our op shop … and being a great help there. I’m continuing to try to meet up with him one on one and I’m hoping he will agree to take a more focused path of discipleship this year – that’s one of my prayers.”
Collings believes it is such individual discipleship rather than “whizz-bang programmes” which will build his church in the longer term.
“We’ll just be looking to see how we might directly speak Christ into people’s lives and be the authentic witnesses of Christ into our community. That’s going to be the pattern that will sustain church’s life over the longer term, even while programmes may start and stop.”
Another reason he has to put people before programmes is that the town’s population is very transient, ebbing and flowing with the fortunes of the mining industry.
“We try to put the people and relationships first.” – Luke Collings
Since the Collings family arrived 15 months ago, the population has grown from 6500 to 8000. Many young families move in for a few years to save enough to buy a house back in their home city.
“While they’re there, they’re looking for community and connection. They’re coming to find the good life, in some ways, and to set themselves up for the future. It means they’re open to conversations and experiences that they might not have taken up in their home communities, where they [were] close to family – they’re looking for connections in new ways.”
“That’s what in our ministry we’re trying to offer; we try to put the people and relationships first so that we can show Christ in how we relate to them.
“It means that you’ve got to be ready to think outside the box. To think in terms of people rather than programmes, to be ready to respond to different challenges that come up and to be the minister who is viewed as a positive community force.
“One thing we’ve done is we’ve found other community partners as well, in a way that might not be usual in a big city parish.”
Collings says while the number of regular attenders at church is fairly low, at about a dozen, it is slowly improving.
“There was a period of about a year when there wasn’t a minister in the town,” shares Collings. “We lost a couple of people, but we have had a few others join the church, so in this last 12 months we’ve had a net gain of people and so there are encouraging signs.
“And even in our relationships with the people who are on the fringes of church life, who might have attended one of our ‘Messy Church’ services, those are increasing. There are hopeful signs but we are certainly not out of the woods yet.
“The ultimate aim would be where the parish was built up to a level where it didn’t need BCA support.
“Whether that’s feasible is a question mark. All we can do is minister how we can and try to grow and we’ll see what God does with it all.”