–– Sito di FORMAZIONE PERMANENTE MISSIONARIA –– Uno sguardo missionario sulla Vita, il Mondo e la Chiesa A missionary look on the life of the world and the church –– VIDA y MISIÓN – VIE et MISSION – VIDA e MISSÃO ––
By Siobhan Hegarty
Mon 27 august 2018
It’s 5:00pm on a Sunday and Mikey Tai is sitting cross-legged on a bar stool inside his local bowls club.
He’s wearing denim on denim — knees exposed from the rips — and the kind of see-through spectacles one might associate with the word ‘hipster’.
Mikey hasn’t come to the bowlo for a beer with mates or a game on the manicured lawns. He’s a 32-year-old Presbyterian pastor and he’s here to plant a church.
In cities and towns across Australia, churches are closing down. Many are being sold off — the funds diverted to compensate survivors of institutional child sexual abuse.
People, too, are turning away from the pulpit. In the 2016 Census, “no religion” overtook “Catholic” as the most common religious status for the first time.
But that’s not the full story of Christianity in 2018. New congregations are forming in garages, living rooms and coffee shops.
Just as many Australian millennials have forgotten the dream of home ownership, church planting pastors aren’t preoccupied with property.
Instead, they prefer ‘innovation’ and ‘agility’, terms more commonly connected to the tech industry than to Christianity.
But language isn’t the only thing shared with Silicon Valley. Church plants are often bankrolled by backers — Christian groups with capital — and expected to develop financial growth strategies of their own.
Southern Baptists in the US are reportedly spending tens of millions of dollars on church planting every year.
They’re not alone. Australian-born megachurch Hillsong has its own church planting chapter called Nation Builders. Last year, the organisation established new churches in Barcelona, Moscow, Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo, Lyon and Zurich.
Non-denominational church planting organisations add to the landscape, too.
Some of the plants flourish, others struggle to grow roots.
Standing in his backyard in suburban Brisbane, Mikey laments.
“As a church planter, I should have a more thriving veggie garden,” he says, looking down at an overgrown planter box and lopsided compost bin.
The garden is far from dire. After all, Mikey’s dad — a keen horticulturist from Vietnam, via southern China — has planted papaya trees across the property.
But then, perfectionism is a trait Mikey can’t shake.
In many ways, it’s helped him build a 60-plus congregation, known as Providence Church, in three-and-a-half years.
His wife Heidi has played a leading role, too. A marketing specialist by day, she’s the brains behind their social media brand. Online optics mattered little to congregations 10 or 20 years ago, but today they can make or break a church.
“We take social media quite seriously,” says 29-year-old Heidi. These days, people aren’t going to pick up a phone book or check their letterbox, they’re going to Google ‘local church’.
Fittingly, the pair were introduced on Facebook in January 2009 — “before it was popular to meet online,” laughs Heidi — and they married two years later.
The pastor and his wife have their feet planted in two worlds: Eastern upbringing, Western faith.
“Growing up as an Australian-born Chinese — an ‘ABC’ as we like to say — in a predominantly white neighbourhood on the northside of Brisbane, it was really difficult,” says Mikey, with a baritone voice Heidi likens to that of a late-night radio host.
My closest friends were Anglo-Australians and they had Western values, but I would come home and I would have to take my shoes off, I would use chopsticks to eat food, I had to speak Chinese to my parents.
“I’d go to school and people would tease me because of the way I smelled, or they would pull their eyes back in a slanted fashion and laugh and run off.
“I didn’t know where I belonged. I didn’t know what my identity was.”
Racism wasn’t the only issue Mikey faced during adolescence.
Parental pressure to excel in his education and career also weighed heavily on the troubled teen.
“I was the only son amongst five daughters, and so it was really planned out in the sense that [my parents] wanted me to become a lawyer, to make lots of money, to be successful and to continue the legacy of our family,” Mikey says.
“My years in high school were really hard — I flunked a lot of subjects, I partied a lot, I smoked a lot, and I did that all just to ease the stress.”
Mikey says Christianity offered a lifeline during those tumultuous years. In his late teens he began doing missionary work with a church in Taiwan — his mother’s homeland — during holidays.
It wasn’t his first introduction to Christianity, though. As a kid, Mikey and his sisters attended Sunday school at a Baptist church, at their mum’s request.
“It was like free babysitting for her, because they worked seven days a week as migrant parents,” he says.
Mikey’s dad, on the other hand, followed a faith of ancestral worship — “burning incense, altars at home, that sort of thing”.
When I told him that I wanted to become a pastor and not a lawyer … he hit the fan,” Mikey says.
But the family divide didn’t last.
“It wasn’t until a couple of years ago my dad actually became a Christian. It’s amazing, he’s in his 70s and he’s now one of my biggest supporters,” Mikey beams.
Heidi, meanwhile, visited church as a teenager at the behest of her grandmother.
Her death wish … her last words for our family were: ‘I want you to go to a Christian church’,” she recalls.
“It was really weird because she wasn’t a Christian, she wouldn’t have had exposure to the church, but we wanted to take it seriously.
“In our culture, taking death wishes seriously is very important.”
That week, Heidi’s family was approached by an Evangelist on the street. Instead of ignoring the mentions of Jesus, as was routine, they decided to listen, and to attend the church.
Eastern values run deep in Chinese families. Mikey completed a five-year law degree, at the wish of his father, before following his own path: a Master’s of Theology at Sydney Missionary Bible College.
In Sydney, the couple regularly attended Gracepoint Presbyterian Church, an evangelical, multicultural congregation; a plant from 15 years prior.
It was the Gracepoint pastor who introduced Mikey to Geneva Push, an Australian church planting network that cemented the Tai’s future.
“Starting anything new is a risk, doing anything Christian is a risk,” Heidi says.
“But I became a Christian in a church-planting church, so I’d seen how effective they are in reaching people like me, who didn’t grow up in a Christian context.”
Geneva Push is a relatively small player in the global church planting scene. Other Australian operators, like City to City, were founded overseas.
Reverend Andrew Katay, CEO of City to City Australia, says his organisation offers church planters $60,000 over three years to build a congregation: $30,000 in the first year, $20,000 in the second and $10,000 in the third and final year.
There’s a critical mass in church life, if a congregation has less than 30 people after six months, or so, it gets hard to maintain morale — it feels too small,” he points out.
Reverend Katay says, on average, a congregant will donate $2,000 to their church per year. So a 30-person congregation could ostensibly be collecting $60,000 annually.
It’s not a huge amount, especially when running costs are removed, but it is an incentive to grow.
Mikey and Heidi didn’t receive funding from Geneva Push, but they were offered training and, importantly, connections. The couple fundraised by “partnering” with churches in Sydney and in their plant destination — the Brisbane suburb of Sunnybank.
“There were a lot of churches up here in Brisbane who didn’t even know us, but they heard what we were doing, and they wanted to support us by funding us a little bit,” Mikey says.
Heidi adds that she was “very encouraged by the Presbyterian church up here”.
“A big reason why they wanted to support us financially was because they had a heart for multicultural work,” she says.
They wanted to reach Asians, but they didn’t know how to, and so, me and Mikey, we just happened to be Asian, and we happened to be experienced with that kind of ministry.
For a church aiming to “reach Asians”, Sunnybank is the place.
Thirty-one per cent of residents have Chinese ancestry. More than two-thirds of locals have parents that were both born overseas.
“It’s a melting point of different cultures and ethnicities and languages,” Mikey says.
“You can get away with speaking your own language in the restaurants and supermarkets; it’s where you go for Asian groceries; it’s a place that people come together, and I love that.”
But it wasn’t enough just to plant a church in Sunnybank; the location had to be accessible.
The choice of a lawn bowls club was very intentional,” Heidi says.
“My first time in a church was really intimidating — I found the building itself really creepy and there were all these random spiky things, statues of eagles, and none of it made sense to me.
“One thing we really wanted to do was choose a building that was familiar and neutral [so] when people walk through the doors they can feel at home.”
For those who know Sunnybank, the bowls club is more than a casual meeting place, it’s an institution
For 63 years the building — now officially ‘retro’ — has stood still. It’s a time capsule in a suburb that’s constantly morphing and modernising.
Kevin Conlan has been the chairman of the Sunnybank bowlo for the past 12 months. He’s a low-key kind of bloke, but his puppy-patterned braces give Ian ‘Huey’ Hewitson a run for his money.
Kevin’s attended the club for a decade now. He’s a relative newbie compared to the other “chaps” who’ve been members for 30 or 40-plus years.
Even so, Kevin has witnessed a change.
“We’re losing a lot of members because the demographics around the district have changed and we’re not getting any new bowlers coming in,” he says during a Tuesday morning game.
We’re struggling, very much, to keep the club alive as it is now.
Kevin doesn’t mind the suburb’s changing demographics, but it hasn’t been great for business.
“A lot of Asians are moving into the area, which is not a bad thing, but they don’t bowl … no, they don’t like to be out in the sun,” he smiles.
Unlike clubs in inner-city neighbourhoods, the Sunnybank bowlo hasn’t become hip among uni students or young workers.
Renting the club to Providence Church for Sunday services means new faces are visiting, but Kevin isn’t hopeful they’ll come back to bowl.
“They’re a lot of young people, which we’d like to get in the club, but no, I think they just hire the hall and office for the use of their church,” he says.
“It helps us a little bit because it keeps the club open.”
It’s a quarter-to-five on a Sunday afternoon and Providence Church is back at the bowlo for another week.
Two young women, wearing church-branded T-shirts, greet entrants with a warm smile. They pass out leather-bound Bibles to those who didn’t bring their own.
In the corner of the hall, Mikey checks the powerpoint presentation is working — youthful churches need strong visuals — while a couple of congregants tune their guitars for the Christian music to come.
A young medical student called Angell says hello. She’s been attending Providence gatherings since the church launched during Easter, 2015.
“I was just so curious about the idea of a ‘new church’ that hasn’t been around for hundreds of years,” she says.
It’s clear that Mikey and Heidi have a fresh approach to faith. To an outsider, the 5:00pm service, or “gathering” as they prefer to call it, feels more like a variety TV show than a Catholic mass.
From the devotional singing and congregant Q&A, to the church camp update and Mikey’s pop culture-laden sermon, this is Christianity made youthful.
A few people over the age of 50 sneak in at the back, but by and large, Heidi says the core congregation is 18 to 35-year-olds.
“Because we’re younger [and] we’re also ethnic, it’s made the gospel relevant to a certain group of people who have always, I guess, assumed that Christianity is for older people,” Heidi says.
A lot of migrants … consider Christianity to be a Western religion and for them to follow Jesus they actually have to abandon their culture.
“But when they come to Providence and they see all these different ethnicities gathered together because of their mutual faith they realise, ‘Wow, maybe the God of the Bible doesn’t show favouritism’.”
Mikey and Heidi hope their plant will continue to grow; that Providence will reach people who otherwise wouldn’t choose Christianity.
But right now the gathering has come to an end, and dozens of congregants are ready for dinner.
It’s a Sunday night ritual for Mikey, Heidi and the Providence crew to eat at an Asian restaurant.
Luckily, Sunnybank’s dining district is just around the corner.