NCLS Research

Springfield Community Oasis

Springfield Community Oasis

This article first appeared in Novus, the NCLS magazine of stories of people involved in new initiatives in church life.

The promise of Springfield Lakes is ‘strong community’. This marketing angle by the developers for this newly built suburb is working. There will be one thousand new homes built in the next 12 months in this area, which is part of the Greater Springfield Region sprawling to the south west of Brisbane city.

With the potential of a CBD larger than Brisbane city, and 16 hectares set aside for ‘health and wellbeing’, it is intriguing that the developers have largely ignored the dimension of spirituality as a factor in building strong communities. Spaces for churches have not been set aside.

Enter Brett and Carolyn Swann, missional church planters, working with the support of Queensland Churches of Christ. Their ‘church office’ is at the Lakeside Café, next to Springfield Lakes and I drove along newly built freeways past armies of large earth moving equipment to meet them there.

This is a couple having fun! There is an infectious enthusiasm and energy as they share their story. They have moved their family into this new suburb, spent six months keeping a low profile, while having lots of chats with people down by the lake. By the launch of the new church, based in a Brethren school built on Churches of Christ property, there were 50 people attending.

They have decided to take a different approach to this ministry compared to their previous ministries, and this is confirmed. After concluding ministry at their previous church, they had three months leave. "It was like a mini-sabbatical" said Carolyn. "We went to Amazon (a large internet bookstore), bought lots of missional church books and spent three months reading. We felt that for our next step God was calling us to something new" added Brett.

The nearby Bellbird Park Church of Christ was small and declining. They had effectively reached a point of desperation, which acted as a catalyst for change. Recruited by denominational leaders and supported with a five-year grant, Brett and Carolyn were excited by the chance to use a ministry at Bellbird Park as a starting point to explore new possibilities.

Brett and Carolyn’s business card identifies them as ‘team leaders and cultural architects’. "We started playing with terminology" said Carolyn. "It inspires committed church people to have a rethink and gives new people a fresh look". Rather than church services, they have ‘worship gatherings’. The name ‘Springfield Community Oasis’ does not mention ‘church’.

Because there were a lot of attenders that worked in local schools, this became a deliberate mission focus. Rather than a new youth pastor, they employed a Students Community Development Worker. As well as religious education options, they offer support for a Government funded pregnant parenting initiative, and mentoring of ‘at risk’ kids. "We are also looking at chaplaincy options at the new university" said Brett. In all they are involved in six of their local schools.

This commitment to schools is also demonstrated through their corporate RAK - Radical Acts of Kindness. Brett gives an example. "Around 60 of us went to the school and spent 2 hours working in their gardens. Every staff member got an appreciation certificate and a gourmet coffee bag tucked in their pigeon hole." He impressed on the participants, "If the church ceased to exist, would anyone notice?"

When they did start up, there were two worship gatherings. This was a step toward a goal of multiple options. The vision held up for all is ‘Moving beyond be-lieving to be-living’. "We want to break down the divide between secular and sacred," said Brett.

They describe the Sunday morning worship gathering as "pretty mainstream". They meet in an auditorium. They don’t have live music yet, but use recorded music such as Tim Hughes and Matt Redman, as well as bands like Delirious and Third Day. ‘Instead of preaching, we tend to dialogue. The idea is to keep it real and authentic, to help people know it is good to ask questions." said Brett. "We also got new crockery and made sure we had brewed coffee."

On Saturday nights they tried something more "out of the box". Adapting an alternative worship style, the setting was couches, café tables and candlelight. There was time to mingle and sometimes a worship experience. However, after 12 months "we canned it. We realised that it was too confronting for those attending. We loved it and were its biggest fans - but maybe we were its only fan!" Carolyn said. The plan is to commence meeting on Sunday nights, using a more relaxed format of the morning gathering. Brett and Carolyn muse about whether this was a default to the established, rather than persisting with the new. "‘However, we also have to accept that perhaps the alternative worship style may work in other contexts, but simply does not work in suburbia like Springfield."

While there is a strong temptation to run programs, because of an unsaid expectation that something tangible is needed to justify activities, Brett and Carolyn have an aim to help people connect within their normal traffic patterns of life. "We will facilitate worship gatherings and one mid-week Life Group (small group), but we will not fill your social calendar with church activities" said Brett. "As pastors, we reward servanthood and people connecting with their community. We say ‘if you want to be a hero at this church, get out!’".

They are committed not to create Christian ghettoes. Brett continues, "We encourage people to get to know their neighbours. Don’t see them as a conquest, but as a person. If as a by product of your relationship, they come to faith, then great!"

The Churches of Christ are the only church with the foresight to have purchased land in this area prior to development. Brett and Carolyn acknowledge that infrastructure would be helpful; "a prominent church building is actually useful". However, they are exploring the option of a community centre, while at the same time, challenging local developers to think differently, using the language of social capital. They ask: what about prayer gardens in that health and wellbeing precinct? What about a chapel suitable for rites of passage? What about chaplaincy offices?

For all those people who are drawn to the promise of a ‘strong community’, Springfield Community Oasis could well be part of achieving that vision. Many of those one thousand new homes will receive a Welcome Kit from the Oasis. "I think we will grow numerically" said Brett, "so we will need to maintain our missional heart."

At the end of 2006, the Oasis had just signed a contract to purchase a 2 million dollar existing neighborhood centre in the heart of Springfield. Plans include a commercial café, youth drop in centre, function centre, small business training and meeting facility and, of course, the Oasis worship/missional centre. So the journey continues!

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