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When Church Works, Part 1

Wednesday, 29 February 2012  | Gordon Preece

Sometimes as a minister you have moments—even days, weekends—when ‘church’ really works. I had three of those moments over two weekends in a row recently. I feel like I could almost retire one day satisfied with these three. But ‘church’ worked in each case because it was more than church, more than Sunday. It involved the church gathered on Sunday, moving as the people of God, scattered by the Spirit on Monday to Friday. Let me tell you the story of the first weekend; I’ll tell you the second next time, and the third later.

Though they both happened on the weekend, the background of both, the invisible iceberg below the tip, is in the Church’s and Christ’s connection to the whole week, through whole-of-life discipleship, in work and leisure. The well-named former VP for Sales of Bethlehem Steel, Bill Diehl wrote a book about it, and had a group I once attended in Emmaus, Philadelphia, called The Monday Connection where, over breakfast, a worker would lay out a case study of a difficult workplace situation and those listening would seek to pool wisdom for how to deal with it. For Diehl it was about how to connect Bethlehem and Steel on a Monday morning.

The first weekend, only a fortnight ago, started with a Men’s Breakfast and ended with a Sunday night blessing of a ‘cursed’ café. The first ‘moment’ was a fairly traditional event you might think (perhaps even sexist, if you’re a woman). Our Men’s Breakfast has been fairly traditional Cof E, like the parish—but with a real sense of community—with its fetes, Op Shop, etc. But it’s now in a rapidly changing area as inner-city gentrification goes inner-West for young men and women. Most of the blokes are traditional working class: ex-tradies, from the railways at Newport, and factories of Spotswood, the parish church’s location (the lesser-known, poorer, working class cousin of very trendy Yarraville). If you’ve never heard of Spotswood, see the namesake movie Spotswood, starring Sir Anthony Hopkins as an English efficiency expert who wants to downsize a moccasin factory in Spotswood in the shadow of the tragic Westgate Bridge in Melbourne. (It’s celebrating its 20th anniversary this year with a Festival the parish and community’s having on October 6.) The movie’s depiction of working class community that eventually wins over the efficiency expert Hopkins, through the slot-car club, so he doesn’t do a Hannibal Lecter on their jobs, is true in many ways to the working-class community of Spotswood and our traditional men’s group.

Most of the 8-10 blokes from the original group, set up 20 years ago when the church was 75% women, are now in their late 70s to 90s. Once a month they catch up at the nondescript fifties-vintage church hall, reminisce about the old days, and have a binge breakfast full of cholestorol that their doctor-designed diets and wives have been depriving them of for a month. A few younger blokes newer to the area get there and we’ve tried to keep them coming by getting them to talk about their travels, showing a few powerpoint slides. It’s cosmopolitan meets parochial (in the good sense of the word). Last year, though I love the blokes, it all got a bit much for me and I told the Church Council that I’d have to cut something from my crazy schedule if I was to occasionally get a day off from my three two day per week jobs to spend with my wife, and also concentrate on the growth area of our church in the 20-40 age range. I tried to cut going to the Men’s Breakfast but still felt the pull a few times. Then the heroic leader of the group for twenty years, Cliff, announced he wouldn’t be leading in 2012. His health hadn’t been good. I thought that without his drive the group would probably die; not literally, though some are really getting on. And if we could look after them through the mixed monthly Leisure Group, I thought we’d probably let it.

Then one of the ‘younger’ blokes, fiftyish, a muso, around whom a new bunch of men cluster who play music for us Sundays and themselves mid-week, offered his home for the first breakfast of 2012. I’m one to never stand in the way of lay initiative so I thought, ‘Ok, let’s give it a go.’ Then I thought, ‘Let’s not only change the traditonal venue but change the group name to Men@Work, focusing on work–life juggling issues, as an element of the ‘Creation Commission’ part of our mission statement, caring for the world though our work, the stuff we commission people for every February. I was going to kick it off myself but we have a new guy at church who is a high-up journo for the paper most of our mob read. He’d come to church having seen an ad for our 120th anniversary. He and his family had come on and off for a while now. He has a very demanding 24/7 job but had a bit of enforced leave. He sounded a bit bored having finished his handyman jobs so I thought I’d give people a chance to get to know him by asking him to be our inaugural speaker. He has an interesting story I’d picked up on a bit after church and when visiting his home.

He was our man. We advertised and got double our normal numbers—17, from a growing congregation of 50 men, women and children—squeezed into a rearranged dining room. Our old loyalists still came but so did a number of new guys, some of whose wives don’t come to church, a new phenomenon of Christian ‘widowers’ I’m noticing. Perhaps this is because the church doesn’t connect with the public working lives of its over-busy women, like it once didn’t connect with that of its over-busy men.

The food was great—a bit healthier than usual—the ‘food’ from the speaker was even better. Talk about the news behind the news! Stories of great ethical conflict, life and death decisions, preserving the secrecy (and even lives!) of sources, tales of political intrigue, difficulties of work-life juggling, and risks of being sued, or even possibly jailed, for upholding the highest journalist ethics. This was a different trade or craft, but the old tradies could connect with it, and so could the newer trendies who might read the other paper. They saw someone who believed, like my Dad taught me, that ‘if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing properly’. The air buzzed with questions, people flocked around our speaker after; they didn’t want to leave.

I think it’s because the lost art of Christian testimony, of telling your story, corrupted by tightly scripted televangelists, has found a new home through Christians integrating their faith and work in a way that blesses people and raises questions. And a men’s or women’s breakfast is just the place to train people how to do it. I carried the buzz with me for the rest of the weekend, through church, till my next buzz on the Sunday night, at the ‘cursed’ café that wanted a blessing. I’ll tell you about that next time.




In the meantime, if you want to find out more about making the Sunday-Monday connection, come to hear Will Messenger, editor of the Theology of Work Project (www.theologyofwork.org), at breakfast on 15 March in Melbourne. See the ad at www.ethos.org/events or, for a sample of Will on radio, click here.


Charles Sherlock
March 1, 2012, 12:28PM
Great stuff Gordon - and has given mere parishioner!) me an idea locally. Please send this one to TMA (with the journo's permission) and tell the other story!
Robert Stening
March 1, 2012, 12:42PM
Yes. Stories from such people can be truly inspiring.
Last week the Prime Time group at our church was addressed by Clarrie Briese, former Chief Stipendiary Magistrate in NSW. He talked about his fight against corruption when people like Lionel Murphy tried to get a case against Morgan Ryan dropped. He described the great pressure on him and his family over a period of two and a half years. There were even threats against his children. He told of how God and his Christian friends sustained him through all this. It must have taken great courage to stand up to such formidable opponents.
Gordon Preece
March 1, 2012, 5:26PM
Charles, thanks for the encouragement, you're a real Barnabas. By the way Will Messenger on Theology of work issues- will take a seminar at HT Flora Hill on Sun. 11/3 from 3:30 then preach there if interested and able to come. A bunch of Bendigo people including Robs: imberger and Costello are involved. Thanks to Robert for that exciting story of Christian courage that was encouraged corporately by the body of Christ, I remember Clarrie Briese from sydney days.

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