So why has my church grown so much?

‘My’ church (OK, it’s God’s church), City on a Hill, started with in 2007 as Docklands Church, meeting at the James Squire Brewhouse in Melbourne Docklands. When I moved to Melbourne we’d been meeting for a year and numbered around a hundred people. Not too long after we started an evening service to take the pressure off the morning service (both, now all, our services are virtually identical, so you go to whichever suits you best).

By 2010 we could not accommodate everyone who wanted to come and with no suitable affordable space available in Docklands the decision was made to relocate to Hoyts cinema, Melbourne Central, at which point we changed our name to City on a Hill. Taking 130 people to a 400-seat cinema seemed (in ‘Yes Minister’ speak) a brave decision but before too long we were at capacity so moved to holding two morning services. In 2014 we started a Melbourne West congregation, and in 2017 a Melbourne East congregation. In September 2019 the continuing pressure on numbers led to us starting a Docklands service at the new Hoyts complex.

What a difference to my experience in the UK where the Congregational/United Reformed church of which I was part has been in decline for a hundred years. Why? What’s the secret

Inspired leadership must be the big one: more than a few church (and business) leaders have excelled in the one-person startup stage but have then come unstuck when it comes to building a team. We are blessed with a wonderful leadership team that has grown with the church.

Great teaching: Week after week our pastors serve up great messages that take a Bible passage and show us its application to our lives. In a digital age will people listen to 40-minute sermons?. Yes, they’re a key reason why people (nearly all in their 20s and 30s) come. Check out COAH podcasts

Consistency: I came from a church that for 30+ years had a half-time (shared) minister, with church members or visiting preachers conducting the other services, each bringing their own gifts to the pulpit. In addition we had a good number of special services. As a regular attender I really appreciated the variety. At COAH virtually every service follows much the same pattern: worship (possibly including a short interview), Bible reading, sermon, closing worship. But the big plus of this is that if you invite a friend, you know what will be served up. And people bring friends who very often stay.

Culture: The downside of this is a largely monocultural church, nearly all (not me!) being young professionals. You’d struggle to find a retired person in our number! One of our leaders once admitted: “There’s no way I’d bring my parents here: they’d hate it!”. ‘it’ probably referring to the music type and volume. This challenges me: I spent decades believing in a ‘something for everyone’ church, but perhaps having a number of complementary churches with their own distinct way of being church is better?

Governance: My previous UK church held to its Congregational roots, in that the ultimate decision making body was the church members meeting and I found it challenging to move to a church with top-down decision making – it being announced on a Sunday that ….. Both have their advantages and disadvantages – consensus and wider ownership of decisions v. being able to make quick decisions and not being held back by the inertia of some.

Buildings: Having studied building at university it was all but inevitable that I would 30+ years as a member of our church building committee, working to keep our mid-Victorian buildings in order. Now we meet in cinema and instead of endlessly grappling with heating, cleaning, leaking gutters etc etc, we just pay rent. So liberating, though it must be admitted that the setup and teardown each Sunday involves a lot of volunteer effort.

But with all this said, the key thing is that it’s God who gives (or withholds) the growth:

  • Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain (Psalm 127, 1)
  • I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. (1 Cor. 3, 6-7)

Or as Arthur Campbell Ainger put it in a hymn I love well:

  • All that we do is nothing worth, unless God blesses the deed;
    vainly we hope for the harvest-tide, till God gives life to the seed;

Thankfully, in our case he has. May this continue.

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