April and I had felt quite clearly for a number of years God calling us to Charters Towers since we had spent a year working in the town as a part of a Cornerstone mission team in 1990. We returned in 1995 when I was offered the job as pastor of the Church of Christ.
I remember very clearly the struggle when beginning our ministry at the Church of Christ in Charters Towers. It was a radical change from the busyness of life leading a Christian community. Although life in Cornerstone was often difficult it was never dull and the community life always had its own energy.
I was promised one year's paid work with the assurance of plenty of unpaid work beyond that. That was the amount of money the church had saved during its Pastorless time. One church leader said the expectation was that I was hired to fix the church. His analogy was If you call a plumber in to fix a broken pipe you expect the pipe to be fixed. Our church was broken because it was low on people, the most important resource of God's community. I wasn't quite as sure about the analogy between the pastor and the plumber
The biggest complaint we heard on our arrival was about the Sunday service. Too long, too dull. irrelevant A number of people said that if things don't change then they would be leaving. A dedicated but traditional people had run services during the gaps between pastors for many years. In the past this had kept the wheel turning but did little to encourage growth. Transfers and dissatisfaction had reduced Sunday attendance to sometimes only 14 people. The chapel appeared cavernous and we moved the pews closer together to bring people nearer to each other.
One of my first actions was to enforce a strict control over the Sunday morning service. Our level of gifts did not change but I ensured that people prepared for their role. Some people chafed under the guidelines after many years of lassez faire leadership. I was determined that we would do the things that we could do well to do them at their best and to not make the rest drag for too long.
Our music ministry struggled. Our two pianists Pam and Eunice grappled with the rthymn of more modern praise and worship but were willing to give them a go. Worship leaders were thin on the ground. Communion remained the traditional weekly training ground for speakers. Our only problem there was no one to train. I determined to do the best that I could with my limited experience in preaching.
Close it down
And who would use old wineskins to store new wine? For the old skins would burst with the pressure, and the wine would be spilled and skins ruined. Only new wineskins are used to store new wine. That way both are preserved.'' (Matt. 9:17 LVB)
Had we reached the end of our church's life cycle? Our small chapel was one hundred years old. Was it time to create a new wineskin?
Close it down and join the Baptists, was the advice given by a visiting member of our church's hierarchy about 3/4ths through our first year.
This was to all intents sound advice. Churches of Christ and Baptists are conservative evangelical denominations. In a small town we were competing for the same type of person. We were grasping at the same limited pool of people. There was little prospect of employment with the church next year.
We were told that our church had reached the end of its lifecycle. A country church will often survive because of the tenacity of a few of its local people. There will be a few families that will keep the wheels turning. Many of the people in our church were older and sadly it was becoming obvious that their wheels would not keep turning forever. To survive we would have to become a new church. We were advised to form a new nucleus around April and myself and build from there.
A strength of our church is the prayer life of many of its members. Their first response to his advice was to spend a day in prayer. We did this at the river. Being conservative by nature none of us expected to hear a voice from God telling us what to do. I think all of would have appreciated some sort of divine intervention at the time. It didn't happen. At the end of the day we agreed that if God wanted us to shut down then he would give a very clear indication to do this.
This didn't make the job any easier. Small numbers still attended services. Singing was still sporadic. It was hard to justify the eight hours or so preparing a message. We continued with the duties of a larger church, property, services evening and morning, community obligations.