THIS month as part of our series on belonging, Journey spoke to the congregation at Acacia Ridge Uniting Church about their revitalisation project, Milpara.
"Within walking distance" belongs to the lexicon of real estate marketing, yet for many, especially the aged and those with mobility issues, location still defines community.
The congregation of the small church at Acacia Ridge in Brisbane's south, faced with the possibility of closure and the subsequent loss of a worship facility within walking distance, is putting its energy into a new initiative which brings local community into the spotlight.
Their determination to re-establish themselves as the focal point of community interaction reflects a growing recognition of the importance of the local church.
Still in its formative stages, Milpara is a model for creating and growing partnerships within the community; the project team providing information and resources to congregations as well as ongoing professional support.
Uniting Church President, Rev Prof Andrew Dutney, has described the local church as "a beachhead of the kingdom of God".
"It is a sign, foretaste and instrument of reconciliation and renewal for the whole creation," he told Journey.
The Queensland Synod Vision 2020 journey, Together on the way, enriching community, also identifies the importance of community in Priority Direction E: "Engaging in opportunities for intentional, open community connections and partnerships".
It's warm inside
A decade ago, Acacia Ridge Uniting Church decided to survive and, even more, to grow.
Census data suggests that by 2020, half the Acacia Ridge population will be aged 60 years and over.
It's a profile that would fit many Queensland communities.
The church is a low-set brick building that could be mistaken for a house, positioned in the middle of a grassy suburban block with a covered patio and curtains in the windows.
Simply furnished, it is a warm and informal space that is immediately welcoming.
At its heart, the Milpara project aims to revitalise local churches through expanding their role as the focal point of their community.
Initiated and governed by the Acacia Ridge Uniting Church through its Church Council, it has seed funding from private sponsors.
Originator and director Rodney Eivers is passionate about building up roles for faith communities which reconnect them to the people who live literally next door or down the road.
"The church is in a prime position to nurture and uphold the concerns for caring and compassion," says Mr Eivers, whose team of volunteers and paid consultants has put together a detailed strategy to support the Milpara vision of local churches as a "cradle-to-the grave" ministry.
"Milpara has two thrusts – one is to be Christ-like, demonstrating care and compassion to the people in our local communities.
The other is to provide a reason – as the secular community sees it – for a place for churches in the 21st century."
While the broad approach is to restore and update the place of the traditional village church, the initial focus is deliberately narrow, focusing on people who live within walking distance.
The strategy is active and systematic, including undertaking a community needs, assessment, establishing a "Welcoming Committee", and interacting regularly and deliberately with locals.
"Isolation and loneliness are major problems among a number of groups, including seniors and people of diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds," says Mr Eivers.
The church hopes to foster groups and networks with a range of target populations including mothers and babies, single older men, and stay-at-home parents.
"Our primary function is not to provide services, but to link people in the community," says Mr Eivers.
The growth of the congregation at Acacia Ridge has been small but encouraging, from eight regulars to 23, as well as a small group of men who attend morning teas, and a growing Sunday school.
The small community doesn't have a minister yet, but gets support from clergy and lay preachers.
"What matters is the survival and growth of the church in local geographical communities as an agent for nurturing the kingdom of God," says Mr Eivers.
"We want the church to be the focal point for this community, and to live forever, as a witness to the gospel."
For more information about Milpara, contact Rodney Eivers at email@example.com