One of the things that I’ve been reflecting on a fair amount in the past few months since my move from Neutral Bay to Macquarie Fields is the relative difficulties, advantages, stresses and joys of Christian ministry in those respective locations.
At first sight it should seem obvious that life on the Lower North Shore of Sydney Harbour is far easier. The suburbs there are full of tertiary-educated professional white-collar workers. The houses and apartments are often beautiful, harbour views command a premium and the schools have excellent results and reputations. You can’t drive down Military Road without seeing BMW’s, Porsches, Volvos and even the odd Ferrari.
Macquarie Fields is very different. The first thing you notice coming out west is the difference in how people relate. There’s far more openness here; open expression of emotions and opinions which can be quite confronting if you’re not used to it (and this upper-middle-class English boy is certainly not used to it!). But you very quickly realise that this tendency by some to almost vomit out their life in front of you can actually have some great advantages in ministry.
Most of all it allows someone who wants to talk to people about their reality of their lives the opportunity to get stuck in immediately. As a result I have had more “deep and meaningfuls” in my first 3 months here than in a much longer space of time back in Neutral Bay, even after having established relationships. Because of this increased openness the number of opportunities I’ve had to talk to people about how Jesus is the answer to all the things they’re struggling with is (and I don’t think I’m at all exaggerating here) exponentially greater.
Now why is that? I think primarily it’s due to the “success culture” that more wealthy areas exude. There is a real pressure to portray success to others. After all, people have worked hard or are working hard to establish their lives there. “Standard of Living” and “Quality of Life” are all high ideals that are to be strived for and then serve to demonstrate how well life is going. Your money won’t go as far, of course; you can’t buy a shoebox apartment for the same money we spent on a 4 bedroom house down here and so you put your head down and work hard for what you want. From even before you go to school the expectations of what you will do and how your life will turn out are far higher than in other places.
All of this, I suggest, can often breed a reluctance to let on to others that, perhaps, the dream isn’t all it first promised to be. The seductive mistress of the “better life” never looks so attractive in the morning and yet what are you going to do? Admit to others that despite all the trappings it’s really not working? Or, of course, for others there is no problem at all – life is good (or appears to be) and if it’s not then all the fringe benefits will more than make up for it. Not to worry that Mosman has one of highest divorce rates in the State or that there’s a growing subculture of drug usage. Everything is fine here, nothing to see, move along please.
We open up beautiful homes to one another (if we open them up at all) and in every way without even thinking seek to communicate to our neighbours that everything is fine. And what it all says, at the end of the day, is “I don’t need a saviour”.
Of course, as we open up our Bibles and read the truth we see the reality of life that the idolatry of comfort seeks to draw a veil over. We are all sinners. We are all in desperate need. Our relationships fracture and there are still wounds that ache at night no matter how comfortable the mattress is we are lying on. The cracks in the walls of people’s lives are the same wherever you go, just in some places the wallpaper covering it up is much nicer.
And so that means somewhere like Cammeray it is hard to do ministry. Very hard. Surrounded by (as my former boss so aptly put it) “self-made men worshipping their creator” there are controlling idols that have an unimaginable grip. Out here in the West it’s easy to say to someone “life’s not going well is it and the future is in jeopardy. Perhaps there’s a better way?” There are plenty of people who know exactly what you mean and crucially will open up to you about it. But back on the Lower North Shore, to ask that question is to often strike at the very heart of someone’s sense of who they are and what they’re doing in life. And so (as the same boss explained) it’s like ploughing concrete.
And yet, the amazing thing is that Rick Smith has seen incredible success in ministry in this very difficult area. Just one graph from a recent piece by Philip Jensen will serve to demonstrate this point:
Here we see the value of income (ie offertories/donations from members and other sources of income) over the last 20 years and, in particular the incredible growth when Rick arrived in 1999. Philip Jensen has served us well by also doing the same analysis for the Parish of Miranda, where the other candidate for Archbishop Glenn Davies was Rector from 1995 to 2000:
I also took the liberty of combining the 2 graphs:
It is clear that both men have done well at the parish level – that much simply cannot be questioned. But what impresses me so much about Rick is that he has (granted, under God) done spectacularly well in what is actually an incredibly hard place to do ministry. He’s worked faithfully in parish and seen quite incredible fruit for it. There is a consistency of high growth there that comes from an equally consistent pattern of good decisions and passion for evangelism.
We often hear around the place that someone like Rick has “had it easy” because it’s a “comfortable” place. This is, quite frankly, an insulting thing to say. It also betrays a certain amount of reverse snobbery and lack of understanding of the difficulties of the context in which Rick has been working.
Rather than having it easy, Rick has done the hard yards and done them consistently well over a long period of time with staggering results. He’s been getting something right time and time again and also sharing those principles with others who are working in different contexts.
And that’s just one more reason why I was pleased to nominate him to be our next ArchBishop.