Photo: Despite the challenges of COVID-19 Hurstville Church of Christ continues to be creative in being present and connected to their neighbourhood.

By Naomi Giles

What can an old church with a small membership base, surrounded by a diverse and rapidly changing multicultural neighbourhood, do to share life and faith?

Hurstville Church of Christ has clocked up 114 years of rich history, but rather than simply maintaining what’s been, its members continue to stay agile in responding to their community. Although cultural diversity is not as broad among the core members of the church, that hasn’t stopped them from having a heart to be present and connected to their neighbourhood.

With a high percentage of Chinese-speaking people calling Hurstville home, the church stepped out in faith around five years ago to employ a Chinese-speaking Community Minister, Jazz Capell. And then, despite the challenges of COVID-19, this year Hurstville also called Tanwin Tanoto to join the team as a co-minister and hone his passion for communicating the Gospel through Fresh Hope’s Frontier program.

Tanwin came to Australia from Indonesia as a student when he was 17 and fell in love with the country. He decided to stay and began working in the technical field of business analytics. He found faith at the age of 23 after university when his girlfriend (now wife) invited him to an Indonesian church. It was there he was confronted with the compelling truth of the Gospel.

“I think the way God works is that he grabbed me using my identity. I was pretty insecure back then,” he says. “I went to this church, and it transformed me. I fell in love with the Church, and now I’m serving the Church.”

As a gathering point for a small, faithful group of worshippers, the Hurstville Church of Christ building is nestled among a maze of high-rise apartments.

Rather than bunkering down and being inward-focused, they continue to imagine ways of connecting and supporting those around them, partnering with other churches in English-speaking classes, playgroups, youth connection and supported crisis accommodation in the church’s unit block next to the chapel. They are engaged with over 150 families of diverse cultural backgrounds across any given week through these connection points. 

“There’s a lot of migrants here. In the last few years, the migrant community has moved from what was predominately Chinese population into more variety – Indian, Sri Lankan and places like Iran, it’s becoming more multicultural,” says Tanwin.

Tanwin notes that thousands of people live in the spaces around the church, and he’s excited about the opportunity that provides to share life and faith.

“The church is Kingdom-oriented. We partner with a lot of churches rather than just building up our own ministries,” says Tanwin. “To reach a city, a suburb, no one church can do that. This is God’s work, so let’s work together.”

Although COVID restrictions have curtailed some of the community connection for a time, there are still signs of God’s creative love weaving among them.

Jazz noticed a group of men spending time in the sun on the verge outside their church. Before long, she realised they were a group of old friends, used to spending time together at a local pub. Affectionately dubbing them ‘The Pub Club’, Jazz’s interactions with them is bearing good fruit.

“I guess they are not expecting a church pastor to look or sound like me, so that’s opened up some conversations,” laughs Jazz, “I’m a Chinese-speaking Kiwi, so it kind of blew their minds.

“God’s been building on that relationship, and I’ve found as most of them are 50-plus, they hate technology, and so they come and ask for help navigating the web and getting access to what they need. So we’ve established a little tech hub at the front of the church, and it’s been lovely to be able to journey in that with them.”

Jazz says they are a generous and compassionate bunch, citing how some of these men arrive with bags of clothes and offers of help for those who are coming into the church’s crisis accommodation units.

The co-pastoring arrangement at Hurstville is also an aspect of pioneering, where instead of having a typical structure of one leader over a team, Jazz and Tanwin are in partnership, focusing on their areas of calling and giftedness, learning from and with each other to both bring life to the church and community.

Tanwin explains his approach to ministry: “The encounter Moses had with God always sticks with me. To ask the question, ‘What’s in your hand?’ and to use that. So, I come to Hurstville and ask ‘What do we have?’ and then let’s see what God is up to and join Him where He is already working.

“Even the word ‘pioneering’; there’s the inference that you are inventing something new, but I think part of it is actually not something entirely new at all but using existing things in new ways; that is also pioneering. It’s seeing what God is already blessing and going with that.”

Being located in one of the most affected Local Government Areas in Sydney, Hurstville Church of Christ is now more focused than ever on loving its neighbourhood.

“This is God’s church. He loves the church, and when you look back over the 114 years, God has been faithful, and that gives me hope. We just need to be faithful,” says Tanwin. “It’s a chance for the church to be agile, to trim the fat and live without the excess. Sometimes when we focus too much on the Sunday, it can become a performance.”

Both Tanwin and Jazz think about their congregation as pioneers who can connect more effectively with parts of the community they will never have access to.

“Making the church as a vehicle rather than a destination, that’s what’s important,” says Tanwin, “Rather than let’s go to church, let’s be the church; a vehicle for disciples to go into their community and bless other people and see the love of God in their lives and their community.”

Both ministers see the age and the experience of the church as a blessing rather than a hindrance to exploring new ideas.

“It’s very old, but that’s what I love about it. I was reading this booklet about the history of the church over the 100 years, and there’s a list of ministers in the back, and I thought, ‘I will be just one of them’,” says Tanwin, “That’s the picture of the church. I am just one of the ministers, and the church will stand long after I am gone. That’s the beauty of looking at the faithful congregation; sometimes, the ministers don’t even matter.”

Jazz says, “Initially, I thought pioneering was something new that had never been done before, but for us, I think it can also be something we don’t have a track record on, but we’re willing to step into that space and say, ‘Ok God, we don’t know how yet, but we want to hold it with open hands and see where we can go with that’.”

From her experiences at Hurstville, Jazz encourages other older well-established churches to take small steps further into their community by building partnerships with other churches and ministries to make the most of the Kingdom resources we share. She also says not to be afraid of failure.

“Empowering your people to come up with ideas is also really important as well,” she says. “I don’t think it’s actually healthy for it all to be driven by ‘the minister’. We need a more collaborative approach.

“There’s often small ideas that God has put into people, and we need to leave space for that and to encourage them to have a go – to not begrudge the small beginnings.”

Throughout September we are spotlighting the work of pioneering in our movements, making room for the Spirit to stir up his activity among us!Join with us and hear from those taking up the challenging of Pioneering “right where they are” on Tuesday September 21, from 7.30pm. Register your attendance HERE.