The little church that could

I presented the following paper at the Australian Association of Mission Studies Conference in July 2017.  The conference theme was: “Imagining Home: Understanding, Reconciling and Engaging with God’s Stories Together” and my presentation was of a church PressGo had worked with and helped with funding and its missional journey.



When church is at its best it is a vital community of believers, called out by God, under the authority of Jesus Christ.  When it is at its worst it is a social club or a historical preservation society. To paraphrase Longfellow’s poem “That Little Girl” – “when [church] is good it is very, very good, and when [it’s] bad it is horrid.” Sometimes we even make church in our own image…

Most of the churches I work with in my role of Mission Catalyst within the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand are somewhere between good and bad, healthy and unhealthy, alive or expiring.  Some even live a life of peaceful co-existence with their community. That is – they ignore their community and the community ignores them.  It’s almost as if they weren’t even there …

If we are to believe, as Missiologist Lesslie Newbigin contends, that the congregation is the hermeneutic of the gospel, then the study of a single congregation will tell us much about how the Good News comes to a particular community and how shalom is created there.  So, I’d like to tell you the story of the little church that could … the little church that had a big dream.

Who are we?

Understanding who you are as a church and more importantly, whose you are, is a significant step on a missional journey and not all churches can make this step.  As Newbigin says:

“It will only be by movements that begin with the local congregation in which the reality of the new creation is present, known and experienced, and from which men and women will go into every sector of public life to claim it for Christ, to unmask the illusions which have remained hidden and to expose all areas of public life to the illumination of the gospel.

But that will only happen as and when local congregations renounce introverted concern for their own life, and recognize they exist for the sake of those who are not members, as sign, instrument, and foretaste of God’s redeeming grace for the whole life of society.”[1]

This does not just suddenly happen and for the subject of this paper, this understanding was the spark that was there from the beginning and has been deliberately fanned over the years.

Let me introduce you to Nawton Community Presbyterian Church.

Nawton is a community in the west of Hamilton city in the North Island of New Zealand and is one of the lowest social-economic areas of the city. The two primary schools are decile 2 and decile 1b (decile ratings are a rough indicator of deprivation in the area and on a scale of 1-10, 1 being the lowest).

Nawton Church was planted as a daughter church of First Church in the 1960s, one of many planted during the New Life Movement of the PCANZ.  The churches were planted with an expectation that they would be shepherded by the mother church and when they got to a certain size they would become independent and call their own minister.

It would be fair to say that most of the members of Nawton Church had the same hopes and dreams as those in any other Presbyterian Church in the 1960s.  The church filled up in the new suburb and was served well by ministers from their mother church.  Some of the Elders trained as lay preachers, others provided pastoral care and a solid group ensured the property and finances were well managed. The church took its role in the community and connected on several levels, with the services expected of a church.  Sunday School, Bible Class, and a full calendar of social and fellowship opportunities.  The church did attractional mission well.  However, as the golden age of church attendance concluded; attendance dropped, families were too busy to attend and the church members became increasingly aged and started to wonder whether it was time to call a minister who could devote time to their needs and concerns.

Who are we becoming?

 In 2002 Nawton Church became a parish in its own right and was not in the financial position to call a full-time minister and according to an elder at the time, “there was a concern that this would develop into a chaplaincy to the existing congregation and not be outwardly focussed enough to ensure the Great Commission was lived out.”[2]  Through a series of retreats a vision was mapped out.  One of the first things to happen was the employment of a part-time Children’s and Family Worker.  Their role was to connect with children in the community.  This successful outreach was well served by volunteers and began with a playgroup and a Kid’s Club and then, later on, a youth group.

In 2008, Nawton Church worked through the process of becoming “Kids Friendly”, which is a national PCANZ ministry designed to equip and inspire churches to intentionally minister to and with children and families in their communities.  Being a Kids Friendly church is not so much a matter of having a children’s programme as it is the integration of inter-generational worship and faith building and sharing within the church and its community.  It has an important role in breaking down barriers and changing attitudes towards children and the part they can play in revitalising our congregations.  This is one of the examples Nawton Church would quote as reinforcing their desire to be more outward focussed.  Support of the (regional) Presbytery and national funders like the Presbyterian Foundation was crucial as they pushed the boundaries, tried new things and tried to encourage all members to be active in the children’s ministry.  In doing this they continued to reflect and discern.  On one occasion, aware they had over-reached themselves, they closed two successful ministries that were replicating work others were doing in the community.

The church has worked with Nawton School over the years (it is directly across the road) and offered a range of programmes for children, families and young people.  Family workers have been employed and achieved results in their time, the church has sponsored a chaplain and Bible in Schools at the school, and holiday programmes have been so successful they are now OSCAR and CYFS accredited for government funding and are managed by a parish trust.

But even with this level of success there was a concern that they were missing something.  The church struggled to connect with the parents of the children who were involved in parish programmes.  A season of listening to God, to the community and the participants of the programmes began.  It was clear that the community had changed all around them.  It was no longer a new suburb, urban sprawl extended on all side and many of the local properties were now rentals and a large number were run-down.  The gangs were moving in.  As recently as this year, an Auckland beneficiary, forced to move to Hamilton, declared it a “hellhole” and said they’d rather live in a caravan in Auckland than return to Nawton[3].  The congregation was primarily older and pakeha (European), although there were both Niuean and Cook Island families who had been part of the congregation for many years.  The community was 78% Maori, 15% pakeha and 7% pacifika/Maori.  All the many schools in the area offer classes in Te Reo (Maori language). It was no wonder Nawton Church was having difficulty interacting with their community, because they no longer looked like their community.

Who are we becoming kin with?

Moderator of the PCANZ, the Right Rev Richard Dawson, in his Pentecost 2017 letter to the church, addressed questions of “home” and “family”.  He talks of a home that calls us in and sends us out:

“When the Spirit was poured out in Jerusalem on that first Pentecost of the Christian church not only was the church properly founded, but God created a true home for the followers of Christ. Not a home built of anything material, but a home of deep relationship with God and with each other. Furthermore, it was a home which called and calls us into mission because the whole aim and goal of the Spirit’s presence and power was to proclaim Christ in a manner which could not be denied. … The church’s true home is to be in mission – to be reaching people who are far from God with the amazing power of the Gospel; a power which has healed and held and helped people into the Kingdom of heaven from the beginning.”[4]

It is not surprising the retreat held by the leadership of Nawton Church in 2014 concluded that their journey had just begun …  Mission is more than a series of programmes, it is more than serving, it is a deep connection with others.  To continue further into mission would require courage and perseverance.  The leaders felt that they needed some kind of ordained ministry to better equip the congregation for mission, but also to help further develop the community connections they had already formed.

I quote from the Session Clerk’s[5] recollection of the retreat:

“A number of scriptures came out around this time of retreat;

Isaiah 48:17b – “I am the Lord your God who teaches you what is best for you, who directs you in the way you should go.  There was a real feeling that God wanted us to do something new, something different.

We feel that there is a groundswell of God’s anointing upon us as individuals.  This has been identified by several people in our congregation not just elders.  There has been a deepening of faith in many.

It’s all about the holiness of God’s work being the focus and our actioning being secondary.  When we look at what we have to offer nothing is too small, no one is too young/old/weak or insignificant.  We together are like a growing snowball.  This image related to our home-group study at the time of “In a pit with a lion on a snowy day”.  With God as our focus, our motivator, our actioner, our sustainer – everything we do and say has a holiness, is sacred ground.

Nehemiah 1:5-7 – Nehemiah’s prayer is our foundation prayer as a congregation.  “I will gather them from there and bring them to a place I have chosen as a dwelling place for my Name”.  – This is a vision of the future congregation at Nawton Church that God himself will bring.

John 20:19-23 – “doors locked for fear” – Our real mission in the community is the healing of the people, some of whom are living in a household of fear and who lock us out because of it.

Revelation 3:2 – “Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die”. – We’ve read the modern chatter that the Church is dying yet here is God’s call to energize and encourage us.”

She concludes, “I hope these few scriptures and what they have meant to us helps to show some of the spiritual journey that we have been on and are still on.  Prayer is paramount as is listening for God’s voice. Each of us hear this in different ways and what is heard is often confirmed by others.  We pray that we are listening to God’s way for us.”

In this you will hear the dependence of the leadership on prayer, waiting on God and a robust process of discernment as they listen to God’s way forward.  The leadership were united in their decision to recognise that God is at work in their community, and they are willing to partner in ways which challenge their own personal preferences and comfort.

There is great strength in leadership being united and being prepared to lead, more so to answer the difficult questions.  Not everyone agreed, but such was the mana of the leaders that they were prepared to “give it a go”.  I find it very telling that the two key leaders at this time were the Parish Clerk and the Treasurer.  Unity and clarity of purpose between those responsible for the spiritual and material oversight of a congregation is, in my opinion, uncommon!

Two things came together at this point:  members of the parish visited Nawton School (directly across the road from the church) and found that the new principal, Rubina Wheeler, was strongly supportive of the pastoral care of the students, believed in a holistic education, welcomed Bible in Schools and, being Maori, she valued the spiritual side of their tikanga (culture).  This also brought a renewed realisation of just how significant the Maori population and culture is within the community.  Of the 22 classes, 5 are taught bi-lingually (rua reo) and seven are taught exclusively in te reo Maori (rumaki).

The first connection that resulted between the church and school was practical such as serving at a breakfast club, then came individual connections such as knitting slippers for children.  These practical acts of service led the way for growing trust.

The second thing was that the church approached Te Aka Puaho (Maori Synod of PCANZ) about the possibility of working together to meet the needs of the community.  This invitation resulted in Rev Hone Te Rire, an Amorangi, making himself available to the church.  Amorangi ministry is a strand of bi-vocational, non-stipended ministry within the Presbyterian Church.   The church offered to employ Hone as a resource minister and the school agreed to his appointment as chaplain and kamatua.

Who do we share shalom with?

The employment of Hone brought many threads of Nawton Church’s mission together.  The connection with the school was reinforced and the opportunity to engage with the families of the children attending the after-school programmes was greatly enhanced.  His standing in the Maori community brings mana to the church.  Because this transition occurred over time, people have got to know and trust him.  Fundamental changes to programmes and even worship services, such as waiata himene (singing hymns) and karakia (prayer), are now well accepted and create a more welcoming environment for the Maori community.  Greetings are in Maori reo, people are acknowledged for their role and status and newcomers take a part in the services – all these changes have been welcomed by the congregation.  A few have found this adjustment difficult, but have been willing to accept changes because the message is clear – this is our home and all are welcome.

The rites of passage – baptisms, marriages, funerals are offered in Maori reo.  Even for those who are far from the church – these occasions are often those where a connection is made and relationship formed.  Blessing a house after a suicide, meeting with a recently released prisoner, helping two young men get out of the Mongrel Mob, writing “Hone’s Korero” column in the community newspaper, a father and son breakfast, breaking bread together … all these connections have enabled new relationships, a new way to share the gospel, or a means to welcome people and share shalom.

There is a critical core of the congregation who work alongside Hone and the community and the school, willingly preaching, teaching, providing pastoral care and administration.  Almost all members of the congregation help in some tangible way, for example, knitting, cooking, transporting youth and giving generously so that everything is focussed on achieving their vision of God’s mission being realised in the community.  It is a delight to see what seems to be most of the school racing across the road to the weekly Café after school club.  It is a delight to see 80-year-old parishioners chatting with the children and helping them with their activities and snacks.

If you visit Nawton Church building, the first thing you will notice is a giant banner – visible from all areas of the interior.  It says: “We are to be the heart, the hands and the feet of Jesus in our community.”  It is before them in all they do.  You see, this is a struggling community and other churches and community groups are also working to address the social problems; but the reality is that only a church can do what a church can do and providing hope and a place of safety, with unconditional love goes long way in healing the hurt and the hurting people.  It is not easy to be part of a congregation which includes many people who have not come from a churched background, because then mission is not only “out there” but in your face and sitting next to you in the service.


How does the story of Nawton Church reimagine home?  Through vision.  The leadership were clear that God had plans for the church.  They saw an isolated community, who was “other”, but most importantly they were willing to give up their own comfort to welcome the “stranger”.  And the amazing reciprocity of this was the gift of the stranger – opening new ways of thinking which were life-giving.  In engaging in God’s mission, the congregation grew in their understanding of their neighbours, the complexity of human experience and the grace of God as he blessed each new step with more members and changed lives.  This is their bi-cultural and multi-cultural journey.

Bill Featherstone, the Elder I quoted earlier, shares their vision for the next stage:

“It is possible one day the school-church complex will be an urban marae with the wharenui (meeting house) and the whare karakia (house of prayer) supporting the lowest socio-economic community in Hamilton.  A place where Maori, migrants are all mutually comfortable drawn into unity by the gospel.  Whatever the future, the church will not look like that envisaged by the people who planned Nawton all those years ago, but it will still hold faithfully to the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

In this we can see the continuing curiosity and imagination of this church as it continues to be open to new ways of weaving together God’s story and their story.

Lesslie Newbigin again:

“I have come to feel that the primary reality of which we have to take account in seeking for a Christian impact on public life is the Christian congregation. … The only answer, the only hermeneutic of the gospel, is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live by it. I am, of course, not denying the importance of the many activities by which we seek to challenge public life with … but I am saying that these are all secondary, and that they have power to accomplish their purpose only as they are rooted in and lead back to a believing community[6].”

The little church that could

You might recall the Little Golden Book entitled “The Little Engine that Could”. It was published in 1954 and told the story of a little railroad engine that volunteered to pull a series of heavy freight cars up a steep hill after the task had defeated all the great engines.  “I think I can” puffed the little locomotive as she coupled up.  “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can,” she puffed as she gained speed.  “I – think – I – can”, she puffed right to the top of the hill.  As the little engine descended, delighted with her feat she puffed, “I thought I could, I thought I could …”

Nawton Church’s story is not complete.  Wonderful things have begun as they have participated in God’s mission.  They are making a home for the whole community and, as a congregation, have been changed by the journey as much as they have witnessed the change in others.  This is a community in which God’s shalom is pervasive.

Lisa Wells

3 July 2017

Powerpoint images:  AAMS Nawton Church

[1] Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (London: SPCK, 1989), 232-233

[2] Interview with Bill Featherstone, October 2016


[4] Moderator’s Pentecost Massage 2017, Rt Rev Richard Dawson, personal correspondence 25 May 2017

[5] Parish Clerk Cathy Rogers’ email to LW, personal correspondence 7 November 2016

[6] Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), 227.


3 thoughts on “The little church that could

  1. Reblogged this on Candour and commented:
    Lisa Wells recently shared this story at the the Australian Association of Mission Studies Conference. The story is of a Hamilton church which is re-imagining its future, and making that future happen.


    1. No this was presented at another conference Diane. I go to the Uniting Church NSW Rural Church Conference in Dubbo at the end of the month – but I am sure I will be sharing this story with them too! Thank you for the referral and support.


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