Connecting with the wider community during COVID-19 proved to be a major challenge for our two Mission Pilot mission teams in 2020. The teams from Glen Waverley UC and Cheltenham-Mentone UC began the pilot experience at the start of 2020 full of energy and hope. We began the year with a Learning Intensive in February at Phillip Island, with input, worship, conversation, story-telling, Bible study and creative activity. The focus was on recognising that we live in a post-Christendom world, and asking what that means for the mission of the church.

We explored the story of the early church and of our own churches. We looked at models and metaphors of innovation and change. We began to open up questions about mission. And the Pilot steering group and the two mission teams began getting to know one another. The story on Jesus sending his disciples in Luke 10 became a foundational text for our work together. What does it mean to be sent out into unfamiliar territory? What is it like to be the guests rather than the hosts?

Later in the process we explored Sam Well’s notion of mission starting with “being with” people rather than “doing for” people – incarnational presence. (Learn more here.) Our mission experiment would begin with identifying people beyond the congregation with whom we were not in relationship, and going out to “be with” them. Rather than trying to meet their needs, we would begin by getting to know them and valuing them, and then seeing where the Spirit might lead us.

But when COVID lockdown hit just before Easter, we were all forced into social isolation. Team meetings were held over Zoom and we wrestled with the restrictions. We worked on learning through observation of our local communities, data collection, and a virtual neighbourhood walk on Google maps. Team members explored websites, joined community Facebook groups, and made community connections through phone calls, emails, and distanced conversations with neighbours. Census data provided fresh insights about the high proportion of new residents in the region, including an increase in cultural diversity. This provided a challenge for the churches.

The next step was to discern the call to be engaged in mission with a particular group of people. This discernment took place in coaching sessions, individual reflection, and a second learning Intensive. The Cheltenham-Mentone team felt called to connect with new residents and with people experiencing loneliness. For the Glen Waverley team, the prompt was to engage with newcomers in the Chinese community, particularly new migrants. Still in lockdown, the mission teams looked at how they might make these connections – a Welcome pack for new residents, contacting local community groups and the local council, talking to community members and to other churches, and making plans for possible events when lockdown was over. Small steps were made, and in the process there was much conversation and reflection about mission. “Being with” remained a challenge!

In March 2021, we are all still waiting for the ‘new normal’ to return. With some planned steps in welcoming new residents ready for a time when such a thing was possible, we all agreed to complete the initial experiment. We had not been able to achieve the face to face community engagement for which we had hoped and planned. However initial plans are in place for each of the churches to make some new community connections in the second half of 2021 when (hopefully) this is possible.

A full report on this first Pilot was presented to the presbytery on 16 June. Mission Pilot Report to Presbytery – June 2021. The Mission Pilot Steering Group  is currently working on what the presbytery will offer in 2022, based on our learnings from 2019-2021.

As a Presbytery we express our appreciation to the two congregations and particularly their mission teams for their participation in this pilot.

Here is Rev Dr Sam Wells speaking about “Being with” in mission.