NEW Life Baptist Church can be summed up in one word – change.
Whether it’s a new building or the gradual personal growth of each member, a culture of change is something the church embraces – and encourages.
You have to be comfortable with change when you could switch venues any minute – unlike many traditional churches, New Life holds its services in rented facilities.
That means starting from scratch every week, setting up chairs, sound equipment, curtains and signage.
But to New Life’s members, church is less about bricks and mortar and more about the living, breathing members who make up its congregation.
And a little bit of hard work each week is a small price to pay if it refocuses members on what really matters – loving their God, and loving people around them.
This focus on change clearly hasn’t scared people away – the church’s membership has doubled in the six years Pastor Jonathon Schroder has been at the helm.
“The obvious explanation for this growth is God. It’s God’s work, not mine,” he said.
“Plus we try really hard to be accessible to new people in all we say and do. We want to be a safe place for the average Joe Blow to come. We want to breed an authentic culture.
“Vulnerability is key – if I’m struggling with something, I let the congregation know. There have been times where I’ve broken down crying because of something I’m struggling with.”
New Life has become a home for people of all ages – from babies to teens, all the way up to its oldest – she’s 94 – member.
It’s a rare mix. And one which has seen the church strengthened even more by the wide variety of perspectives on offer from young and old.
Jonathon said the church’s constantly changing facilities were also a drawcard for new members.
“Some people can be put off by churches spending millions on facilities, where we’ve spent as little as possible,” he said.
“Having a mobile church also encourages people to get active and get involved in keeping it running each week. That’s why we have such a high volunteer base.
“But I’m really careful of people only serving once a month so they don’t get burned out. People need to have hobbies outside of church.”
The church also encourages change in other areas – particularly in its methodology. Whether that means mixing up the music, altering the layout of services or encouraging someone else to preach.
“I think we get stuck in a rut when we focus solely on the methodology, rather than the message,” Jonathon said.
“I guess the old cliché statement is ‘the message stays the same, the method always changes’. We need to be constantly adapting and making sure we’re giving others – particularly young people – a voice in the church.
“To love God and love your neighbour is the core – it’s the ‘what’. But the ‘how’ needs to forever change. It needs to look different 10 years ago, to now, to 10 years’ time.”
While tight-knit church communities can offer security to those within the fold, Jonathon is aware this can (in its extreme) lead to insulation for members and exclusion for non-members.
Therefore, he encourages the congregation to be active in the wider community.
“I’m sure one of the reasons some churches aren’t growing is because they’ve become a bubble,” he said.
“While we don’t want to be worldly, we still need to be a part of the world. We still need to be involved.”
The church partners with Foodbank, sponsors Kyabram drug rehabilitation centre Teen Challenge, helps with the Salvos Christmas meal and gives emergency care packs to people in hospital.
But Jonathon said New Life’s greatest contribution to the community was each member “loving their neighbour” day to day.
However, he acknowledged this didn’t always happen, and people had been hurt by churches in the past.
“It’s not surprising people get hurt by the church. It’s not supposed to happen, but we are all human and are constantly rubbing each other up the wrong way,” he said.
“I guess it all comes back to the myth that the church is full of perfect people. And that’s not true at all.
“It happens. And it hurts me when it happens. I often say, as a representative of the church, let me be the one to say sorry.”
Some of this hurt has flowed from recent political debate.
“Personally, I don’t warm to the word ‘debate’,” Jonathon said.
“I don’t think much is achieved by being combative. While I do believe the church should have a voice of truth in society, we need to make the loudest noise for what we’re for, not what we’re against.”
So what does the future hold for New Life?
Change, of course.
“We don’t want to stay static. The church is called New Life, after all – and that’s really reflective of where we’re at. I want to see a culture of change, where change is the norm and every day is a new day,” Jonathon said.
“As I say every week, ‘we’re all a work in progress’.”