The following story shows how innovation, a missional lens, and the church all combine to bring about a praxis (a theology that is embodied and acted out) that adds enormous value and impact within the lives of not only congregational members but also the wider community.
This indeed is a summary of what we know as “missiological ecclesiology.” Huge words which really imply that the church is a “sent church” – its essential nature and vocation is one that is called and sent by God. In other words, it seeks to look outward as it continues to take concern for the discipleship of those who are gathered, with a view for forming them for mission. Theologians tell us that all biblical theology is missional theology, and that as the church, we read the Word always through the incarnational and missional lens of a God who is in essence missional.
Our Baptist Union of Victoria lens of innovation describes innovation as follows: “Change that adds value.” The following influential formula has also been helpful for understanding missional innovation and imagination: “Christology Determines Missiology Determines Ecclesiology.”
In other words, the churches we love, attend, and to which we give our time, gifts, and energies are part of God’s instruments in redeeming the world. Churches are based on Christ and are foremost missional. Our God is a creative, innovative, present, and surprising God, and through His Spirit brings about change that adds value particularly as it has an outward focus on mission.
And the best thing about all of the above and what you will read following is the church becomes more passionate, excited, and released into all that God imagines for it!
In the early hours of one Sunday morning in early October 2020, seventeen cars carrying a total of twenty-nine people drove up on the loose gravel driveway of Epsom Community Church in rural Bendigo, Victoria, ready and excited for the week’s Sunday service … and not a single person needed to come out of their cars.
Christian believers all over Victoria, Australia, have been feeling the impact of the COVID-19 lockdowns with strictly enforced in-person meetings and limits on indoor gatherings. It became harder and harder for churches to gather and fellowship with one another as issues of cleaning, contact tracing, and the risk if someone were to be infected halted any possible progress. But there is a certain resiliency and innovation behind the leadership team at Epsom Community Church, a group that did not see these limitations as a halt in progress but as an opportunity to make something seemingly impossible possible.
With the church leadership team being privy to the congregation missing their weekly Sunday fellowships and seeing their greater church family, they got together and hatched a plan that would make this possible: their first “Drive-In Church Service” – and all without breaking a single lockdown rule.
Households came together in their cars where they formed a semi-circle arch around Head Pastor Kelvin Niblett who shared the message from his outdoor pulpit stationed on the church steps. Comfortable, safe, and within sight and reach of each other, together the Epsom Community of believers listened to the Sunday message of hope, broadcasted to every car present through a low-frequency selected FM radio channel.
The church continued its Drive-In Church run, bringing in even more people in its second week before extending its broadcast operations online using Facebook and YouTube so that other members who were unable to join the Drive-In Church could tune in. Contingency plans were put in place in case of weather changes with Pastor Niblett moving inside the church building where he could safely (and comfortably) transmit and record the service. Afterward, members could either head home or go to a local park to sit around in small groups for Bring-Your-Own (BYO) lunch picnics and chats, making the most of seeing each other and fellowshipping with one another.
Apart from church services, Epsom Community Church also utilized the innovative use of the FM radio transmitter to host an Annual General Meeting with the entire congregation in December. The Church’s Secretary said, “By the [AGM], my friend will have sorted a smaller antenna, and all will be in a portable bag and run off a motorbike battery. Thus, we hope the chairperson will be able to walk to our people in cars (or in their groups of 10 as per the restrictions) and people can ask questions, give comments, which can be heard by everyone on their FM radio.”
Fellowship and communal worship have always been at the heart of the Church as it says in the book of Acts 2:42: “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.” The pandemic may have limited the ways in which the Church can come together in person, but the innovative actions and adaptability of the Epsom Community Church’s members have been integral in maintaining not only the important spiritual practice of worship and fellowship but of friendship, care, and love shown to one another – especially at a time when everything was so uncertain.
The response of this Baptist faith community to the limitations brought on by the pandemic highlights two very important characteristics of the local church – innovation and adaptability. As churches continue to grow in their understanding of the importance of congregational fellowship in their spiritual formation, finding ways to make things work is not as difficult anymore, particularly given the various affordances of the digital age that we are currently living in – whether that’s through a Drive-In Church Service every Sunday or through a Zoom Bible Study where one can stay connected and feel a part of a community and church family even when unable to do so in person.
Drawing upon the Epsom Community Church’s innovative workaround of congregational fellowship under the limitations of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Language Other Than English (LOTE) churches around Victoria have also come together to face the generational tension between the first and second regarding the knowledge and resources that are required for innovation and adaptability to occur.
A Chin community church in Victoria responded to this tension by not only acknowledging the technical prowess of the younger generation but by encouraging them into understanding that using their skills and knowledge to innovate and respond to issues that arose during the pandemic is one to be proud of and admired – knowing they are being used for the flourishing of the church and the good of one another. And to the Baptist Community all over Victoria, this has been a successful feat that will continue for many years to come, even when the pandemic is no more.
Diana Taw from the Werribee Karen Baptist Church said, “If you are a person who loves going out, staying home every day is really hard. But our youth are fighting hard and tried their best to stay connected to our church. Seeing them coming to youth service on Zoom made us really happy … I felt like God is preparing something good for us during this difficult time, and all we have to do is keep going without complaint. I believe that nothing is impossible when we put our trust in God.”
 D.L. Guder, Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998).
 G. Hill, Salt, Light and a City: Introducing Missional Ecclesiology (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2012)
 A. Frost and M. Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st Century Church (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Books, 2003)
 C. Van Gelder and D.J. Zscheile (eds.), The Missional Church in Perspective: Mapping Trends and Shaping the Conversation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011)
 Scot Cormode, The Innovative Church: How Leaders and Their Congregations Can Adapt in An Ever-Changing World (Baker Publishing: Grand Rapids), 2020
For Reflection and Discussion
- In what ways can you see your church/ministry becoming more passionate, excited, and released into all that God imagines for it in the midst of a restrictive crisis like COVID-19 or another crisis?
- What has been your best means of connection with your community during the pandemic?