That we should learn from the past is a truism. But I reckon at various Christian gatherings I attend, actual stories and reflections from history are almost absent. I decided to start remedying that by asking the Surrender mob for a short slot at the recent shindig. They kindly obliged, and here is the result (in PDF form).

I gave a brief spiel on the Blackburn Community Network (BCN), which existed between the late 1980s and about 2002. Then Petra Brinkworth, Bill Walker and Marcus Curnow faced the baying mob for some questions. There’s definitely a book in tracing the history of radical discipleship in Australia, and this is a small slice of a larger cake.

Here are a few quotes, and you can download the full version:

In 1988, two couples (Greg & Rose Gow, and Grant & Debbie Finlay), inspired by the example of the House of the Gentle Bunyip and the Waiters’ Union, bought a house together in Kevin Avenue, Blackburn North…Kevin Avenue became the inspiration for several “community houses” of (mainly) youth leaders, where they could reach out to those beyond the boundaries of eastern suburban church culture. They enabled us to learn, in an embodied way, what a “discipleship community” could look like. These households also became a staging ground for a wider discipleship community in the Blackburn area.

The BCN acted as an alternative grouping to St Alfred’s Anglican Church, allowing us to experiment with the kinds of mission, discipleship community, prayer, Bible study, hospitality, liturgy and political action that we felt called to. In retrospect I think the St Alfred’s leadership generally did a good job of allowing us the space to try things out (barring some egregious efforts at control). They sometimes “owned” these experiments, sometimes rejected them and at times even had a literal dotted line in their organizational charts to express the ambiguity of their relationship to the BCN.

Influenced by community development and biblical anarchism, the BCN never had a formal membership or leadership structure. It was deliberately open, and people participated by participating. It never had named leadership either. There were forms of implicit membership and leadership, of course, and the fact that we struggled with a consistently “good” way to do these things was often painful. Those who didn’t live in ‘community houses’ often found it difficult to know how to belong. And the lack of named leadership spelled trouble in times of crisis or stress. On the other hand, the fuzziness enabled a bunch of very interesting people to get involved in all sorts of creative ways.

With a focus on hospitality and a non-professional ethos, we wanted to include young people in our lives beyond the “activity-centric” nature of most evangelical youth ministry. However, this was a tension when providing this hospitality to young people who were struggling and damaged. The stress of this work forced us to recognise the need for healthy boundaries. But it was a lesson learnt with difficulty.

We found that our vocation to be among those on the margins often outweighed our desire to make Blackburn a place more like the kingdom of God. Though we prioritised those on the margins in Blackburn, and while local “place-based” issues (such as the anti-freeway protest, local re-vegetation, food security) were important to us, these were ultimately trumped by the desire to do youth work and urban mission in poorer places.