I recently returned from nearly a month in Australia. I visited rural churches and communities across New South Wales, Tasmania and Victoria, speaking at conferences for pastors and church leaders in each state. I saw beautiful farm, ranch and timber lands, staying in the homes of lay people and hearing their concerns.
The agriculturalists there criticized the new U.S. farm bill because it restores the subsidy plan which rewards over-production. Australian farmers have no such subsidy. I gently pointed out that American farmers, ranchers and orchardists criticize their Australian counterparts for their over-production, since they export about 80 percent of their farm products.
But the real villain, I noted, may well be the global merchants of grain and other farm products who promote high production to keep their costs down.
In Victoria, I saw the planting of massive new vineyards and olive groves. And in West Victoria, I saw the flat plains irrigated to help produce a rice crop.
A multi-year drought in New South Wales, however, has slowed development there. I visited with an older Baptist there as his son sheared some of the sheep that roam his large “station.” Gordon criticized wool subsidies in the United States.
Again, I wondered if there was a way to balance producers’ need to earn a living with the consumers’ need to have affordable food and fiber, and with processors and retailers’ need to make an appropriate profit.
In the same area I visited with a young forester committed to replanting lands damaged by continual and excessive irrigation, resulting in many acres of sterile salt marshes. The native plants he is growing will lower the water table and restore the land. Bradley is passionate about both conservation and the Christian faith. It will take hosts of people like him to “restore the land” (2 Chr 7:14) and the justice in modern agriculture.
I found the small towns outwardly much healthier than those of the rural United States. Most of the store fronts on main street still host a shop. People are out and about. But as in the Great Plains of America the mainline denominations are cutting back, closing churches and moving to circuit arrangements for pastoral staffing.
Several of the small-town Baptist churches displayed vitality. In Yoeval, New South Wales, Grant and Bronwyn Geytenbeek serve a well-housed congregation. The building is inviting. The worship is contemporary and lay led. Bronwyn is a local school teacher, and Grant is very active in community life. He is the only resident pastor in this town and is well-loved and respected.
In Longford, Tasmania, the Baptist church is also in a new building. Jeff McKinnon has pastored there for 12 years. His wife teaches ballet and acrobatics in a small gymnasium, also a part of the building. This church, like many others in Australia, is reaching out into the community by hosting “play groups” for children under six. The children are accompanied by adults, usually a parent. This fosters contact and connections.
On the Victoria-New South Wales border, the Koondrok-Barham church is a real presence in the community. Pastor Geoff Leslie writes a column for the local newspaper. Wife Debbie directs the community theater. Play practices are often held in the church building.
Baptists in Australia are only about two percent of the population. We explored using bivocational ministers to reach into segments of the population and areas where there is no Baptist work.
Presently, Australia is much less churched than the United States. Some prophesy that Australia is where America will be in a decade or two. Having found the believers there solid and creative, I would venture an alternate possibility, one for which they pray.
Australia seems positioned for a great revival. Would that it would begin there and spread around the world. Then Christian agriculturalists might join hands and develop just polices and practices for producer, consumer, processor and store keeper.
Gary Farley is partner in the Center for Rural Church leadership, Carrollton, Ala.