By trying something new a small country church under the threat of closure has received an unexpected Christmas gift, a fresh lease of life.
St Andrews Uniting Church is located in the town of Howlong, which sits alongside the Murray River 28km west of Albury.
The church, which is on the NSW side of the border but is part of the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania, has been hosting Sunday morning worship attendances that typically range from two to six people.
The regulars comprise four older ladies and two younger families that attend sporadically.
Last year Presbytery of North East Victoria supply minister Rev Jeanne Beale began holding meetings with the St Andrews faithful to discuss what should be done.
Michelle Matthews, who is a mother of two young children, attended the meetings and said that some of the church stalwarts were pessimistic.
“Some of the old ladies were a bit sad about the whole thing,” she said.
“They thought that the church is about to close, there’s not many people around. It’s hard for them to understand the way that families do things now is a little bit different. ”
“For ages we had been saying that the 9am service is really hard for people to get to with young families. It’s hard to get that many kids out of the door at that time. I don’t think they understood at all.
“But Jean was very frank that families find it hard to go to church every single weekend. There’s so many other commitments such as kids’ sport. She said you’ve got to change things up to fit in with these new age families.”
“That was really good because that got the ladies thinking a bit and also about the use of the hall as being part of the church too.”
Ms Beale drew on presentations being held throughout the presbytery by the children and families ministry coordinator Chris Barnett to suggest putting on a messy church and inviting a non-affiliated craft group that met at the church hall to help out.
“For us messy church was really appealing because it’s during the week,” Ms Matthews said.
“We looked into it. There’s a lot of information online about it. We decided we could probably do something like that for Christmas.”
Messy church was already something being done by an Anglican church in Howlong, so the group rang to check that they wouldn’t “tread on any toes”.
Ms Matthews advertised the December 13 early evening event on social media and also created the church’s first Facebook Page.
More generally they relied on word-of-mouth to invite people.
“The idea that I kept trying to push through the whole way was to keep it quite informal and that worked really well,” Ms Matthews said.
“I just roped in my husband to cook the barbecue. One of the ladies talked to the craft ladies and they were great, they came along and did that bit and it just sort of ballooned from there.”
On the day of the event Ms Matthews and other St Andrews people kept their expectations in check.
“We’ve been excited about things before and only had a few people,” Ms Matthew said.
“We would have been happy to have an extra five kids.”
As it turned out 35 people attended with a number of new young families.
Ms Beale also came along with regionally based regular minister Rev Graeme Wells.
The session started with the craft group helping the children make Christmas decorations.
Then everyone watched a short video of a Nativity play, before all the children dressed up in costume to re-enact it.
Barbecue dinner was served and some Zooper Dooper flavoured ice tubes were eagerly devoured for dessert.
“The kids had a ball,” Ms Matthews said.
Ms Beale agreed.
“There was a buzz of excitement,” she said.
“The whole thing was such fun. People were walking out of there saying ‘when is the next one?’
“And one of the St Andrews’ ladies said ‘Easter’.”
Ms Matthews said they would definitely do messy church again, most likely at Easter.
She said they had other ideas to increase interaction with the community.
“We’ve definitely got some plans to do some stuff in the hall because that keeps the church active and people there,” she said.
Ms Matthews is president of the local toy library, which is located in the building next the church, so she thinks the St Andrews hall could be used for mothers’ play groups.
Another idea might be music lessons, something Ms Matthews’ mother teaches.
Ms Matthews said there was definitely a new vibe in St Andrews since the messy church event.
“It’s given everyone a new lease of life.”