Church on the Ridge (COTR) is a church-plant gettting into its 3rd year here in Pietermaritzburg. It feels very similar to Crossroads Christian Church in Canberra, where Emma and I were members for many years. Sam Groves is the pastor and the whole show got off the ground when he and Deane (our host) met at a conference and got talking in the toilet about Church-planting in Pietermaritzburg. COTR is not part of the Church of England in South Africa (CESA) the evangelical Anglican denomination that Moore College and the Sydney Diocese has done much to support. It’s an independent Church (like Crossroads) but with close partnerships with other Churches in South Africa and around the world. In fact, the minister of our Church in Sydney, Dave Mansfield, is on the COTR Board of Reference – a group of people who are willing to give their stamp of approval to what the Church stands for and is doing. Again, that’s exactly the set-up we had in Canberra with Crossroads.

The reason for harping on about the similarities is because going along to COTR is a chance to see something I’m quite familiar with, being done in quite a different context.

On Sunday morning we piled everyone into the car, the Baker girls had to sit in the boot of the station wagon so that we could all fit. (There are no seat-belt laws in SA, so you might see some photos of the mission team strapped onto unlikely parts of heavily loaded vehicles) We drove up the road to the University, to the Commerce building where the Church meets. COTR has already had to move 3 times in order to find space as the Church has grown. The lecture building is the same 1970’s concrete architecture that dominates Universities in Australia. We arrived at 8:15 for a 9:30 start. Deane and Sam joke that COTR is Church in a box, everything has to be set up and taken away each week. They’ve just brought a trailer to make transportation easier, and to keep everything in during the week. So, during the week, COTR lives in Deane and Polly’s garage.
Polly is on ‘Labels and Loos’, which involves making sure the toilets are properly equipped, and writing a name tag for everyone who comes along. She keeps a roll of people she meets so that the Elders can know if someone has started coming regularly, or if they have been away for a while. She does it every week. It’s an impressive commitment and I’m sure it makes a huge difference to the pastoral care of the Church leaders. It makes a difference just being able to see everyone’s name. Polly also has the most beautiful handwriting so each tag is a collectible.

We help set out coffee pots and cups near the entrance to the building, everyone grabs a coffee on the way into Church, and we rearranged the lecture room into a cafe layout. Other people set up the sound gear and music, and we also needed to arrange spaces in other rooms for the Kid’s Church. It’s a lot of work just to get started, and it’s followed by an equal amount at the end. Each week a different small group is rostered on to help out, but the Elders – Deane and Polly, Sam and Sarah, Pierre and Donné are there every week. (These three families are the founding members of the Church)

It really works though, the cafe format is great for interacting with people during the service, Emma and I had a great conversation with an older couple at our table. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the hard work in setting up contributes to a sense of ownership and responsibility for the time spent together. It’s an act of service that’s part of The Service.

The meeting itself was probably identical to dozens of others running in Sydney and Australia. Our first two songs were written by guys at Dubbo Presbyterian Church. We had some interviews, Roger gave a talk, we prayed. It was the bread and butter of Christians meeting together everywhere. I loved it, and I loved doing it in South Africa with my brothers and sisters here.

Actually, Church on the Ridge has quite a Western style of Church meeting. It doesn’t have all the singing and dancing, the 3 hour sermon and so on, that you would find in a more traditional African Church. I talked with Sam about this after the meeting. He gave two reasons for it: first, South African culture is steadily Westernising, so it makes sense to go with a more Western model rather than go too far towards traditional African Church and get left behind. Secondly, and more interestingly, there are distinct aspects of traditional African Church culture that he thinks are quite unhelpful.
Let me give you an example, the motto of COTR is, ‘come as you are’. Sam dresses casually when he preaches – a t-shirt and shorts – and people are encouraged to come in whatever they are wearing. This is a real contrast with traditional Black African Churches. Yet, the formal dress in a traditional African Church service often plays into legalism and moralism about following Christ. So the decision to go for casual dress also has a theological dimension.

It’s a real challenge for Church on the Ridge to reach and include all the many different types of people within their local community. Some of the decisions they have made are probably making it difficult to attract Black South Africans into the Church. Yet, COTR cannot compromise the things that will make them a community of people who are distinct from those around, shaped by the call to follow Jesus.
I know, that’s a real challenge for every Church everywhere, but Church in South Africa seems to have a sharper edge which might cut in all sorts of directions.