By Naomi Giles
Brent and Jill Smith had no intention of planting a new church. In the late 2000s, they were four years into their marriage, happily serving at Lifestream church [formerly Tuggeranong Church of Christ] in Canberra’s south, when God started nagging at their hearts.
“Things were going great, we were really enjoying life with the church there, and then I started feeling this stirring of starting a new church,” says Brent, “It didn’t make much sense to me at first. Everything was going smoothly, and I loved it, but it was like God was saying, ‘Take a left turn here.’”
When Brent voiced his conviction to Jill, he found God had also been prompting her for several months.
“Jill hadn’t said anything to me, but she’d said to God, ‘Lord, if this is you, you’ll tell Brent as well,” he says.
With that confirmation, they started to explore what this calling might look like. They didn’t rush ahead but instead took a year to discern more deeply where God was leading, inviting just a few close people to journey with them prayerfully.
“I was fairly new to Canberra, but I had a sense that there was still room in this relatively young and growing city for new things,” says Jill.
Brent reflects the challenge was to be obedient to the call, even though they didn’t yet have a clear vision of what the church might look like.
Once they shared the news with their church community, they found strong support.
“We had 100 per cent support from the church, which was wonderful, and we were even told to take whoever we wanted with us,” says Brent, “Seven of us prepared to go, then four weeks before we were due to leave, we were thrown a curveball.”
The Lifestream Senior Pastor announced he was leaving too, and suddenly Brent and Jill were faced with another choice.
“The Eldership offered us the job – the full-time salary, the house – it was like here’s a platter with all the goodies on it!” says Brent, “But we were settled in God’s call. We’d been sitting on it for a year and then a further six months of waiting, so we were rock solid on that. We left everything and stepped into that world of unknown.”
Blessed and released by their home church, the fledgling community began its formation. There was no clear picture of what was ahead, only an image as a starting point.
“On a road trip to Adelaide, that’s when an idea for the church’s name popped into my mind,” says Brent, “And it wasn’t a name as such, but an image of a bloodstained hill representing Jesus on the cross – so we settled on Redhill Church as our name.”
‘Red Hill’ is also the name of one of Canberra’s significant landmarks where sweeping views of the whole city can be enjoyed. “The actual lookout on Red Hill became quite a significant place for us,” shares Jill, “We had some of our early prayer meetings up there, and we still meet up there every Easter. It’s one of our places we go to look out over Canberra and pray.”
The group of seven, aged from 17 to their early 30s, now began to meet regularly to share and pray under the name Redhill Church.
“In some ways, the early days were the easiest days,” says Jill, “While we didn’t have resources, at the same time, it was a bunch of friends stepping out into an adventure with no pressure or expectation on us.”
During this time, they agreed that their core values would be wholehearted worship, prayer, biblical teaching, authentic community, and active compassion. Their motto of being “partners in the gospel” (Philippians 1:5) emerged, meaning they wanted to see people come to know the love of God in the good news of Jesus and to be equipped to share that and live it out. They wanted to use the gifts and ideas of everyone in the group, rather than building something on one person, and to be organic and responsive in their formation.
“We deliberately, then and now, don’t do five-year plans, or rigid strategies,” says Jill, “We agreed on what our values would be, we remembered our calling to be partners in the gospel, and then we stepped along and kept asking, ‘Well, God, what are you doing now?”
One of the more challenging things for the emerging church was grappling with the required legal structures, including constitutions and financial management.
“Fresh Hope at that point didn’t have any of the pioneering structure in place, so we had to figure it out as we went!” laughs Brent.
Brent recalls that the words of his former pastor, Renton McRae, helped him through some of the hard times.
“He said, ‘give yourself 10 years to establish a foundation’, and I thought that sounded crazy. It seemed so long, but I see now he was spot on,” says Brent, “We approached those first 10 years as foundation-building years, and that helped us have patience and stick it out.”
Their first year was ‘guerrilla church’, where the venue changed every week, from lounge rooms, hills, backyards, and rivers, announced via social media. They then moved their gatherings to Tuesday nights in a hired venue. They grew to around 20 people, primarily attracting younger people who were often mobile in their social habits, forming careers and being transient in their commitment to the city.
After a few years, a core group had formed. However, with the age and lifestyles of the group changing, they realised Tuesday nights no longer worked and transitioned to a Sunday gathering.
In these middle years, they used various venues, from local school canteens and theatres to sharing space with other local churches. While not having their own building has been a challenge at times, Jill reflects it has also helped them put their energy where it was most needed.
“One of the nice things about starting a church without a building was that it was all about building a community rather than designing a space,” she says, “It was all about the people.”
Along the way, they have continued to seek God’s guidance and move through the changes and challenges. Brent says God gave him another picture that helped him understand the type of church they would be.
“I was at the botanical gardens and asking God how we could grow to be like a ‘big tree’ of a church, but then God directed my eyes to a low-growing shrub that spread around in the undergrowth areas. Maybe that’s how he was forming us,” says Brent.
Letting go and spreading out has been a key feature of Redhill, with a pattern of welcoming people in and sending people out time and again. It is a bittersweet aspect of the calling of this church that deep relationships form, but they may only be for a short season before the church needs to release and bless.
Both Jill and Brent agree that letting go is always painful, and they’ve had to learn to go through grief as a community, but they take comfort in knowing that is part of the church’s calling.
One of the key moments in Redhill’s formation came after the birth of their second daughter. A difficult start to life and eventual diagnosis of cerebral palsy meant that Brent and Jill had to strip back their leadership load, and the community stepped up to support them.
“It was a very traumatic and difficult year, and it emphasised to us again that the church couldn’t be a one-man or one-woman show. It must be a team, a community,” says Jill, “It also showed us the church had matured to the point where they were able to care for us, to love us.”
Two years ago, Redhill began meeting on Sunday afternoons in the heart of the Woden town centre at Lyons Corner [the Lyons Church of Christ building]. During COVID-19 restrictions, they’ve stayed connected through virtual channels, with small groups being a key source of support and prayer.
The church’s age demographic has spread over the years, but they continue to attract young adults, those in their 30s and 40s, a bunch of kids, and just a few in older age groups (though they’d love to see more!). The creative elements of worship have been a continuing feature, with a heart for creating and sharing music overflowing into several audio and video projects to distribute to the broader Christian community. They’ve gone through various seasons of different activities, but through it all have continued to do what most churches do: meet, worship, and eat together, learn from the Word, pray, and look for ways to love and serve those around them.
Twelve years since the church’s formation, Brent and Jill reflect that their experience has been that it’s all about relationships – with God and with each other.
“Build friendships, don’t make it about roles, don’t try and be in a hurry or try to be successful in the world’s or church’s eyes … just build relationship with God and each other,” says Brent.
“Our calling was to build a community, not build a program,” agrees Jill.
“God’s not looking for people who have it all together; He’s just looking for people who will follow Him into sometimes dark and dangerous and unknown places,” says Brent.
“I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else, despite its challenges. This is where we want to be,” says Jill. “We have an incredible team who are dear friends, and we love this church community.”
They both reflect that pioneering never really stops in a church community, as you need to adapt and change with the seasons and make space for those within the church to explore their own call of pioneering.
“We say goodbye a lot, but there’s also a joy in that, seeing people step into who God is calling them to be,” says Jill, “God calls people out, He brings people in, and He raises people up. We’d rather be a flowing river than a pond; that is who God has called us to be.”