Knowing Telopea: planting, thriving, dying, hoping

28 May 2024

By Emily Ferguson

The scent of flowers welcomes me as I approach Ray and Gwenda Cheal’s front door. The welcome deepens as I am presented with lovingly prepared morning tea and led outside to a lush backyard spilling over with home-grown leafy greens.

Their home teems with the life and hospitality of a couple who have spent the past 40 years as integral members of Telopea Church of Christ.

Telopea held its final service on 1 October 2023, yet many of its local mission groups and activities continue under the leadership of Epping Church of Christ – the same church responsible for its launch 64 years ago.

“How did we get here to this situation today?” asked Rick Lewis, Senior Pastor at Telopea from 1985-1997, at the church’s final service. It is a question without a straightforward answer, but one that begs the telling of a church that has long sought to be faithful to God’s mission in a changing local context.

 

Beginnings

The late 1950s saw the establishment of a major new social housing development in Telopea and the Dundas Valley. A missional opportunity was identified, and two Bible college (now ACOM) students, Haydn Sargent and Bob Baxter, were appointed to lead the new ministry.

Gail Saxby, who was part of the church’s inception and closure, remembers door-knocking in the valley to inform people about an upcoming tent mission in their new neighbourhood. Epping Church of Christ provided financial support of £12 per week and helped to prepare for the evangelistic meetings, which were well-attended by the locals. And so Telopea Church of Christ was officially born in January 1961.

New horizons: intersection of Marshall Road and Shortland Street, circa 1958

Construction of the first building at 16 Shortland Street, circa 1959

The first building at 16 Shortland Street, circa 1959

“It’s important to grasp the speed and energy with which the church engaged in mission in the beginning,” Rick reminded those present at the final service. “They were pioneers, trailblazers, activists. This church was here before the shopping centre, before the library, before the school. The church took initiative, tried new ideas, worked hard, gave sacrificially. It was a mission experiment taking place in the context of a social experiment. It set the tone for the culture of Telopea Church of Christ.”

 

Loving God, loving people

Their culture was marked by the radical acceptance of all people, adventurous mission, prayer, generosity, social responsibility and spiritual vitality.

“The church always had that friendliness and openness and ‘everybody’s welcome – we don’t care who you are,’” Gail told me. “The local people recognised the church as a place of sanctuary. One Sunday night, we even had a young man being chased by a knife-wielding assailant who rushed in and hid behind the piano. Women also gave up hats very early, so nobody could say, ‘I can’t come to church because I haven’t got a hat’.”

Telopea Christian Centre, circa 1975

Through years of faithfully offering love, respect and acceptance to all people, the church built meaningful relationships with the community. Some loved the church so much that they attended its final service.

They started a childcare centre, a long day care centre, and a social welfare agency, Hope Connect, as expressions of care for their neighbourhood.

“We just accepted anyone,” Ray Cheal shared with me as we sat down to morning tea. “We had a mantra, which was very real to us: loving God, loving people. We didn’t ever say to anyone, ‘out of here’. There are quite a few stories of people saved from the drug scene. In fact, one of our most faithful members came out of the drug scene. It’s quite brilliant what God did in her life because she was accepted.”

Others came to faith through new ministries such as cricket and soccer teams or through the young people who moved into a house purchased by the church to be a presence in the neighbourhood. Spiritual encounter with God through Sunday services also spoke powerfully to the community of His acceptance.

Some of these ministries continue to operate today under the oversight of Epping Church of Christ. Hope Connect – a government-funded ministry that helps the community with practical needs – germinated from the ministry of one lady who simply started helping people. Wazza’s – a Thursday night meal with Scripture and conversation for locals who want to connect but not at a Sunday service – continues, as does The Shed, a space for connection and woodwork projects. A thriving Friday morning Bible study also continues.

 

Change and God’s ‘new thing’

Today, a large area of Telopea is undergoing significant change, and the decline in the church paralleled a decline in the valley. Much of the social housing has been sold, resulting in fewer long-term residents and greater numbers of people in transit.

“The church was starting to decline in numbers, finances and resources,” Ray told me. “But the church not only was running out of financial resources; the energy also wasn’t there.

“That’s when the elders said, ‘We need someone to help us in this process,’ and Craig Farmer was put on as a consultant. The process took 18 months, two years maybe.”

The decision was made to close Telopea and invite its people to join the life of Epping Church of Christ. This meant there would no longer be a Sunday morning service at Telopea.

“If there’s a really painful part of the process, it’s that,” Ray said.

 

New wine for new wineskins

Recurrent throughout Telopea’s history has been the faithful question: “God, what is it you’re doing now? What is it you want us to do?” It remains the question today, even in the midst of turmoil and pain.

“God is doing a new thing to address the new context,” Rick shared. “With courage and creativity, the members have prioritised mission over institution and have decided to [close and join] with Epping Church of Christ, the sister church that was there at the beginning, in order that, with their support, a way might be found into a new phase of mission in Telopea.”

A large property development in Telopea is in the works, which will eventually mean the demolition of the current church building and an influx of over 4000 new residences (6000 people) into the area – a mix of social housing and privately owned dwellings.

“If you go right back to the beginning when Telopea was commenced as a suburb, Epping saw the opportunity to spread the gospel there and to grow a church there,” Ray said. “That’s how it started, and my view is Epping is going to get another opportunity to do that as it redevelops.”

Justin Campbell is the Senior Pastor at Epping Church of Christ and speaks excitedly about the possibilities and challenges that lie ahead.

“We’re keen for there to be a continued ‘lighthouse’ within Telopea, and we believe there will be a faith community replanted back in there. Telopea will be a very different place over the next 10 years; it is going to be such a diverse area socioeconomically, culturally and ethnically.

“So part of the challenge is: how do we plant back into this neighbourhood in a way that is incarnational for both the marginalised and multi-cultural parts of the community? It can’t just be a carbon-copy stock-standard church that could be meeting in any suburb; it’s got to be specifically engaging with local people in meaningful ways. I think it’s actually quite exciting and it’s got real potential for being really representative of the kingdom of God.”

“So,” Ray tells me, eyes equal parts grief and wonder. “Unless a grain of wheat …”

We both know the rest. It’s the words of Jesus that have come up time and time again in this journey.

“Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (John 12:24).

Telopea Church of Christ may have “fallen to the ground and died.” Yet, in God’s kingdom sovereignty, its death may just turn out to be the gateway to its future.

 

In the meantime

Ray sent me home the morning of my visit with a full heart and a bag of silverbeet.

“What’s the key to a flourishing veggie patch?” I asked him as I stood soaking up the sunshine.

There was barely a moment’s hesitation.

“Patience.”

But what does that look like when the seed of a beloved church is buried, and you are watching for possible signs of new life?

“It’s a season where you wait on what God’s going to do,” Ray reflected. “You can’t get anxious about it or impatient about it. It’s all in his timing.”

So let’s watch, wait and worship.

As Rick Lewis put it, “Watch out; he’s about to do a new thing.”

 

Read more stories from churches of Christ in NSW & ACT HERE