Glen McDonald was shocked when Mark Short of Bush Church Aid asked him to lead the Church in Roxby Downs, a town nestled on hot red sand 563 km from comfortable Adelaide.
“Roxby?” he said incredulously. “With five children? No, that’s not in my plans!”
The McDonald family didn’t feel like moving to the remote BHP purpose-built mining town that was once the most controversial in Australia over protests against uranium mining at the Olympic Dam Mine in the 1980s.
Glen had a big plan to stay as chaplain at the Juvenile Justice Center in Wagga Wagga, NSW, and do some community ministry in the city, but they couldn’t find any funding. He knew he had to leave Junee, where he had served as a pastor, because the financial viability of a full-time pastor was no longer tenable. But Roxby Downs was certainly not the solution he was looking for.
“But when I knew we had to leave Junee, I felt obligated to share it with my wife — and her first reaction was no,” he recalls.
Not only did Roxby not fit into their ministry plans, but they were also concerned about accessing necessary services in such a remote place to develop one of their children.
But BCA’s motto is “Never too far, never too little”, so when Mark, the former BCA national director, asked them to move to Roxby, Glen and his wife Beth prayed about it, and “we realized there was there’s no reason not to.” go, so we thought well, why not? And so we are here.”
The temporary population of about 4,000 people. After serving as a pastor at Roxby Downs Christian Community Church for 3½ years, Glen can say that with five children aged 15 to five, the challenge was not so much getting to an isolated place as finding good friends in such a place. Le. He says his two oldest children have found it extremely difficult to leave relationships behind and start over elsewhere.
“One of the anomalies of Roxby Downs is that people come and go regularly, and one of the challenges for Zac, my eldest, was that he made a friend in the first short time here, and then he quickly left. That was a matter of him trying to find his place and where he fits into the whole scheme of things. He doesn’t need a lot of friends, but he needs good friends, and he just struggled to find those good friends,” explains Glen.
Sacrifices have also been made in education, especially for Zac and the next eldest, Lili. They are quite academic but don’t get the support to stretch as they would elsewhere, as many high school kids leave Roxby to go to boarding school, Whether their family is moving to access educational opportunities.
“But one of the things we’ve always said is that we never wanted education to be an idol for our kids…if we didn’t have that attitude, it wouldn’t have been feasible to come to a remote area.”.”
“We never wanted education to be an idol for our children… if we didn’t have that attitude, it wouldn’t have been feasible to come to a remote area.” – Glen McDonald.
Connecting with the youth at Holy Trinity Church in Adelaide has encouraged the McDonald children and the Church.
Not only have Zac and Lili been able to fellowship with other young Christians in camps run by Holy Trinity, but last October, a group of young people came to Roxby Downs to host a holiday program – which helped build the children’s work because most of the children who came had no previous connection with the Church.
“Part of my ministry philosophy is through relationships and sharing the gospel through personal relationships,” says Glen.
“So we’ve worked hard to build those community relationships and have that presence. One of the great things the Trinity mission had was a focus on the demographics of young people and children in the city, so they enabled us to organize a holiday program for children, which was beautiful and well attended.”
One of the new families lives across the street from the Church, whose children were curious about what was happening there.
“And when we ran the program that allowed them to come and watch Church, another Christmas holiday program. And that’s what they came up with,’ he says.
When that family’s parents entered the meetinghouse in March to vote in the South Australian state’s election campaign, they saw signs advertising another children’s program.
“The kids across the street saw the upcoming program, and every day, they asked their mother, ‘Is today the day we go to the church program?’ “Not yet,” she would reply.
“There was another family whose son came to the holiday program and asked, ‘When are the big kids coming back?’ That was his expression, “When is the mission team coming?” So he was looking forward to that too.”
Unfortunately, Glen had to cancel a week-long visit from the Holy Trinity youth group over Easter due to a COVID outbreak in Roxby Downs, but they will receive a warm welcome when they manage to return.
“The church we have now is not the church that was here when we arrived.” – Glen McDonald.
For Glen, the temporary population is a great challenge in building the Church.
“Every year, we have lost a large number of people. So when we got here that first year, we were probably about 50, then some people left,” he says.
“The next year, several people left again, so our numbers seem to drop to about twenty every year, and then they grow up again. There are probably only eight left, but last year we had a large turnover, and several key families left. So the Church we have now is not the Church that was here when we arrived.
“Most of our parish council has left, and this year, we’ve also got some key figures, people leading church services and stuff.
“So we are working hard to connect with people and reconnect with some Christians who have also moved to the city in that migration of people, and we pray that God will continue to bring more people to support the ministry – not just to fill numbers but to create a foundation that allows us to connect with our community and spread the gospel.”
Glen sees his greatest challenge as “people gripped by the need for ministry, especially in developing children’s and youth ministry.”
“When Zac was about nine years old, he answered all my rhetorical questions in the sermon.” – Glen McDonald.
With children making up half of the current congregation of approximately 27, Glen keeps the children in the Church, tries to involve them in the music as much as possible, and then has some activities in the back of the Church.
“Part of my vision would be to have some focused craft activities for the kids in the back of the church so that they experience the church but also get involved in appropriate activities that will help them become disciples,” he says.
“I don’t think we appreciate enough what kids pick up in Church. The key for me was when Zac was about nine years old; he kept answering all my rhetorical questions in the sermon, indicating that he really listened and got more out of the address than we would necessarily think.
“So I’m motivated to have some sort of focused craft around sermons or engage with the theme and subject of the sermon, but in a way that suits them, but here too, we need other people to work alongside to stand by this vision and see the value of it.”
Does Glen think God was wise enough to send him to Roxby?
‘You have to ask the municipality that! I always wonder what I’m doing, but I also see God doing great things through us and in us. And so we look at extending our time here because God needs to do more through us.
“I often feel like I don’t necessarily have all the skills and gifts, but I think it’s God growing his church, not us anyway.”