By Tim Giovanelli
My wife Victoria and I moved to Manly Beach three years ago to plant a new Baptist Church. We had always loved the area. How could you not? As a surfer I had always spent my spare time down at Manly Beach, so when the doors seemed to be opening to start a new church we went for it.
Although we only had a small group of people who were keen to go on the journey with us, we had the support of local churches, a place in the heart of Manly to live and a strong sense of call to the area. But how do you reach this area for Christ? Several churches in the area had closed or were in decline and it was known as a graveyard for church planters.
Manly has a real village feel. If you come in on a ferry from the city, you are immediately greeted by hundreds of cafes, restaurants, pubs and shops. While it is a big tourist attraction, it also has a strong locals feel. People take great pride in being from Manly, belonging to the local surf clubs, sports teams and even being born in the local hospital. If you want to be a part of a community, Manly is a great place.
In the previous churches I had worked at, I had always meant to get involved in the community but never quite got around to it. Church life got too consuming and talking about being missional was easier than actually getting involved in people’s lives. Moving to Manly changed all of that for us.
Before we launched the church two and a half years ago I joined the local swimming group called the Bold and Beautiful. This group swims 365 days a year at 7am from Manly to Shelly Beach and back in pink swim caps. It is a local institution with over 8,000 people now having swum at least once. Slowly but surely this group of people became my best friends in Manly. We would swim, have coffee and do life together. Although I am bald and fat, swimming used to be my main sport, so coming in the first few swimmers each morning gave instant credibility! And then the God conversations began…
Two and half years on from launching the church, Manly Life faces all the normal challenges of a church plant – venue issues, the transient nature of the area and discerning what to do and what not to do. But of the 200 or so members about 40 of them are from the Bold and Beautiful swim group, with another 30 or so swimmers having come to church once or engaged in something we have done. Someone once said disciples are hand made, not mass produced. Put simply, unless you just want to grow your church by people coming from other churches, there is no short cut except through being involved in people’s lives.
It means that Manly Life Church can be pretty messy. A lot of our members are new to faith and come with all the normal baggage of life. I remember after one night at the Alpha Course a bunch of the guests ended up kissing each other and hitting the bars to 2am in the morning. The next day at the swim they were all joking about it being the greatest church thing they had ever been to! Despite the challenges, the guys and girls from the Bold and Beautiful have become our most committed church members, have been there for us through illness and we have seen lots of transformation in their lives.
Manly Life Church is now made up of a number of groups from within the village. There are now the Christian Surfers leaders and kids, the local university students (where I work as a Chaplain one day a week), the Bold and Beautiful swimmers, the young professionals who catch the ferry to the city, the young Lululemon clad mums, the retirees… and we all come together on Sunday to worship together. Victoria and I never quite know what is going to happen next, but we are grateful to God for planting us into the Manly Beach community and the people we get to do life with.