Wednesday, February 03, 2010

seachange and Australian spirituality: updated

(Updated after email conversation with Wendy Snook.)

On Sunday afternoon, our youngest suggested that we think carefully about our church participation in Adelaide. What about inviting people to walk the beach and give them different things to think about and do. Then we could all meet afterward at our house and share together. A creative idea from our youngest.

And then to stumble this week across a fascinating article by Wendy Snook, “The Gospel and Sea Change/Tree Change Cultures,” in Reimagining God and Mission: Perspectives from Australia, 179-198.  The title is a play on the ABC TV programme, Sea Change, in which a high flying city lawyer undergoes a ‘Seachange’ and moves to a smaller beachside community. Snook argues that this migration pattern is a major driver in Australian culture and as such, has considerable implications for mission in Australia.

Sea change and tree change migration is a significant event in Australian spirituality, demography and the Australian landscape. People going through a sea/tree change are searching for major transformation, physically, mentally and spiritually.

She argues for a shift in Australian identity, from outback to out-beach. Australian identity has shifted to the edges and “that here is the place of creativity and potential for individuals and nations.” (Snook, 181). She notes that in the last 35 years more than a million people have left cities for smaller seaside towns. Many are under 40, most are Australian-born Anglo.

She then argues that there are six types of “sea change/tree change” people, resulting in diverse lifestyles. She names the following:

  • daily commuters, in which home is a rural fortress from urban stress
  • weekend migrants, in which people maintain two homes, “vege” out by the sea over the weekend and take a long time to integrate into the local community
  • wealthy alternative lifestylers, perhaps with large investment incomes, with time and who often enter with great gusto in the local community
  • service providers, seeking economic opportunities as populations increase. They tend to fit easily into communities although their children often leave for higher education
  • retirees on fixed income, often asset rich but cash poor
  • lower income welfare recipients and unemployed (including radical alternative lifestylers).

These six groupings have shared concerns, including a concern for the environment a hunger for the natural environment and “often a search for an experienced spirituality” (192).

However, these groupings are also quite diverse and Snook now believes (personal communication) that this has major implications for minister and ministry. These groups can be chalk and cheese and the usual rural pattern of one minister for a number of grouped communities will lead to conflict. What is required is the proactive placement and nurturing of leaders, ideally local, to match the groupings present.

She gave the example of St Georges Uniting Church, in Eden, where careful leadership development has resulted in much innovative life, including the Garden of Eden project. This looks a superb missional long-term experiment in community development, including

  • places for organic food growing, bush tucker, and a cob oven
  • a semi-Circle Garden with local flowering natives gives a beautiful entrance to the Church and Garden
  • a mud brick shed, with our own mud bricks!
  • spaces for reflection, meditation and worship
  • arts and crafts, such as mosaics, murals and sculptures
  • cultural heritage, such as the “Eden Heritage Garden Trail” that links with other gardens in Eden

So, returning to my introduction, my youngest is on to something. Seachange – sea-and-change – is an important strand in Australian spirituality. It will demand though, a careful listening, in order to discern the variety of factors that push and pull people, and to consider how “life, and life to the full” can be nourished.

Posted by steve at 05:40 PM


  1. As a new minister in a sea change location, I’d be very interested in hearing the direction of yours and your youngest thoughts. We as a church are looking at how best to engage with our community in new ways (other than the traditional attractional models).

    A phenomena not identified by the author which has been relayed to me over and over again, is the one whereby people make the sea-change – and then disconnect from their previous lives. In particular, those who enjoyed(?) heavy involvement in their local church elsewhere (in our location, typically Adelaide) move to the sea/river and then decide to retire from church – not just scale back involvement, but not attend altogether. And it is not about not finding a church ‘they like’ it is that they no longer feel the need. I’m only new down here, but it is something I find interesting and have not yet managed to get my head around.

    Welcome to South Australia!

    Comment by Simon Clemow — February 3, 2010 @ 6:09 pm

  2. Hi Simon,

    She mentions the issue you raise in your 2nd para – particularly as it pertains to the 2nd and 3rd groupings. She encourages the church to be very proactive in going to people and how this is part of larger societal movement, decreased volunteerism. So I’d suggest that churches need to work much harder at being “low maintenance” for those who don’t want to participate. By this I mean that churches often send signals saying “to belong you need to participate.” Whereas for many, to attend is to belong. I’ve found Myers, The Search to Belong most helpful in this.

    In terms of para one, as I wrote the post it brought to mind a sermon series I preached, over summer a few years ago, on “Jesus beach scenes.” I was struck by how often the beach, as an edge-y place, served as a scene for encounter with God – calling disciples, encountering the demoniac, re-calling Peter, Paul and the shipwreck. I think that sort of bible-context interface is fertile.


    Comment by steve — February 3, 2010 @ 6:15 pm

  3. Where could I find a copy of that article? Is it available online, or is it in a journal? Or is it in Ross Langmead’s book?

    Comment by Simon Clemow — February 3, 2010 @ 6:21 pm

  4. You’re always welcome down here if you wanted to dust off that sermon series…we could do Sunday afternoon series on Goolwa Beach…good coffee, good surf, good God!

    Comment by Simon Clemow — February 3, 2010 @ 6:22 pm

  5. Steve, interesting comments. I’m well aware of the sea change phenomenon of course but I haven’t seen it disected into different subgroups like that before.

    Comment by Matt Stone — February 3, 2010 @ 3:47 pm

  6. I’ve often wondered, as I ponder the call to ordained ministry with emerging shapes of communities of faith within / alongside the established church, what it would be like to offer a shape of said ministry to groupings of smaller communities of faith gathered in different ways, as an enabler and equipper of the local leaders of those groups … I don’t know if that would address the issue of conflict you / Snook raise, or not … still pondering.

    Comment by Sarah — February 3, 2010 @ 9:38 pm

  7. Simon, the article is a chapter in Ross Langmead’s Reimagining God and Mission, ATF, 2007.

    Sarah, I’ve emailed Wendy about this, and talked to her for about 45 minutes yesterday. So hopefully she might comment. What I heard her saying was that traditionally Uniting church would look for 1 minister (full-time), to serve say 6 different communities. But given her 6 groupings, we are talking about 6 very diverse communities, that might be better suited by looking for a number (6) of part-time “ministry of pastor” folk.

    I do have some wondering on this ie leadership models for resourcing rural stuff. But I have not yet been here long enough to be ready to open my mouth on this! I need to drive and sit under some rural tables.


    Comment by steve — February 4, 2010 @ 8:23 am

  8. Steve, I’d suggest Australian identity has always located itself on the edges, i.e. it hasn’t shifted at all. Michael Cathcart has written a fascinating book – The Water Dreamers. It “tells the storty of the seetlement of Australia and how [it’s] culture has been shaped by the scarcity of water and the need to fill the imagined silence of the continent with the sounds of civilisation”. The dry interior has always resisted any significant settlement in favour of the coastal edges and access to water.

    I thought your post yesterday was fascinating too. Having Hughes and Tacey (The Spirituality Revolution and the earlier “Re-enchantment: the New Australian Spirituality”) debate the questions and data would be fascinating. Especially given they both have essays in the book you’re interacting with.

    Comment by Paul Fromont — February 4, 2010 @ 1:31 pm

  9. Congrats on new home. Quirky by the beach is just my idea of what things should be like.

    Comment by Ingrid — February 4, 2010 @ 1:56 pm

  10. Some of the highest levels of “No Religion” in the census are in sea-change areas – from the southern coastal part of Adelaide around to Kangaroo Island.

    Comment by Eric — February 4, 2010 @ 8:57 pm

  11. thanks eric. that would certainly make sense of what Wendy is saying and what Simon notes, the decline in church participation


    Comment by steve — February 5, 2010 @ 1:41 pm

  12. thanks Paul. i’ll have to read water dreamers, but the outback legend is pretty strong.

    and yes, i do think that Hughes and Tacey were having a “professional” exchange! 🙂


    Comment by steve — February 5, 2010 @ 1:42 pm

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