Once Bill Kirkland had packed up his car and uprooted his family’s life in Canberra, it was not until he was halfway across the Nullarbor Plain that the gravity of the situation hit him.
He and his wife and three young children were moving to outback WA to start a new evangelical church, and the decision suddenly seemed frightening.
“I remember driving across the Nullarbor to the Goldfields and thinking ‘how are we going to provide for the needs of the family?'” Mr Kirkland said.
“We just felt that we really needed to come. We felt a strong call.”
In the beginning…
It was the mid 1990s, and Mr Kirkland and his wife Helen had no way to finance their new church.
They began by renting a room in a local high school, before upgrading to a nearby rec centre.
Eventually they purchased a permanent premises in Kalgoorlie — its unassuming facade blending into a strip mall — where the church meets to this day.
“Overriding [our initial fear], we had a trust that somehow God would provide, which he certainly has done,” Mr Kirkland said.
In Kalgoorlie, a mining town well past its boom, Mr Kirkland is part of a community of similar ‘start-up’ churches like his — self-made outfits built on faith alone.
Now, after his church’s humble beginning, Pastor Kirkland hosts weekly services that regularly draw upwards of 100 faithful.
He is one of many other enterprising pastors in regional towns across Australia who are changing the way many have traditionally seen the church.
With congregations meeting in community halls, schools and even living rooms, ‘church plants’, as they are known, can meet almost anywhere to worship and pray.
In Kalgoorlie, many local plants are linked to evangelical movements, centred around charismatic leaders like Pastor Kirkland.
They begin with just a handful of family members or friends, but in a short amount of time can grow to large congregations of followers.
By eschewing tradition, the church plants embrace a less solemn, no-frills style of preaching and more contemporary elements like pop music in their activities.
In Kalgoorlie, where evangelical church plants outnumber their major denominational counterparts, they also represent a younger and more multicultural face of religion.
The ‘start-up’ church economy
Like any start-up business, there are financial and personal risks that come with planting a church, according to Dave McDonald, the national director of the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches.
Mr McDonald oversees an organisation that supports dozens of evangelical church plants across Australia.
“We have a desire to see good churches established in the major cities, and particularly in regional centres,” he said.
“We need to give attention to the cities as well as the bush.”
In Kalgoorlie, a transient population means congregations can have a high turnover.
“That means that even to maintain numbers there needs to be new people being reached all the time,” Mr McDonald said.
“So it’s not easy.”
Mr McDonald’s organisation uses rigorous vetting and training processes to prepare new pastors mentally before they plant a church.
“It can be lonely and difficult work, particularly in remote areas,” he said.
Church planting harks back to the origins of Christianity, but the modern practice of it is in many ways like founding a fledgling tech company.
Aspiring planters can’t rely on a calling from God alone — they need a combination of seed funding, consultants, investors and marketing to make it work.
For every church plant that succeeds in attracting a congregation and staying financially afloat, others fail.
Modernising the bible’s teachings
But while evangelical church plants in Australia are growing, those who describe themselves as Anglican or Catholic are in decline.
Census data from 2016 shows “no religion” overtook Catholic as the most common religious status for the first time in the survey’s history.
Around half of all Australians identified as Christian in 2016, down from almost 90 per cent 50 years ago, according to ABS data.
And in regional towns like Kalgoorlie, smaller evangelical church plants are something of a disruptive force for bigger, more established denominations.
The changing worshipping habits of Australians has posed a critical challenge to the Anglican church, says Goldfields priest Elizabeth Smith.
Reverend Smith said while institutional religion had done great things in the areas of education and healthcare across the world, without adapting it risked becoming irrelevant to believers.
“How do you make it sound exciting or fresh? How do you make it sound new?,” she said.
“The Anglican style, sometimes it’s worked well for us, but the world is changing and some of these patterns that used to work don’t work as well as they used to.”
Strength in new approach
But pastors of church plants say their ability to adapt to modern worshipping habits and attract new people to their plants sets them apart from the more established denominations.
“Churches won’t grow if it’s just depending on birth and marriage to increase the numbers,” said Jaco Classen, a pastor at the Christian Reformed Churches of Australia plant in Kalgoorlie.
“Otherwise it’s just a generational thing that will pass.”
“It’s not about the [old church] building.
“In previous years it was, and people would still say the church was holy.
“There’s nothing in the church that’s holy, it’s the people.”
For Mr McDonald from the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches, particularly evangelical church plants are like disruptive tech companies.
“Some of the newer churches are a lot more nimble and adaptable,” he said.
“Some of the major denominations are like trying to turn a tanker really.
“You can wait for things to change, you can butt your head against the wall sometimes to try and change a structure of belief … or you can start something fresh.”