Box Hill Baptist Church celebrated its 118th Anniversary on 20th October. The preacher for the occasion, Rev Tim Costello, focussed on the fact that the church was founded in 1901, the same year as Australia was founded through the Federation of the previously independent states. Throughout its history, the Box Hill church has echoed some of the social outlook and views of the Australian nation.
In 1901 the suburb of Box Hill was just starting to ‘take off’. The impacts of the property crash of the 1890’s was starting to lessen and shops and houses were appearing amid the orchards and farms of Box Hill. The coming of the railway linked Box Hill with the centre of Melbourne and with settlements as far away as Lilydale. This connection with other communities is reflected in the sharing of a pastor (the impressively named Martin Luther Murphy!) with the Lilydale Church from 1902-1907.
The first church roll reflects a varied membership. Of the 29 foundation members approximately a third had joined by transfer from another Baptist church, a third by baptism and a third by profession of faith. This last group includes a number of members of the United Free Methodist Church who left the Box Hill chapel to join with the new Baptist cause. The ‘open membership’ and inclusive character of the Box Hill church dates from its foundation.
The young church engaged with the social issues of the day – gambling and alcohol, and (perhaps surprisingly in an age when not a few Baptist men smoked pipes) opposition to the smoking of cigarettes which was held to be “injurious both physically and morally to young men”.
The church has always had an interest in the Baptist Union and wider Baptist work. In the 1930’s the Surrey Hills Baptist Church was planted from Box Hill and Blackburn North Baptist Church (now NewHope Baptist Church) in the early 1950’s.
The area of Box Hill and surrounds was a Methodist stronghold. When all the local government areas of Victoria voted whether to have alcohol-free zones, Box Hill and Camberwell was the only area to vote to become a dry zone. The absence of hotels and venues providing alcohol significantly shaped the local community as a middle-class suburb of a particular character. It is only in the last few years, after a nearly a century, that the provision of alcohol in cafes and nightclubs has begun to grow.
In his anniversary sermon, Tim Costello highlighted how the development of the church has echoed the evolving social values of Australia. Indigenous issues, the expropriation of indigenous land and the destruction of indigenous culture did not figure in the thinking of church or society until the 1960’s, when Aboriginal Australians were belatedly included in the census and anthropologists like Bill Stanner began to popularise a deeper understanding of the intricate and complex culture and worldview of Australia’s First Nations. In an age when the White Australia policy dominated immigration Box Hill was an overwhelmingly white, middle class, Christian community, sheltered from the dynamics of ethnic and cultural diversity that were seen in inner suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne.
As Australia developed a greater openness to immigrants, refugees and indigenous people, the Box Hill Church also developed new programs and openness to the varied community that was growing around them. Through a succession of ministers since the 1970’s the church found its vision widening to include a passion for social justice and service to people on the margins. A social housing service (Jubilee Housing) was commenced in partnership with the Blackburn North church and continues today. Ministry with Cambodian refugees resulted in the formation of the Cambodian Christian Community, a worshipping and community support network that continues to meet in the Box Hill buildings. The Village Well Counselling Service and Village Well Community Centre delivered a range of community services from ‘the Barn’ – the original church building, moved next door from its original site and refurbished to serve the community in the 1920’s. Over the last ten years The Gallery has provided a focus and support for local artists in the front of the church building on Station Street.
Box Hill as a community has experienced profound change. Emeritus Professor Graeme Davison (a distinguished urban historian and member of the Box Hill congregation) says that no municipality in Australia has undergone such deep and wide-ranging change as Box Hill. From a sheltered and alcohol free, white, middle-class suburb in the 1960’s, it is now a bustling business and transport hub complete with high rise office and apartment towers, with significant diversity of population, especially its Chinese and Indian communities.
The CSIRO’s Australian National Outlook 2019 sees a trend of “higher-density, multicentre and well‑connected capital cities to reduce urban sprawl and congestion” (Executive Summary p. 26). The same report sees the rise of Asia as a key element of our wider context: “By 2030, the Asia–Pacific region is set to consume more than half the world’s food, 40% of its energy and be home to an estimated 65% of the world’s middle class.” (p. 8)
Both these trends will impact the Box Hill community through its development as a high-rise urban hub and the growing linkages between the city and China. As a faithful community that seeks to follow Jesus, the Box Hill Baptist Church will prayerfully discern the leading of the Holy Spirit as we continue our second century of ministry in a rapidly changing context.
Rev Jim Barr
Pastor, Box Hill Baptist Church