By T.R. Robertson
An unexpected career path has opened many doors for this minister to a church and community “down under.”
Rob Branham frequently begins his day by playing a game of Jenga with a middle school student. The boy’s teachers were having difficulties dealing with his behavior. He was arriving at school angry nearly every morning because of a troubled home life. So now he stops by the school chaplain’s office for a “pit stop” and a friendly game to help him calm down before classes begin.
When Branham began his college journey at his hometown Central Christian College of the Bible in Moberly, Missouri, becoming a government-paid chaplain in a public school in “Oz”—short for Australia—was not the career path he expected.
At CCCB he met and married Lynne, from Newcastle, Australia. After two years they moved to her home country to be close to Lynne’s mother, who was sick with cancer.
Shortly after they arrived in Australia, Branham was asked to fill in temporarily as the preacher at his wife’s home church. “Temporary” turned into two years of working full-time managing a grocery store alongside leading an active congregation, and ended when they moved back to Missouri so he could finish his degree.
Thirteen years later, the Branhams moved back to Australia to live in the house she inherited when her father followed her mother in death
“We were happy supporting others in full-time ministry,” says Branham, who had resumed managing a grocery store. “Then we were approached by Tim and Dawn Yates about planting a new church in a community on the outskirts of Newcastle.”
That opportunity led to the start of Northlakes Christian Church in 2010, which is just one of many unique opportunities God has opened for them in Australia.
Opportunities in Public Education
Northlakes summarizes its “simple church” approach as “loving God, loving people” (from Matthew 22:36-40). The church’s love for its surrounding community is a visible expression of that philosophy.
The congregation first began meeting in space provided by a local school, made possible because members of the church were already working as teachers in the Special Religious Education (SRE) program.
The state government of New South Wales mandates that public schools allow volunteers to lead weekly SRE, known commonly as “Scripture class.” Northlakes privately funds a local high school-level SRE teacher, and provides volunteers for younger classes.
Such a program is bewildering from an American cultural perspective. It’s even more of a paradox in Australia, where only 4 to 8 percent of the population attends church regularly. It’s not surprising, then, that the Australian electorate is not universally in favor of the program. After several decades, though, it continues to receive political support.
Branham points out one study that found 60 percent of Australians say they believe in God. “Most people have a belief in God but not a practical faith in him. They see it as an important component to education, but not necessarily a normal part of practical life.
“Being married to an Aussie and working here for so long now,” he says, “I’ve learned that most Aussies are very pragmatic. They recognize each person has a spiritual part of them and that part should be fed for a complete education. If someone has a particular religion, they feel like they should be educated in that in order to make a complete person.”
According to Branham, there are few limitations regarding Scripture class, as long as it starts from an approved curriculum.
“We teach about 450 students each week, straight from Scripture. I once asked my class how many of them have ever touched a Bible, and only two hands went up in a class of 30. It’s the most amazing feeling telling a student for the first time the story of how God walked with Adam and Eve in the cool of the evening.”
Opportunities in Public School Chaplaincy
School chaplaincy, another program that would be unimaginable in most American public schools, has been publicly funded in Australia since 2006.
“School counselors were overwhelmed with many serious issues,” Branham explains, “and this left many students without support. Students who had a death in the family or a broken family or problems fitting into the school didn’t have any support. It’s become a widely successful program.”
He initially looked at becoming one of 2,900 school chaplains as a way to supplement a shortage of financial support for the church plant. “At first I didn’t see the powerful way God would be able to use me in this position. It has become increasingly obvious, though, that we are planting seeds into the next generation of Christians. I believe the work we do in these areas is vital to the future of Australia, and has become a reason why we are doing what we do.”
Branham is more limited in what he can say to students about God while serving as a chaplain than when he is teaching the Scripture class. “They have to ask about God or bring up a spiritual topic, and then I’m allowed to address it.
“I work four mornings a week, and it’s the most enjoyable thing to be paid to love and support students. I see young people every day who are dealing with problems like bullying or having a bad morning at home before school, or troubles with a violent father. It’s a blessing to get them the help they need.”
Branham tells of a student who was in tears because his grandma was sick and dying in the hospital. “His parents would not let him go see her, so I suggested he write a note to her and send it along with his parents. Then I offered to pray with him. It was awesome to be able to love this young man in this way and to know he was learning he can talk with God when he is feeling low.”
Chaplaincy funding was challenged in the Australian High Court (similar to the U.S. Supreme Court), and in June of this year the court ruled against the current funding arrangement. The court didn’t specifically label the program as inappropriate, but directed that it cannot continue under the current funding model.
Branham says the government is looking for alternate ways to fund the program. “I chatted with my principal last week about this,” he says, “and she told me not to worry. Funding or not, she said she would find the money in her budget to keep me.”
Opportunities in the Community
Involvement in the community is an integral part of the philosophy of the Northlakes congregation. “We believe in the long run that showing God’s love will change the community and the families in it.”
The young church took advantage of another opportunity that quite literally has planted it as a central component of the community.
Cameron Park is a planned community begun in 2001. The initial project included construction of not only 1,700 new homes, but also schools, a shopping center, a tavern, specialty shops, and a community center. The developer also wanted there to be a community church. When he offered use of the community center to the Northlakes congregation, the church was glad to accept.
In addition to regular church services, Northlakes hosts a Friday night youth group at the center, which brings in young people from the community for activities and life lessons from the Bible.
The church also sponsors Quest Camp, an annual retreat attended not only by youth from Northlakes, but also those from many other churches in the area.
“The church camp system is not well established here,” says Branham, “so this is new to many students. There have been many baptisms on this weekend, even to the point that young people look forward to the decisions they will make each year.”
Branham’s experiences in Australia have taught him to keep his eyes open for opportunities to make connections for Christ. Sports chaplaincy is one example.
“I play baseball in an adult league here in Newcastle,” Branham says. “A few weeks ago I proposed to be the volunteer club chaplain, someone individuals and families could come to when they’re going through tough things.”
The club board unanimously agreed to the suggestion. In fact, the club president came to Branham, tears in his eyes, and told him of five families that really needed someone to help them.
“He told me that as a board they were just talking about what could be done for these families. God’s timing is amazing. I look forward to loving and supporting young and old players and their families and seeing just how he will transform them.”
Loving God, Loving People
For more information, go to www.aussiechristianmission.com or talk to Rob Branham at the Mission Australia booth in the exhibit hall during the 2014 International Conference On Missions in Columbus, Ohio, November 13-16.
T. R. Robertson is a business technology analyst with the University of Missouri in Columbia, where he has been involved with the Christian Campus House off and on for more than three decades.