When Clendon Baptist Church called their pastor’s son to lead them on to the next thing, they were ready for change. Even so, some of the young leader’s ideas puzzled them at first. Cliff Thompson explains how it was all part of a plan to develop a church for the unchurched that is now known as The Render Gathering.

November 2016, Clendon Baptist had been established in the South Auckland community of Clendon for more than 20 years. Led by Pastor Colin Thompson, the vision always was to grow, build and advance into the future. They had established a core team of people, and laid a platform of biblical teaching, discipleship and compassion for the local community. However, they now realised a shift in thinking and application was required to achieve that vision fully. 

The call 

As a pastor’s kid, Cliff was used to serving in church. But when his career with the Department of Corrections relocated him and his young family to the Wellington region, and thus to a new church, he experienced something outside his comfort zone—being the newcomer without a role to play.

He describes what it was like: “We walked in and sat down. The church was a decent size. People would come and say hello. But there is something about making contact, building it into a connection and then taking it to the depths of discipleship. I got to see first‑hand what it was like to be that guy who walks in the door, who comes in cold. I was so used to serving up the front. Now I was sitting in the pew and I was like, ‘Oh, this is yuck!’”

Cliff and his wife Lisa immersed themselves into their new church family, joining groups and welcoming people to their home. Eventually Cliff was invited to speak and preach there. When work took him back to Auckland, he would visit Clendon Baptist and preach there too. 

“Every time I came back to Clendon, I would get so excited thinking of all the possibilities and people’s potential. I loved them intensely and wanted to see them thrive even further. I would get frustrated because I hadn’t figured out how to help them see what God had purposed them for and what more God would do in and through them in the community. I was praying about it a lot but at the time I didn’t see how I was a part of God’s plan for it.”

That plan was about to be revealed because, two-and-a-half years after Cliff’s move south, his dad called to say Clendon Baptist wanted Cliff and Lisa to return home and take up the leadership mantle. Cliff’s time away had given him a deep appreciation of what it is like for a person coming to church for the first time. How would they engage? What would make them feel welcome? With that in mind, before they worked out terms of call, Cliff and his father agreed to the most important condition: “If we are to come back, radical is what is required. We have to do something different.”

This was the catalyst for a weekend leaders’ retreat in which the vision was cast, discussed and prayed about.

“Let’s move!”

Clendon is largely a low socio-economic area, with a core of state housing. People come and go, and when they leave, they take their financial, prayer and ministry support with them. It is a challenging environment in which to establish and grow the foundations of a church.

However, Clendon Baptist’s property was freehold, and a preschool on the property enabled many possibilities and a great partnership for the future. In the year prior to Cliff’s call, the congregation had fluctuated between 50 to 60 people, who met faithfully in their original small hall. And therein lay a problem. 

“In a small space like that, 50 can feel packed. Those walls confined us. They were great for many years, and without the foundations and teachings in that house we wouldn’t have the platform we have today. But we were never going to be the church in the spirit we needed to have until we got out of there,” says Cliff.

“Dating back to the church’s inception, the plan had been to build an auditorium. I said, ‘Our own giving isn’t going well, so how will we ever sustain the mortgage on that place? We live in a transient area. We can’t be fools and believe if we plonk an auditorium out there and get in debt that people will fill it up. People are not staying away because there are not enough seats. It’s because of the spirit we carry.’

“The spirit wasn’t one void of love and compassion; it had simply become a spirit which focused internally instead of externally. There were many contributing factors, but what was important was that we recognised that God had purposed us for more and we were going to walk towards the challenge,” says Cliff.

“Let’s practice!”

Vision was cast with the Clendon congregation about what God would have them do next. They discussed how they were a loving group of people, but that Cliff didn’t think that this necessarily shone through.

“When you come onto the church property, you’d think the preschool was where the church was, not the hall, because it is bright, vibrant and colourful. And yet in this hall are these amazing people having this service. It’s a great service, but no one knows. No one is overtly reaching outside the four walls. It has become a church for the churched,” Cliff told them.

He then surprised them by asking that they not invite anyone to Sunday services before the official launch of The Render Gathering. You can imagine how that might have been received—you want to grow the church but not invite anyone?

“I said to them, ‘I want us to start rehearsing to be the church we want to be on launch day. Give us six months to be better for them, so when we invite them and they come, we are going to be ready to wrap around them, and support and love them.’”

So, every Sunday they did something a little different. They painted the stage, made a screen from a drop sheet, and replaced wooden pews with tidy‑looking second-hand chairs. Two of the bubbliest people in the congregation stood at the roadside and waved handmade signs promoting the church to passing traffic. They opened up all the doors and took church outside, making sure that when people drove past, they would see there was life there.

Funnily enough, strangers became curious at all the lively activity and started coming in off the street and filling up the hall. Cliff wasn’t about to turn people away but meanwhile the church kept on practising. 

Leaps of faith 

Another change was to step out in faith with people and give them opportunities to serve so they could see this church was a home for them where they could contribute.

Cliff and Lisa met one-on-one with the adults, asking each how they would choose to serve God if time, money and resources were not an issue. People they had known for 15 or 20 years started telling them stuff they never knew about them—what they loved to do. While acknowledging there inevitably would be some necessary tasks, Cliff told them that he wanted them to spend 80% of their time doing what they love to do.

“Because when you love to do it, I don’t have to ring you to ask where you are. I don’t have to ask you if you’re going to buy new strings for your guitar, or why you are late to practice. You will be there. You will practice in your own time. You’ll be ready. Passion does that to someone. We want to draw passionate people to the ministry.” 

The Render Gathering 

The church found new premises in a college six kilometres away. Fast forward to a year later and the church now numbers around 200, comprising mostly young families, youth and young adults. There is a smattering of older folk too, who often have come along because of their adult children or grandchildren.

Children’s ministry is one of Render’s priorities on a Sunday. They believe that if you win the kids, you win the mums, and if you win the mums, the dads will follow.

“Then you have got the whole family giving their heart to Jesus and coming along, experiencing life transformation. So, we put a lot of effort, time, resources and money into kids’ ministry. It should be like a carnival down there every Sunday,” says Cliff. 

Another programme run on a Sunday is about giving people a pathway into belonging to a ministry and serving fairly quickly, so they feel they are contributing.

“It’s like bringing a person around home and you are washing the dishes. You throw them a tea-towel and say, ‘Jump in.’ It just brings them in,” says Cliff.

Church services are built around monthly themes, with generally the last Sunday in the month being a special celebration. A recent theme was ‘The Force’ which culminated in a Star Wars ‘cinema experience’ complete with costumes, a red carpet, and popcorn during the service. Although the atmosphere is upbeat and deliberately fun, the message does not return void. On the Star Wars Sunday, for example, four people responded to the gospel invitation.

On weekdays there are more than 20 ‘Hangouts’—small groups based around personal interests. Options change each term. The potential range is almost unlimited as long as the activity is legal and won’t lead people into sin, and there is a passionate person to lead it. Current Hangouts range from quilting to daddy-daughter dates, early morning devotions, video production and games nights. All groups acknowledge their connection with The Render Gathering and begin their sessions with prayer. As well as providing fellowship for Render’s members, it can be a non-threatening activity to invite non-churched friends along to. Once they get to know a few people there, the step to coming to church is not so intimidating. 

“To render means to give and help become, hence our mission tagline: ‘Helping you become’. Our purpose in life is to assist people to become better followers, sons and daughters of Jesus Christ—because when you do that, you become a better parent, a better employee, a better dreamer. That really is the vision and it has to seep out of us into everything we do,” says Cliff. 

Story: Cliff Thompson, with Linda Grigg

Cliff Thompson is married to Lisa. They reside in South Auckland with their five children. Cliff worked with the New Zealand Department of Corrections for 10 years, in front line, management and senior advisory roles.