Mary and Mark Hurst lead a work presentation in Newton, Kansas, in September 2019. Photo by Travis Duerksen.

By Travis Duerksen
Thursday, November 7, 2019

NEWTON, Kansas (Mennonite Mission Network) – Mark and Mary Hurst aren’t retiring. That’s not the way they describe it, at least. When the couple concluded their partnership with Mennonite Mission Network as full-time workers at the end of September, they viewed the occasion as a chance to remove just one of the many “hats” they have worn over their 30 years of mission work in Australia.


Earlier this year, they took off their hat of being pastors at Avalon Baptist Peace Memorial Church in northern Sydney. Soon after, they moved outside of the city to a six-bedroom brick house (affectionately known as Magpie Hollow) on the western edge of Sydney’s Blue Mountains. It is here where they expect to invest much of their future time and energy hosting group retreats. They will continue to wear their last remaining missional hat: serving as pastoral workers with the Anabaptist Association of Australia and New Zealand (AAANZ).


“In some ways we’re simplifying our life,” said Mark. “We’re cutting down on the reports we need to write.”


Throughout three decades in Australia, Mark and Mary have worked with (and written reports for) multiple North American Mennonite agencies, including Commission on Overseas Mission and Mennonite Board of Missions, both predecessor agencies of Mennonite Mission Network. When Mark and Mary, along with their three children, first moved to Australia in 1990, their initial goal was to plant a Mennonite church in Sydney.


“We found out early on that people were saying to us, ‘We really don’t need another denomination,’” Mary recalled. “What we do need is the influence of the Anabaptists. Following Jesus in life and being people of peace … and how we work at interpersonal peace.”


Through conversations with friends, neighbors and churchgoers, Mark and Mary pivoted from trying to plant churches to being mediators that reached out to both existing churches and secular organizations. Over the years, Mark and Mary have hosted trainings centered around anger and forgiveness. They’ve worked in churches, prisons and schools, and taught graduate courses in seminaries. Mary describes the trainings as a way to “teach people how to fight better.” These trainings, in turn, have generated opportunities for the Hursts to share their faith in a culture that is wary of traditional mission work and institutional churches.


Mark refers to their outreach as being alternative, attractive and articulate.


“If you’re living a life that is alternative, that attracts attention,” he said. “Then when they ask, in gentleness and respect, you articulate. That’s when you earn the right to share about your faith.”


For many Australians, the Christian church can represent a dogmatic view of God as a judge and punisher, an idea that traces its roots back to the chaplains on Australian-bound convict ships that often served as magistrates to the imprisoned people aboard. From the late 18th to mid-19th century, more than 160,000 imprisoned people were transported from Britain to penal colonies in Australia.


“Saying that we’re church planters, it goes over like a lead balloon,” Mary explained. “In that culture, it just shuts down conversations.”


Instead of relying on the traditional model for church planting, Mark and Mary first brought together individuals from across Australia and New Zealand for a conference in 1995 to discern what the Anabaptist presence in the two countries could look like. It was from this conference that the Anabaptist Association of Australia and New Zealand (AAANZ) was formed, with the Hursts serving as its pastoral workers.


Over the years, AAANZ has held biannual conferences and promoted “table fellowships” —opportunities for Anabaptists in Australia and New Zealand to connect with one another virtually through learning webinars, while hosting a meal in their individual homes. The Hursts see these table fellowships as an alternative church-planting strategy, helping to promote home gatherings in communities unable to support larger, traditional brick-and-mortar churches.


“We found that it’s really important for the different table fellowships to know they’re not alone,” Mary said. “So getting to do the interaction on a webinar, where they can see each other and wave and ask questions … it’s so beneficial.”


For Mark and Mary, Magpie Hollow represents their next step as alternative church planters, and a place where individuals and groups can seek out Anabaptist community.


“We want [faith] to grow up out of the Australian soil,” Mark said. “So we don’t see ourselves as initiators, but more as resource people to help with what [others] want to do.”


AAANZ is a partner of Mennonite Mission Network.


Travis Duerksen is a writer and multimedia producer for Mennonite Mission Network.



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