After building a membership of 12,000 at his church in California and ‘retiring’ for the third time, Pastor Barry McMurtrie is leading a new Christian congregation in the Illawarra which opens its doors this Sunday.
The popular pastor who grew up in Wollongong spent his 50-year career in the church supporting communities through a non-judgmental approach to faith.
"I built my ministry on the idea that there are a lot of people who like God but don't like organised religion. And I don't like organised religion,” he said.
He worries that too much emphasis is placed on the structural power of the church and those who lead it.
"Formal religion is so far out of touch with where people are. It's a barrier to people,” he said.“I don't have any particular power that a Christian in my congregation doesn't have.”
People's lives are hard and the church is not meant to make it harder but rather to lift some of the load.Pastor Barry McMurtrie
With the congregation of about 60 meeting at the community centre in Russell Vale, Pastor McMurtrie said “we’re starting very humbly.”
After leading a group of 600 at the Wollongong Church of Christ for 14 years before moving to America in 1993, Pastor McMurtrie hopes to once again encourage the community to attend his unconventional services.
He said his message of inclusion and simplicity has often drawn large numbers to his congregations.
About his non-denominational Christian church in California, he said “two thirds of our people who became part of our church came from a non-church background and 42% of them had a Catholic background.”
“They were disappointed in the official church and when they met an enthusiastic group of people who seemed happy and normal but who were Christians, it let them fit," he said.
The Russell Vale services will generally have a musical focus to entertain while also imparting the church’s message. Soundbite, a 4-woman a capella group, will perform this Sunday.
"People’s lives are hard and the church is not meant to make it harder but rather to lift some of the load,” Pastor McMurtrie said. “I really try to make it so people come and enjoy, laugh a lot and face the problems of life with a faith that works."
Pastor McMurtrie’s religious work will continue indefinitely, as he plans to fully retire only once he reaches his 120th birthday.