Small beginnings for the next generation of the Houston family

Peter and Laura Toggs

Peter and Laura Toggs (Toganivalu) are starting a new church, and a church planting happens every week in Australia – but because they are the son-in-law and daughter of Brian and Bobbie Houston they are getting media attention.

The Other Cheek saw them each day during the Brian Houston trial last year as part of the tight-knit group accompanying the then-defendant each day, but they tell me this new church is very much their own project and vision.

Peter Toggs cites the effect that Covid has had on the world, withpeople falling out of rhythms including church attendance, as a good reason to start something fresh. “[We] just really feel like there’s a lot of folks right now who are displaced, disconnected, they don’t have a home, they’re unchurched. And not only that, there’s people to reach as well. There’s people we really want to reach who need to hear the good news of Jesus.”

They are calling it Parable church, launching it in the North West Sydney district they grew up in.

“Part of the reason that we came to the decision to plant a church in Sydney was just being in our neighbourhood because we would find ourselves in the grocery aisles at the school pickup in our cafe, in all the just different places that we would naturally in our neighbourhood having conversations with people,” Laura Toggs added. “And they would ask us, would you guys see a church in your future? And every time that we would have those sorts of interactions with people, we would feel that tug on our hearts almost as if it was like a gravitational pool to stay in the neighbourhood that we’re in and to continue to do what we feel passionate about.

“It’s also the place we have called home all our lives and it’s the community we love, our kids love their schools, their sports and their neighbours. “

Asking what the new church will be like, The Other Cheek gets the impression that the new model is being worked out. “That’s an interesting question, and we’re definitely yet to discover that ourselves,” Peter Toggs said. “But we want it to be authentic. We want it to be organic. We want it to be a community where people can be discipled, but also we want it to be a church that reaches people as well and reaches the loss in terms of what it will feel like if you came to a service, I would love to think that it would be faith filled that you would leave with your head lifted a little higher than when you came in, and that it would speak to people’s weeks, to their every day, not just to their Sunday.”

The planting of a church in the North West, with a city campus (but midweek) means the obvious question needs to be asked – Is this about rivalry with Hillsong?

“Here’s the truth: we love the people of Hillsong,” Peter Toggs said. “We find our close relationships still go so deep there. And Laura’s literally born into that church. She went from the hospital straight to church service. But we love the people of Hillsong, and we’ve been a part of that church for the most part, for 30-plus years.

“Wherever you plant to church in Sydney; In fact, wherever you plant a church, particularly on the east coast of Australia there’s a Hillsong close by. And so it doesn’t matter whether you plant in the southwest or whether you plant up north or in the northern beaches, you’re going to find a Hillsong church.”

The Other Cheek remembers Brian Houston saying in court that he believed it was God’s will for Peter and Laura Toggs to succeed him as the senior pastors at Hillsong. Are the Toggs coping with disappointment?

“Yeah, totally. I think that there’s a human side to all of this in what’s happened,” Peter Toggs responded. “It’s not just the church. There’s humans and individuals and hindsight’s always 2020. There’s things that you would’ve looked back on, you wish were different. But for us, we’re looking into the future and that’s our decision. We’re not going to look back at the past, we’re not going to look back at what could or should or could have happened. We want to be fixed on what God’s calling us to do.”

But will Brian and Bobbie Houston be on stage? It is an obvious question, so it gets asked. “I think this is very much Peter and I stepping out on our own journey, and we really feel like almost, it’s almost as if it’s a coming of age for us, even though we’re in our late thirties now,” Laura Toggs said. “But we really do feel like this is a decision that Peter and I have made for ourselves and for our family and for what we want to contribute in our city in Sydney and in Australia. At the same time, Brian and Bobbie are my mum and dad, and we love them. We respect them. And so I think if you were to walk into our church, you may see them and they may be sitting in the third row or the back row or the front row, but they’re welcome to be a part of our church.” 

“We had a small gathering on this last Sunday and Pete asked my mum up to pray over the service … and I would really love to invite my dad to speak at some point. Jesus is in the business of redeeming broken stories. And I know my dad has a lot left to give.”

So, with your dreams, do you have a sense of what success looks like? 

“Good question,” Laura Toggs said. “That is a really good question. Peter and I have been talking a lot about how we would, in a perfect world, how we would love to be known as church. And I think we would love to be known for who we are outside of the four walls of a church in the sense that right now we are gathering a collective of people. They are the local barber and the local electrician and the school teacher and so on. And to me, they are the gold of a church, not necessarily a name or a brand, but just people. And I think success for us would be that we are together alongside people growing in our relationship with Jesus and in our community, and people are encouraged and thriving and going from strength to strength. And if we can see people built up and have courage, then I feel like we are succeeding.” 

What are your thoughts about how your church would be run, perhaps in a different way to how Hillsong was run? 

“For me, it’s not about so much doing things differently,” Peter Toggs replied. “I think it is about meeting society, meeting Sydney and Australia, where they’re at. Our priorities are community, creating a sense of home for people, belonging, discipleship, and pointing people towards Jesus. Also creating a faith-filled environment where people can come and worship Jesus. 

Peter, here’s probably maybe tens of thousands of people were a bit confused by whatever happened at Hillsong? What’s your message to them? 

“My message to those people would be, we’ve had to really stay disciplined to keep the main thing the main thing. There’s always perspectives, there’s always questions to ask, and there’s nothing wrong with curiosity and having your questions answered in terms of confusion. But I think for us, we’ve gotten on with just keeping the main thing, the main thing, and not getting too distracted and pulled away from the real work of the gospel work, the good work of Christ Jesus and the transformation that he brings.” 

Given their new start, what could a Pentecostal Church do better? “I think the Pentecostal Church [has] a story that isn’t told and we don’t do a great job of telling the story of people who are being helped, the work that is done in communities and humanitarian work and crisis relief and those sorts of things, ” Laura Toggs responded. “And I think moving into the future, that’s something that I would really love to be better at telling that story.”

The Other Cheek asks the question that might have been the most confronting: How is your dad doing?

“That’s a very kind question,” Laura Toggs said. “I would say that he is a very resilient man. I get inspired by his ability to keep moving forward and looking forward, and so I can see him anticipating the future for himself.”

What advice has he given you?

Laura: “He has been really giving us our space. He has, unless we ask him a question, he really has just been, yeah, he’s just been allowing us to walk this out for ourselves.”

Peter: “A lot of the advice hasn’t been so much about the things you do, it’s about who you are, like courage, confidence, believing what you’re doing and what you’re about, which obviously we do. But that reminder’s helpful every now and again to just be strong, be courageous, just the reality of the world we live in.”

Laura: “I think what’s been lovely as well is it’s reminding my mom and dad of the days where they began and they’ve been telling stories of their beginnings. And you can see that that brings out a lot of joy in them.”