The basketball backboards have been swung up closer to the foil-lined roof. In the centre of the auditorium, the sprung wooden floor is covered in carpet squares and stackable plastic chairs. The band is doing last minute sound-checks on the stage—guitars, drums and an electric keyboard—the music intermingles with friendly chatter from the 300 or so people drifting in before the main service begins. Young families and groups of teens dominate.
Welcome to Gateway Adventist Community Church, which meets on the campus of Avondale School in Cooranbong, NSW. Established about 15 years ago, Gateway is the product of a vision to connect spiritually with the 65 per cent of students—and their families—who do not have a church home.
The best evangelistic opportunity that we have—by a long shot—is our schools.
Pastor Mel Lemke, Avondale School’s primary chaplain, is an enthusiastic advocate of the close cooperation between the school and church that’s at the heart of the Gateway model. In 2007, the congregation moved from a community hall to the school grounds after the opening of Avondale’s multi-purpose centre. “It’s made a huge difference to be based on campus,” Lemke says.
An official memorandum of understanding sets out the roles of church, school and local conference office. Under the agreement, the school provides office space on campus for the Gateway pastor and a volunteer; when appointing a new pastor to Gateway, the conference office consults with the school; the school chaplains are considered associate pastors of Gateway and Gateway’s pastor is considered an associate chaplain of the school.
Pastor Neil Thompson is Gateway’s new pastor and, despite being appointed only a few months ago, he’s quickly catching the vision. As a new family coming to Gateway this year, the Thompsons have experienced some of the church’s friendliness. “Last night we came home to find a bag of tomatoes on our doorstep,” he says. “The other night it was a bar-fridge. This goes to the warmth of the church itself.” A new pastor also means a fresh perspective. Thompson says there’s a danger that people can feel less connected as a church grows larger. “There’s a need to establish home groups to keep a sense of community. We need to make sure that everyone feels special.” Thompson also wants to provide support to the children’s Sabbath School divisions so they can increase their effectiveness.
But the overall impression of Thompson is a pastor who has fallen on his feet. “Part of the magic of Gateway is its incredible laid-back feel,” he says. “People tend to dress casually. That has translated into a broad acceptance of people ‘just as you are’. That’s part of the glue that draws kids in—they know they’ll be loved.”
It’s a trust relationship that is built at school and then translates to the Sabbath program. Mel Lemke says his six years at Avondale School have “opened my world to ministry”. He’s sat in interviews with parents of prospective students and heard the principal be very explicit—“We will invite your child to a life of faith”. Not all parents choose to enrol their child but when they do, the chances are high (80 to 90 per cent in the primary school) that the child will self-identify as a Christian within a few years.
Pauline Whitling has seen her family transformed in the three years since she enrolled her son, Jack, in Year 7 at Avondale School. “We were quite comfortable,” she says. “Nice house, nice car; but something was missing.” She and her husband, Bill, have some church background but, as she says, “We’d lost our way a little bit in regards to religion”.
After Jack said he wanted to go to Gateway with friends during Year 7, the rest of the Whitling family began to attend; first sporadically, but now nearly every week. Pauline has nothing but praise for the church.
“Gateway is awesome,” she says, “We found it welcoming and non-judgemental. It didn’t matter if we didn’t have an Adventist background. We felt we weren’t treated differently to anyone else.”
And through the influence of Jack’s Year 7 religion teacher, chaplains, Gateway’s previous pastor, StormCo mission trips and older students who took Jack under their wing, Pauline has seen her son blossom.
“He was very quiet,” she says. “If he was asked to sing, he would just mouth the words. But he’s been going to Gatecrash [Gateway’s youth Sabbath School] and participating in the program. This weekend he’s singing up the front of the main church for the first time.”
In January, Jack, now in Year 10, was baptised. Pauline says her younger daughter, Samantha, is likely to follow suit this year. And, referring to herself and her husband, Pauline predicts, “I would say, probably, we’ll get done too”.
Jack Whitling’s baptism.
Every year both the primary and high school campuses hold a Week of Mega Praise (WOMP), which culminates in a Sabbath service at Gateway. According to Lemke’s statistics, last year’s primary WOMP saw 56 students making commitments to Jesus for the first time. Out of the 400 or so students present, 126 requested Bible studies and 79 said they wanted to be baptised.
Last year a Year 5 student asked to be baptised at school on his birthday. Because, as he pointed out, “baptism’s like being born again”. The student’s family had no Christian background but were supportive of their son’s choice.
The baptism occurred in a portable font in the middle of the primary school quadrangle. “A third of the kids had never seen a baptism before,” says Lemke. Since then, a number of other students have requested a similar baptism at school.
Lemke is definite: “The best evangelistic opportunity that we have—by a long shot—is our schools.”
Kent Kingston is assistant editor of RECORD.