A fresh vision of church

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It’s about 10 o’clock on a sunny Sabbath morning when I arrive at Auckland Adventist High School, the venue for Calvary Community’s worship services. But the congregation isn’t there. 

I wait outside until a battered sedan pulls up and I’m greeted by the driver, Dave Letele, one of the church elders. He’s wearing a red T-shirt, hoodie and shorts, and his car smells like cigarette smoke. 

And at the rate churches are being planted—33 over the last three years—it soon won’t be realistic for pastors to “hover” over their congregations.

It’s a “scattered Sabbath” this week, Dave tells me. The members of Calvary Community are out visiting people who don’t normally attend church—relatives, friends or other community contacts. “When we visit though,” says Dave, “we invite them to Alive@5.” The 5pm worship service is aimed squarely at the unchurched—it’s informal and contemporary and you can wear what you like. On “gathered Sabbaths” every second week, the morning worship format is more traditional and focused on nurturing the congregation—“Heaven@11” says Dave with a grin.

Friendly invitations to Alive@5 are given a few more times that morning as Dave and I visit a number of nearby suburban homes owned by his family’s Grace Foundation, a charitable trust that operates in close cooperation with Calvary and provides supported accommodation for people at risk of homelessness. I meet a woman who lived on the street for years, a teenager recovering from abuse, a camera-shy transsexual, people struggling with mental health issues, and the most incredible house parents—committed Christians with their own histories and problems who live together with the residents, offering guidance and support, and sharing Jesus. 

And although these people seem to be more motivated by love than anything else, Calvary Community is seeing the benefits. “We just had 10 baptisms last week,” says Dave. “We had about six baptismal services in 2013—we make it a big deal; a celebration that takes two to three hours.”
 

David Letele (right) with house parent (left) and resident.

It’s my first visit to New Zealand’s North Island, and I’m impressed by Auckland’s beautiful harbour, efficient motorways and attractive buildings. But what I really didn’t expect is this Spirit-led passion for innovation and community connection. And it seems that church growth is the natural result. In 2008, there were 8700 Seventh-day Adventists in North NZ. And now?

“I believe we’ve gone over the 10K mark by now as I have been informed of a number of baptisms since October of 2013,” says an email from Shane Palipane, chief financial officer for the Conference. It’s an impressive number, especially considering the constant leakage of members seeking educational and employment opportunities in Australia.

Maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised. Auckland is home to the largest Adventist congregation in the South Pacific Division—at Papatoetoe in the southern suburbs. And my conversation the previous Friday with Pastor Eddie Tupa’i, who leads the North New Zealand Conference, reveals that the spirit of innovation starts at the top.

Munching on a gourmet vegeburger at a shopping centre near his Manakau City office, Pastor Tupa’i outlines the changes to the Conference’s structure that have been implemented over the last few years. Departments have been all but abolished and a relentless focus on developing leaders has seen pastors organised into clusters and receiving regular mentoring from each other, led by a regional pastor. Each cluster sets its own agenda, emphasis and goals.

“I never go to cluster meetings,” says Pastor Tupa’i. “That’s their safe place. All I want is a one-page report of how they’re meeting their goals, once a quarter. I have a review meeting with every pastor annually, with their regional pastor present.”

That sounds great, but I’m still stuck on the “departments abolished” aspect of these changes. “What about the Youth department?” I ask. “Don’t you have a Youth director?”

“We treat our youth director as a regional pastor who supports youth and children’s leaders.”

It’s starting to make sense. Sort of.
 

Pastor Eddie Tupa’i.

Pastor Tupa’i has also changed his own job title to “lead pastor”, feeling that “president” has an institutional or administrative tone and detracts from the apostolic nature of his role. “Apostolic” is a word that’s being used more in North NZ, and seems to carry the notion that leaders aren’t there to dominate or micro-manage but to mentor, train and facilitate grassroots initiatives. 

“Regional pastors are modelling apostolic leadership that isn’t about constantly hovering over a church,” says Pastor Tupa’i. “Instead local lay leadership is empowered. It’s the vision for all pastors in the conference to be regional pastors by 2020.”

And at the rate churches are being planted—33 over the last three years—it soon won’t be realistic for pastors to “hover” over their congregations. 

I have to ask if all this retooling isn’t all a bit much for some of the older or more conservative members. Pastor Tupa’i admits it’s taken a fair bit of persuasion—including at “town hall” meetings around the North Island—and that not everyone is totally convinced. But it probably doesn’t hurt that he and the other church leaders have developed a culture of transparency. 

In my conversations with both him and CFO Shane Palipane, I’m treading carefully, thinking I’m venturing into sensitive political questions. But it’s amazing how often the answer is “it’s all on our website”. Browsing through <www.nnzc.org.nz> I discover executive committee reports, local church member numbers, tithe statistics and announcements about difficult issues the Conference is facing.
 

Grace foundation parent Button Matthes (left).

I’m wishing I had the time to explore what’s happening in churches outside of Auckland, but it’s my last Sabbath here and my plane is leaving later in the evening. The last stop before the airport is Mizpah Seventh-day Adventist Church in Mangere, where the majority of the members are from a Tongan background. I arrive in time for the noon English church service and, afterwards, am promptly invited for lunch. Numbers are down today because the youth are away at a regional event in Palmerston North, but, in their absence, their elders have nothing but praise to offer.

In mid-2013 Mizpah supported their youth in running an evangelistic series. The young people were in charge of organisation, music and preaching and decided to run the meetings in English, a move that attracted friends from a variety of cultural backgrounds. The church is now growing and the English worship service has been added to cater for the growing diversity in the congregation.

“My philosophy is a family based church,” says Mizpah’s pastor Pelikani Esau. “Older people give the vision and direction and the young people stand up and do the work. I’m working with the pastors in my cluster to take this philosophy to the ethnic churches in North NZ.”

My cultural stereotypes of status-conscious Polynesians have been shattered—I’m surprised to see Mizpah’s leaders and elders surrendering “serious” church tasks to their youth who have also travelled overseas to run evangelistic programs. But the older people are not sitting idly by.

“Come,” says one of Mizpah’s elders to me after lunch. “This is the powerhouse of our church.” I follow him to a small room where about 10 women and a few men are gathered. They’re kneeling with Bibles open in front of them. Their eyes are shut and the room is full of heartfelt prayer.
 


Kent Kingston is assistant editor of Adventist Record.