Digital disciple, music minister recognised as faithful creatives

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Pastor Darren Pratt and musician Melissa Otto.

A children’s pastor using Facebook for advocacy and a singer/songwriter making a living from music are recipients of Manifest’s most prestigious award this year.

Pastor Daron Pratt and Melissa Otto receive the Gabe Reynaud Award for demonstrating excellence in faithful creativity. Pratt is the first denominational employee—he is director of Family and Children’s Ministries for the Adventist Church in northern New South Wales—and Otto the first solo singer/songwriter named as recipients.

The digital disciple

Pratt receives the award for his use of Facebook to promote the value of ministering to children and families. He creates content—often posts expressing an opinion that may challenge the denomination or championing children’s ministries creatives and leaders—and curates content—often from outside Adventism. He uses his influence to increase the reach of other’s posts. And he is an early adopter of the social media and social networking service’s new features. “He’s a digital disciple who proves you don’t have to be a narcissist to master the medium,” says Manifest co-convenor Brenton Stacey.

Facebook is a “personal pulpit” Pratt uses to speak for those whose voices are muted. “People tell me because circumstances in their churches or in their relationships prevent them from saying anything about their situation that what I write online speaks into their personal situations.” He hopes the experience of sharing a post or a comment “will help empower these people to speak up, particularly about issues of justice, fairness and equality.”

Pratt is well-connected. He is co-chair of the New South Wales Children’s Ministry Network and a member of the Inter-Church Commission on Religious Education in Schools, which supports special religious education in New South Wales public schools. Pratt has taught scripture in schools since the beginning of his ministry. He sees these connections as a means to an end. “By forming relationships with other churches, we as an Adventist Church can influence the national agenda, which can bring about much more change than going it alone.”

Pastor Darren Pratt teaching a lesson with his assistant, Kermit the Frog.
Balloon Nemo.

Children, though, remember Pratt not for his advocacy but for his animals. He is School Liaison officer for the Central Coast Poultry Club and, outside of this role, uses chicken hatching to teach about creation. A self-taught balloon artist, Pratt also presents a ministry he calls balloon kaboom in churches and schools and presents a segment of the same name on the Abide Family Ministries series Arnie’s Shack. “My mind is always thinking about balloons and how I can use them to tell the story of the gospel. I’ve got to the stage now where I think of an animal or an object and the twists I need to make it just appear in my head.”

The music minister

Otto receives the award for her long-term commitment to full-time music ministry. The Novocastrian released her first EP, Patio, at age 20. Three albums—Opened (2007), Blue Sky (2011) and The Journey Home (2014)—have followed over the past 13 years, the most recent supported by a six-month tour of the United States. Donations and sales not only helped Otto and husband Jason Hinze—and their two young daughters—cover their costs but invest in their ministry.

These “God adventures” are an important part of Otto’s ministry—she has previously toured the United States, Europe, Hong Kong, Singapore and Brazil. “We went over to the US on this tour with only about 20 dates booked for concerts, but by the end of the tour we’d performed 70 concerts.” The experience strengthened the couple’s trust in God. “The right person would be there ready to help us when our old van broke down and a beautiful family would welcome us into their home when we needed a rest from being vagabonds.”

Parents and siblings Jonathan, Billy and Sarah have all encouraged Otto to continue developing her gift as a singer/songwriter. Husband Hinze is now the driver, “literally and figuratively.”

Others have recognised Otto’s talent, with the Australian Independent Music Awards, or MusicOz, naming her Best Christian/Spiritual Artist in 2010. She writes and sings to help people connect with God and to bring healing and peace. “Most of my songs have come from darker days struggling with anxieties and depression. As God helped me see who He really is and who I really am, I felt so much relief, so much happiness.” The style of her music—an organic, acoustic sound and soothing melodies—helps, too. “I try to make music that is healthy, so I try to make it in harmony with how I understand the laws of nature.”

The pioneering filmmaker

The award Pratt and Otto receive honours Gabe Reynaud, an Avondale College of Higher Education alumnus who became the Adventist Church’s first professionally trained film director. He made programs such as Keepers of the Flame, The Search, Digging Up the Past and Chasing Utopia, eventually becoming senior producer at the then Adventist Media Centre and pioneering a filmmaking unit at Avondale. Reynaud died in a motorbike accident in September 2000. His vision, according to brother Daniel: for the Church to recognise the power of art, “not to preach so much [but] . . . to testify to [God’s] wonder and awe and mystery, and for artists to use their talents in all genres to testify to a God who is the embodiment of creativity.”

Previous recipients include artist Joanna Darby, academic, composer and writer Dr Robert Wolfgramm, the interactive, outdoor drama Road to Bethlehem, clown, storyteller and trainer Graeme Frauenfelder and entrepreneur and publisher Jeremy Dixon. “All five recipients challenge our understanding of what it means to be a faithful creative, particularly in the Church,” says Stacey.

Presented at Manifest’s creative arts festival between 2011 and 2015, the award returns after a one-year hiatus as part of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Greater Sydney’s Digital Discipleship Conference on July 15.

Manifest has increased its support for the Digital Discipleship Conference, in this the conference’s second year. In addition to the presentation of the Gabe Reynaud Award, two Manifest alumni—Shelley Poole and Nathan Brown, assistant convenor and co-convenor of the creative arts festival—are presenting workshops. Poole will speak about “Super Charging Your Creative Project” while Brown will discuss the potential role of the Church as a creative centre for its community.

Manifest is an Adventist Church in the South Pacific-led movement exploring, encouraging and celebrating faithful creativity.

Become a digital disciple

The Digital Discipleship Conference is a ministry of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Greater Sydney. It will be held at the Scientia Conference Centre at the University of New South Wales, July 14-16. For more information and to register, visit http://2017.digitaldisciples.info.

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