Not a lot is known about the north-western suburbs of Melbourne, except that there are two ways to soar to great heights. The first is to catch a plane from Melbourne International Airport, in Tullamarine. The second is to become a part of the Gilson College community.
If you live outside Victoria, you’d be forgiven for possibly not recognising the name. But Gilson College, located in the suburb of Taylors Hill, about 30 minutes north-west of the Melbourne CBD, is actually the biggest Adventist school in Australia, with more than 1000 students from Foundation to Year 12. The school has certainly had its fair share of struggles—almost closing down at one point—but has met each challenge with determination and prayer. Now, Gilson is thriving, having established a strong Adventist presence in the community with its campus church.
“We started the Gilson College Community Church (GCCC) as a small group, but over the years it has really expanded and grown,” says school chaplain and assistant pastor Hannah Andrykanus. “We try to make church really engaging and innovative with the way we do worship.”
Senior church pastor and chaplain Mau Tuaoi has been with the school and church for seven years now, and says what made GCCC different was an intentional shift of focus on its mission field—the college community.
“Three or four years ago, the church was actually called Living Waters Community Church,” he says. “But we realised we couldn’t just be an ordinary church down the road—if our mission field was the school community, then our church had to be a true campus church. The product that people believe in is Gilson College, and so when we changed the name from Living Waters to Gilson College Community Church, suddenly people began to say, ’We have a campus church?’ There was a change of understanding—this was a church for the school, integrated with the school, rather than a separate entity.”
The result was powerful. Not only did the school grow, but the church now has around 200 people worshipping each Sabbath.
“We’re actually a part of the school,” says Pastor Tuaoi. “[School principal] Mark Vodell and the chaplaincy team are all on the same page. We sit, we talk, we pray, we dream, and God becomes the first focus in all that we do, in our school and in our church.”
“We have been given a huge mission field at the school,” says Pastor Andrykanus. “We try to focus our ministry and our outreach within the school community.”
Not only has the shift in mission impacted the community, it has also made a difference in the lives of students.
“At that school, we’ve had kids come through who were atheist and had no connection with Christ,” says Adventist Schools Australia director Dr Daryl Murdoch.
“But they were a part of the campus church and that changed something for them. Those kids studied at Avondale [College], came back to Melbourne and are now teaching kids about Jesus at the same school where they had learnt about Him.”
Involving students in the church is a key focus of the pastoral and chaplaincy team. And again, this came with a shift in the way church was done.
“One of the things we have that has been established for a while is Gilson Student Day, where a whole year level takes the church service,” says Pastor Andrykanus. “They prepare skits, special items, praise and worship, welcome teams, and they have the freedom to be involved in and create a space of worship. They come from different backgrounds, not necessarily Christian, but it gives them an opportunity to serve in the church and gain a taste of what church is like. On those Sabbaths, we can have between 300 and 400 people at church.”
“There are quite a few parents and grandparents who are now part of the church purely because they’ve seen a change has happened in their children,” says Pastor Tuaoi. “They love it because they get to see their kids utilise their skills and gifts, but they also love it because they get to come and do community, and that’s really the key. Ninety per cent of our Gilson students are from different faith backgrounds. With those kinds of stats, the mission field is huge.”
Dr Murdoch says his vision for all Adventist schools is to recognise the opportunity for mission and discipleship within their communities. “School-church partnerships excite me as our schools are neutral middle ground for the community,” he says.
“Many people won’t darken the door of a church—but they will send their children to an Adventist school.”