Kiwis become digital disciples

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"Story" was the theme of New Zealand's first Digital Discipleship Conference. (Credit: Fine Teulilo)

More than 150 people from around New Zealand gathered at Auckland University of Technology in Manukau to attend the first Digital Discipleship Conference (DDC) in New Zealand, held on August 9-11.

With the aim to inspire and empower churches and individuals to both be and create digital disciples, the conference brought together a community of people, from different generations, who are passionate about using technology and the digital space to share their faith.

A handful of New Zealanders felt it would be beneficial to conduct a local version of DDC after taking part in the Australian event the past few years.

“We were hoping to have 50 people engage on the weekend and we had 151 people attend over the weekend,” said Pastor Victor Kulakov, Discipleship Ministries leader for the New Zealand Pacific Union Conference (NZPUC), who supported the organisers. “We truly see the huge need in this kind of conference where people are inspired, equipped and empowered to be and make disciples in the digital space.”

Digital Discipleship Conference founder Rachel Lemons Aitken challenged attendees to dream big as they explored what they could start in the digital space.

“The digital discipleship movement reminds us that God has given us permission to dream,” she said, “and to use our creative and technical expertise and talents to reach people for Him.”

The theme “Story” was creatively explored throughout the weekend, with Pastor Tulaga Aiolupotea bringing graffiti to the screen and explaining how a person’s identity in graffiti tells their story. His testimony had the teens at the edge of their seat.

On Sabbath morning, Adventist Record editor Jarrod Stackelroth shared about the power of stories, as well as the opportunity Christians are presented with by a God who can reclaim broken stories and use them for His glory, even in an online space.

One uniquely New Zealand contribution to the conference was the Māori welcome from Pastor Shane Harper (pictured above), who on Sabbath afternoon conducted a session on the importance of traditional stories in a Māori context (with images) and the passing on of those stories through generations, both through story and art.

Senior Human Rights Communications and Media advisor Andre Afamasaga tackled the question of how Christians should share their beliefs, and opinions on social media, in this age of heightened political divisiveness, where people only like to receive short communications. He concluded that, while social media has exacerbated opportunities for divisiveness, the online platforms give believers a new platform to reflect their inner workings of the heart.

“If hate and fear are already in our hearts then it will simply pour out online,” he said.

Pastor Tulaga Aiolupotea presents on his graffiti ministry.

Mr Afamasaga warned attendees that, left unchecked, Christians who are motivated by fear are susceptible to “othering” and demonising fellow humans.

With the call to dream big, and the opportunity to network and converse with other creative people, a new community of digital disciples emerged.

Some came as beginners to learn while others like Pastor Maika Peehikuru, with a background in Information Technology, were pleased to get some relevant insights and tips on “putting your church on the map” from digital marketer and workshop presenter Laura Hutchinson.

“Burn the Haystack” podcasters Pastors Jesse Herford and Joshua Stothers brought their uniqueness to the conference as hosts, while Pastor Stothers also presented a moving story during a worship segment. Chaplain Keira Bullock and musician Jay Okesene led out in praise and worship throughout the sessions, ensuring the focus of the event was on more than just technology.

Both NZPUC president Pastor Eddie Tupa’i and North New Zealand Conference lead pastor Ben Timothy attended and were pleased to see such a strong commitment among the attendees to share faith in a digital world.

When Pastor Kulakov closed the conference with an invitation to dream big and attend next year’s DDC, there were cheers that the conference was already in the calendar.

“This conference came about because several people contacted the Union expressing a need,” he reflected. “Adventists in NZ were looking for space to explore digital platforms for means of discipleship. And, as such, it was a learning curve for the organisers with such a diverse skillset among the attendees.

“Even before conference ended people started to take action,” continued Pastor Kulakov. “Some started new Instagram accounts and YouTube channels for the purpose of sharing their faith.”

Mrs Lemon Aitken expressed her excitement at seeing “the expansion of the digital discipleship movement through the establishment of the first Digital Discipleship Conference in New Zealand.”

Next year’s DDC will be held from August 7-9 in Auckland. More information and registrations for the event will be made available soon.

For more photos and to join the community of digital disciples, join the Digital Discipleship in the Seventh-day Adventist Church Facebook group.