More than 600 delegates from approximately 90 Adventist churches congregated in Perth, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane across two weekends in February for “Growing Together”, a nation-wide summit aimed at fostering healthy and attractive church communities.
Perth and Brisbane hosted their conferences consecutively from February 21 to 23, followed by Sydney and Melbourne from February 29 to March 1.
All conferences within the Australian Union Conference (AUC) were represented except for the Tasmanian Conference and Northern Australian Conference, who hope to join the initiative soon. North Harbour Seventh-day Adventist Church also travelled from New Zealand to attend the summit in Brisbane.
Representatives from the Fuller Youth Institute—who were involved in research for the book, Growing Young: 6 essential strategies to help young people discover and love your church—Dr Scott Cormode and Jake Mulder, travelled from the United States to present at the summits in Sydney and Brisbane. Dr A Allan Martin from the North American Division, teaching pastor of “Younger Generation Church” and head of the “Growing Young Adventists” initiative, presented in Perth and Melbourne.
The presentations were predominantly a practical summary of Growing Young’s research, which looked at the characteristics and strategies of 250 of America’s healthiest Christian churches. The research defines “healthy” churches as those that aren’t shrinking and aging, but growing and retaining young people (ages 15-29).
“By focusing on young people, this brings overall vitality to the whole church,” said Mr Mulder during one of the morning presentations in Sydney. “The problem is that the Church is calibrated for a world that no longer exists.”
In between presentations, delegates were given the chance to collaborate and discuss a practical plan they could implement in their local churches to help them attract and retain young people, and “grow together”.
“When they were putting in place their transformation plans, you could see [the delegates] really cared about young people and their local Adventist churches,” said Greater Sydney Conference youth director Pastor Simon Gigliotti. “They want their local church culture to be healthy, engaging young people and also involving the older generations because they have so much to offer!”
“As I have visited churches, I have had people (mainly youth) talk about their church leaders and the struggles they have with them. It was so encouraging to see them sit at the same table, listen, learn and discuss how they could work better together for Kingdom growth,” said Victorian Conference assistant youth director Rosemary Andrykanus.
At the summit, each church was assigned a coach to work with them throughout the year to implement their transformation plans. In addition, webinars will be hosted by conference representatives, as well as Dr Cormode and Mr Mulder, to equip churches and help them maintain their vision. There will also be a follow-up summit later in the year to launch churches into the second year of their journey.
“We’ve set it out strategically so that people don’t fall off the path,” said Pastor Gigliotti. “We can’t expect culture change to happen overnight, but if we are patient and listen properly, we will successfully journey through it.”
At the Perth summit, attendees’ evaluation forms were predominantly positive.
“Jake Mulder really exceeded in providing an Adventist context—he really did his homework for the benefit of the cohort!” said one attendee.
“Partnering with Queensland allowed us to really feel that we are doing this together and are part of a wider engagement across Australia,” said another.
Lucy Dessington, Growing Together project officer for the Western Australian Conference, shared how the summit intentionally tried to model intergenerational church during every segment, and that the response from Maida Vale Church encapsulated her goal and vision for growing together.
“Success would look like a warm, cohesive, multi-generational congregation who are empowered and willing to enthusiastically support spiritual and quantitative growth,” it read.
This sentiment was shared by South Pacific Division president Pastor Glenn Townend, who supports the Growing Together initiative. “Growing Together enables us to understand each other and keep passing on the essentials of faith and trust in Jesus to the next generation,” he said.
SPD provided significant funding towards the program.
“Our big goal is to see healthy Adventist churches across the nation, churches that are actually engaging with young people,” echoed Pastor Gigliotti, referencing the 50 per cent attendance drop-out rate for teenagers transitioning into young adult ministry. “Somewhere between the teenage and young adult bracket, something goes wrong. I’d love to see that number come down and see healthy Adventist churches.”
For churches that missed out on this first Growing Together summit, there will be opportunities in the future.
“This is not a silver bullet solution,” said Alina van Rensburg, the young adult ministry coordinator for the South Queensland Conference. “It’s a Spirit-filled learning journey that is more like a ‘slow cooker’ process than a microwave meal.”
“We are determined that this will not be a one-off thing,” agreed Pastor Gigliotti. “It’s a long term-strategy that we’re investing in. The proposal we wrote to the South Pacific Division outlined a minimum five year strategy to boost youth engagement in our churches, and we want to see our churches growing young, together.”
The Growing Together initiative is a partnership between the South Pacific Division and Australian Union Conference youth advisory, composed of youth directors and young adult ministry representatives across the country.