Day 1: Youth retention tour—Timaru

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    My first day on the South Island of New Zealand—and what a beautiful, sunshine-filled day it was. A day like this belies the tales of biting cold but the night air reminds me that there is truth to them. The air is crisply callous; a reminder to bring your jacket or be slowly sapped by the seeping cold.

    I have heard, as maybe you have, of the beauty of this place, and so far it hasn’t disappointed. This morning covered Christchurch in mournful mist but as the sun strengthened the veil lifted, revealing a brilliant green.

    I arrived late Sunday night (actually early Monday morning), so, although I had a window seat, all I could see were lights dotting the darkness.

    After a somewhat sluggish start, some old friends took me into the city. If you’ve never been to Christchurch, two things are apparent. The glass and metal facades of the new modern buildings come face to face with the old stones that remind me of my home, Adelaide. But the greatest impact is the construction and destruction seen everywhere. On our way into the city, we saw blocks largely empty, that used to house many.

    Christchurch cathedral has a forlorn beauty, a derelict yet dashing ruin that looks out of place and abandoned.

    The earthquakes that have rocked this city have surely left their mark. The sadness is apparent. The very pavements and roads bear the wrinkles left by tears. A moving memorial of white chairs, all individually chosen, yet all white, mark the memories of those lost in the shaking.

    Yet there is an insatiable optimism from those who remain.

    We walk through the container mall, where retail still rules. The heart of the mall is the food court, with market style international food stalls—a place to eat, laugh and reminisce. A temporary place, where permanent bonds are formed over laughter and falafel.

    I’ve never been in any CBD where there are so many men in fluoro vests—an army of  rebuilders, trying to remake, revive and rebuild. But it’s a slow process. It has been six years since the first major quake and, still, the work continues.

    Street art and graffiti decorate many of the buildings, giving them a life beyond their bricks and mortar. It is art in the midst of destruction; a wink in the face of despair.

    As we continue our drive, to head to the South New Zealand Conference office, the sun has warmed to its task and, as if on queue, we pass charming parklands, filled with cherry blossoms and ribboned by a river, filled with ducks and crossed by quaint bridges. This is another Christchurch. The urban grunge left behind for the cultured and cultivated old country. Here the marks left by the earthquake are invisible.

    We arrive at the conference office and I meet the team of intrepid explorers. These will be my companions this week. We are here for a reason, which soon becomes apparent as I share the road trip’s first leg, down to Timaru, with Pastor Nick Kross, part of the South Pacific Division’s discipleship ministries. He has already visited a few churches on this whistle-stop tour of the South Island. He tells me some great stories that he has already picked up.

    Timaru church is a small, cute little church in a town of around 28,000. A handful of senior church members from Timaru have braved the chilly evening, warmed by their passion for the kingdom and by their yearning for the young people they have seen leave the church, hoping to find answers for the questions most of us are too comfortable to ask.

    Three men from the Omaru group also join us at tonight’s session.

    I know I’ll hear this presentation many times throughout the week so I won’t share all of it now.

    But as I type this, I am struck by the problem that faces us as a Church.

    Like Christchurch, we have been shaken. The Church has been hit with seismic shifts in culture, technology and societal values. We have not kept up and are often trying to keep up. There is a sadness in some of our churches that used to be filled with young people and now sit partially empty, decrepit and decaying. Many have left and we cling to bricks and mortar, to tradition and religion, the things we know, that bring us comfort, that remind us of the glory days.

    Yet the world has changed. Our young people have changed. They are looking for connection. They are seeking involvement and engagement. Yet we have lost the movement and slowed down to an institution.

    A mist lies over us and the first thing we must realise is that only the Son can clear the mist. Only total commitment to Him will make us an attractive community for people, including our young people, to join.

    We must get away from our reliance on bricks and mortar and be reminded that church is the people not the building, and that wherever there are people seeking Jesus it is possible to have church there.

    I am encouraged. I see movement. The Son is coming out and the Spirit is stirring.

    We have a choice. To rebuild or to let it all crumble. To try new things, to be brave in the face of danger and return to our core values. We have a message for the world, that Christ is coming soon and that we must all be found in His kingdom. The message is important but the method is negotiable.

    Tonight, in the little white church in Timaru, I heard a longing to see the church alive and active. I saw committed and faithful Adventist members willing to challenge themselves and their own comforts, to find ways to reach their communities.

    Friends, the rebuild is beginning. Will you stay and build Christ’s Church?

    Tomorrow we are off to Queenstown. Send your thoughts, comments and questions through to editor@record.net.au or comment below.

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