The final day of the tour dawned and I was trying to sleep in. After a long day of travel and a late, late night the night before, I thought a 10 o’clock start time for church was just what I needed. However, with four children under six years of age in the home I was staying in, a sleep in was never going to happen. I could hear them, laughing and playing, revelling in the excitement a new day brings. I had two choices. Stay in bed and play on my phone or go out and join them. I chose to go.
And I was glad I did. I was greeted with a rush and a huge hug. Immediately the questions started and I was the centre of attention. I tell you what, if you’re ever feeling a bit low, find some young children. They have a magical way of making you feel better.
We had breakfast together and I answered the avalanche of questions. Children are curious. Questions are how they learn about the world and an adult willing to answer some questions is like Christmas to them. Too often I’ve seen parents tell their children to “just be quiet, stop asking questions”, breaking little hearts in the process.
Every night during the week, Dr Nick Kross began with this verse: “But Jesus called the children to him and said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these,’” (Luke 18:16).
He then asked the question, “Why do you think the disciples tried to stop the children from coming to Jesus?”
There was a range of different answers: they were too noisy; they couldn’t understand; they weren’t seen as valuable to the work of the Kingdom; they should be seen not heard; and there were more important priorities.
Whatever their reasons, we cannot know for sure, but we have Jesus’ response: “do not stop them.” How often do we as a Church give young children and adolescents the message that they are not ready for God’s work yet? We segregate and separate them into their own special programs, into their own Sabbath Schools and into their own designated sections of the church service. We require total silence and run out of patience with noise in the “sanctuary”. Yet we have forgotten the joy the have in Jesus. We have placed man-made rules and traditions and even our own entertainment and enjoyment of the message ahead of those who the Kingdom of God belongs to.
On Sabbath, the roadshow found it’s last stop—Bishopdale—and here we experienced the beauty and the limitations of church, all in one.
The church building was damaged in the earthquake and one sidewall has been replaced. It is a beautiful A-Frame but the church is facing sideways rather than from front to back. I was told that this layout is much better and that, although there were some issues with the repairs, everything is now in perfect working order.
There are many young families in the church and it has a modern feel to it, with the stage set up in an inviting fashion. We sang hymns and modern songs in a seamless blend of the traditional and contemporary. Dr Kross facilitated the morning Sabbath School part of the program, running attendees through a very practical presentation on reaching people in their community.
The church service followed Dr Kross’ presentation from the rest of the week. Yet it was different. The content was more rushed because of the time constraints. At every venue during the week, there was time given for people to process the information, to talk in small groups and come up with practical ways to answer the challenges that had been posed. According to Pastor Mike Sikuri, South New Zealand Conference president, this saw some changes in other churches that Sabbath as those who had been at the meetings were intentional in inviting young people back to church. They came, showing that someone taking an intentional interest did make a difference to them.
Back to Bishopdale, question time was cut, there was less audience interaction and I wonder if people had the same time to process the personal application before busy minds were set on Sabbath lunch. Don’t get me wrong, this was no fault of the Bishopdale folk. The service was beautiful and the church was warm and welcoming.
I merely compare the constraints of the “church service” to the freedom of a mid-week “seminar” or “workshop”. I question the lasting impact and the interaction value of what went on. I know one part of the seminar that was cut out was Dr Kross’ powerful testimony that he had been sharing on the road—a brilliant example of how forgiveness and grace had changed his life as a teenager who was headed out of the church.
I am sure those who attended were blessed and learned valuable lessons. But I had the added insight of comparison—I had seen the same presentation in six different places. I had enjoyed the fellowship of a home, small churches, larger churches and mixed groups of people.
During the small group sessions, I witnessed lots of discussion around programs. And even though a lot of the session content had to do with relationships and mentoring (which doesn’t happen in a program), this experience showed me that we can work on our programs.
Church can become less organic fellowship and more pre-packaged entertainment. We are consumers. And that becomes a problem. That is when people feel a disconnect from the community of believers, especially our young people.
This is not a Bishopdale issue. The program really was good. It is just an Adventist culture thing, where we border, prioritise and segregate the Sabbath morning into such a strict flow that there is no room to explore, to move, to grow.
What could church become if it was more authentic, more open to the Holy Spirit and less constrained to running sheets and worship rosters. I would love to attend a church like Bishopdale, with many generations and ethnicities and lots of different people involved in the program. But is there space for questions and discussions? Is there space for our young people to be integrated into the whole program, not just the children’s story?
A family invited me home for lunch after church. Little did I know I would have a chance to put into practise the things that I had been hearing all week. At the home were a bunch of intelligent, engaging and fascinating young people. They are all prefects at our local Christchurch Adventist School and as I learned about them and their interests, I was blessed to have the opportunity to put into practise the things I had been hearing all week. I was able to ask questions and hear about what young people are going through at school, what their hopes for the future are and I was able to share some of my story and how I got to where I am today.
I hope that they were blessed, but I know that I was blessed. You see, investing in young people pays it back. It grows and challenges you in unexpected ways. I wish I had asked them what they thought of church. I wish I had picked their brains about what they thought church could look like. Unfortunately I didn’t think of it at the time.
My Sabbath started and finished with young people. They are not our future—they are the present and it is time we started trusting them more to partner with us in spreading the everlasting gospel to all the world. Especially the beautiful south island of New Zealand.
Thank you for reading this blog. I will have one more post where I reflect on some of the things I learned on the trip, not all of which are directly realated to youth retention. If you have enjoyed the journey, have your say in the comments below or at firstname.lastname@example.org.