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‘Change or vanish’ youth tell church

By Paul Titus

Last month’s landmark youth conference had a blunt message for the Methodist Church of NZ: draw on the energy and creativity of your young people or you will disappear.

The conference attracted more than 200 young people from all of MCNZ’s geographic regions and major ethnic groups to the University of Waikato for three days of discussions, social activities, and worship. It was the first time the full range of MCNZ’s young people has gathered on their own for such an event.

Participants, organisers, and church leaders are all upbeat about the positive spirit present at the conference. Many participants would like to see it repeated but they also want to be assured the Church will take steps to address their concerns.

The small organising team who put it together was somewhat overwhelmed by the scale of the event and the amount of effort it took to bring together but all agree the outcome was worth it.

They say those who attended discovered a lot about the people and structures that make up the Methodist church, raised some serious concerns about their role in the church, and had a lot of fun as well.

Organiser Lana Lazarus says those who attended learned a lot about who the Methodist family is.

“People wanted to know more about Methodism. Many didn’t know much about the church beyond their own local congregation. Some didn’t know about the ecumenical experience or even what Te Taha Maori is or that it is part of the Methodist Church,” Lana says.

Given the cultural diversity of those who attended and the multicultural nature of contemporary New Zealand, a major theme of the conference was the relationship between culture and the church.

Conference organiser Fuailelagi Saleupolu says the relationship between culture and religion is an important one for Pacific Island young people given the cultural barriers they face. Some of those barriers are within the church.

“Young people are interested in styles of worship where they can sing songs and have music with a band and drums. They are told that is not the Methodist way so they get discouraged from expressing their faith as they would like to.”

A key event at the conference was the Saturday night panel discussion where Fuailelagi and Te Taha Maori youth worker Keita Hotere joined church leaders Rev Jill van de Geer, Rev Mary Caygill, and Rev John Murray to field questions from young people.

“The young people asked some challenging questions. It was good to hear from people like Jill, Mary and John but sometimes the language they used was too academic or too churchy to connect with what was being asked,” Fuailelagi says.

“It was definitely a learning experience. I think everyone – including John, Jill, and Mary – learnt about the reality of our church, where it is heading, and what it will look like in 10 years.

“It is important that we utilise young people now and create opportunities to bring them into the church. We have to consider how to be more active in the church and find ways to develop young people into leadership roles.”

Jill van de Geer echoes Fuailelagi’s sentiments. She says the questions the young people asked reflected some serious thinking about the church and their role in it. It is important that presbyters in local congregations listen to them and involve them in activities, leadership, and worship.

Keynote speaker for the conference was David Hanna, former national youth worker for MCNZ’ and current director of Wesley Community Action, Wellington. David says in his talk he told stories about his own life in the hope that the young people would link them to their own stories and then the bigger stories of the Bible and Methodism.

“I focused on times in my life when I felt I have been in touch with the spirit. The stories I told centred on three themes – birthing, playing and protesting. I challenged the young people to be in touch with the spirit on the margins. They are on the margins of the church but it is on the margins that creative things can happen.”

David says the theme of the conference was ‘What is the Spirit saying to the church?’ but he thinks this should be rephrased. The challenge for the church is to facilitate people’s connection with the spirit.

The church needs to ask itself whether it facilitates creativity. And with their creative dynamism that is also the question young people are posing to the church.