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Youthful outlook transforms church

By Paul Titus

A dynamic lay ministry team and a focus on young people have breathed new life into an Auckland Church that was looking into a future of uncertainty.

Through such steps as renaming Sunday school the ‘Super Sunday Club’, adding a Friday evening youth programme, and offering Tongan and Samoan language classes, St Mary’s Co-Operating Church in Glen Innes is making itself more attractive to families. As a result, its numbers are beginning to grow and it has a fresh sense of optimism.

A focus on young people is helping St Mary's Church in Glen Innes get out of the doldrums and steam ahead.

St Mary’s is a Methodist-Anglican partnership. It has a demographic profile that reflects the wider New Zealand church – about half the congregation are Pakeha and the other half are Maori, Fijian, Filipino, and Zimbabwean, Sri Lankan, Tongan and Samoan families.

In recent years St Mary’s has struggled. It does not have a full-time presbyter, and at one time its lay leaders did not see how they could continue.

Two things changed that. First, a student presbyter from nearby Trinity Theological College was stationed there. Second, lay members of the church stepped up and took on greater responsibility.

The student was ‘Alipate ‘Uhila, and he infused a new enthusiasm into the congregation, capturing the energy of a revitalised leadership team.

A member of the team is Soana Pamaka, who, as principal of Tamaki College, is New Zealand’s first Tongan high school principal. Tamaki College is across the street from St Mary’s, and Soana has been a member of the congregation for 18 years. She says others in the congregation have been members for nearly 30 years.

"We are blessed to have both experience and youth," Soana says. "We are mobilised and moving forward as a congregation together."

St Mary’s ministry to the children and young people has been strengthened as two new members with theological degrees and the skills to engage young people have joined the team.

"Our Friday evening programme is now split into two," a youth committee member says. "College-aged kids have a devotional time while the young ones have activities.

"On Sundays the children always have a procession as part of the service. They carry props to reflect the Lectionary reading, such as bread when the reading was on the Bread of Life, or stars for Genesis 12, when God told Abraham his descendents would be as numerous and the sand and the stars.

"This helps the children feel they belong and are part of the action and children and young people love that."

The walls of St Mary’s hall are covered in art work the Super Sunday Club creates with the Super Sunday Club coordinator’s help. She quips that she has become a laminator for Jesus.

"With the children we use the Maori concept of tuakana, in which the older siblings mentor the younger ones. The means they all end up in leadership roles and develop those abilities," Soana says.

St Marys holds a Music and Movement programme every Wednesday morning for toddlers which is one way the congregation is reaching out to community.

Its vicinity to Trinity College and the Anglican St John’s Theological College has given St Mary’s some notable supporters. Trinity principal Rev Dr Mary Caygill plays the organ there on occasion, St John’s lecturer Bishop Winston Halapua leads the service every third Sunday, and MCNZ director of Pasifika ministry Rev Aso Samoa Saleupolu leads a Samoan language service there.

Currently St Mary’s has another student presbyter, Metuisela Tafuna. Metuisela says the congregation is blessed with a range of enthusiastic workers. He sees his role as a coordinator who can support and encourage the lay team. Given the strong youth ministry team, Metuisela says his main focuses now are on Sunday morning service and building relationship with the community.

"When I came here I told people background is in social work and that is where I will direct my ministry. The whole parish is very hard working and has a love for their community.

"Glen Innes is expanding quickly. Right now we are looking after ourselves and growing slowly. Once we are stronger, we will have an important role to play in the community," Metuisela says.

St Mary’s wish at this time is that they will be able to afford a full time presbyter, who will help direct the growth they are experiencing.