Ministering to children, young people, youth and families has been central to the mission of the Uniting Church in Australia. Over time, the nature of this ministry has evolved, with new ways of doing church embraced.
Ministry to young people has moved from the Sunday School model many people would be familiar with – or a camping style model popular through KUCA (Kids of the Uniting Church) – to the hands-on ministry offering Messy Church, which engages participants in an intergenerational setting.
Messy Church is typically held monthly and includes a creative experience, a celebration and a meal. It is an inter-generational model in that it does not prioritise the needs of children or adults but seeks to engage with all ages.
The synod’s children and families ministry coordinator Chris Barnett said the Uniting Church experience was that, typically, Messy Church attendances numbered about 50 people. Children attend Messy Church as part of family groups in significantly greater numbers than at many traditional services.
“In a fragmented society Messy Church is one of the few places where people of all ages can be together,” he said.
Mr Barnett and Judith Roberts, from the Synod of New South Wales and the ACT, brought the Messy Church concept to Australia six years ago.
According to Mr Barnett, Messy Church is about creating communities and growing a discipleship community, rather than just staging a program or event.
Messy Church communities negotiate times and spaces which work best for participants, with Sunday nights between 4.30pm and 6.30pm proving very popular.
“Messy Church is certainly a good match for the UCA because it is multi-generational and it is being taken up with a real degree of enthusiasm,” Mr Barnett said. He said while the involvement of children and young families in church life was ‘mixed and patchy’, many exciting stories were emerging which indicate the decline of recent years was slowing or being turned around, particularly in congregations which had embraced the Messy Church model.
“There are examples where the Messy Church attendance is greater than the church attendance on a Sunday morning,” Mr Barnett said.
Rev Sandy Brodine from the Banyule Network ministry team in Melbourne, said Messy Church is popular because it allows families to form continuing relationships and explore issues of faith together.
The network offers Messy Church at Heidelberg, where about 25 people regularly attend, and at Ivanhoe, which attracts about 35 people.
Ms Brodine said most attendees view Messy Church as their church community. Parents are keen to engage and learn alongside their children, which is not always easy in a traditional Sunday worship setting.
“Having a model where parents sit at the back and try to keep their children quiet is not easy,” she said.
“At Messy Church we do all the things like a normal service – we read the Bible, we pray together, we do baptisms. While it does not look the same almost every element is there.”
While NCYC (National Christian Youth Convention) has always been an integral component of the Uniting Church’s engagement with young people, it is presented differently today.
NCYC began as a biennial evangelical campaign of the Central Methodist Mission, in Sydney, in January 1955. From the beginning, NCYC was ecumenical in design and sought to reach the entire Christian youth community rather than just young Methodists.
At its peak NCYC attracted 3000 young people aged between 16 and 30.
From a highly structured seven-day timetable, NCYC has evolved into a five-day event with a less structured program that allows young people to choose from a range of diverse electives.
Every Australian state has hosted at least one gathering, with the two most recent hosted at Stanwell Tops by the Synod of NSW and the ACT.
The latest event held in January this year, Yurora – which means ‘passion’ in the Dharug language – was attended by about 1000, with the large majority connected with the Uniting Church.
Drew Hanna is the youth ministry coordinator at the Centre for Theology & Ministry. He said NCYC recognises the importance of developing a balance between theological teaching and social activities.
Yurora attendee Sarah Howells, from Hobart, said the gathering helped her appreciate there were a lot of young people seeking to understand their place within the church.
“As a young person you can sometimes feel you are a minority within the church. It is not a case of exclusion but just having opportunities to be involved. NCYC was a really important time to remember that I was not alone,” Ms Howells said.
“It was also good to get a taste of many things such as different types of worship and how different cultures interact.”
Mr Hanna said at its broadest NCYC sought to express the breadth, depth and diversity of the Uniting Church and to celebrate the unity in that diversity.
“It is a national expression of the Church alongside a discipleship opportunity which offers young people a chance to learn about Jesus and what it means to follow Jesus,” he said.
The minister at Launceston’s Pilgrim Uniting Church, Rod Peppiatt, remembers his time at NCYC – in 1985 and 1987 – coming at a seminal period in his life as he considered entering ordained ministry.
“I needed to explore what being part of this church meant to me,” he said.
“The 1985 theme was ‘Dreams and Visions’ and there was a lot of talk about the courage to dream and to look for where the Holy Spirit was at work in the world and to be a part of that. It was an important time for me.”
Mr Hanna said young people want to understand what it means to be a Christian rather than have difficult questions watered down.
“If we are serious about naming and owning our faith we need to be open and allow young people with curious minds to ask what it means to be a Christian and to follow Jesus,” he said.
But Mr Hanna stressed that could not be done by NCYC alone.
“NCYC is very much a mountain-top experience. Research tell us that about 80 per cent of people only attend once so it can only be seen as part of a multi-layered approach to supporting young people.”