Dreams and Visions: How Young People Are Shaping the Uniting Church
Often, younger people in the church are looked to as a source of hope. They represent something to an ageing church that strives to be intergenerational, that seeks to remain relevant, and that wants to believe it has a future. We are the breath of life that puts smiles on faces just for showing up on a Sunday. But we also have our own dreams and visions.
The hope that young people represent is not that the church will be preserved as it is now for the future. True growth means allowing young people to offer our own dreams and visions for the church, and to be involved in realising them. They are – right here, right now – already moulding the church into the beacon of hope that they long for.
Many congregations, youth groups, and bible studies have found fresh ways to engage with young people – from contemporary worship services, to providing safe spaces to be in community, to inviting their theological questions into discussions.
As they emerge into young adulthood having been shaped by the church, many are eager to give back. Their gift to this community is being able to appreciate the wonderful things they have benefited from, while imagining new life into the gaps in youth and young adult ministry that many of their peers have slipped through.
But young people do not only offer our dreams for more widespread and well-resourced youth and young adult ministries; they also bring new visions for what the church, as a whole, could be in the world.
Insights interviewed several young people with different relationships to the Uniting Church about their dreams and visions. A central theme of this hope for the church is an outward focus: speaking into the world and welcoming all into the church. Growing the church young means embracing all different kinds of growth and expanding our understanding of how to do and be church.
Anare Seru studies Screen Media Production and worships with the Leigh Fijian congregation of Parramatta Mission, where he is a youth leader. His dream is that the Uniting Church be known as a “welcoming church” where everyone feels accepted.
“To make this happen, I believe the fundamental action is outreach,” he told Insights. In his experience, outreach programs are mutually beneficial for the those accessing services that a church provides and for the church community itself.
Mr Seru described two food services he has been involved in, the Soup Kitchen at Western Sydney University and Bula Feeding Ministry. “It was not until attending these outreach programs [that] I finally understood the value of conversation and how it may give a sense of belonging… For many individuals who are marginalised, the church must continue to remind them that they are welcomed.”
For Andrea Barnes, a newly graduated occupational therapist, inclusivity is also an important part of her vision for the church. She grew up in the Uniting Church and is now affiliated with Hamilton Baptist Church. She told Insights, “My dream for the church in the world is for the church to do no harm. I believe if the church is to represent Christ it should not discriminate, alienate, or marginalise people.”
“I hope that the church can start to make right the wrongs of the past, [and] work towards justice in racial equality, climate justice, LGBTQIA+ equality, and gender equality,” she said. “In an ideal world, all churches and church institutions would truly believe that all people are equal and are equally as loved by God – and therefore not use power for [their own] gain or spread toxic theology that harms many people.”
Ms Barnes cited World Vision Australia as an example of a Christian organisation that is currently addressing injustices through a variety of programs “such as to improve the education of Indigenous Australians in early childhood.” She also praised the work of affirming congregations as they actively “re-write the narrative that churches are anti-LGBTQIA+, because not all churches are!”
Danny Ivanovski, who is currently completing a Master of Teaching (Secondary) in Visual Arts at the University of Wollongong, also wants the church to engage with the wider community. He worships at Keiraview Uniting Church and believes that the church “should be a place that preaches God’s word in truth” without watering down the power of that message.
He told Insights that the delivery of this message is important so that it can be heard by young people in the context of an “inclusive and non-judgemental” community. “The church should be a place [where people encourage] one another to use their gifts to help one another come to God and to be a positive influence in the wider community,” he said. Involving young people in leadership is a crucial part of this vision, so that they can see how their gifts and skills contribute to their church community.
Mr Ivanovski also suggested a few ways to reimagine church, from celebrating multiculturalism through community meals and messy church programs, to holding services in a park, making them more accessible to people who may not feel comfortable in a traditional church service.
Keiraview Uniting Church has already done some reimagining of their own, including holding climate change days of prayer, organising a community garden, and offering mentoring and homework help to local school students.
River Wilson is part of the Leichhardt Uniting Church community, and they study Creative Writing at Macquarie University. She told Insights, “I long for a world where churches are accepting of all individuals, encouraging a sense of comfort and safety for its people.”
Their vision is of “A church that is active in the community, leading in justice and care… Churches often are not seen as present in calls [for] justice for the community.” However, she noted that many Uniting Church congregations are visibly and vocally present at rallies and protests. “This is how churches make a difference,” they said.
Medical student Anna Maxwell is a mission worker for Christian Students Uniting at the University of New South Wales. She regularly attends Catholic and Uniting Church worship services, and her connection to multiple denominations gives her a unique perspective on the church.
“I think Christianity’s worldview, at its best, is one which recognises the divinity of all people and the whole of creation, while also pointing to something bigger than ourselves,” she told Insights.
“People have always wondered why we are here and what our purpose is, and I think the church ideally would meet these questions with some sort of answers that enable people to feel empowered about their capacity to make choices, but also gives people someone – God – to lean on when things are out of control.”
For Ms Maxwell, the biggest obstacle to this vision of the church is division.
“As a person who participates regularly in a few different church communities of different denominations, I really wish Christian churches would stop fighting among ourselves and creating divisions, which make us look all too human and stop us from pointing as effectively as we otherwise could to our Father in Heaven.”
She told Insights that denominations should actively seek out common ground, and that “from my experience some of those disagreements are matters of phrasing rather than actual differences.”
“The Uniting Church does better than other churches at allowing people of different backgrounds in, but more needs to be done to highlight that it is okay to have a different opinion, focus on what we have in common, and discuss issues with a compassionate and open mind,” she said.
Michael Henson also dreams of greater “interconnectedness” across denominational lines, so that the church can be a powerful force for change. He studies Law and Development Studies at the University of Newcastle, where he is part of Christian Students Uniting.
His vision for what the church could be in the world has three aspects: “It can be a place which provides community and support, it can be an advocate for the vulnerable, and it [can be] a community which shares the good news.”
“A great example is the Christian United for Afghanistan campaign. Part of the strength of the church comes from the community of churches behind it… made up of thousands [of] congregations around Australia and the world. An important step in helping the church act as a force for good in the world is strengthening the ties between Christians around the world,” he said.
Erin Lewis is a children’s speech pathologist who worships at Leichhardt Uniting Church, and a climate organiser with Christian Students Uniting. She envisions the church “as a source of gentle truth and bold witness.”
“I believe there is a path for us to become a known and trusted voice in the world that seeks to prioritise safe, sacred relationships between people, animals, and planet. This is a realisation of the church that faithfully names the Kingdom of God we are working towards – while also holding [a] light to how that Kingdom exists here and now,” she told Insights.
For Ms Lewis, this path forward means “developing authentic humility as a practice.” This is a humility “that can recognise where we have come from and name a difficult history, while actively listening and striving to be people of tradition in new ways.”
“I see this work already happening in the way we develop and engage in safe church practices, and the way we lean into our call to act in climate justice spaces,” she said.
This idea brings to mind the words of Mikali Anagnostis’ poem God is a Broken Teacup, featured in this year’s Christian Students Uniting Magazine and excerpted below:
God is the breaking,
Promises of permanence,
prophecies of normalcy –
opened, emptied, forsaken.
God will not be a vessel
for that tepid delusion
because God is a body
longing to be broken.
God will not fit in the cupboard,
God will not be stored for the future,
God will not take milk and sugar,
God will break.
Young people are not waiting for the future of the church to unfold before their eyes. They are getting their hands dirty and shaping the communities that have shaped and continue to shape them. Some things may be broken and remade along the way, but this is the cycle of our faith. God is constantly working in their lives, in their churches, and in the world to make all things new.
Gabrielle Cadenhead is a mission worker for Christian Students Uniting at the University of Sydney