Shaping young adult discipleship in Sydney Presbytery
In Sydney Presbytery, we work in the area of young adult discipleship formation in three distinct, but increasingly connected areas of ministry. Our Tertiary Ministry programs on university campuses, the CHOICE Discipleship course which targets Pacific Islander young adults, and the Many Cultures One In Christ worship events are the three primary ways we engage with young adults.
School of Discipleship, although being positioned for a multigenerational church audience, also acts as the theological gathering place for many of our emerging leaders.
These ministries have much in common: a focus on relevant and meaningful theological learning and dialogue, supported by a growing community of young leaders and ample opportunity for participation and service in the church and community.
These ministries share a common purpose: Christ-centred discipleship formation.
The model of Tertiary Ministry in Sydney Presbytery has three active and inter-linked expressions: on campus engagement, congregational orientation towards young adult discipleship, and intentional Christian community through affordable housing.
Originated through the work of Rev. Dr. John Hirt at the University of Sydney, Tertiary Ministry has been an area of vital ministry for over 20 years – faithfully holding itself to the three-fold mission of Keeping Faith, Doing Justice, Building Community.
On campus engagement takes place under the banner of Christian Students Uniting, with student groups at the University of Sydney, University of New South Wales, University of Technology, and most recently the Conservatorium of Music.
Nico Tjoelker is a student at the Conservatorium of Music and has been part of Christian Students Uniting (CSU) for 4 years – currently serving as the student president for CSU at University of Sydney and the Conservatorium of Music. For Nico, Tertiary Ministry has been an important part of his ongoing faith formation: “Church, Sunday school, and Bible studies have always been an important part of my Christian upbringing. When I came to university, I sought out CSU so that I could continue to develop my faith in a university setting and meet a community of like-minded Christian scholars.”
A core component of CSU’s on-campus engagement activities are regular Bible studies; providing a space for students to explore their faith more deeply (“Keeping Faith”). A long-standing “rule” of CSU Bible studies is “there are no stupid questions”. Bible study times should be safe places where students can wrestle with the Bible, its context and what it all means for them as disciples today.
The importance of such spaces should not be underestimated. Tertiary
education is a formative experience, particularly for young adults, who are
often stepping out from their families and/or church’s faith systems for the
first time. It is an opportunity for young adults to discover and own their faith and theology. However, with the many competing ideas and worldviews that young adults are bombarded with at university, without a supportive and safe space for them to explore their faith, many will walk away from the church all together.
We see that when young adults like Nico are given the opportunity to explore and grow their faith alongside their academic studies, they often flourish: “Christian Students Uniting has had a great impact on my discipleship journey. CSU connected me with fellow Christian students and enabled me to understand my faith from a more mature, university-level perspective” said Nico.
The notion that faith is not just a personal experience, but a public one – that faith should impact the whole-of-life, including what we do – is a fundamental to the formational work of Tertiary Ministry (“Doing Justice). This is lived out through opportunities to engage in protests and marches, and work with organisations like Sydney Alliance. Through participation in advocacy activities, students grow and develop in their capacity to lead, as well as standing up for the rights of the least. In 2018, CSU participated in the “Books not Bombs” rally at Sydney Uni, protesting against the Australian Government’s cuts to education funding whilst increasing its funding of arms manufacturing. Nico bravely and brilliantly represented CSU by speaking at that rally.
All the work of CSU is held together in the context of community (“Building Community”). We build community because this journey of discipleship, faith and justice is meant to be shared. We also understand that meaningful connections to Uniting Church congregations and affordable student housing opportunities are absolutely essential elements to the success of our work in this space.
An integral part of the Tertiary Ministry community is our ‘Uni Churches’; congregations intentionally orientated towards young adult discipleship. These include Burwood, Hope, Mustard Seed, St Stephens and Leichhardt. Nico is a member at Leichhardt UC and lives at Epworth House, as well as being the organ scholar at St Stephens. On this experience, Nico said, “Another great thing about CSU is that it is a portal into many other communities within the Uniting Church. Many members of CSU live in Epworth House – a residence for students based on Christian values of community which is run by Leichhardt Uniting Church.”
For most young people in or out of the church, hearing the Easter or Christmas story of Jesus every year, in the same fashion, is like hearing a familiar and yet broken record. The problem with hearing these stories repeatedly and in the same ways, however foundational they are to the Christian faith, is that these truths become engaged with less and less, and not absorbed any deeper than surface level understanding.
Initially funded out of the former Marrickville Uniting Church’s seed fund six years ago, the CHOICE Discipleship Course was established out of the need for building youth leadership and deepening formational capacity. The purpose of CHOICE is to be a stepping-stone for young adult leaders to discern their gifts and reflect on how they are called to actualise the Gospel (vocation) through their church leadership roles and even day-to-day lives.
CHOICE runs for a duration of 10 weeks a term, for 2 and half hours every Tuesday evening. Each week unpacks different topics including: What is the Bible? Hermeneutics; Storytelling; Discipleship; Vocation; Leadership in the Secular space; The Importance of Prayer, Doing Ministry, The Heart of Worship. To help unpack these themes, each workshop is facilitated by a number of Sydney Presbytery staff members, ministers and lay leaders.
A typical evening at CHOICE would see participants being welcomed with supper and friendly faces followed by rich fellowship and formational workshops. By the end of the workshop, participants leave having a deepened relationship with God, a growing confidence to serve God’s Kingdom and a network of mentors and friends to encourage and keep accountable.
When asked what drew 22-year-old Funaki (Naki) Taumoepeau to participate in the CHOICE course in 2019, she passionately stated: “I was drawn to CHOICE because of the impact this ministry had on my friends [former graduates]. I was excited to see what the CHOICE ministry does for young people and our discipleship!” Now as a graduate herself, she was pleased to share in her closing reflections how much “CHOICE has helped [her] talk passionately about Jesus on a daily basis and [has encouraged her] to engage more young people about Jesus.”
As a key young adult leader in her home church, Kelesi (Grace) Congregation, which is part of the Tonga Parish, and on the Tongan National Conference Second Gen Discipleship team, Naki’s formation journey reached new depths through her CHOICE experience, particularly in week five’s Vocation workshop facilitated by Rev. Kent Crawford.
“A [formational moment for me] was when we read and reflected through the dialogue between Jesus and Peter in John 21:15-19, and learnt the 4 different Greek words for love. I identified with Peter a whole lot and what Jesus said to him regardless of how limited or large his love was for Jesus was, Jesus’ response to Peter was the same. “Feed my sheep”.
“I’ve learnt that no matter where we are in life or whether we feel unequipped or that others are better suited for service, we are called to serve.”
Upon her parting reflections, Naki recommends that more young adults, no matter their cultural or church backgrounds, should consider taking part in the CHOICE program. As Naki put it, it provides “space that builds dialogue and relationships between – not just young adult leaders – but different (CALD) communities [with] deep engagement in the bible and worship…One of the things I’ve learnt is that God has blessed us all differently BUT it’s that diversity that makes our service richer.”
Leaders of the Church today
As this article highlights, there are three key areas of young adult ministry being pursued in Sydney Presbytery. However, taking a look at the wider NSW/ACT Synod, there are yet more programs and projects that are striving to build up new, young, and diverse leaders.
Through Pulse, our high school chaplaincy programs such as at MLC and Ravenswood and Christian Student Uniting groups at Australian National University, Macquarie University and University of Newcastle – we are seeing more and more young and diverse leaders grow in their faith and be formed as disciples.
Alongside of these projects, there are growing Uniting Church chaplaincy programs at Western Sydney University, University of Wollongong, University of New England, Latrobe and Charles Sturt University.
This Synod has a strong history and a bright future of young adult discipleship and formation. The new and emerging areas of this type of ministry are building upon these foundations and traditions.
In Sydney Presbytery, we are moving to bring our work of young adult formation and discipleship closer together, while maintaining the uniqueness of each ministry. What this looks like is still being written. What we need from the wider church is participation, support and prayer. What we are learning is that where we thought we were working to build up and equip future leaders of the church and community – in actual fact, we are working with leaders of the church today.
Jonathan Hirt, Communications Manager at Sydney Presbytery
Liuanga Palu, Pacific Community Organiser, CHOICE Program Trainer
Rev. Adrian Sukumar-White, Minister at Leichhardt Uniting Church & Uniting Church Chaplain at University of Sydney
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