Synod Future Directions and Young People in the Church
In April, the Synod of NSW and the ACT voted to adopt a new strategy for the church’s Future Directions. Among its objectives is “a renewed commitment to ministry with people in the first third of their lives” as the Synod seeks to grow the church.
The accompanying report for this strategy provides some bleak statistics: only 13 percent of people who attend Uniting Churches in NSW and the ACT are under the age of 50. The Future Directions strategy aims to increase this number to 21 percent.
Insights approached churchgoers “in the first third of their lives” to ask them about their hopes for the Uniting Church’s future.
Rev. Radhika Sukumar-White is an ordained minister currently serving at Leichhardt Uniting Church. Michael Ramaidama Utoni studies Business Management and Community Service, and he worships at Burwood-Croydon Uniting Church. Maddie Dickens is a pastry chef who worships at Terrigal Uniting Church. Patricia Bevan is a lawyer whose church home is Wesley Uniting Church East Maitland. Mikali Anagnostis studies Arts and Science at the University of Sydney, where they are Queer Officer for Christian Students Uniting, and they worship at Leichhardt Uniting Church. Hayden Charles is a managing director for Indigenous Commercial Cleaning, and he is part of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress.
How did you come to the Uniting Church?
Radhika: I was born into the Uniting Church; my parents migrated to Australia from Sri Lanka in the 70s, and the UCA was the natural fit for their Church of South India heritage.
Michael: I [was] a Methodist back in Fiji, and I joined the Uniting Church in Australia because of the Methodist merge.
Maddie: From a young age, once my family moved houses on the Central Coast, we have been attending Terrigal Uniting Church for 17 years.
Patricia: I was always interested as a child in religion and church. My [immediate] family were not very religious [but] I occasionally got to attend Sunday School when staying with [extended] family. I really enjoyed Scripture in primary school and as I got older, I started trying to work out what I believed in and searching for a group of like-minded people. I did some research, and the Uniting Church was the church that I really felt drawn to.
Mikali: When I moved to Sydney, friends directed me to [Leichhardt Uniting Church] because they knew that I shared its values and that it was queer affirming.
Hayden: One of the student support teachers [at my school] invited me to Sylvania Uniting Church for youth and I was pretty interested in the church after my first National camp in Adelaide NAIYG, which was an amazing gathering of Indigenous youth all around Australia.
What is it about the Uniting Church that made you want to stay/join?
Radhika: The concept that we’re a Pilgrim People, our inter-conciliar councils, and consensus decision making does it for me. I also remember the National Youth Adult Leaders Conference in 2012 when we were so moved and inspired by the 1977 Statement to the Nation – I thought, “this is the church I want to serve.”
Michael: Staying part of the church… has been a conflicting choice in my mind for reasons that are personal… However, I chose to stay. It has been an interesting and an eye-opening journey as I discover more about my faith, Christianity, and myself… I am who I am, and I am celebrated for who I am in the church.
Maddie: The Uniting Church catered for our family’s interests and needs that specifically suited us, and [this] is the reason we stayed and I continue attending today.
Patricia: I felt a sense of belonging. Not so much within the local congregation, where I… often felt myself and my daughters were not always welcome. Most people were welcoming but the minority made me feel uncomfortable. The opportunities when I got to meet people within the wider church were where I really felt like I belonged.
Mikali: I’ve stayed in the UCA because the church is actively engaged in issues of justice that are currently affecting our world; justice for Aboriginal Peoples, climate justice, LGBTQIA+ rights and acceptance in the church, justice for refugees and people seeking asylum, women’s rights… I think the Uniting Church’s structure allows us to have uncomfortable conversations about what it means to be disciples today.
Hayden: The reach the Uniting Church has in the community and the fabulous people I’ve interacted with.
Have you felt supported by programs offered to young people in your experience of the Uniting Church?
Radhika: Yes I have; National Christian Youth Conventions, National Youth Adult Leaders Conferences, and youth quotas on committees have all worked in my favour, though sometimes it can feel a bit shallow – “Come into the room, youths, but don’t say anything controversial!”
Michael: There is no youth group or service in my church, but I could say that from the broader church, yes, I have been supported by a few programs. Being part of Christian Students Uniting, Pulse, and School of Discipleship has been fun and awesome. What a celebration!
Maddie: All through my high schooling [and] into young adulthood, I have always felt supported by the programs offered to us young people through my experience.
Patricia: Not at a local level. There was a Youth Group, Kids Club and Sunday School for younger people and for a while Bible Studies that were really great. But as people moved or those involved grew older, there ended up only really being my three children and myself that were younger, so those programs which… allowed us to create our own space and belong were no longer viable.
Mikali: I’ve greatly benefited from the Uniting Church’s investment in tertiary ministry and am very grateful to the presbyteries and congregations that have sustained those programs. In my experience, different organisations within the Uniting Church, such as the Uniting Advocacy team, Pulse, and previously Uniting Earth, have been very active in supporting and encouraging Christian Students Uniting in our work around climate justice.
Hayden: So much support offered by the members of the UCA and UAICC helping me in my younger years.
What hopes do you hold for the future of the Uniting Church?
Radhika: That we move from palliative care/resuscitation ministry to resourcing thriving, growing communities and ministries; that we keep moving forward as a pilgrim people; that we don’t disenfranchise our most precious gift (young people) with politics, bureaucracy and inertia.
Michael: I hope that there will be more youths in the church. To be honest, I have been worried and anxious about the future of the church because of this, however I shall remain hopeful and prayerful.
Maddie: The hopes I hold for the future of the Uniting Church is that the activities and programs continue to cater for all ages, and that all ages feel they are able to contribute.
Patricia: I hope that the church continues to grow and welcome those who are searching for them. I pray that the welcoming, open acceptance far outweighs any negativity, and that the church continues to value the contributions of even the youngest – before they give up and leave forever.
Mikali: I hope that we continue to have honest and open-minded conversations about how the world really is and how our actions as the church can create change. Mostly, I hope the Uniting Church stays radical; that we remember our identity as pilgrim people and never get too settled… I hope the church remembers our calling to locate ourselves at the margins of society.
Also, as an institution that owns a lot of real estate, I hope the Uniting Church can wrestle with the implications of our financial assets being stolen Aboriginal land… As more of those spaces cease to be used by congregations, I hope that we can inquire deeply of what the gospel requires of us.
Hayden: I hope we connect with the UAICC. The UAICC has a great history and our future is bright. I hope we take the journey to a whole new level.
How can the Uniting Church better engage with people “in the first third of their lives?”
Radhika: By resourcing ministries and congregations with strong engagement with young people – play to our strengths. Also, let’s do more speaking out on current affairs and controversial topics.
Michael: [By creating] a space for youths to be heard… [By helping] existing or new families to centre Christ in their family life. Babies and kids will grow to make choices for themselves, but that faith in Jesus is one that can be shaped or planted at an early stage. [Also, by gathering together through storytelling, art, and music:] it’s an investment, providing jobs for youths and building a community with an aspect of faith.
Maddie: I believe younger people need to be given opportunities to communicate, share and learn from each other and our mentors, building a rapport and relationships with various members of the church community. Building an understanding of what it is the church represents and responding in relationship with God.
Patricia: For me, the key to engagement would first be [a willingness] to openly converse with and understand the gifts these people bring, and work with them so they feel they belong as much as everyone else.
Mikali: Young people care about justice. More investment into programs that support young people to engage in activism and advocacy will never be wasted!
Hayden: Show the young people the diversity at the [National] Assembly. The floor of the Assembly has members from all walks of faith with experiences they’ve gathered over the years in the UCA and the business is extraordinary. …everyone is heard and having a say about the life of the church.
Gabrielle Cadenhead is a mission worker for Christian Student Uniting at the University of Sydney