Every Sunday at 5.45pm, about 30 people gather for a uniquely Presbyterian, interactive worship experience at Wellington’s St John’s in the City.
Most are aged between 18 and 30, though the diverse group is rarely the same each time.
“Every week, we’ve got someone new,” says Ryhan Prasad, who’s coordinating the service on a half-time basis - while also working for youth work provider BGI and completing his theology degree.
St John’s session clerk Paul Ramsey says that after a planning day last year, the church identified the 18-30s age group as its top priority. “It’s almost a missing generation in many churches.”
Many of those who participate in St John’s successful teenage programme leave Wellington for tertiary study, while the traditional morning service was not generally proving attractive to young people arriving in Wellington.
A team from St John’s looked at other models around the country, while a core group of young people on the periphery of the congregation met every week to thrash out a vision and how it could work in practice. This home group continues to meet and attract new people, and its original members are taking key roles in service leadership and organisation.
Average attendance has grown significantly since the service began in March, with as many as 50 some weeks. As well as students, it’s attracting young professionals; some new to Wellington and others who have been looking for a church for a while.
The growth has been organic, with no advertising. People are inviting their friends, Ryhan says. And some young people who come to check out the morning service are then coming along in the evening – rather than being lost to the church, as has often been the case in the past.
The shape of the service is distinctly Presbyterian but also interactive and flexible. Ryhan says they often follow the lectionary, but not always. In June, there was a four-week series on mission, both overseas and domestic, with guest speakers talking about real experiences.
Early in the service, there’s a break to share the peace and grab a cup of coffee. Ryhan says he tries to explain the significance of the peace, and of other components of the service, each week so that newcomers get a sense of the meaning behind the structure.
At the end of a 15-minute sermon, the speaker poses three questions, which people break into small groups to discuss.
St John’s elders act as facilitators for these discussion groups, creating an environment in which people feel comfortable sharing questions and concerns.
The discussion has been “huge”, Ryhan says, with the chance to question and talk vital for the target age group.
The music is modern worship songs, rather than the organ and choir style that characterises St John’s morning service,
The benediction is usually given by the Rev Allister Lane, St John’s senior minister, who is also closely involved. After the formal service ends, all the tables are pulled together and a meal is provided that virtually everyone stays for. Ryhan says volunteers from within the new service have created a roster to cook the meal, which is playing an important part in building community.
The new service is still part of the St John’s congregation, Paul says. “This is a church plant inside the body of St John’s.”
However, there is not necessarily an expectation that evening service attendees will ever join the morning service.
The evening service is held in a hall rather than the church itself, which could present some challenges if attendance grows, Paul says. “Do we move into the church, and what implications might that have for its layout? Perhaps it might even feed into some changes in the format of the morning service.”
St John’s subsidises the meal’s cost by $100 a week, which supplements an offering taken up at the service.
Young people in new cities present a prime opportunity, Paul says, but at the moment “that’s where we lose them.”
He describes St John’s new service as “also a ministry for the wider Church”. “Maybe these people will then move elsewhere, and go to another Presbyterian church.”
Ryhan says he really wants to encourage other churches to engage with the young adults in their community. “We need to provide forms of ministry that people actually connect with, not what we think they will connect with.
“It’s not as scary as everyone thinks it is. All you need is a committed group of volunteers and a bit of leadership, and you can make it happen.”
By Amanda Wells