More than 600 delegates from approximately 90 Seventh-day Adventist churches in Australia assembled at four meeting sites, in Perth, Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane, across two weekends in February 2020 for “Growing Together,” a nationwide summit aimed at fostering healthy and attractive church communities.
Perth and Brisbane hosted conferences consecutively from February 21 to 23, followed by Sydney and Melbourne from February 29 to March 1.
All conferences within the Australian Union Conference (AUC) were represented except for the Tasmanian Conference and Northern Australian Conference, which hope to join the initiative soon. North Harbour Seventh-day Adventist Church in New Zealand sent delegates to attend the summit in Brisbane.
Representatives from the Fuller Youth Institute — who were involved in research for the book Growing Young: 6 Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church —Scott Cormode and Jake Mulder — traveled from the United States to present at the summits in Sydney and Brisbane. A. Allan Martin, from the North American Division, who is a teaching pastor of Younger Generation Church in Arlington, Texas, and head of the “Growing Young Adventists” initiative, presented in Perth and Melbourne.
Presentations were predominantly a practical summary of the Growing Young research, which looked at the characteristics and strategies of 250 of America’s healthiest Christian churches. The research defines “healthy” churches as those that aren’t shrinking and aging, but growing and retaining young people (ages 15-29).
“By focusing on young people, this brings overall vitality to the whole church,” Mulder said during one of the morning presentations in Sydney. “The problem is that the church is calibrated for a world that no longer exists.”
In between presentations, delegates were given a chance to collaborate and discuss a practical plan they could implement in their local churches to help them attract and retain young people, and “grow together.”
“When they were putting in place their transformation plans, you could see [the delegates] really cared about young people and their local Adventist churches," said Greater Sydney Conference youth director Simon Gigliotti. "They want their local church culture to be healthy, engaging young people, and also involving the older generations because they have so much to offer!”
“As I have visited churches, I have had people, mainly youth, talk about their church leaders and the struggles they have with them. It was so encouraging to see them sit at the same table, listen, learn, and discuss how they could work better together for kingdom growth,” said Victorian Conference assistant youth director Rosemary Andrykanus.
At the summit, each church was assigned a coach to work with the team throughout the year to implement its transformation plans. In addition, webinars will be hosted by conference representatives, as well as by Cormode and Mulder, to equip churches and help them maintain their vision. There will also be a follow-up summit later in the year to launch churches into the second year of their journey.
“We’ve set it out strategically so that people don’t fall off the path,” said Gigliotti. “We can’t expect culture change to happen overnight, but if we are patient and listen properly, we will successfully journey through it.”
At the Perth summit, attendees’ evaluation forms were predominantly positive.
“Jake Mulder exceeded in providing an Adventist context — he really did his homework for the benefit of the cohort!” one attendee said.
“Partnering with Queensland allowed us to feel that we are doing this together and are part of a wider engagement across Australia,” said another.
Lucy Dessington, Growing Together project officer for the Western Australian Conference, shared how the summit intentionally tried to model intergenerational church during every segment, and that the response from Maida Vale Seventh-day Adventist Church encapsulated her goal and vision for growing together.
“Success would look like a warm, cohesive, multi-generational congregation who are empowered and willing to support spiritual and quantitative growth enthusiastically,” it read.
This sentiment was shared by South Pacific Division president Glenn Townend, who supports the Growing Together initiative.
“Growing Together enables us to understand each other and keep passing on the essentials of faith and trust in Jesus to the next generation,” he said.
SPD provided significant funding for the program.
“Our big goal is to see healthy Adventist churches across the nation, churches that are engaging with young people,” Gigliotti echoed, referencing the 50-percent attendance drop-out rate for teenagers transitioning into young adult ministry. “Somewhere between the teenage and young adult bracket, something goes wrong. I'd love to see that number come down and see healthy Adventist churches.”
For churches that missed out on this first Growing Together summit, there will be opportunities in the future.
“This is not a silver bullet solution,” said Alina van Rensburg, the young adult ministry coordinator for the South Queensland Conference. “It’s a Spirit-filled learning journey that is more like a ‘slow cooker’ process than a microwave meal.”
“We are determined that this will not be a one-off thing,” Gigliotti agreed. “It’s a long-term strategy that we’re investing in. The proposal we wrote to the South Pacific Division outlined a minimum five-year strategy to boost youth engagement in our churches, and we want to see our churches growing young, together.”
The Growing Together initiative is a partnership between the South Pacific Division and Australian Union Conference youth advisory, composed of youth directors and young adult ministry representatives across the country.