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Inner city church finds new ways to attract young people

Nov 18th, 2009 | By | Category: Featured Article, Features, Front Page Layout, News

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RAIN pours down, but inside the hall candles and the smell of coffee and tea create a warm, friendly atmosphere.

Over hot drinks and biscuits, strangers meet, introduce themselves, return to tables. What’s happening at the Sunday evening church service at the Presbyterian St John’s in the City seems unconventional.

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CREATIVE: Ryhan Prasad.

A young man in jeans and t-shirt gets up and starts talking to the 30 or so gathered about recent natural disasters. He asks people to form four groups of seven or eight and share their thoughts.

Three key questions, projected on the whiteboard, are supposed to set people thinking and get discussions started.

Every Sunday at 5.45pm, the church holds an informal and modern-style service, aimed at young people aged 18 to 30, although all age groups are represented.

The evening service is a chance for people new to Wellington to get to know members of the community and for young adults to socialise. A shared dinner after the service is provided by volunteers, who have set up a cooking roster.

Getting in touch with each other and sharing thoughts seem to be the main objectives.

“I just moved to Wellington and quite like coming here to meet people,” says one young woman.

Senior Minister Allister Lane says New Zealand has a decreasing attendance at churches: “We wanted to offer something for young adults.”

Ryhan Prasad, 33, is to become a minister and was one of the people who initiated the idea of an evening service.

When consulting the young members of church about year ago, he found that young adults had a strong sense for community and wanted to be able to exchange ideas about religion and faith.

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WELCOMING: Chalk on the footpath invites to the service.

Offering a creative church service less formal than the traditional morning service does not mean it is less true, says Ryhan.

The form of worshipping may be different and less formal, but the evening service follows the same structure as the morning service and is often conducted by the same preacher, as both services are connected to each other as part of St. John’s.

“I think the days are really gone where someone stands up on a pulpit and tells you everything is black and white. I mean when talking about Christian faith you don’t need to be able to do that.”

Instead, he says, people need to be able to explain their faith to themselves in order to live that faith: “We discuss and question and you need to form your faith.

Victoria University Professor of Religious Studies Paul Morris, says St John’s in the City promotes a kind of individualistic faith.

“In some ways, I’m sure there is a kind of market share for young people,” he says. “Some people will just go there and see what happens at the service.”

Although New Zealand is regarded as a highly secular country, he thinks religion is very important to most New Zealanders.

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INNOVATIVE: Ryhan Prasad initiated the idea of a modern church service for young adults at St. John's in the City.

Young people do not see themselves as religious, but often link to spirituality and show morals and an understanding of ethics that is close to what churches promote as a part of religion.

“Young people increasingly don’t have a religious background anymore.” In 40 years there has been a dramatic turn-around in New Zealand, he says.

Since the 1960s, the number of “non-religious” people has gone from about 5% to nearly 60%.

Those under 30 are more likely to claim they have a sense of spirituality instead of religion or faith.

St. John’s in the City has a regular audience at the evening service, but Professor Morris is not sure if the unconventional service will reach the masses.

He says religion in New Zealand today is not such a formal thing: “You will always find that there is a hard-core Christian group and a hard-core secular group.”

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Shannon Lenihan

Gabriela Mendosa, 19, is Roman Catholic and used to go to church, but then stopped because she lost faith after feeling her prayers were not heard by God.

“You know, people always go and say something like if you pray for something it will happen. I did that and lost my faith.”

She says she is not tempted to go to the St John’s services just because they are modern: “It shouldn’t be about how modern it is and what goes on, it should be about how strong your faith is and what you believe.”

Her Catholic friend, Shannon Lenihan, 18, thinks of church as a tradition. Modern services seem “fake” to her.

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Ari Fratucilli

Ari Fratucilli, 22, does not go to church, because he does not “believe in God or any religion”, but says for some people a modern-style church service may be appealing.

A study by Massey University of 1000 people shows that just over a third of New Zealanders describe themselves as religious.

Half of the 53% who said they believe in God also said they had doubts. However, 60% of those asked said they would prefer their children to have religious education in primary school about all faiths.

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is a graduate from Whitireia Journalism School, now working for a rock magazine in London.
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