Dr. Andrew Root, “the Ed Sheeran of youth ministry”, opened the 2019 YouLead conference by sharing a passionate vision about what youth ministry should be. The prolific author reminded the gathering of young leaders that being “aware of the humanity” of the children and teens they serve is more crucial than a bible reading method or fun game.
The key message – that youth ministry is about relationships – struck a chord with many of the attendees. Ofa Foiakau, a youth ministry leader at Parramatta Mission, said, “We can be caught up in trying to bring in numbers and organise events.” She explained how Dr Root had reminded her to show youth how “God is still with us in everything.”
His philosophy echoes the conference’s mission, to serve as inspiration for the attendees through fellowship. “We really want to encourage youth leaders … who feel very isolated in what they’re doing,” says Karen Mitchell Lambert, event organiser and Pulse team leader, “We want them to feel loved … valued, and supported.”
The weekend-long event, held from Saturday 24 July to Sunday 25 July, was the largest of the three annual camps so far. It attracted almost 100 leaders from across NSW to the Elanora Heights Uniting Venue.
Much of the length and breadth of the Uniting Church was represented. Charles Shepherd travelled over eight hours to attend the conference, from Dubbo where he leads a small, Saturday night youth group. Sent on a solo mission by his congregation, Charles was amazed by the friendly reception. “Everyone’s so willing to talk to me and get to know me, even though I have no idea who they are,” he said. “I [didn’t] know a single person here, but now I know everyone.”
The diversity of the gathering was seen most plainly in the cultural backgrounds of attendees and contributors alike. For Ofa, whose congregation and fellow leaders at Parramatta are Fijian, events like YouLead are an opportunity for young leaders to “see representation and go ‘I can do that’.” She says that the diverse group shows that, “this is what our church looks like. This is who we’ll be collaborating with.”
Although cultural difference, and the broad scope of social perspectives within the Uniting Church can create challenges, respectful conversations can be a space for real growth. ‘You Can’t Ask That’ is an optional evening session at YouLead that welcomes the awkward questions, and it’s “the only place that really does that,” according to Ofa.
The packed schedule kept attendees on their toes all weekend – sometimes literally, as in the case of the Amazing Race wide game organised by Uniting Venues.
Equipping youth leaders with tools was only one part of the puzzle, as the sessions often focused on building relationships and making new connections. Workshop options ranged from creative to informative to reflective, and a powerful worship session moved some to tears, as the light of God’s love was passed from person to person through candles.
“I’ve come away so encouraged and inspired by what God is doing in this Church,” said Karen, “We just have to have eyes to see it.”