Youth ministry under lockdown - how does it work?

With Greater Sydney (and now some regional NSW areas) under an extended lockdown, many youth ministry teams have had to once again decide how to keep discipling young people amidst the restrictions. We found out from three youth leaders what they’re doing at their churches – Ruth Lee from Cornerstone Presbyterian, Hugh Prattis from Penrith Presbyterian, and Mike Eastman from Epping Presbyterian. Some are finding the challenges easier than others, but all would appreciate your prayers.

What is your church doing about youth ministry this term?

Ruth: In light of the lockdown we’ve moved Cornerstone Youth back to our CY Online Campus that we set up last year on Zoom. Given the restrictions it was the best way to stay connected to our youth during this time and run youth group in some sort of capacity.

Hugh: We decided to run online instead of cancel to keep continuity and at least some Christian input for our non-Christian youth. We assumed lockdown would go for just a few weeks, although that looks less and less likely as we go on! For that reason we planned to hold our first few weeks online and then return to in-person. We planned our activities and studies, at least for the first half of the term, to be run in either format.

Mike: Friday night youth group has moved to Zoom. A Sunday afternoon Zoom session has also been set up to maintain connection with youth and to discuss the Sunday sermon. Leaders are also contacting youth regularly through the week with Bible verses and reflections, also providing a channel for youth to ask questions and share.

How do you make youth group engaging online?

Ruth: It’s been so encouraging seeing the creativity of our CY leaders. We’re planning to run our Bible studies on Daniel as planned while incorporating creative elements such as dramatic Bible readings over Zoom, using helpful online tools like Zoom shared whiteboard screens, Google Jamboard, sharing videos and using prepared PowerPoint slides to annotate questions. Other elements include engaging activities like playing with Zoom virtual backgrounds and filters, and some groups are doing dress up nights over Zoom.

Since we’ve combined our two campuses on Zoom for an all-in time we can get close to 90-100 connections on a Friday night so we’ve planned leaders to be on Zoom support to spotlight/pin different people who are speaking and to play background music while youth arrive online to help avoid that awkward silence! We’ve also allocated particular leaders to be on ‘welcoming’ so youth get a shoutout when they enter the room to help them feel more included amongst a large group online.

Hugh: With difficulty! I think it's possible to have genuine fun and engagement over online forums, but I've yet to experience it. That's part of why we want to return to in-person ASAP. Some problems we found in the first week were: connection issues, issues of people speaking over each other and having to moderate who speaks when.

Mike: We have condensed the Friday night meeting from 2.5hrs to just 1.5hrs in order to avoid ‘Zoom fatigue’. Talks are provided live with a PowerPoint presentation shared on screen (Term 3 is ‘hearing the Parables of Jesus’). We utilise breakout rooms for discussion. The whiteboard function is used outside of the talks to allow people to draw or write responses.

Using Zoom reactions and the whiteboard feature we do word games and trivia style icebreakers.

But most importantly – we lead by example in showing them that hearing and applying the word of God IS engaging!

How are your youth and the leaders feeling about lockdown?

Ruth: As lockdown has been extended there is a mixed feel amongst our leaders and youth. Some are doing ok and enjoying not having to travel in for school/uni/work or going to extra-curricular activities, while others are struggling with mental health or the stress of being around family all the time. There’s also a bit of concern among our senior students in regards to completing exams and the HSC during this season.

Mike: We are blessed to have a leadership that is resilient and comfortable with being at home (some uni students, some professionals who have been working from for over a year now anyway) and I am very familiar with lockdown myself! The youth are generally coping fine. Those who are more socially connected are missing the ability to meet up with friends – even at school. Perhaps the greatest concern raised by youth and families is the increasing dependence on devices and tech - which makes it hard because we are using these same means to talk to them!

What can we be praying for you during Term 3?

Ruth: We’d love your prayers and especially for the mental health of our youth and leaders. Especially for our Year 12s who are feeling a bit anxious about the Trial HSC exams that have been pushed back.

Please pray for our leaders as they manage leading studies online.

For our youth as we look at the book of Daniel this term, please pray that they will have a firm resolve in their faith, to stand firm and live out a life that’s distinctly different to the world. Also for our youth who are on the fringe - that we can look out for them and help them feel included in an online forum.

Mike: Pray for the youth to hear and accept the word of God during lockdown – and that their lives would reflect this more and more each day. Pray that the church will continue to support youth ministries and to include the youth and youth leaders in the life of the church. Pray for the mental health of teens and of parents as lockdown continues. And pray for the salvation of high school students in the local area and for opportunities to reach them to be opened up, both during and after lockdown.

Hugh: Please pray for God’s mercy in removing coronavirus!

A new SRE teacher shares the joy of teaching the Bible to kids

Amelia Ray only finished school last year, but she’s already back in the classroom teaching SRE.

Amelia heard a presentation at her church, Harbourside in Coffs Harbour, about the need for more SRE teachers for the local primary school, and she was immediately struck by the conviction that this was something she should do.

“I went to a public school and remember having Scripture classes. It was always fun,” she recalls. Though Amelia comes from a Christian family, she recognises that parents who don’t go to church also choose SRE. SRE can help all kids ask questions about God.

After having some conversations with her pastor and the SRE coordinator, Amelia began her online training. She says of this training, “I normally prefer doing things face to face, I’m a visual learner so I like to see people doing things. But the online training was good. There were photos and videos and it was all easy to understand.”

Then it was into the classroom to shadow another teacher for a few weeks, and get some hands-on experience. And finally, Amelia was ready to take on her own class of Year 1 and 2 students.

So far, she’s loving it. The kids are engaged and happy to see her each week. They ask questions, they have fun together and they find all the Bible stories exciting.

There are a few kids from Christian families in Amelia’s class. These kids like to tell her what they’ve been learning at church or show her what they’ve read in the Bible recently, which brings Amelia great joy.

But for the rest of the children, the Bible is completely new and they have lots of questions about God.

In a recent lesson, Amelia was teaching the kids about the Lord’s Prayer. She was worried at first that the kids wouldn’t be interested in this topic, but was delighted to discover that all of them wanted to pray the prayer with her at the end of class, and they asked questions about the meaning of each line.

“One kid asked about the line, ‘give us this day our daily bread’, ‘Oh, so is God going to send us hamburgers from the sky?’ So we got to talk about what it means to ask God for food and how he takes care of us,” Amelia recalls.

This is the power of SRE – kids are given an opportunity during the school day to dig deeply into who God is, and what it means to have a relationship with him.

Sometimes there are challenges in managing a classroom or answering tricky questions, but Amelia feels her training prepared her well to respond to any issues and keep the class focused on the Bible. “I’ll sometimes not realise until later that I used a strategy that we talked about in training and then I’ll think ‘Oh, that’s where I learned that!’”

Amelia’s classes are full of acting out stories, songs and looking at pictures. She likes to get the kids up and moving so they have fun and find learning about the Bible engaging.

And when Amelia feels nervous, she doesn’t worry too much, because “You don’t need to be afraid to look silly, because they like it! They love when I’m not just sitting there and reading a story – they like to have fun and make it creative.”

To other prospective SRE teachers and supporters of SRE, Amelia wants us to remember: “This might be the only opportunity that the kids get to explore questions about God, if they don't go to church or their family doesn't go to church or they don't know anybody who knows God." Parents choosing SRE might be the only opportunity kids have to get their questions answered.

Praise God for SRE teachers like Amelia who are continuing to provide kids with this opportunity at school.

Want to support the training of more SRE teachers like Amelia, so they are ready to go into classrooms help kids explore faith in God? Give now to the PY EOFY Appeal.

The value of camps for youth ministry

Sometimes, it helps to be reminded that you’re part of something bigger than yourself. 

It’s one of the reasons that Kent Cheney has, for the last six years, packed a suitcase with cold-weather clothes and a car full of high school students to spend a weekend at KYCK — along with thousands of others.

The youth minister at Coffs Harbour’s Harbourside Presbyterian Church brought 40 high schoolers and leaders from the church’s youth group to the conference earlier this year. The group is made of young people aged between 11 and 18 years old, up to 30% of whom have no other connections to church beside the Friday night youth group. The group’s attendance at the Christian youth conference has increased over the last few years, Kent says, as more youth see how valuable the weekend is.

So when they made the six-hour drive to the Katoomba Conference Centre, they knew it would be worth it. The weekend focused on the Old Testament book of Joshua, with a call for young people to be similarly strong and courageous in growing in, and living out, their faith. 

“The youth really connected with parts of the message, which is good,” Kent says. One teen, who hadn’t been to church in a few years, came to the conference after re-visiting the youth group earlier this year, and decided to make a recommitment to Jesus on the camp. 

“He really seemed to understand different things, which was cool,” Kent says. “And he was keen to try to make youth regularly.” Seven others also chose to commit to the Lordship of Jesus over their life, at least two for the first time. 

When they weren’t in the main sessions, the youth group spent time exploring the Blue Mountains and bonding as a group. 

“We went on a few different walks, out to the Three Sisters, that sort of thing,” Kent says. At the same time, leaders were able to have intentional conversations with youth about the talks and faith. “We had a lot of different downtimes that had good conversations and [we were] just enjoying creation and each other’s company, which was a lot of fun.”

Kent won’t forget a scene he witnessed one evening: seeing his youth sitting “in the pitch dark and freezing cold” singing along to the worship songs that were sung throughout the conference. “It was really cool seeing a bunch of them singing, unorganised, singing out praises to God,” Kent recalls.

There’s a reason Kent is so passionate about getting his youth along to KYCK each year: in his experience, such youth camps are often crucial moments in a young person’s faith journey.

“Something like 80% of people decide to follow Jesus before they’re 18,” Kent explains. “So I think that age is really critical. When it’s a conference with a few thousand other young people, I think [the camps] can really help someone’s faith, because this is a sign that, not just my local youth group that believe this, but there are thousands of people who believe this.” 

“You see a little glimpse of heaven in that sense. Lots of people wanting to understand God’s word and sing praise to him.” 

Being connected to one another and exploring God’s word “is not just a conference experience, but a part of our lives,” says Kent. It’s one of the reasons Ignition Youth has created a discipleship hour before Friday night youth begins, with small group mentoring with older members of the church family, and workshops on the church’s mission to ‘connect, grow, serve and go.’

It’s in the group’s regular meeting that Kent is convinced God works over time to build people in the faith and draw others to him. But he’s also grateful for the role camps and conference play in energising and captivating Christian youth.

At the end of this year, many youth and their leaders will pack their own suitcases – this time with warm weather clothes – and head again to a camp. They’ll sing praises to God, learn from his word, and enjoy fun and fellowship in Christian community. Will you be joining us?

The annual Presbyterian Youth Summer Camp is taking place at Stanwell Tops from December 27 2021 to January 1 2022. Expressions of interest are open now:

Why youth leaders need to network – and how PY is making that happen

Josh Lum Mow and Juno Yu at Willougby PYEE event

‘Networking’ may sound like a codeword for free food and awkward small talk, but for Presbyterian youth leaders across the state, it has a much richer meaning.

Leaders of youth ministries at various Presbyterian Churches regularly meet together in an initiative facilitated by PYNSW called ‘PY Encourage’, to be equipped in their ministry, build relationships with leaders from other churches, and commit their plans and people to God.

The most recent PY Encourage Express, held last month, brought together leaders from eight different churches across Sydney — from the Chinese Presbyterian Church, to Cornerstone Willoughby — to be encouraged in their service and equipped for better leading of their people.

Josh Lum Mow, Assistant Minister at Beecroft Presbyterian Church, led the evening’s training, reminding leaders that while contexts may change and leaders gain new skills, the core of their work remains the same: to present young people with the Christian gospel and to encourage them to live lives accordingly.

Leaders were also given in-depth resources from Josh’s own experience of leading youth groups, leaving with practical applications to better serve their young people. The evening ended with time to pray together for youth groups and young people across Sydney.

The real support — in both prayers and resources —provided between churches at events like this is what church networks should be all about, says Andrew Sylvester, Youth Minister at Chatswood Presbyterian Church.

“We look at the New Testament church and see that they seem to set up elders in the towns, but [different churches] also seem to be working together at the same time,” he explains. “The elders in the church are seeking to … coordinate, to make sure that we’re all on the same track, and we’re looking after the right people the right way.”

For Andrew, events like these are a no-brainer.

“At a denominational level, the elders from all of the churches in the area meet up a few times a year,” he says. “But we don’t always have the same thing within youth ministries.”

Gathering leaders who experience similar challenges and joys in ministry is a deeply enriching experience, especially considering the many things that all youth ministries hold in common. Regardless of where you are, students are asking similar (though, by no means identical) questions and dealing with similar issues.

Chatswood has over 40 youth involved in their ministry, which is very encouraging – but they have struggled to recruit enough new leaders to allow them to sustain their growth. Andrew says that his leadership team is mostly people in their mid-late twenties, with some leaders even older, and they don’t always have the same time available to commit to ministry as more typical university student-aged youth leaders may.

While this can be difficult, “I don't know how unique any of our challenges are,” Andrew admits. “Many of these challenges we’ve faced for many years, and I think the Bible speaks so clearly into them because they are part of our human condition.”

That’s why events like PY Encourage Express are such good events. As Andrew explains, “We’re all facing similar challenges, but we just see them from different angles and have had a different approach to them. And sometimes that can be quite refreshing: to try something new and to listen to what other people have done.”

The similarity across churches also means that it’s not necessary to constantly reinvent the youth group wheel: there’s already a huge amount of resources, wisdom and experiences all around us.

“We can and should be sharing this with each other,” Josh says. “PY Encourage Express is one way we’re able to see that happen.”

Andrew highly recommends that other youth ministers come along to PY Encourage Express, and bring their leadership teams. “Not only can you be challenged and stretched to think in new and different ways, but you can also challenge and help others to grow in their ministry as well.”

Future PYEE Events

PYEE Term 2 – Como Community Church (11/5/21)

PYEE Term 3 – Ashfield Presbyterian Church (3/8/21)

PYEE Term 4 – Blacktown East Presbyterian Church (26/10/21)

Future PY Encourage (regional) Events

PY Encourage Hunter – Wallsend Presbyterian Church (23/10/21)

PY Encourage Bathurst – Bathurst Presbyterian Church (6/11/21)

The future of theological education with Stephen Renn

For over 10 years now, the Timothy Partnership, now known as Timothy Partnership Certificate, has provided online theological education through a joint venture involving Presbyterian Youth and Christ College.

For almost all that time, experienced theological educator Stephen Renn has been one of the lecturers teaching courses to students keen to expand their knowledge of the Bible.

Stephen began his career as a high school teacher, before training for ministry at Westminister Seminary in Philadelphia. Upon returning to Australia he pastored Dapto Baptist Church for five years, did some itinerant Bible teaching and then spent 15 years lecturing in Hebrew and Old Testament at SMBC and serving as Dean of Students.

After working with SMBC, Stephen ventured back to secondary education… but it wasn’t long until he was back in theological education, teaching for the Timothy Partnership.

Timothy Partnership Certificate

Like most teachers would agree, Stephen still thinks education works best in an in-person setting. “In an ideal world, face to face would always be preferred, I have to be honest and say that, because you can't beat the spontaneous questions and the chance to interact,” he says. “However, given the fact that you can't always do that, it’s great that online learning has come a long way. It’s developed to a great degree of professional competence.”

For the past decade, Stephen has really enjoyed his online teaching experience. “I would present lectures and notes online, and then students would study those and post their answers online. And if a student had an issue with an essay, I'd say, look, Joe, or Mary, give me a call, I'd love to talk with you. And I did that on a couple occasions. I would always offer them the personal chat.”

Now he’s particularly interested in seeing how online teaching and learning continues to develop, especially in light of the changes brought about by COVID.

In 2019, Stephen was invited to deliver the lectures for MTS apprentices studying with Timothy Partnership Certificate (including the METRO Presbyterian apprentices) at the MTS G8 National Conference. These apprentices were able to cover one of their subjects for their studies at the conference. Stephen delivered the lectures in person and then worked with small groups as they worked through the content.

Behind the scenes at the online G8 conference.

This year, he was invited back, to teach the Old Testament subject, but of course everything was different due to COVID – the conference was held entirely online.

“I pre-recorded three 20-minute talks, which were played to the students online. Then we met in Zoom breakout rooms to discuss the content, address questions and then the students would work in small groups to produce a 500-word response to a set question, and that would form 40% of their assessment mark,” Stephen explains.

Having most often taught online in an asynchronous format, where students and lecturers contact each other but rarely are logged on at the same time, Stephen really enjoyed the personal “live” interaction afforded by Zoom. “I found the questions that the students asked were very good. And the G8 team did an excellent job managing it.”

While the change in how the G8 teaching was delivered was necessitated by COVID, for Stephen it was actually a great opportunity to test a new way of teaching.

Looking to the future, he is keen to see how online theological education continues to develop, making more use of interactive technology to ensure that the learning experience is as good as it can be – especially for those in rural areas who simply don’t have the option of face-to-face theological training.

“If you’re 600 kilometres away from a city, it’s very difficult, especially for people who are married with children, to uproot and go and live in a city while you study. Nowadays you can simply do it online. And that’s been a marvellous boon,” Stephen says.

Like Stephen, PY is excited about the evolving training opportunities afforded by modern technology, allowing more Christians to be equipped to deeply understand and teach the Bible, no matter where they live and what other commitments they have. Keep an eye out for more new prospects for getting trained in the future!