For the 7.5 years that Tim Stevens has been an Anglican minister in rural parishes, he has struggled to attract young Christian people to his churches, first in South Tamworth, then in Mungundi and now in Guyra on the Northern Tablelands of NSW.
It’s a common problem for churches outside major cities. Every year, the kids in church youth groups who complete Year 12 disappear to university, never to return to their hometown.
That leaves a huge gap in rural churches – because not only are there no young adults, but there are few youth groups either because there aren’t the young adults to teach them.
“We’ve got faithful lay people in Guyra who are in their 60s doing youth. And they’re a wonderful blessing, but they’re also the exception to the rule. So because we’ve got no young adults, it just makes pulling off youth ministry even harder, which means that we’re missing a couple of rungs on the ladder, which makes outreach and ministry difficult.”
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“Our prayer once again was that God would send us some young Christian people to partner with us.” – Tim Stevens
Recognising the difference that a couple of committed young Christians can make in a church in a small town, Tim started wondering how to address the problem.
“How do we cause some change so that our churches become a little bit more multi-generational so that we can do more ministry and do more outreach to the community?” he says.
While Tim and Kirsten were serving in Mungindi (a town of 500 on the NSW/Queensland border), they prayed for three years for God to send some young keen Christian people to the town.
“We got one. He lasted about six months. He was a teacher in the school and he burnt out after six months and left,” says Tim.
“After three years, our time at Mungindi drew to a close, and we were asked to come to Guyra with that idea in the back of our heads.
“We moved here to a church which had pretty much the same demographic as the one in Mungindi – mostly older, faithful people who’d been highly involved in ministry and evangelism in the past who were just tired. So our prayer once again was that God would send us some young Christian people to partner with us and be helpful for the gospel in this little part of the world.”
When COVID hit, Tim started considering how he might set about recruiting young people from universities to move to regional towns. However, before he could put any plans into action, he discovered that Greg Harris, National Director of Bush Church Aid, was wondering how to support young Christian people who were moving to work in the bush.
“We’ve hit pause on intentionally trying to recruit young people out of universities because there’s a whole bunch who are already doing it.” – Tim Stevens
Around the same time, he came across some interesting stats in the Regional Movers Index, published yearly by the Regional Australia Institute in partnership with the Commonwealth Bank, which shows an increase in capital-to-region migration since COVID, particularly among young people, with 67 per cent of those moving to the bush now aged under 40.
Tim comments: “We’ve hit pause on intentionally trying to recruit young people out of universities because there’s a whole bunch who are already doing it. Our minds have turned more to how we support those young Christians moving to regional areas and put together a two-year program with the hope that what happened to our young friend in Mungindi, where he lasted six months, won’t be repeated.”
Tim is now coordinating a new BCA program called ONTRACK aimed at helping young Christians who have moved to the bush to transition well and negotiate the bumps in the road; it will provide training, mentoring and an online cohort of peers to develop their professional, personal and spiritual lives. The first cohort that comes on board next year will help shape the two-year program, but it will be run in intensive five-week blocks over Zoom for an hour and 15 minutes a week.
“This isn’t supposed to make you really busy. It’s supposed to be a blessing to you and help you,” says Tim.
He adds that the top five concerns of those who have enrolled for next year are finding the right church, Christian growth, the practicalities of getting involved in the community, understanding the culture and habits of self-care.
“Next year, we’re hoping to get 20 together without much promotion. So there seems to be a felt need among young people who have already decided to move to a country area, and they’re from all over the country.”
“We’ve never felt happier and more comfortable just being where we are. And so we’re trying to provide that support and encouragement and a bit of input from people who have done it before.” – Tim Stevens
For Tim and his wife Kirsten, it wasn’t an easy decision to leave the bounteous resources of Sydney and move to a small bush church, but they felt they couldn’t ignore the needs and possibilities of ministry outside of Sydney.
“We spent two years wrestling with the idea of possibly leaving Sydney and then came to the point where there were so many others who didn’t feel like they could, then we probably should because there are not many people in that situation,” he explains.
When Tim and Kirsten first moved out of Sydney to a country area, they experienced the elastic-band pull to return to Sydney on regular visits to see their families.
“We felt like we needed to hide that from people. We didn’t want people to know that we were disappearing to Sydney all the time until one lady after church one night said to me, ‘How many times have you been back to Sydney in the last six months?’ And I think we’d been back every month. We’d drive the 4.5 hours down to see our parents and then drive back the next day. She said, ‘Yeah, that’s normal. You’ll do that for a while, and then you’ll get used to it.’”
It was only when COVID hit and there were lockdowns all over the state that the elastic band snapped, “and we’ve never felt happier and more comfortable just being where we are. And so we’re trying to provide that support and encouragement and a bit of input from people who have done it before.”
“It’s the youth ministry pipeline thing that we struggle with.” – Tim Stevens
Tim stresses that he is not trying to place students in churches but to support university graduates after they’ve already decided to move to the bush.
The ONTRACK program is modelled on a similar program called Headstart, run by City Bible Forum for city workers.
“It’s the youth ministry pipeline thing that we struggle with. We’re hoping that in five or ten years, there’ll be people who have been part of ONTRACK who will have thought about going into full-time ministry and others who are committed lay people, and we need them as well. We’re hoping that the next five years, in particular, there’ll be gospel growth out of what we’re trying to do.”
The part-time work with BCA will also allow Tim to stay at a church that is not financially viable.
“This is helping us stay here because the other thing about country ministry is it has to be long-term. One of the things we learned in Mungindi was that three years probably wasn’t enough time to be there, but we couldn’t stay there any longer for a whole bunch of reasons. So we’re hoping that the money from BCA for me to help them with this project helps us, Kirsty and me to stay in Guyra for ten years.”
For more information about ONTRACK, visit the Bush Church Aid website here.