Rebecca Smith, 16, broke curfew. She knew she was going to be late and she knew her mother, Janelle, would be sitting at home waiting. She knew her mother would not understand. She didn’t care. She stayed at her church youth group until the last prayer. And so, Rebecca Smith was grounded.
Early next Sunday morning, while other 16-year-olds nursed forbidden hangovers, a car pulled up outside Rebecca’s suburban Sydney home. Rebecca, dressed and waiting, grabbed her bag and went to join her scrubbed-faced friends in the car. Janelle stopped her. “Mum,” said Rebecca, exasperated, “I am going to church. I would like to go with your blessing. But I will go without it.” And with a peculiarly youthful self-assurance she strode out the front door, slid into the back seat of her friend’s car and headed off to early-morning mass, leaving Janelle, bleary-eyed, to sit and wonder where she had gone wrong.
Like the hippie movement flying in the face of middle-aged conservatism, like punk spewing its soul before cold-blooded economic rationalism, a small but growing number of young people are rallying around a new challenge to contemporary life: the church. Pentecostal and evangelical churches in Australia are experiencing a boom in youth attendance. According to the latest National Church Life survey in 2001, almost a third of Pentecostal Church parishioners are in the 15 to 29-year-old age group. The Baptist Church and Church of Christ also recorded high levels – 23% and 22% respectively – of youth participation in their congregations. And the trend is gaining momentum. Scott Callaghan, a 28-year-old with a shaved head, rugged stubble and fitted black T-shirt, has watched the Baptist youth group he leads jump from 20 members to 150 in the past decade.
At Petersham Baptist Church, in Sydney’s inner west, a man in his early twenties is wearing colourful Rip Curl board shorts, nothing else. A crowd gathers round, wrapped in scarves and jackets and standing on plastic school chairs. The young man steps into a big blue shell, his body stiffens, and the pastor empties a yellow bucket of water over his head. The same thing happens again, and again, then there’s a whoop from the crowd. Someone throws him a beach towel. Welcome to baptism in the 21st century. “There’s a fine line,” says Scott, “between what is traditional and what is theological. What’s theological has to stay.”
Jemima Callaghan, Scott’s wife, is a 22-year-old design student who runs a bible group for girls in their twenties. Her belt is slung low on her hips, her hair thrown back in a ponytail. Being cool, say this married couple of eight months, is entirely compatible with being Christian. Old notions of cardigan-wearing, kumbaya-singing churchgoers no longer apply. “Probably ten years ago, at a church I used to go to, it was mostly old people, retired and stuff,” says Jemima. “They could not understand why we’d want to have a guitar playing in church. They would always want to have the organ.” There still is an organ at Petersham Baptist. It dominates the front of the church, its long grey pipes thrusting up to the ceiling. But the instrument seems deceased, as bland as the beige walls. All focus now is on the scatter of microphone stands and guitar cases.
“Sorry,” says Tom, rising from behind a drum kit. “Those last three bars were too slow. My fault.” Everybody laughs in forgiveness. And while the other band members pack up their gear and shuffle back into their hastily assembled pews, Tom walks to the microphone and directs parishioners to Matthew, Chapter 18. “I think a lot of kids do come along to church because it is cool,” Jemima says. Or if not to church, she adds, then at least to youth group.
Walking into Petersham youth service for the first time, everyone wants to say hi, to know your name and to make you feel instantly like one of the world’s most fascinating people. You know that for as long as you are in youth group, you have a small and automatic army of friends. It’s a quasi-social club, a more casual way of discussing the bible. Scott and Jemima estimate that up to 40% of members come from non-religious homes. Many are the children of baby boomers like Janelle Smith, who renounced organised religion in their own youth and are a little confronted by their children’s religious conservatism. Now, says Janelle, Rebecca’s friends urge her to disobey her mum because she is not a true Christian.
Youth groups also offer a support network for Christians who might otherwise find it difficult to maintain their faith, such as Daniel Montoya, a 24-year-old Sydney University student who watches the same movies and listens to the same music as his non-Christian friends but struggles with the moral messages embedded in much of popular culture. “If some of the young people don’t turn up for a few weeks, Scott or one of the other youth leaders will give them a call,” says Jemima. “Just to say: ‘How are you going?’”
“There’s by no means any forcefulness there at all,” Scott adds. “They can do what they like. If they ring up and say they don’t want to come anymore …”
“… Then that’s cool,” Jemima interrupts. They just want to help. “People are kind of struggling in their lives,” she continues. “They say: ‘Why is this happening to me? Does this happen to everyone? Who’s in charge of all this?’”
“Whether it’s drugs, sex, rave parties – whatever it might be – people are trying to find meaning,” says Daniel. “That’s just who we are. We’re trying to find God and acceptance and relationships and whatever. The question is, where is that answer?”
For most young people, everything from activism to Zoloft to Dr Phil’s self-love is touted as the key to a good life. For Scott, Jemima and Daniel, things are much more simple. They have found their answer. “God is number one,” says Jemima, utterly sincerely, and without a trace of the jaded irony of her generation she finishes her latte.
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