21 September 2022
When the Reverend Simon Reeve was asked by Bush Church Aid to facilitate young families’ and regional ministries in the Diocese of Grafton in 2017, it seemed a wonderful opportunity to share the message of Jesus with the next generation.
But when Mr Reeve and his family moved to Woolgoolga, 30 km north of Coffs Harbour, to begin the mission, he found the area’s parishes were more invested in older people and adults than young community members.
Having spent six years as an assistant minister working with young families and children in Armidale, he believed they were critical to the health of parishes.
“If the youth and children are not being taught about Jesus then there’s no growth into the future, and no one to keep those churches alive. So, resourcing young families’ ministry is key for the future,” Mr Reeve said.
Helping churches grow by engaging with and telling communities about Jesus, would turn out to be a family effort in more ways than one.
Mr Reeve preached on Sundays at Woolgoolga Anglican church and spent one day a week helping to resource other parishes across the Grafton diocese to get better connected with the community.
But to reach the wider public, he and his wife Alison also had volunteer roles teaching Christian Religious Education in the local schools.
They ran play groups, youth groups and Sunday school at church, and held bonfire nights, meal get-togethers and a range of other activities, as well.
One unique church-community tradition they initiated was an assembly that took place at the church, rather than on the school premises around Easter.
It involved walking the children to the church during the CRE lesson and giving them the chance to look around the building, ask questions and find out a bit about the church, Mr Reeve said.
But there were plenty of challenges for the Reeves.
They had noticed many broken and dysfunctional families in the area, and the children would often turn up to the youth group and holiday club.
The Reeves weren’t sure what sorts of experiences the youngsters might have been through, but through the activities they provided, they were determined to make them feel that the church community was welcoming and safe.
“They’re accepted in the environment, and get the chance to play games, have some fun, and some meals and forget about everything for a little while. Then we read the bible together and talk about God’s love for them,” Mrs Reeve said.
The importance of making community connections and caring for people became more underscored by catastrophic bushfire, flood and the effects of the COVID pandemic in the area.
Some people declined to attend church, and there was also a parishioner who had committed suicide, the Reeves said.
As despairing as some of those times were, the couple were able to stand by a number of young families who reached out for their support at the peak of the pandemic.
The Reeves were also loath to stop the momentum they’d gained during the first year of COVID in their children’s programs in particular, so they tried to find ways to keep some of their projects going.
“At the time we were allowed to gather but not to sing, so we thought we’d just get the kids to hear the music and do actions to it. We just did what we could in the circumstances, and made the most of it,” Mrs Reeve said.
The couple believes that the efforts to keep the church a part of families’ lives throughout that period is why attendance numbers are as strong now as they were before COVID.
Reflecting on their five years’ work in the area, Mr Reeve said he stood by his conviction that investing in young people and caring for young families was of utmost value to the life of the parish.
Mrs Reeve agreed and suggested that churches should never forget what tended to motivate many individuals. “If a church community loves the children, their parents are likely to stay,” she said.
It helped that their own children, who were very young when the Reeves moved to Woolgoolga, had become strongly involved with their work.
“Our youth group happens because the kids bring their friends, and those friends bring theirs. They help lead the group now, and are part of the mission of BCA in our area,” Mrs Reeve said.
“We couldn’t do ministry with BCA without the children being onboard, so we really do run ministry as a family.”