NEWS | Anne Lim
Friday, 1 January 2016
My quest: As someone who has never been on a beach mission, I am intrigued to find out why an army of young people are giving up this precious week of their summer holidays to run one of 39 Scripture Union beach missions up and down the coast of NSW.
Over a week to 10 days they do games and crafts with children and youth, teaching them the gospel, and organise all-in family activities at night.
While I understand that young Christians want to share the love of Jesus, what propels them to work so hard under the fierce summer sun during that end-of-year break when everybody else feels entitled to relax?
My destination: Wollongong Surf Leisure Resort, just over an hour’s drive south of Sydney, on the first day of its holiday programme. Out the back of the main building, I find about 40 energetic young people in red T-shirts and lanyards ready to welcome all-comers with a smile.
Scene 1: My morning gets off to an encouraging start under the café tent with a great cappuccino and homemade fruit slice. Barista Jess has a very simple reason to be here. “Because I love Jesus – nothing else could motivate me.” Soon I am joined by a couple of long-stay visitors with their grandchildren, who start colouring in with gusto.
Tristan, aged eight, tells me that when he came last year he really enjoyed playing and building a giant art installation with cardboard boxes.
Lauren, one the helpers, tells me why she is back at the mission for a third year.
“It’s really effective,” she says.
“You get the same people back each year and people remember you, so you form relationships. It just seems to work. You notice some kind of progress, there is more openness and more willingness to discuss spiritual things.”
The team leader: Medical science researcher Eryn Werry is here for a third year in a row. What keeps her coming back?
“I love God and I love people and I want people to know about God,” she says simply.
“Over the first two years we’ve had about three [people] each year who have shown an interest in finding out more about God. We’ve had a few people who haven’t been to church for a long time and want to reconnect.”
In the afternoons, when no activities are organised, Eryn goes around to the cabins and campsites handing out newsletters and telling people what they are doing each day.
“Sometimes they’ll be like ‘No, we don’t want to know – please don’t come back’; but by the end of the week they’ll be like ‘Oh, tell me a bit more about it.’ So in the course of the week people warm up a little bit.”
Scene 2: In the cavernous auditorium, an area has been cordoned off for the minis (K-2), who are joined by the 36’s (years 3-6) for a game of “Don’t step in the river,” a fast-paced running game that acts as an easy icebreaker. Later, they do face painting and hear a talk about the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.
Scene 3: Outside on the grass, some older kids (36’s) play French cricket before settling down to handprint a banner for their group. Every kid seems to really get into splashing paint around with their hands and feet and the leaders are happy to egg them on. Section leader Dave beams with positive energy.
“I love it – the community, the people; it’s awesome,” says Dave. “I love kids’ programmes, love meeting new kids.”
Scene 4: In a stifling tent, nervous school-leaver Jeff is explaining the parable of the seeds to about 15 attentive teenagers. As Jeff stumbles over his words, Eryn tells me that it’s his first ever talk to a teenage group.
In a discussion after Jeff’s talk, the teenagers split off into groups. I join a group of girls discussing how to pull out the “weeds” that stop them focusing on God.
(Eryn says about three-quarters of the teens this year are from Christian families, while the reverse was true last year.)
Clara asks the girls what difficulties they face in being a Christian in a public school.
Abbi, 13, says some of her friends at school are not Christian and she doesn’t know what to do when she asks them to go to youth group and they say no.
“My youth leader says the worst thing they can say to you is no, so keep asking them. Eventually they might go – you never know,” advises Sarah, 16.
“Don’t ever stop believing that God can change someone’s life because it’s definitely possible. Sometimes the most opposed people can become passionate Christians.”
Clara says: “For me, [the weeds] are like having other priorities. Nothing in life is really bad; it’s just that when we let things distract us from God and what he can do in our lives, it can become bad.”
Grace, aged 16, says it can be hard to put God first when you have an assignment due on Monday: do you go to church or do you finish your assignment? She has found out the answer when she has chosen church over study.
“I think when you’re feeling really stressed about something, going to church and seeing my friends is quite relaxing and you see it’s not all about career – there are other things.”
Grace’s sister, another Sarah, reveals she had a defining experience at the mission two years ago when she was 11.
“I saw people with such strong faith and thought ‘Whoa, I wanna be like one of them’, so I decided to take it more seriously and had some deep convos,” she says.
Though she grew up in a Christian family, this was the first time she felt she was “doing it for myself rather than for my family”.
After their time of devotions, the teens go on an Instagram scavenger hunt as a team-building exercise.
The verdict: As the morning draws to a close, I conclude that a beach mission works on so many levels. The leaders show love to their team and the team shows love to the kids and adult visitors. Hearts that were closed to the gospel may be prised open in the laid back atmosphere of the caravan park. For everyone involved it’s a time for spiritual growth. For Jeff, who has just left school, it’s a training ground for future ministry. For the teens who are working out how to put God first, they also have the chance to learn from experienced leaders. During the week, deep and lasting relationships are formed and lives are changed. What could be more motivating than that?