In a basin nestled into the Capital’s southern hills lies the quirky, yet slowly gentrifying suburb of Newtown. The area’s busiest thoroughfare has merchants as diverse as vape shops and two dollar shops, all the way through to patisseries, boutique fashion outlets and a coffee roastery. The population is diverse too – here you’ll hear many languages, amongst the hubbub of buses, cars and the odd rescue helicopter coming in overhead to land at the regional hospital on Riddiford Street. Rising up the gentle slopes of Mt Albert on one side and towards Vogeltown on the other are tightly packed villas, standing from the earliest days of the area’s settlement.
It’s a sunny Wednesday morning, and in one such villa near the zoo, about 30 people are crowded into the large and welcoming lounge, spilling out through the double doors into the hallway. A guitarist is accompanied by a young man on a cajon drum box, as the group sings songs of worship. There are elderly and toddlers, regulars from St Thomas’s Anglican Church, some residents from the social housing flats over the road, some Blueprinters, and some who have travelled from Naenae and Petone in Lower Hutt. As varied a crowd as you might find anywhere in the parish, and they’ve all come to learn about one thing: Jesus.
This is the third annual Discipleship School, or “Jesus School,” as it’s chalked on the pavement outside, and the Holy Spirit’s presence in the room is evident. At the front, the Priest in Charge of the Parish of Wellington South, Rev Mark Johnson, and his wife Kirsty, sit and kneel in worship respectively, against the backdrop of a whiteboard propped up on a table that says “Welcome home, beloved children.”
The response to their discipleship school has been phenomenal, Kirsty tells us. “Mark and I were driving back from Takaka saying to each other ‘Discipleship School starts on Monday and we’ve got no-one signed up!’ But somehow, people find out, and we’ve had 30 to 40 people here every day for three weeks.”
So what draws so many people, and what keeps them coming back? Do people really want to come back day after day to be lectured at? The team’s approach to sharing the Good News has three prongs, Kirsty explains: “It’s educational, relational and experiential.” That’s exactly what it feels like – there’s a gentle challenge from the Spirit to leave your plans with the pile of shoes at the door, to forget about the stress of life, and to just be there. Knowing only a few in the room, there is nonetheless a sense that we’re all family, and we’re all safe together.
The relational aspect becomes evident as the group gathers around a woman receiving prayer. Mark reminds everyone that no-one is an expert, and that everyone can take part. Some share words of encouragement, some words of knowledge, and some just silently pray.
At morning tea time, many move to the next room for coffee and something to eat, while some linger and chat. As relaxed as it is, there is also a sense of being on a team, with a mission in mind, and that mission is all about building the bonds that tie them together. They’re not here because they have to, they are here because it’s where they belong. Regardless of where they are on their journey towards Jesus, all are welcomed and made to feel like part of the furniture, with Mark and Kirsty’s trademark manaakitanga that can’t help but eliminate the slightest sense of isolation. “The greatest thing,” says Mark, “is that people come and find belonging.”
Being one who belongs means that there is a sense of being able to direct the path of the sessions, according to what the group needs. This is what gives the school its signature flavour. “The teaching is fluid – sometimes people share their stories which leads to prayer and healings, and the group just flows with whatever God wants to do,” Kirsty tells us.
Three years in, and the Newtown Discipleship School is as popular as ever. God is moving amongst the fine folk of Wellington South, and the fabric of connectedness is growing stronger. Though as Mark and Kirsty reflect, it doesn’t always come down to their own planning: “It’s less a school and more a flying carpet ride with the Holy Spirit!” Here’s to many more “schools” that bring transformation to the lives of those who belong to them.