Justin Pearson (23) was brought up in a Christian family, but he made a personal commitment to God at 16 when a friend brought him to church. "It was there that I found God for myself, I found his power, love, acceptance and the reality of His presence. It wasn't necessarily through the amazing preaching or fantastic music, but rather through the people and the vibe or culture of the church that I found God.
As I gained more knowledge and understanding of God, His nature and purpose for my life I began to become a lot more spiritually independent. Once I developed a personal relationship with God I began putting His teachings into practice and I saw dramatic increase in my world.
Hannah Newnham (19) says "My life has been impacted by my relationship with God in every area. Without his consistent influence on my life I would be a very different girl sitting here today, and that's if I would still be here today."
Hannah's father left her mum, and two brothers when she was only five. Life has not been smooth, and she has had to deal with issues related to rejection from her father, as well as issues that just come with being a teenager in today's world. But Hannah says that God stayed firmly grounded as the centre of her life, regardless of circumstances. "Throughout my life I have been constantly taught that God will never leave or forsake me, and looking back today, I can't in anyway prove this to be wrong. My father, comforter and provider walks with me daily."
Jeff Baker (51) is an artist. He says "When I came to the Lord it was unexpected and I was unprepared". With no previous family links to faith or the church, Jeff was converted through an evangelist eleven years ago. He took his family to a church that someone had told him about, where his wife also gave her life to the Lord.
"I totally didn't understand it. I just felt it. Having absorbed it, I then had to work out what it is all about and grow and grow. Through the Spirit, God showed me things that I needed to deal with in my life, like forgiveness, particularly related to my family. I remember being thankful that, when God touched me, I didn't have to look anywhere else for answers."
Clyde Dominish (78), has been a Minister of the Word since he was a young man. Reflecting on his faith journey, Clyde reflects that he is always conscious that new things have to be understood. "I am getting older, and looking at the future which may include alienation from family, the possibility of loneliness or dementia, the loss of meaning and finally, death. These are the subjects I find myself reflecting on theologically. I read the Scriptures with these themes in mind."
It is hard to grow on your own
Faith doesn't grow in isolation. NCLS survey data suggests that the longer a person is away from regular church participation, the more likely it is that affirmation of Christian beliefs diminishes. Contrary to what many people think, we need to be actively part of a Christian community for our faith to develop authentically.
Jeff notes "When you go to church you get to hear the Word of God regularly, in a relevant way. You can then apply the principles in your life."
Speaking about her youth group, Hannah says "Problems still came my way but I always had somewhere to seek help. The leaders and mentors taught me so many valuable lessons, that weren't just helpful at the time, they are still a help to me today."
Survey results from church attenders across Australia demonstrate that the growth of a lively and committed faith is related to a positive experience of Christian community. A critical ingredient is an environment in which attenders feel they belong and are listened to and where leadership puts a priority on helping them discover their gifts and skills.
"When the voice of God is encouraging you to step out, it is great to be in a supportive church, with great friends and people who really care. You come because you want to, not because someone is twisting your arm," says Jeff.
Hannah believes that one of the most precious and important resources available to encourage growth in faith is fellowship, and that this is apparent in her life, in the life of her small group and in the life of her church. She says that the main factors that have helped her faith remain lively and growing are all derived from her home church, and in particular, the leadership. She mentions the young adults pastor's "honest and genuine concern for me and my welfare", the women's ministries team who "create an atmosphere where women of all ages can come together and learn from each other" and the encouragement of her small group.
Justin attributes his personal growth and development in God to his senior pastors ("a second mum and dad") who have offered encouragement and advice, his youth pastors ("the coolest people I know!"), and the wisdom and insights of a respected mentor. Last, but not least, Justin acknowledges his close friends. "Having friends who will build you up, encourage you and take you closer to God is essential. There is no better feeling than knowing that there will always be someone to help you through any circumstance you are going through."
It is important to integrate faith with the whole of life
A lively growing faith involves strong connections between faith and all aspects of our life.
Clyde says "Life experiences form the basis of my reflection on life. This is what determines how I hear the Scriptures and how I hear the word of God. As I grow older, I want to understand more about the totality of the world, what is going to happen to it and to me, and how I confront my own mortality."
Reflecting on his journey as an artist, Jeff comments "Some years ago, I felt God say that he wanted me to do as an artist what Ken Duncan does with photography. I didn't think that this was possible. I had to deal with my own ego, my own negativity to myself. God has washed away the rubbish, made my work blossom, and changed my attitude to it. God has opened up big doors for me over the world. I don't understand how I do it, but he does it through me."
Hannah acknowledges that the importance of Lifegroups, particularly the encouragement and teaching of her leader. "Our Lifegroup is extremely close and I get just as much encouragement from the beautiful girls in my group. We truly do life together, and that can mean extreme highs and extreme lows, but regardless my Lifegroup is always a safe and honest place where I can shelter and grow."
As a young man establishing himself at work and finding a partner in marriage, Justin gives examples of how he has sought to honour God, such as through regular tithing, serving others and with his sexuality. "It is an incredibly rewarding life to live when you lay down your own personal agendas and allow God to take control of your life. Sometimes it can be tough but the rewards far outweigh the sacrifices."
You are never too old to grow in faith
NCLS analysis reveals that age does not make much of a difference to whether attenders are growing in their faith. Clyde comments, "My life has gone through enormous changes. I can't imagine how a person could have the same faith as they had when they were much younger. A verse of Scripture may have meant one thing 50 yrs ago and it means something else now."
Clyde feels that it is terribly important to be part of a church community, but sometimes feels alone because the subjects that interest him are not talked about. "Not many sermons have much to say to me as an older person. They tend to be more focussed on the possibilities of life as it is, but not on the end things of life."
"It is very important as I grow older to reflect theologically and scripturally on what is going to happen to me. I find I keep returning to reading the Scriptures to guide me through these last stages."
A growing faith will be contagious
NCLS results find that attenders growing in their faith are also more likely to talk about their faith and invite others to church. Jeff is saddened when he encourages people to come to church and they don't. "You know that God can sort things out, but it doesn't happen overnight. God helps you throughout the whole journey. He wants you to be an overcomer. But you have to give it time".
NCLS analysis also revealed that attenders growing in faith also more likely to be involved in serving others, both in formal and informal ways. Jeff says "It is important to be part of things, not just an onlooker. My bottom line is that I am mindful of others that are where I used to be. I want to help those who haven't been there very much, and help others grow."
Click here to view Jeff Baker's art
Thanks to Jeff Baker for permission to use his artwork in this story.
Click here to read more of Justin's story
Click here to read more of Hannah's story