Cromwell Christians well catered for

Shannon and Ray Thomson run Church Untamed from a small classroom at Cromwell College. Photos by...
Shannon and Ray Thomson run Church Untamed from a small classroom at Cromwell College. Photos by Jono Edwards.
The Catholic Church of the Irish Martyrs, in Cromwell.
The Catholic Church of the Irish Martyrs, in Cromwell.
The Lakeside Christian Centre’s small chapel, at Lowburn.
The Lakeside Christian Centre’s small chapel, at Lowburn.
St Andrews Anglican Church, in Cromwell.
St Andrews Anglican Church, in Cromwell.

In a time of decreasing faith in New Zealand, Cromwell's Christians are well catered for. Central Otago reporter Jono Edwards looks at the face of Christianity in the town.

While the small Cromwell College classroom gradually fills, a young man strums an acoustic guitar and sings contemporary Christian songs.

Pastor Ray Thomson addresses the room, speaking of the impact letting Jesus Christ into your life can have.

While his message is interspersed with dad jokes, there is no doubting strong faith is the backbone of this church.

The seats are mostly filled with young couples and families.

Church Untamed has held its services here to a modest gathering of about 30 people since April.

It also leads a youth group on Friday nights.

The other pastor, Ray's wife Shannon, describes the services as "contemporary worship''.

"It's family oriented, and it's fun, there's a lot of joking around.''

The couple moved to Alexandra from Invercargill more than a year ago with their two children, but wanted to settle into the community before starting a church.

"We wanted people to know us.''

Church Untamed is under the umbrella of Acts Churches NZ which has many Pentecostal-based churches around the country.

Parishioner Michelle Gilmore, of Cromwell, said the modern music and relaxed environment were part of the attraction of the services.

"I think more young people should go to church.''

The 5000-resident town of Cromwell has six Christian congregations, the same number as nearby Alexandra.

It has no official churches outside the religion.

At a time when involvement in the religion in New Zealand is decreasing, Cromwell's churches are either stable or growing.

Another new and lively Cromwell example is the Heart of Fire church.

With a congregation of similar size to Church Untamed, it has been operational since February, using the premises of St Andrew's Anglican Church on Sunday afternoons.

Pastor Tim Higgins said the services attracted those who wanted less traditional worship.

"Some move, some raise their hands. People worship differently.''

A more established church in the Pentecostal tradition is the Lakeside Christian Church 5km up the road in Lowburn, which was was re-established by pastor Bruce Wast 12 years ago.

It experienced gradual growth, helped by entrenching itself in the town, he said.

"In the beginning we only had a few people. It takes time to build into a community.''

It has 90 people on its registry and 40 to 50 is a typical attendance at a Sunday service.

It also attracts Vanuatuans who come to Central Otago every year as part of the Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme to work predominantly on orchards and vineyards.

"We get vans and fill them up on a Sunday morning.''

The workers are also attracted to Presbyterian and Catholic churches, which are popular in their home country.

Lakeside's worship style was based on Pentecostal and baptist traditions but was "not too far on the edge'', he said.

"We sing more contemporary songs, but I'm an older person now, and as people get older they want something less grunty.''

Its success meant it was able to buy land in Lowburn where they have a small chapel.

Its services are held in the community hall next door due to size, but the church has plans to build further on its own land to create an auditorium, kitchen and a room for Sunday school.

More traditional churches have existed in the town for more than a century, and still have a large presence.

Upper Clutha Parish vicar Damon Plimmer said the Anglican congregation in the town remained small but consistent at between 20 and 35 people.

"Sunday morning is only a small part of what we do. The life of the church is enhanced by lay people.''

St Andrew's Anglican Church, built in 1874, was the oldest building in the town still used for its original purpose, he said.

The mostly older congregation has people of different ages.

The diversity of Christian churches was positive for the community, he said.

"We seek to compensate each other. This difference is a source of strength.''

Catholicism established itself in Cromwell in 1873 with the influx of Irish gold miners.

Its Catholic Church Of The Irish Martyrs was built in 1909 and attracts between 80 and 100 people on a Sunday morning.

Father Martin Flannery said while some people wanted something new and different, Catholicism catered for the more traditional.

"It's generational, one family passes on their faith to the next. There could be families in that parish that have almost been there since the church started.

"It provides a place for prayer and for helping people.''

All denominations in the town had good relationships, he said.

"We meet with the other ministers every month or so just to get together with each other.''

The younger generation had more distractions which took them away from faith and the church, he said.

"We're still trying to keep Sunday sacred, but these days people have sports, and shops are open.

"It is a shame, but there isn't a lot we can do about it,'' he said.

If anything, the congregation was growing as more people moved to the town.

"The church is bulging at Christmas and Easter. We might one day need a bigger space, but we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.''

The town's Presbyterian church is one of its largest congregations.

About 150 people attend its Sunday services, the first of which is more traditional, and the second more informal.

Interim moderator Kerry Enright oversees the church, as it is without a minister at the moment.

Christians in the town were a mix of ages, cultures and approaches, he said.

"I'm struck by how the churches are linked in with different dimensions of Cromwell's life, and the support they give for people who are facing challenges in their life.

"When churches have that kind of culture and vitality, they tend to thrive. It's when they lose connection with the community they die,'' Mr Enright said.

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