The history of Onelife: how it came to be and where it hopes to go.
by Pete Wynter, founder and Director of Onelife.
At the age of 14, having had a Christian upbringing, I found myself standing in a room full of lads at my school. They were all praying passionately with an expectancy I had never encountered before. These were young men who obviously took their faith seriously and believed that God could do anything with a person submitted to and in pursuit of Him. And they were right to believe it. I stayed around and remember making the first commitment to follow Jesus that really meant something, fuelled by the fruit of what I saw God doing in and around my school.
Our R.E. teacher quietly supported all that happened in the Christian Union, getting involved on occasions, but preferring to let a couple of acne-ridden, gangly teenagers get on with it, mistakes and all. On some days we had over 100 pupils in the CU (about 15% of the school involved). It was here that I was thrown into the deep-end. Stepping up and taking responsibility for my own faith, and helping to lead others was part and parcel of the culture that existed. And for some reason God seemed to love it, He couldn’t stop meeting with us and changing both our lives and the lives of those around us. It sounds unbelievable doesn’t it? So I shouldn’t omit the reality that there were bad days and weeks; I shouldn’t leave out that not everyone who made a commitment made it through our school days as a follower of Jesus, but even in the failures I learnt so much. Maybe I learnt more than in the successes.
The bottom line is that I was ‘born again’ into a culture of leadership, which continued long after my time in the school. And so without even knowing it, I expected the same kind of experience everywhere I went. As I matured, I was privileged enough to find myself surrounded by Christian leaders who believed in raising up the next generation, and were willing to take risks on over-passionate, under-experienced individuals like myself.
Having been involved in a variety of youth work settings, I arrived at St Andrews, Chorleywood in 2003. Still hugely inexperienced in so many ways, and thankful for the wise hands that held me up as I learnt, I knew that I wanted to give the young people the same chance to lead that I had enjoyed.
And so it began. God had raised up some incredible people to help in the youth work at St Andrews, and we began a new season with the underlying value of releasing young people to lead. Fuelled by one to one mentoring, young men and women began to step up and lead small groups. Then 3D began, a missional community designed to reach teenagers in Chorleywood. It gave us a context to release young people to lead worship, lead services, preach, head up various teams and explore their gifts on a weekly basis. Amazingly young people began to be doing the kind of things that you would expect from a fully trained youth worker.
To make sure we were looking after these young leaders well, we began an annual event we called ‘Retreat to Advance’ in 2004. A three-day retreat designed to help our young leaders to discover more of God, and learn some of the practical skills of leadership. (Matthew Macaulay, who now works for Onelife was on the first ‘Retreat to Advance’, as were Jenny Newman and Mark Waterfield, who are now both on the leadership team.) It wasn’t long before a leadership culture began to emerge, where we encouraged young people to work on their character, seek God for his gifting and get involved in leading. As the younger youth began to grow up through the youth work, they were looking to those a few years ahead and were learning much from their example. The young people grew, their walk with God went deeper as they moved from consumers to participants and leaders. Increasing numbers of un-churched young people were attracted to all that we were doing and regular salvations were an encouragement to the young leaders. In 2005 we saw young people becoming Christians on a weekly basis.
Again, these developments weren’t without their faults and failings. We made many mistakes, but God was on the move and He was crafting some exceptional young men and women who serve in different contexts around the country as I write, many of whom are involved in Onelife today.
Youth leaders from around the UK began to make contact as they heard we were working with young leaders. We didn’t have any ‘off the shelf’ material to give them, and I was reticent to invite them on our retreats because it felt important to be giving focussed time to our own leaders. But as the number of young leaders grew at St Andrews, it became more expensive to take them away and we wanted to find a way of making our ‘retreat to advance’ accessible to any young people in the youth group to come to even if they weren’t leading at the time. And so, in 2006 we decided to stay at St Andrews, and invited some of the youth leaders from other churches to come along.
To our amazement our first ever ‘Young Leaders Conference’ (YLC) was attended by 120 young leaders and youth leaders from across the UK. We called the conference ‘Blueprints for Leadership’, and explored the example of a variety of biblical leaders. Although it stretched the team at St Andrews and left us exhausted, everyone agreed that it had been a really special and unique time. Feedback was so positive, and came in with a great sense of ‘you must do that again!’. Significantly, a young man from Scotland had flown down for the conference. He returned full of passion and intent to lead, so impressing his parents (who lead YWAM Scotland) that they soon got in touch and conversations began about bringing YLC to Scotland – long before it was ever even a real consideration from our end.
In reviewing the conference, we learnt so many lessons, and took a decision to limit the size of future conferences to 120 so that there would be real opportunity to build relationship throughout the 48-hour event. If relationships could be built we were in with a good chance of building a supportive network rather than just providing a one-off conference experience. This desire to build meaningful relationships has continued to characterise Onelife’s developments. The year after, we ran two conferences back to back in order to accommodate all of the interest we had received.
In 2006, we held ‘Fan into Flame’, an exploration of the five-fold ministry through a mix of main sessions, seminars and workshops, all in the context of worship and ministry. We had to turn people away from one of the conferences because it was over-subscribed, and once again we had an incredible time!
Soon after we had finished, the question of growth was raised, and almost simultaneously an email dropped into my inbox from a youth leader near Manchester. Their youth group had attended the YLC for the first two years, and had been hugely impacted as a result. The email asked if we would organise a YLC for the North based at their church. I dismissed the idea, and suggested that they organise their own event. Then another piece of feedback arrived asking if we could do seven or eight YLCs regionally around the country to make it accessible to more young people and churches. After much prayer, and several conversations with others, we decided to partner with St Chad’s Church in Romiley to host a YLC for the North in 2007.
Our 2007 conference ‘Rebuilding the Walls’, was based on the leadership of Nehemiah. After two conferences in Chorleywood in the February half-term, we went on tour to Manchester in the April. It was all very exciting to see what God was doing, but it nearly killed me! Carrying the YLCs, with increasing interest from other regions who were keen to see a YLC near them, as well as leading the youth ministry at St Andrews was keeping me busy, too busy! I very nearly came to the conclusion that the YLCs would have to be put on hold or stopped.
Wiser mentors around me encouraged me to think seriously about developing this work with young leaders further. Mike Pilivachi, Mike Breen and a few others helped to shape my thoughts, and I soon found myself in Mark Stibbe’s office (Vicar at St Andrews at the time) suggesting that I go half-time for the YLCs and we find another youth leader for the local work to help move it forwards. Mark’s response was exactly the same as that of the PCCs when I presented the vision to them: ‘St Andrew’s love birthing new things. We believe that God is in this and we want to launch it properly, release you full-time and pay your salary for the first two years to see what becomes of it all!’. Unbelievable!
And so, Onelife was launched in November 2008.
The past two years have seen a huge amount of development in our understanding and strategy for raising up transformational leaders in the UK. A team of volunteers has increased significantly, our staff team has expanded, and St Andrews continues to look after Onelife, although we have become a separate charity.
Onelife’s vision is to raise up a generation of transformational leaders (14-21 year olds) who will grow up together to lead and influence in every sphere of society. We now run five regional conferences; we’ve established a course to take gifted young leaders through a year of leadership training and ‘deep-end’ discipleship. We’ve started a nationwide gathering of young leaders, and are beginning a learning community for youth leaders and their teams to help sharpen the churches’ response to raising up young leaders, provoking local churches to be centres of excellence for discipling and raising up leaders.
This is just the beginning. The adventure has begun, and as we carry on we’ll hear more and more stories of transformation. It’s already staggering to hear of numbers of teenagers who are doing the most incredible things. May our faltering efforts become the foundations for great things in the years to come as we see business, media, politics, education, medicine, the church, families, young and old, all impacted by a level of Godly leadership that transforms this country.
When I first arrived at St Andrew’s church, I felt God say ‘I’ve bought you here to learn leadership’. At the time I couldn’t have known what that was going to mean. With hindsight, it makes total sense. I’m still learning, and I’m loving learning with teenage leaders all over our land.