Call of the faithful: Church breaks new ground in Marlborough
Marlborough's newest church is garnering a following from all walks of life. Reporter Paula Hulburt talks to pastor Afi Leota about why the Breakthrough Church is in Blenheim and his plans for the future.
Stepping out into the bright blue cold of a Marlborough morning, pastor Afi Leota takes a deep breath and smiles.
A pastor with the Breakthrough Church, Leota and his wife Lynette have followed their hearts and a calling from God, they say, to lay the spiritual foundations of the region's newest church.
For the close-knit family-of-seven, there was no trepidation making the move from Auckland, just a sense of serenity and the comfort of knowing they had made the right move, Leota said.
The church, which gathers at a lecture room at the Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology, in Blenheim, has its critics though, and Leota describes the response from the community as "guarded".
However, the Catholic-raised pastor of 12 years is firm in his belief that he is exactly where he is supposed to be, both geographically and spiritually.
"We were at a point of change and a time when we really needed to seek answers. The decision was made and once it was we reached a great sense of peace," he said.
The father-of-five happily embraces the church's points of difference while admitting the services are in a style not all are comfortable with. A typical service may provoke an outpouring of emotion with tears and loudly proclaimed praise.
For those who worship with Breakthrough, Leota insists there is no greater feeling than hearing the spirit. It is a voice that takes practice and devotion to hear, he says.
"We offer an invitation for people to open up to the reality of a promising relationship. It goes both ways, there has to be a willingness to learn. I committed myself to learn and the spirit is found everywhere, not just at church but in art and music.
"It challenges us to look outside the norm. Much as we try to put people in boxes, the church helps pull them down," he said.
Breaking down barriers has been a work in progress. Samoan-born Leota said he knew he would have to convince people of the church's positive intentions.
He likened it to establishing any other new business in a smaller community.
"There has been a mixed reaction and I understand that. There is always room for another business and that's the same with a church. You can always find opportunities.
"There was an assumption that, being from the Pacific Islands, that my wife and I would be opening a church just for Islanders. In fact the church's congregation is quite diverse in culture and spans across the generations too," he said.
Services started almost four months ago and the church is already seeking larger premises to help with a burgeoning congregation.
Leota has made a point of getting permission to share photographs of services on social media.
Photos of members of the congregation caught up in prayer, eyes closed and arms raised high in homage have been regularly posted on Facebook. For Leota, it is about full disclosure.
"It's about encouraging people to be open in these vulnerable but beautiful moments. Being vulnerable is not about being weak and this shows a different side to who we are.
"Friends are seeing them [the photographs] online and spreading the word. People are noticing positive changes and nothing spreads more powerfully than first-hand experience," he says.
As a father, Leota is confident he made the right move for his family. Children Joshua, 15, Caleb, 13, Sarah, 11, Evana, 8, and Jeremiah, 6, have settled well in Marlborough, making friends and joining youth groups.
It is the young people who the Leotas feel need their help the most. His vision for the church includes helping the region's youth and bridging what he perceives as a "communication gap". He and his wife hope to do this through the creative arts.
He believes he and pastor wife Lynette have a significant role to play in the region; not only through the church but as a sentinel for the younger population. He believes many are struggling with the pressures of modern life and finding a sense of self.
"Kids are facing tougher times and at Breakthrough it is about bridging the gap and seeing the need and recognising that the church has a strength and passion to help.
"We really need to be here for youth in the area and one of the main issues is for community groups to be open to work together and embrace their differences while recognising these differences and accepting they can be a good thing," he said.
New Breakthrough Church programmes, the Bcre8ve Academy and Generation Omega, have been launched for younger congregation members.
"It is extremely powerful to witness our own youth of Marlborough influencing their own peers. The creative arts play a huge role in shaping kids so we want to utilise these platforms. We use different avenues and different formats as a way to get the message across and engage with youth and get past the surface.
"If you try to just sit down and talk straight away then the walls go right up," he said.
Describing its mission as the salvation and discipleship of all nations, Breakthrough Church has carefully reached out to the community. Corporate prayer and fasting events are held every week where worshippers fast, pray and seek God's presence, not just for the congregation but for Blenheim, Marlborough and New Zealand.
Leota is unequivocally passionate in his beliefs and desire to help. His manner is relaxed and his demeanour one of quiet confidence. For Leota, there is no question about the path he is on.
"Ignorance may turn people away from us, but we will always be here for them."
- The Marlborough Express