“As a father, one of the questions I ask myself is this, ‘…what kind of world do I want my kids to grow up in?’”
When Christchurch’s Jay Geldard expresses his heart for his own family, as leader of 24-7 YouthWork (24-7YW), he is also asking this same question for Aotearoa’s young people.
“Truthfully, my heart breaks for our nation’s young people. As I look around, I’m acutely aware that Aotearoa, and the world we live in, is so broken. Where is our young people’s sense of hope – their tūmanako?
“Our kids need to know they are valuable, we succeed together and others matter.”
That foundation gives rise to every aspect of the way Jay approaches both his role as national director of the nation-wide network of 24-7YW – a position he’s been in for the past decade – and as founder of E Tū Tāngata, a free resource designed to help equip a generation to stand up against the “culture of criticism” known as tall poppy syndrome in New Zealand.
With plans underway to launch the latest E Tū Tāngata resource kit later this month, I sat down with Jay to hear more about 24-7YW, E Tū Tāngata, his heart for Aotearoa’s young people and his desire to see the “narrative of our nation” shift.
First off Jay, you’ve mentioned your family, so I’d love to hear a bit about them…
Sure. My wife Nicky is a former teacher. She’s an incredible communicator who is so passionate about Jesus. I absolutely love the fact that, in essence, her heart is to simply share with others what it is to follow Jesus in a way they can connect with and understand. We have three kids – two boys, Joss (11), Casey, (10) and our youngest – our daughter Alyse – is eight. I’m very blessed.
On a personal level then, how did you come to know Jesus?
I’m the youngest of three kids. My two older brothers and I grew up in Hornby, Christchurch in an amazing, loving family. My parents came to faith as adults and they’ve had a massive impact on my life in terms of my faith and growing in the area of leadership. I went to a Christian school, but there were some aspects of being called a Christian which were initially quite confusing to me – it seemed like there were many shades of grey, being a Christian didn’t mean the same thing to everyone. As I got older, I began to realise how important it was that I understood what it was to have a personal faith.
I think there were two key experiences overseas which were instrumental and formative in my faith. At 14, I went on a trip to Malaysia and I remember being profoundly impacted by how people lived a life of spirituality. That led me to ask, “…okay then, what does my faith look like?” Another experience, after I’d finished school, was a trip to Taiwan with OMF International, previously called Overseas Missionary Fellowship (OMF). Hudson Taylor founded OMF International as the China Inland Mission (CIM) in the 1860s. As I spent time with the missionaries and the people in Taiwan, it broke my heart; they faced so many challenges. But then, I looked back at New Zealand and I realised it was the same for my own country. God began to instil within me a desire to dedicate my life to see New Zealand’s young people be healthy and whole.
Was it after returning from the trip to Taiwan that you got involved in youth work then? And how would you put into words your unshakeable heart for Aotearoa’s young people?
Yes, that essentially led to me starting out as a youth worker at Hornby High School in my early 20s. In that context, I saw other people whose hearts were breaking for our young people. I remember praying “…Lord, would you break my heart for what breaks yours?” He gave me just a glimpse of His love for our young people. Since then, I cannot shake the sense of His heart and His love for young people in our nation who are lost, hurt, scared and lonely. And if that’s the impression just a glimpse left on me, I can only imagine how God feels for the lost and for those who are suffering!
I am undeniably convinced we need to stand with them. So, here I am as a 41-year-old in a position God has gifted me with as national director of 24-7YW. Some people might think, “…he’s getting a bit old to be doing this…” but, honestly, every element of my drive and passion is anchored in the fact that my heart is broken for our young people. It’s also heart-breaking to know that in late 2020, UNICEF reported that New Zealand’s youth suicide rate was the second worst in the developed world, at 14.9 deaths per 100,000 adolescents. That’s more than twice the average of 6.5 deaths per 100,000 young people among the 41 OECD countries it surveyed.*
My heart aches for those who believe that decision is their only option. It’s an absolute tragedy and it’s as though our nation’s young people have lost their sense of hope – their tūmanako. Playing a part in restoring that motivates me in all the work we do.
Can you tell me about how 24-7 YouthWork began, and about the network’s kaupapa, or principles?
24-7YW began in the early 1990s here in Christchurch with Spreydon Youth Community (SYC), the youth arm of South West Baptist – formerly Spreydon Baptist Church. Essentially, a relationship with local high schools formed as SYC leaders became involved as teaching staff and volunteers. Founded by Duane Major, the work proved particularly effective at Riccarton High School (RHS). So, in 1999, SYC and RHS formalised the relationship in order to resource volunteers and ensure a long term, sustainable work. The initiative became known as 24-7 YouthWork in 2000.
Our heart is to see New Zealand’s young people thrive. We do this by enabling a healthy relationship between a local school and a local church in the context of the wider community. We often talk about the fact it takes a village to raise a child, don’t we? My challenge is, what do we do when the village is broken? And, in the sense of the ‘village’ being the wider community – schools, the Church, businesses, sport clubs and others – we need to ask, “…are we working together?” Rather than working solo, we need to break down those perceived ‘barriers’ and have this question at our core – “…how can we collaborate?”
Schools are passionate about young people, so is the local church. With Aotearoa’s young people feeling more and more disconnected, isolated and lonely, we recognise our ‘differences’ as those various organisations in our community, but ultimately know we have a common aspiration – we all want to see young people thrive.
Practically, that means we respect the fact that our youth workers are there in a school’s space and, at the same time, schools are aware, and respectful of, the fact that 24-7YW’s DNA is informed by our faith. We don’t go into schools with an agenda – our agenda is our mission statement to simply see young people thrive. I think that’s part of why the work of 24-7YW has grown exponentially – because there’s proof in the pudding. We are there because we have a heart for teenagers who are hurt and suffering – and the schools need help – they need the ‘village’ to surround that school hub and simply support them. 24-7YW is one element of the ‘village’.
On that note, what’s it like to step back and reflect on the journey of 24-7 YouthWork now?
While I live and breathe this work every day, I don’t often step back and look at the forest, if you will – but it is amazing to consider. There are 17 different denominations from 150 churches represented across the 24-7YW network. In 12 of New Zealand’s 15 regions, there are 180 24-7YW youth workers in 87 schools. To be honest, I personally get more excited about the fact there are 17 different denominations working together than I do about how many schools we are in. I believe that if we as the Church in New Zealand can put aside some of our ‘differences’, and arrive at a place of realisation that when we all have the same core belief, then blessing comes when we collaborate. I truly believe that.
Can you tell me about the work of E Tū Tāngata, which you founded with the goal to stand up against a specific aspect of Kiwi culture you want to see shift?
Absolutely. E Tū Tāngata came out of a realisation I had during a three-month trip which Nicky, the kids and I took to the United Kingdom. While we were there, a number of people said to me “…you must have the easiest job in the world being a youth worker in New Zealand.” I was absolutely struck by that statement, because they should be right. The truth is though that the state of our nation when it comes to our youth is in dire straits – at times I don’t actually think we realise the full extent of just how much so. I think we’re in a darker hour than we sometimes like to believe we’re in. When I mentioned New Zealand’s youth suicide rate – which we talked about earlier – to people in the United Kingdom, I was met with confusion.
That reaction led me to reflect on a confronting question for the entirety of the time we were away, “…why is that the case?” As I reflected over this period, I remember seeing a picture of New Zealand society, as represented by a tree. On its branches were words like ‘anxiety’, ‘depression, ‘suicidal thoughts’, ‘isolation’, ‘violence’ and others. Why is it, I asked myself, that despite us throwing everything at this ‘tree’ to combat those branches on lots of different fronts, it doesn’t seem as though we are effecting change and the statistics continue to worsen?
I began to realise that, in essence, the branches are the ‘fruit’ of the root system. So, if we’re going to change the fruit of the branches, we actually need to change the root system. In New Zealand, a major element of our current ‘root system’ is a belief that “… your success is a threat to mine…”- or tall poppy syndrome. E Tū Tāngata – which means ‘Stand Together’ – represents a desire to see a nation-wide cultural mindset shift away from tall poppy syndrome and its ‘fruit’ in Aotearoa and towards us being a society which purposes in our hearts to lift others up.
The E Tū Tāngata approach, then, is a framework upheld by three key ‘pillars’, if you will. Tell me about them…
When I thought about who the best example of a group or organisation in New Zealand society which epitomises standing together could be, the All Blacks came to mind. So, I approached their coach at the time, Steve Hansen. I first met and talked with him when I sat next to him on a plane (the poor guy!) and he’s become someone I can call on.
The heart of E Tū Tāngata is represented in three key strands or conversations which we intentionally use and uphold in our everyday interactions and conversations. Essentially, it is the message we give our young people and those around us. Firstly, “…you have value…” We want to be a culture which is mana enhancing, not mana depleting. Secondly is “…we succeed together…” How do we as a society in Aotearoa genuinely do a good job of collaborating together and lifting others up? In a sense, “…you win, I win…” Then, the third conversation, or statement, is, “…others matter…”
When I shared the E Tū Tāngata kaupapa with Steve, he told me it was something he wanted to be involved with, because he could see how the approach would make a difference.
When we think of the All Blacks’ culture of success, what actually makes them successful is not a programme, or paperwork, it’s a mindset. So, what does that look like at the ground level? It’s a conversation – a way of speaking – we need to commit to upholding within our homes, workplaces, businesses and schools. At a micro level, it looks like receiving a compliment when we get one, it looks like a ‘cultural conversation’ of E Tū Tāngata kaupapa, a sense of standing together happening around our nation which ultimately transforms both the way we see ourselves and the way we see others. E Tū Tāngata was piloted at Rolleston School in 2020 and we provide free resources to facilitate the E Tū Tāngata principles. It’s been amazing to see the vast number of other people – including many other well known New Zealanders from different spheres of our society – who, like Steve, say they want to get behind us and join in the efforts to tackle tall poppy syndrome.
Wow. I’ve heard you make a striking distinction regarding the difference between ‘pride’ and ‘being proud’ and the effect tall poppy syndrome has on that. Can you elaborate?
Sure. As an example, if I asked anyone in New Zealand to rate themselves from one to 10 – 10 being “I’m amazing”, zero being “…not great…” – most of us answer that we are a six or a seven. Why? Because in New Zealand that is considered the right answer; we think we are being ‘humble’.
It’s a measure of ‘success’ in New Zealand that you put yourself down before I do – we have a culture of downplaying every aspect of our lives to make people think we are not ‘better’ than them. The problem with that approach though is that we become very self-deprecating. The heart behind E Tū Tāngata is to create a nation-wide culture in Aotearoa in which you have pride in yourself – not in the sense of being proud and arrogant – but being proud of who you are and who you were created to be. Because you have value, you matter and you’re amazing. As we stand together, committed to lifting each other up with our words, we can collectively say, as a nation, “…we’ve had enough of tall poppy syndrome.”
Given that sense of tall poppy syndrome ‘keeping us humble’ then, how important is it that the words we say to both ourselves and to others bring life, not discouragement and are mana enhancing, not mana depleting?
It’s quite challenging to consider this, but I’ve now asked about 300 teenagers the question – “…would you rather me criticise you or give you a compliment?” What’s really confronting is that roughly 70 percent of young people told me they’d prefer the criticism. Wow. That speaks volumes. I could almost guarantee that if I asked that same question in a public setting, 100 percent of people would say “…criticise me…” – I think, in part, that’s because we’ve been conditioned to believe that if we ask for a compliment, people default to the negative. That ‘culture of criticism’ is just not right. It’s absolutely leading to people having damaging self belief.
Okay, so if a young person – or anyone actually – is reading this thinking they want to be part of a shift in Aotearoa’s ‘cultural conversation’, how would you encourage them to make a start in their own sphere of influence?
Understanding who you are and believing you have value has a flow on effect of subsequently understanding the worth of others. In my own life, I’ve found that a good foundation is to, first and foremost, be intentional about objectively listening to your own self-talk. Is that voice saying things about you that, if you said them out loud, would be uplifting and mana enhancing? Sometimes we would never dream of saying a lot of the things we say to ourselves to, or about, someone else. I think that’s key. So, firstly, the change needs to start with us, individually within ourselves. Personally too, there have certainly been times when I’ve had to adjust my own self-talk because I’ve been so harsh on myself. Isn’t it true that even if I’m respectful with things I say to other people around me, my own self-talk can potentially still be my own harshest critic? I think that’s an important conversation that we need to have regarding what voices we’re listening to.
Looking at both 24-7 YouthWork and E Tū Tāngata, what’s it like for you when you hear stories and feedback from others about how the work the team does on both fronts has impacted people?
I absolutely love hearing those stories – but I have to acknowledge that it’s due to a massive amount of work done as a whole team. With both 24-7 and E Tū Tāngata, I’m privileged to be able to watch how the work we all do unfolds. When other Kiwis speak into the kaupapa, wear the t-shirts, reinforce the message and encourage others, you realise the work is not just ours and it’s become far bigger than just us.
At a school level, for example, I love hearing from staff, pupils and parents that the whole culture of a school has shifted as the kaupapa, and values, of E Tū Tāngata have been incorporated into daily life. I’m humbled, but also quick to point out it’s not through my hand alone. I can’t do this alone, none of us can. It’s literally thousands of people playing their part and being responsible in their spheres of influence in our nation. They have joined us in our waka to help propel the journey. As we see things change at a community level and begin to replicate it, I absolutely believe it’s possible for us to work together to see change in every corner of New Zealand.
What’s your heart as you consider the future of both 24-7 and E Tū Tāngata?
I believe we’ll see the principles we’ve talked about and the messaging that our young people matter being mentioned in spaces and places in every corner of our nation. I love to hear the words “…E Tū Tāngata…” and “…you have value…” echoing across Aotearoa. – a way of calling out greatness. As this broader picture begins to stir, there are also, more specifically, some really exciting things already happening too. Children’s song writer Kath Bee wrote our song E Tū Tāngata last year. I know it’s already being sung in assemblies at schools up and down our nation. Last month, in May, the song won the APRA Best Children’s Song accolade at the 2022 APRA AMCOS Children’s Music Awards. We also have plans to release a children’s book, and this month we’re releasing a brand new free E Tū Tāngata resource kit. Off the back of that, as we walk into this next season, it’s really exciting to see all that’s happening.
Finally, as you reflect on all that we’ve discussed, have you got any final thoughts or encouragement for our readers?
It’s hugely important that, in our own lives, we press into the process of asking ourselves, “…who are you?”, ”…ko wai koe?” By that I mean who are you? If you have a faith, then who are you in God and what He has called us to live out?
Sometimes I think we’re so busy focusing on the Kingdom, what we ‘do’ for the Lord, that we forget about the King. When we ask “…ko wai koe?”, I’m reminded of Ephesians 2 – we sit with God, and subsequently walk from a place from being seated with Christ. We need to stop ‘walking’ at times – or trying so hard in our own strength – and instead start from a place of being seated, with our ‘roots’ in Christ and His strength. I know too that lots of people reading this can think of things the Lord has laid on their hearts for them to live out to make the world a better place. But, they’re sitting on them and not living them out because they’re too afraid to fail.
Sometimes, before we step out into something we know God is calling us into, we like to wait until we have all our ducks in a row. But if God is calling us into something, my encouragement is to step out – He will do the equipping. If you know He’s calling you, you don’t even need to know where the ducks are before you move, let alone if they’re in a row! In my life, my prayer walk is the fundamental part of my life and routine – it’s an unmovable rock for me every Wednesday morning. Our first priority, I believe, is to be Christ’s hands and feet – and then people who observe my life and my actions as I live that out will see something different and ask questions. We all have a part to play in that. Our relationship with Jesus absolutely needs to be real and genuine – because I honestly believe people will see through anything that’s disingenuous.
Wow. Thanks so much Jay.
• Reference: UNICEF Report Card, published September 2020.
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About the author
Jeremy Smith is editor of, and one of the writers for, Authentic Magazine.
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