6 things you can’t do in a circle.

Teenagers Smiling in Group Hug

For the past four years, my husband has been facilitating “church in a circle” – a diverse group of people who gather to share their life stories and explore God’s Word in a hands-on, interactive way. During this time, we’ve discovered the power of meeting face-to-face in a circle. This blog is our space to share what we’ve learned with you.

Along the way, we’ve discovered there are many things you can’t do in a circle. Here are a few of them;

Judgement and criticism. It turns out, correcting and criticising other people is socially unacceptable to do when you’re all sitting face-to-face. Circles only work if they are safe spaces of acceptance and love. We always affirm people when they offer their story or thoughts, rather than arguing petty points with them. Amazingly, we’ve hardly ever seen the conversation go theologically astray, even with drug addicts and prostitutes offering their interpretation of the Scriptures (in fact, their insights are often the most profound).

Experts and professors. Even though every session is hosted by a facilitator, that person’s role is primarily to create a safe space for others to speak. Everyone is on equal footing in a circle, able to have a voice, a value and an impact. In our meetings, we prioritise listening to “the least of these”, rather than elevating the most learned / talented / impressive speaker.

Monologues and sermons. There is nothing worse than sitting in a circle and only allowing one person to have a voice. The seating arrangement is a reminder that we all have equal access to one another, and to God.

Showmanship and performance.  Sometimes we sing simple songs in our circle. We never, ever try to achieve the flashy performance style that modern worship has become, with multiple instruments, rockstar worship leaders and emotion-tugging melodies. It just wouldn’t work.

‘Fakeness’ and dishonesty. A room full of people being honest and open allows you to let down your guard and be authentic. There’s no need to pretend to have it all together, to present yourself as perfect.

Dozing off. Let’s face it, a lot of people have a nap during the sermon. In rows, people can be easily distracted and start daydreaming. In a circle, it’s really obvious when someone stops paying attention. We find people are more likely to head outside for a cigarette break than to zone out in the circle.

In some ways, a circle limits what we can do in church. Certainly, the old model of sitting passively, singing some songs and listening to a sermon doesn’t work well in a circle. However, maybe we’re better off getting rid of the things on this list. What do you think?

One body, one head, many parts.

Woman with Arms in the Air

To be functioning at its peak, a body needs every part to be working effectively. Our role as the body of Christ is to equip and build one another up “until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:13). To this end, those of us who are stronger, more mature or given gifts, ought to use what we have to empower and equip others in their journey.

This doesn’t make us more important – quite the opposite, it requires an attitude of servanthood. Instead of the “hierarchy” of the world, where people jostle for power, prestige and privilege, we have a “low-rarchy” in the church – in God’s kingdom, the way up is down, the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.

We follow a king who rode a donkey, who washed his followers’ feet, whose coronation was a crucifixion, who laid aside his right to equality with God and took on the form of a servant. Unlike the power-hungry ways of the world, “leadership” in the church is always framed in terms of servanthood or building others up. We are never to “lord it over” or “excercise authority over” one another as the “rulers of the Gentiles” do (Matt 20:25) – the way of love ushers in an entirely new paradigm of inverted hierarchy, where those of us with high status need to step down the ladder to lift up those on the bottom rungs. We go down, not to debase ourselves, but to lift others up. “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matt 20:27-28).”

Here is what that looks like in the church -

the mature mentor the immature.

The elders instruct the younger.

The rich share with the poor.

Those who have gifts equip others for acts of service.

The powerful defend the powerless.

The strong bear with the failings of the weak.

And nobody ever positions themselves in Christ’s rightful place, as head of the church.

Our current structures for church are holding us back from empowering and building one another up, by positioning us either as performers or audience members, as broadcasters or passive listeners. Pulpits and pews separate us into two camps, and prevent the mutual ministry and one-anothering described over and over again in Scripture. We need to rethink our meeting spaces, our seating arrangements, our use of music and our information delivery methods to find creative ways which release all of God’s people to be active participants in their journey towards unity and spiritual maturity. We need to be willing to step off the stage and into the circle, to talk less and listen more, to use our status to lift others high, and to get out of the way and let God work in his people.

This is an excerpt from the chapter I contributed to “Simple Church: Unity within Diversity“. Order a copy now to learn about simple church practices from some great writers.

Thank you for a great year!

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2014 has been an enjoyable year for me as a writer, but only because of the collaboration and support of some very precious people.

First of all, a huge thank you to Fresh Start Community. Thanks for letting me come and be part of the circle, and sometimes facilitate activities and discussions. You guys are the inspiration for this blog, as you model courage, humility, and grace to us.

Thank you to the guest writers who’ve contributed to this blog this year. I’ve had posts from Fred Liggin, Steve Simms, Thom Schultz, Miguel Labrador, Ray Hollenbach, Gareth Williams and Katherine Lockwood about their own unique approaches to “church in a circle.” You guys rock!

I’ve enjoyed being one of the contributors to “Simple Church: Unity within Diversity“, which has just been released this month, and made it to the top 20 of Amazon’s Christian books. Special thanks go to Eric Carpenter for inviting me to join in this project, Jeremy Myers for publishing the book, and to the great writers who have shared their vision for simple church practices (Alan Knox, Alice Carpenter, Keith Giles, Kathy Escobar and many others).

Thank you to my readers, supporters and encouragers, you who have taken the time to read my thoughts and ideas, and stopped occasionally to write a comment or retweet a post. I really appreciate it and love connecting with you in your journey.

Most of all, I want to thank my amazing husband, Kevin-Neil, who collaborates with me in my writing, in my parenting, in my faith journey, and in the everyday moments of life. You are my strength, my inspiration and my best friend. I look forward to meeting 2015 with you.

Happy New Year!

 

Come to the manger.

nativity

Come, shepherds and rabble, you who who have nothing in the eyes of the world, and gaze upon the Good News for the least, the last and the lost.

Come, wise men and foreigners from far away, outsiders and strangers, those with an ear to hear and eyes to witness the mystery of the world.

Come, you who are blind, or crippled, or poor, or lame, come to the banquet table and feast as honored guests of the king.

Come and see the peasant girl and her child. God slipping into our neighborhood. The quiet explosion of God’s outrageous love colliding with our lives.

This discordant song.

This juxtaposition.

Creator God, wrapped in rags.

The powerful become the powerless. The ruler of all, vulnerable and overlooked, homeless and ordinary.

Come, whoever you are – kings or shepherds, wise or simple – and see the world being turned on its head, the social order disrupted forever, a kingdom to end all empires. Listen to the cattle heralding the birth of a new era. Bow before a baby who will change the course of history, undo our political and religious systems, expose our darkness and usher in the light.

Come to the manger.

The burden of one – why pastors are struggling in ministry

I put this post up a couple of years ago, and it has been one of my most-read (and personal favorite) articles. More than ever, I see pastors struggling to bear “the burden of one”, and confused about how to tap into the biblical model of “the power of many”.

Pastors are under a lot of pressure.

In most churches today, we employ one person (or a small team) to do the job of many. The Bible tells us that God “ordained some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, some to be pastors, some to be teachers.” And yet, we position pastors to be all of these things at once – to lead, to minister, to inspire, to challenge, and to teach – all at the same time!

The Bible clearly tells us that God has given each one of us grace to build up the church. There are at least five very different ministry roles God has given us within the church, according to Ephesians 4 – apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers. The problem is, churches try to look for one man (or woman) who fits all of these categories at once. That was never God’s design for the church.

The church already has everything it needs. We cannot outsource the work of the combined church to one individual, no matter how talented they may be.

One person (the pastor) is symbolically responsible for the spiritual growth of many. One person is responsible for the spiritual wellbeing of an entire community. One person is standing in front of many, responsible to teach, lead and inspire them, a paid role model under pressure to maintain an appearance of “having it all together”. That is a heavy load for one person to bear.

Church in rows has become the burden of one, instead of the combined power of many. One person stands at the front, symbolically taking responsibility for the spiritual growth and well-being of the entire church, while the rest of the church sit silently in rows, their spiritual gifts unused, their “spiritual” hands tied behind their backs. People who are unable to contribute or respond will shut down and become apathetic. They will lose confidence in themselves and not bother trying. They will start to believe they have nothing of value to contribute. They will never be empowered to discover their spiritual gift or to use it for building up the church.

This imbalance is bad for God’s people. It is bad for the pastor as well.  The statistics reveal how unsustainable the role of a pastor is. According to statistics, 45% of pastors report suffering such severe periods of depression or burnout that they have had to take time out from their job. 50% report that they feel unable to meet the needs of the job. 75% report suffering severe stress causing emotional issues. 94% feel under pressure to have a perfect family. Over 20,000 pastors leave the ministry each year in the United States alone, due to burnout, conflict or moral failure. That’s a sign of a seriously stressful career path.

The responsibility of the spiritual growth and well-being of the community should be shared amongst the many, not shouldered by one person. But the congregation are disempowered and not in a position to share the load. We can’t activate them by preaching more powerful sermons. We can’t shake them up by turning up the music, or adding more musicians on stage. We need to give them a voice, give them a value, give them an impact. We need to empower them and involve them in ministering to one another. We need to stop adding to the burden of one, and tap into the power of many.

Love Feast – communion as a shared meal.

2013-JAN-Table-Firefly-Dinner-Table

My all-time favourite TV show would have to be Joss Whedon’s Firefly. Set in the future, it follows the lives and relationships of an odd assortment of characters as they travel the universe in an ageing spaceship.

At the heart of the ship, named “Serenity”, is a common eating area. As they eat together, the passengers and crew share more than food – they share laughter, and stories, and conflict, and special moments. At the table, Mal is no longer captain, Simon and River are no longer fugitives – they are all equals, comrades with a common unity. Bonds are formed and strengthened which enable them to keep each other’s backs as they go out into dangerous worlds. They cease to be individuals, and become family.

The act of sharing a meal is one of the most simple and effective ways to build up any community of people. Jesus spent a great part of his ministry eating with people. Many of his stories were about feasts and banquets. The early church celebrated communion by eating together. The modern simple church movement and missional communities often structure their gatherings around a meal. One inspirational movement that excites me is called “Neighbor’s Table” – a love movement begun by Sarah Harmeyer in 2012, which is spreading across communities and neighbourhoods.

Each week at Fresh Start Community, we end our meeting by eating lunch together – nothing flash, just sandwiches and salad. We call it the Love Feast – communion as a shared meal. I think it would be beautiful for God’s people to rediscover the relationship-building, one-anothering power of sharing food with one another.

Why so many Christians are “done” with church.

walking away

A couple of weeks ago, Thom Schultz posted an article called “The rise of the Dones“. I suggest you read it. It is an acknowledgement of a very real process taking place across churches – the best and most reliable church-attenders are getting tired of the system and leaving for good.

Churches have worried for some years about the rise of the “nones” (people who are reject traditional faith and decide not to associate with formal religion), but the “dones” are a different category altogether – sincere believers who are walking away from the institutional church after decades of faithful attendance and service. Schultz says these people are leaving and aren’t coming back. This strikes a blow to the future of churches, who rely on this group to serve on rosters, pay the bills and fill the pews. It’s enough to fill a pastor’s heart with fear.

I’ve been watching this phenomenon play out amongst my peer group over the past few years. People I grew up in church with are taking more and more Sundays off, until they stop attending altogether. Often, these are people who were actively involved in ministry and committees, sometimes even pastors. They feel a little guilty, but also experience a sense of relief at no longer having to turn up each week, sit passively through a service, and pay for buildings and salaries. They still love Jesus and try to follow him, but regular church attendance is no longer important to them.

Some are leaving to create transformational, Jesus-centred communities who engage in their neighbourhood and impact the world around them. Others don’t have the energy to build or find groups like that. They’ve given up on finding purpose and meaning within the wall of a church building. Their spiritual needs can be met elsewhere, and they’re ready to move on.

What can we do to reverse this trend? To be honest, I’m not sure we can. Even if we tweak the service, or change the model, we may not be able to re-inspire these people and attract them back. It’s worth using this time to ask hard questions, and listen closely to the answers – whether we like them or not. The culture and society around us are shifting, and the church is not sustainable if it cannot shift as well.

Why I’m thinking about getting arrested.

Handcuffs and Key

I’m a well-behaved person. I never drink, I seldom swear, and I generally drive within the speed limit. I don’t have any criminal convictions and have never been charged with anything – but that might be about to change. Kevin-Neil and I are seriously considering getting arrested.

This is not a decision I take lightly. I don’t like getting in trouble. But if I take Jesus’ words seriously, I have to act accordingly.

Australia’s inhumane treatment of refugees has troubled me for many years now, but the past 12 months have been particularly distressing. I’m sick of the dehumanising language, the dishonesty and secrecy, and the blatant human rights abuses. I’m particularly appalled at the detention of the most vulnerable and innocent people – the many hundreds of children who have been penalised and scapegoated, locked up for long periods of time, and suffering emotionally and psychologically.

That’s why my husband and I are prepared to face the risk of arrest, and join more than 100 Christian leaders across our country who have asked their local politicians one simple question; “when will you release the children?”.

The Love Makes A Way movement is spreading across Australia, because Jesus-followers know there is a better way to treat our neighbours than to lock them up and hide them away in other countries. We read a Bible that instructs us to “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves; for the rights of all who are destitute” (Prov 13:8). We join a long and rich tradition of Christians practicing nonviolent civil disobedience, including the biblical prophets and apostles. We stand beside the many Australians who are rising up to say “we’re better than this“.

You may not agree with our decision. Part of me is still unsure whether to go through with it. But at some point, I have to take a stand. What do you think? Do you believe that love can make a way?

 

 

Simple Church: Unity within Diversity – a new book coming soon.

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Every now and then, you need to declutter your home (or your life) and figure out what is important enough to keep.

Over the past 2000 years, the church has picked up all sorts of clutter. Today, many churches, pastors and individuals are wanting to return to the basics, to the foundations of what church is supposed to be about. They want to learn from those who have moved from complexity to simplicity in their church practices.

That is why, earlier this year, Eric Carpenter approached a number of bloggers who advocate and write about simple ways of doing church. He asked us to provide a positive perspective on what we stand for (rather than what we stand against). From this collaboration, he has put together a book called “Simple Church: Unity within Diversity“, which will be released before Christmas. I was privileged to contribute a chapter, describing my vision of “a church of equal laity, with Christ the one and only Head”.

I love the subtitle of this book – “unity within diversity”. 24 writers have written about different topics, from different perspectives – but we are all seeking to discuss, and communicate, and share what we have learned about simple practices of being the church. I’m looking forward to reading  and learning from Jeremy Myers, Kathy Escobar, Chris Jefferies, Miguel Labrador, Christopher Dryden, Alan Knox, Guy Muse and many others.

“Simple Church” is now available for pre-order. I pray it blesses you as you work through what aspects of church are worth holding on to.

Simple Church

Will podcasts replace pastors? Perhaps they already are…

wireless mice

I was asked recently if I hated sermons. My answer was “no”. I understand why people may see me as anti-sermon. If you read my blog regularly, you know I advocate moving away from sermon-centric, performance-based churches to multi-voiced, interdependent communities of empowerment.

The truth is, I actually rather like sermons.

A good sermon is a wonderful opportunity to learn. Some people have honed their knowledge base and their communication skills, and can convey complex concepts in a way people can understand, remember and apply. A well-structured lecture with new information can provoke me to think, and change, and grow.

Modern technology means we don’t have to travel long distances to hear great thinkers and gifted communicators – many churches are now podcasting their sermons online each week. Podcasts present a great opportunity to “flip the church” and practice “church in a circle“. I’m hearing more and more of groups of Christians who meet weekly to share a meal and love one another as a community. Instead of attending “regular church”, they listen to a podcast sermon in their own time, and discuss it when they gather, going deeper and applying the truths they’ve learned to their lives and neighbourhoods.

What these “podrishioners” are getting right is an emphasis on making the most of their time together. Singing and sermons shouldn’t take up so much of our time that we don’t have energy or space to do the “one-anothering” the Bible repeatedly calls us to.

I don’t hate sermons. They play an important role in teaching God’s people information, and calling them to a shared vision. I’m excited to see people getting creative with how they share and access sermons, and working towards sustainable, empowering ways of doing church in the future.