What can churches learn from the ice-bucket challenge?

Ice

It may be turn out to be the most successful fundraising campaign in the history of mankind. Toss a bucket of ice water over your head, upload a video of it, and nominate three more people to do the same within 24 hours. In only one month, over $100 million has been raised for ALS, a neurodegenerative disease many people had never heard of a few weeks ago.

The world has been caught by surprise at the speed of distribution, the uptake and the appeal of this somewhat absurd challenge. In the same way as Gangnam Style, Harlem Shake and planking, the ice-bucket challenge has gone viral, and celebrities and politicians are joining ordinary people in uploading over 14 million videos of themselves being soaked by icy water. My Facebook feed is clogged with videos of friends and family screaming as they get drenched – from young children to otherwise sensible grandparents.

So what can the church learn from these viral trends? Do these rapidly spreading social movements teach us some lessons that will shift the way we engage God’s people?

People want to join in.

It turns out, people don’t just want to sit around passively watching others – they want to be part of the action. They want to participate. The same is true in their spiritual lives – God’s people don’t want to be passive pew-sitters, they want to be co-workers and contributors in God’s mission. The ice-bucket challenge allows easy participation through an accessible formula – anyone can join in. We need to find ways to get God’s people involved in church, without having to have a theology degree.

People like a challenge.

Our churches have gone overboard trying to make people comfortable so they will stay and fill pews – but in the process, they have dumbed God’s people down. It’s ok to get people thinking, and problem-solving, and feeling awkward and uncomfortable in church. We learn more when we stretch ourselves than when we relax. Ask God’s people to step up rather than sit back – you’ll be surprised how they rise to the challenge.

People have great power to get things done.

Who would have thought a social media meme could raise $100 million in one month for a little-known cause? That’s what happens when you decentralise power and put it in the hands of the people. Think of how much more powerful the global church could be if we equipped every Jesus-follower to be a “little Jesus” in their neighbourhood and community. The church should spend her resources empowering God’s people rather than performing for them.

The ice-bucket challenge worked because ordinary people could get involved. Church leaders, stop positioning God’s people as passive spectators. Find creative ways to get them involved in your church gatherings, in teaching one another, in ministering in their communities. Give them a voice and an impact. Empower them to change the world.

What you model is what you multiply – why facilitation is healthy in church.

lead the way

They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Children grow up to be like their parents, imitating their values, their mannerisms and their way of life.

In the same way, raising generations of God’s people in sermon-centric churches produces a vast sea of Christians who believe the only way to communicate God’s message is through monologue and having all the “right answers”.

We have a problem on our hands. The world does not want to be preached at. Who can blame them? I don’t want to be preached at. I’m sure you don’t, either.

Nobody likes being lectured, but every person on this planet longs to be listened to, to be known and heard and empowered and encouraged. We will open our hearts and our lives to those who take the time to relate to us, empathize with us, see us as we truly are and love and accept us.

Jesus did that. He spent time with people. He partied with them. He asked them questions. He showed compassion, empathy, respect and value for the ostracized and abandoned – the ones who were normally chastised and sermonized for their life choices.

Since we’ve been running “Church in a Circle” with recovering addicts, we’ve discovered the power of facilitation – a radically different approach to teaching and learning. Instead of giving people all the answers, we see the value in setting up thought-provoking stimuli and asking the right questions for people to learn for themselves. We see how powerful it is simply to ask people to share their stories – and then listen attentively and respectfully. We see how people are capable of directly interacting with God’s Word, not just listening to others interpret it for them. We see God’s people taking ownership of and responsibility for their own learning, being empowered to move forward rapidly in their spiritual journey and dragging others with them.

There’s a secondary effect to facilitation we didn’t expect but which really excites us – everybody in the group seems to pick up facilitation skills along the way. By watching the leader ask good questions, and listen well, and be flexible to the needs of others, the whole group start to spontaneously minister to one another, both inside and outside of the meeting.

Christians who think sermonizing is the most effective evangelism tool drive away their friends and family by lecturing them and always trying to have the right answers. The world needs more Christians who can interact and listen respectfully, ask the right questions and admit they don’t have all the answers.

What we model is what we teach. Sermon-centric churches produce passive listeners who only feel they are able to spread God’s message if they have a seminary degree or can deliver a convincing monologue (which is rarely socially appropriate in any setting). Facilitation allows God’s people to pick up helpful interaction skills which are valuable in developing kingdom relationships within and outside of the church community.

Children often grow up to look like their parents, and God’s people often end up looking like their leaders. Let’s encourage our leaders to move from preaching to facilitation, from speaking to listening, from performance to empowerment.

This article was recently published on the House 2 House Magazine website.Be sure to head over there to read a fantastic range of articles by simple church advocates. The theme for this month has been “Multiplication“.

The sensational power of attentive listening.

 Listen

Have you ever had someone listen to you? I mean really listen. No interruptions. No uninvited advice-giving. Just creating an accepting, unhurried, safe space for you to speak, and think, and solve your own problems by yourself. For me, it was my mother who first listened to me. I could lean over the kitchen counter while she prepared dinner, and pour out all the ideas and trivia and thoughts that bubbled through my head, and make sense of who I was and what was happening in my world, because she was there to listen. I know that the quality of her listening empowered me to know myself and grow into who I am today.

Nancy Kline’s book “Time to Think: listening to ignite the human mind” is about “what can happen if you listen expertly…if you ennoble people with the depth of your attention and shake them to their roots by convincing them that they can think for themselves, if you take them into your heart, if you show them that who they are and what they think matters, profoundly.” Kline describes how to create the ideal environment for people to think to their full potential – and it all starts with high-quality, attentive listening.

We all want to be heard – and understood, and accepted as we are. We feel validated and valued when someone hears us out – and we’re more likely to relax, and acknowledge we’re wrong, and listen back. Most professional counsellors will tell you that active listening is more powerful than good advice.

If you want to empower God’s people and give them a voice, you’re going to have to learn to listen. That means slowing down, biting your tongue, being fully present, not getting distracted, and not jumping in too quickly. Good facilitators are good listeners. In Fresh Start Community, we begin with an open time where people can share what God is doing in their lives. We have found there is enormous value in listening to people respectfully and attentively, and creating a safe environment for people to be deep, and honest, and vulnerable. When the leader demonstrates how to listen well, the rest of the group pick it up naturally and apply it too.

Take the risk of listening to God’s people, and not interrupting to correct them or improve upon their answers. If you slow down and really listen, you’ll communicate more than you realise – love, acceptance, value – and you might just hear the Holy Spirit speaking to you through the other person.

Let the Spirit lead – unscripted, participatory worship meetings (not as scary as you might think).

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Steve Simms and his wife lead a non-traditional, participatory, interactive Salvation Army church in Nashville, Tennesee. He blogs regularly at Free Gas For Your Think Tank. I asked Steve to share a little about their congregation and experiences…

As a freshman in college in the 70s, I walked into an unscripted, unprogrammed campus meeting and saw the living, resurrected Jesus Christ in action in the words, actions, and faces of ordinary people. I went back to my dorm that night, a changed man, with the fire of Christ burning in my heart. The rest of my college days I met weekly with this group, seeing the Holy Spirit prompt ordinary people to do amazing things.

After graduating I began to search for a church like those campus meetings (even moving back and forth across the country a couple of times). However, it was all to no avail, because I never found anything even a little bit like those meetings.

Then in 2008, the Salvation Army in Nashville approached my wife and me (who were employed by them), and asked if we would like to start a “non-traditional corps” (church) in East Nashville. We saw this as a God-sent opportunity to begin meetings similar to those I had experienced in college and The Army agreed.

We began to ask a different person each week to lead us in Spirit-anointed worship that goes anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes as the Spirit leads. Afterwards, we encourage the people present to listen to the Spirit and say or do whatever He says.

The results are always amazing. People share testimonies, Scriptures, prayer needs, short teachings, words of encouragement, prayers, gifts of the Spirit – and each week it all blends into a common theme.  It is obvious to all present that this is not random, but is being led by God.

Since we’ve started we’ve had more than 60 different worship leaders. Several have become regular attenders.

Here’s the amazing thing; in all this time (although we’ve had several hundred people meet with us at least once), we’ve never had anyone share false doctrine or something inappropriate.  In such a whacky world as ours, that’s got to be evidence of God’s presence and protection.

Several times we have literally seen this Scripture fulfilled in our midst as a first time visitor opens her/his heart before God:  ”But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an ungifted man enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all; the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that God is certainly among you.”  1 Corinthians 14:24-25

In unprogrammed church meetings, you see people transformed right in front of your eyes. One Hindu man began to attend. We welcomed him and loved him. After about a year, he came to me and told me that he is no longer a Hindu, but is now a believer in Christ. Now, several years later, he is a mighty man of God who testifies, prays with people, witnesses, and reads the Bible one to two hours a day.

When we have a conversation with a friend or family member, we don’t want every word to be scripted. We want a two-way conversation that is spontaneous and from the heart. Why should church be any different?

I encourage everyone to step into unscripted, participatory worship meetings. If you can’t find one in your town, start one in your living room. It only takes two or three people (see Matthew 18:20). Everybody gather, listen to the Spirit, and do whatever He tells you to. You will be astonished by the results!

How church is changing in the 21st century (and why it’s a good thing)

Time for change

Last century, most churches followed pretty much the same format. People met in a special building, sat in rows, sang some songs, and listened to a sermon. The room was set up either as a classroom (with an expert delivering information), or as a performance venue (with a performer providing inspiration), or some combination of the two. Either way, the people in the rows listened silently while the person on the stage did all the talking. It was a one-way flow of information and inspiration.

This century, the world around us is changing. The internet is the first ever truly two-way media. Instead of sitting back and being broadcasted at, we are now active participants and contributors. We now place a priority on connection, on being part of the conversation, on participation. People have 24/7 access to high-quality information and inspiration, so they no longer need to go to church for those things. Slowly but surely, these global, societal shifts are changing the way we do church.

More and more people in churches are tired of sitting silently, staring at the backs of each other’s heads – they want to connect with one another, to love and support and encourage and build one another up, like the Bible tells us to. People are tired of meeting in special buildings and hiding away from the world around them – they want to transform their neighbourhoods and communities. God’s people are tired of being passive consumers, sitting back in the pews and quietly listening – they want to be active participants, empowered to have a voice and make a difference.

Some churches have stopped meeting in special buildings, and started getting together in homes, in coffee shops, in bars, in community centres, even in the local park. Some churches are sticking with the traditional service, but making their sermons shorter and giving people opportunity to question and discuss what they’ve learned. Still others are forming groups to focus on their neighbourhood and community, and to embrace the marginalised in their cities. More and more churches are finding creative ways to prioritise connection, dialogue, participation and empowerment.

These changes are exciting, because the church is starting to look more like it did in the New Testament – not a hierarchy, but a community of brothers and sisters, all equals under one head, who all had a voice and participated in worship together, in their homes and in their neighbourhoods. Preachers are becoming facilitators, willing to share the stage and the microphone to give all of God’s people a voice and an impact. Church was never supposed to be a lecture theatre or an entertainment complex, but the family of God building one another up to impact the world and restore it to God.

 

Church in a cafe – getting out of our sacred buildings and religious routines.

Cup of Coffee

I hope you’ve been following my series “Are circles better than rows” over the past few weeks, where I’ve invited guest bloggers to share about fresh ways of doing church in the 21st Century. We’ve heard about “seminary in a circle“, from Miguel Labrador in the Andes Mountain Cloud Forest Region of Ecuador. We’ve journeyed deeper in Christ through a “seminar in a circle” with writer and teacher Ray Hollenbach. We’ve visited an “Epic Fail Conference” with J.R. Briggs, who realised pastors need the chance to circle up and confess their failures to one another. And we’ve experienced an intentional, intergenerational missional community who do “church in a nursing home” with my friend Katherine Lockwood.

Today’s post comes from one of my very favourite bloggers, Thom Schultz, who has written a number of books, including “Why nobody learns much of anything at church” and “Why nobody wants to go to church anymore” with his wife Joani. I highly recommend you follow Thom’s blog, Holy Soup, which is full of thought-provoking, stimulating articles on how to do church differently. Thom started up an innovative ministry across the U.S. called “Lifetree Cafe” – I asked him to share a little about this fantastic approach which allows believers and unbelievers to meet together in circles…

In an effort to rebuild connections between culture and the church, we began the journey of creating a highly relational intersection point where people could come together—build relationships with each other—and grow in a relationship with Jesus. The result of years of planning, preparing and praying was a fresh, new ministry concept we call Lifetree Café.

Lifetree Café is a time and place where people gather to hear inspiring stories and engage in conversation on a different topic every week. It’s the proven ministry that reaches the unreached with the love of Christ in a fresh, new way. Lifetree Café is an hour-long, interactive experience that features real people’s real stories on film, guided conversation, biblical insights, and time to build relationships.

Lifetree Café tackles the topics people struggle with in everyday life. Participants are encouraged to share their own stories and listen to others. As a result, people don’t just hear what the Bible says about their lives—they discover the relevance of God’s Word and a friendship with Jesus. And week after week, they acknowledge they experience God at Lifetree.

Lifetree Café is a place that reminds you of a cozy coffeehouse. It may be located at your church or elsewhere in the community, such as in a café, on a college campus, or in a community center. Lifetree is designed to work in a variety of venues.

We began planting Lifetree Cafés around the country over four years ago and we now have hundreds of Lifetrees planted in communities of all sizes. Every week we hear amazing stories of how people are coming together and growing in their faith. These relational circles of people are finding that they’re not alone in their struggles and they’re learning from other people’s life experiences. They’re finding Lifetree Café to be a safe place where their thoughts are welcome—and their doubts are welcome.

While Lifetree Café is seen as being a highly effective and proven outreach ministry—we’re seeing it as an amazing “in-reach” ministry as well.

More information on Lifetree Cafe can be found at Discover.LifetreeCafe.com

Family on Mission – an interview with a “Missional Mumma”

Intergenerational ministry

There’s a movement that began in an Anglican church in England, which is spreading across the world and changing the way people do church. 3DM, started by Mike Breen, is an organisation with the visionto change the world by putting discipleship and mission back into the hands of ordinary people“. Instead of congregating in sacred buildings and putting on a performance to attract people in, Missional Communities of 15-80 people are gathering around a shared vision and focus, and living life side-by-side as “family on mission” as they seek to impact their neighbourhoods and world.

3DM stands for 3 Dimensional Movement, based on the pattern modelled by Jesus, who was in relationship with God (UP), with his discipleship community (IN) and with the broken world around him (OUT). The UP/IN/OUT triangle is one of 3DM’s LifeShapes, which simplify core teaching and practices of this model. A friend of mine, Kat Lockwood, blogs at Missional Mumma about her experiences as a Mum-of-two in a Missional Community which meets in a four week cycle of UP/IN/OUT/OF. I asked Kat to tell us more about their Missional Community, and their 4-week pattern of meeting. Here’s what she had to say…

How did your Missional Community and relationship with 3DM begin?

About three years ago, my husband, as an Anglican Church newly ordained curate, was given the responsibility of a planting a church in a growth corridor of Perth, Western Australia. We had heard of Mike Breen, 3DM and LifeShapes but were very hesitant about how it would work in practice – we had so many questions that eventually our mentors suggested we come to England with them to check it out. We went to Pilgrimage, where St Thomas’ in Sheffield opened up their church community and showed what the potential for a church based around Missional Communities could look like.  We used every spare moment – lunch breaks and coffee breaks – to find a team member and drill them with all our questions. We were relentless, we wanted answers, we wanted to know if it could work in our context in Australia – in a place where the only people we seemed to attract were those who wanted to do nothing but passively receive from the church.

We came home with some ideas to start us off, and in February 2013 we relaunched the church plant as a Missional Community. A Missional Community needs to be built around a mission – an outward focussed goal – so that people can join in with being good news in their community whether or not they believe what we believe. At first we really struggled with finding a mission. It needs to be something people can see and participate in. The possibilities in our area are endless – we have families, prisons, schools, the poor, and the elderly. For us, we have made a decision that whatever we do as church must work well for our family, as our first disciples are our children, and there is no point to us in winning the world but forsaking our children. So we decided to start with our local Retirement Home and to do an intergenerational service based around children interacting with the elderly. We had our mission – “to build families and friendships across the generations“.

You meet in a different way each week of the month. Tell us a bit more about this.

Our four week cycle looks like this :

1st Sunday- We do a social activity that we can invite friends to (OUT and IN). A time to build community and build friendships. We are always looking for those people God might be leading us to connect with, to build relationships with. One of the greatest problems facing our Western world is loneliness and isolation. We believe that, like in times past when the church delivered the solution to the greatest problems of the time (health, education, and welfare), that today, the church as a community can be the solution to the sickness of our time. We make time for intentional connecting with others.

2nd Sunday- We are part of a wider Christian church, so on this Sunday we celebrate that and join with our parent church or another church that we are working with. (OF and UP)

3rd Sunday- We do our missional activity at the local retirement village (OUT). This involves simple activities that anyone can organise or run – a children’s Bible Story, some action songs (which in the interest of simplicity and familiarity tend to be the same songs each month), a very short message, and a craft activity or game that everyone participates in – children, parents, the elderly. This is followed by some unstructured play time/conversation time. This is our favourite week of the month – everyone goes away blessed.

4th Sunday- We do ‘family church‘ (UP and IN) – a simple church service in our home that uses a Godly Play story – a Montessorri method of storytelling that adults and children, Christians or not, can all engage with and process what God is saying at whatever point they are at. We eat together and enjoy each others’ company.

How is your experience different from the usual way of “doing church”?

We have a number of principles that guide us-

We lower the bar on what is “church” and raise the bar on discipleship. And because of that, everyone can (and does) contribute. When you come to a Missional Community, we all serve each other. We all have things to give. God speaks to each of us, not only to the ordained. Our services aren’t flashy but that means everyone can do it. Everyone brings food and everyone helps clean up. This reduces the burden on the leadership to always being a service-provider, but also allows us all to be the church together.

We redeem the time – In a time-poor society we don’t ask people to do Sunday mornings plus a number of other evenings so they can fit in Bible Study, mission, social activities… We have a 4 week cycle so we use the time people have already committed to, so that people are able to fully participate in a balanced spiritual and social life even if the only time they can give is on a Sunday morning. We always include food, fun, prayer and the Bible – but in simple ways, not the formality and structure of “regular church”.

 Why do you do church in a circle, not in rows?

We do “Church in a Circle” because we believe that we are the vessels God is using on this earth and therefore, that it is our job to show the world what God is like. Anyone can belong – before they believe – and everyone can participate in God’s mission on this earth; to be good news and to make disciples. We can learn from the generations who have gone before us and learn from the ones coming up after us – everyone matters. We are also trying to kill the consumer culture that has invaded the church and rendered it apathetic and useless, instead trying to create a place where people can be empowered as Jesus’ disciples – ones who hear and obey Him themselves but also in community with others.

Recovering from ministry – one pastor’s journey after closing a dying church.

Businessman Thinking on Steps

Last week I wrote a post with the title; “Are we setting pastors up to fail?“. It was a question that came out of our personal experience pastoring a local church for six years, with all the shame, guilt, frustration and confusion we carried. It was a question that resonated with readers and pastors around the world, including a friend of ours, Gareth Williams, who is currently involved in humanitarian work in Kenya. Gareth wrote this post to share some of the grief, doubt and sense of failure he has struggled with after pastoring a dying church.

Churches aren’t meant to close; they are to stay open, add new people and grow. Yet what do we do when a local expression of the body of Christ is no longer viable or fruitful? That was the choice I was faced with whilst leading a church through the process of closing last year.

This particular church started dramatically in 1925 with a tent mission that led to a property being donated and a building erected in a single day. Depending on whom you spoke to within the church, it had either struggled for most of its history or had its heyday in the 1970’s. However, by the time I arrived on the scene in 2008, the church consisted of 25 people with an average age of 85 years old. I tried my hardest, my wife supported me, we recruited some younger people who gave their all – but ultimately we had to close the church.

As part of our tradition and constitution we needed to hold a vote. Our board had come to an agreement that closing was the best course of action – not a unanimous decision (these things rarely are). Between the vote and the final service some interesting and difficult times ensued. One elder disappeared and has never fully explained why, a deacon disappeared but later resurfaced, we had to call the Police to escort one church member away from our house (one of the downsides of living in the church manse), and we were continually dealing with the sadness and grief from long standing members.

Through this time I was grappling with what I’d done, the emotion from the church (including incredible anger and abuse from said member above) and what my family and I would do next. I was also dealing with my own thoughts and feelings regarding failure. Could I have done more? What if I’d done things differently? What if I were better? These questions struck me hard, and have reappeared at different times in the year since we closed. Many people affirmed me saying that no-one could have done any better -comments that helped but did not fully expunge the feelings of guilt and shame.

There is a great deal of pressure on Pastors to “win” – to grow big churches and become a celebrity. Many of us fall into this trap; I know I did. However I failed spectacularly at these goals. The Bible doesn’t tell us much about success; at least what we normally associate with success. It speaks of faithfulness, something I find hard to define.

Was our church faithful? In some ways yes; people attended services and gave of themselves, yet we weren’t able to produce enough fruit. In order to become a fully-laden tree we needed to change beyond what many could handle – trust me, I tried.

For me, I am learning from this to redefine what failure and success are. I want to be successful, I long to be the Christian guru, the one asked to speak at big events. I struggle going to conferences or events where someone else is the speaker. I want to be the chosen one – I could do so much better than whoever has been picked! But am I the only one who wants that? Do I get a better seat in heaven based on how many events I speak at? Pardon me, you mean I don’t? So why do I want it so bad? Dare I say pride?

I don’t know if I’ll return to pastoring. I don’t know if I can deal with the expectations – those from others, but more importantly my own. I desperately want to abide in Christ more and listen to people’s opinions less. I want to be okay with failing the deadly “ABC test of church success” – Attendances, Buildings and Cash. But I want to live in God’s grace that tells me I am loved as I am.

Gareth has been reading J.R. Brigg’s latest book, “Fail; Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure“, which is helping to bring some healing and closure. Do you have any words of encouragement to share with Gareth and his wife at this time? Do you relate to their experience in any way?

Are we setting pastors up to fail? Epic Fail – an initiative from J.R. Briggs

Young Man with His Hand on His Forehead

Nobody likes to talk about it, but our church systems are setting pastors up for failure.

Most of our churches operate from a model where one man or woman is employed to be the “professional Christian”, the ultimate spiritual role model, the expert and example for the whole community. Sure, there may be a support team around them – but it’s easy for the people in the pews to see who they are expected to follow (and critique, and blame if anything goes wrong).

The emotional and spiritual burden on pastors is huge. And absurd. And unbiblical. One person is positioned to be the paid Apostle / Prophet / Evangelist / Shepherd / Teacher (all at the same time), while the rest of God’s people sit passively in pews like a critical audience, unable to give input or contribute even if they wanted to. The typical Sunday format of singing and a sermon places a spotlight on the stage, and a disproportionate emphasis on the sermon as the main vehicle of change, and discipleship, and transformation. In the eyes of the congregation (which is literally the employer as well as the client), the pastor bears responsibility for the spiritual growth and wellbeing of the entire community, as well as the perceived measures of “success” – the numerical growth and financial sustainability of church as an organisation. No wonder pastors are burning out, breaking down, screwing up, and abandoning ministry in droves.

A few years ago, J.R. Briggs wrote a brief blog post, imagining an unusual kind of pastor’s conference, where pastors could gather as equals to share their failure, their shame, their disappointment, grief and despair (instead of listening to a superstar give a pep-talk on how to “succeed” in ministry). To his surprise, the post went viral, resonating with hurting and wounded Christian leaders everywhere. Soon after, he organised the first “Epic Fail” conference (“for failures, screw-ups and losers”). Pastors drove halfway across America to attend the three day event. They met in a bar. They shared brutally honest stories of failure, and fear, and frustration. They opened their hearts to total strangers and found the love and acceptance of brothers and sisters in Christ. They gathered around tables, broke bread together, worshiped together, and ministered to one another.

I’m really excited about the format of these conferences – because this is what church should look like. A place for broken people to extend grace to one another. A place of honesty and acceptance. A place where we don’t strain for success, but live in faith out of our weakness and failure. A place where no individual human is expected to shoulder responsibility for the community, and Jesus is allowed to be the head of his body.

J.R. continues to host Epic Fail Pastor’s Events across the U.S. (contact him if you’re interested in organising one in your city). In this 2 minute video, he shares some sobering statistics, and talks about his new book ”Fail; Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure“, which comes out in just a few days. I pray his work brings great comfort and healing to pastors in pain. I also pray that our churches re-examine the success-seeking, pastor-centric model of ministry, and move towards a grace-filled, empowering expression of church life which values honesty, authenticity – and even failure.

Godly Play – approaching God’s Word with a sense of wonder.

worn white cardboard box isolated on white background..

Today, as part of our series, “Are circles better than rows?“, we explore an approach to children’s ministry which happens in a circle…

Many of our sermons and Sunday school lessons are an attempt to put God in a box. Whenever we try to simplify God, explain him, display him or categorise him, we lose our sense of wonder and mystery. We lose the opportunity for the Holy Spirit to speak differently to each person and in each community. God cannot be contained in a catchy slogan or three key points (even when they are alliterated). He is bigger than our boxes.

Children’s Sunday School lessons are often the biggest culprit for oversimplifying (and potentially misinterpreting) God’s story. Too often, we are telling the kids; “the moral of the lesson is, (insert name of Bible character) was a good boy/girl – and you should be too.” We miss the nuances, the emotions, the messiness, the depth of the stories, and the opportunity for the children to relate and respond to them. Trying to reduce the God of the universe to simple concepts and moral lessons for our children is not doing anyone a favour. As C.S. Lewis so eloquently expressed it, “He’s not a tame lion”.

Godly Play is a Montessori-inspired approach to creatively engaging all age groups with God’s story, provoking their curiosity, and creating space for them to explore their own thinking, learning and responses to God in community. The curriculum and materials for this innovative teaching method are used worldwide in Sunday Schools, classrooms, churches and homeschooling settings, respecting the unique learning styles of children (and adults) and their capacity to wrestle with and explore deep concepts of faith in sensorimotor ways.

The central words of Godly Play are “I wonder…“. This gives people the freedom to move away from memorisation to interpretation, to take the risk of thinking outside the box, and to let the Holy Spirit speak to individuals and the gathered community.

Godly Play was designed by an Episcopal priest, Jerome Berryman, and follows the church calendar – so it is a lot more liturgical than I am used to, but can be adapted to other denominations. A typical Godly Play lesson is made up of the following steps;

Welcoming time – The doorkeeper gets down to the kids’ level and welcomes each child by name, inviting them into the circle on the floor, creating a safe space to listen to and experience the story.

Story time – The storyteller follows a script (or creates their own, once they understand the technique thoroughly) to tell a Biblical story or parable, using props and visual aids to bring the story to life for the listeners. All of the techniques of good storytelling are important here – setting the scene, using rhythm, intonation, and silence where necessary. Eye-contact is minimal, so the children hang on to every word without interrupting (I’ve tried this – it worked far better than I thought it would!). The listeners are immersed in a multi-sensory learning environment to fully experience God’s story.

Wondering time – This is where Godly Play is uniquely different from most Sunday School settings. Rather than closed questions and fill-in-the-blank prescribed responses, the storyteller makes “I wonder…” statements. “I wonder how they were feeling.” “I wonder why he did that.” “I wonder what I would do.” This approach is not about getting the listeners to memorise information for testing, but to create space for the Holy Spirit to speak to their hearts. The community are led in a time of unrushed shared wondering about the deep concepts of our faith and theology.

Creative time – Instead of a one-size-fits-all take-home craft activity, listeners are invited to choose an artistic outlet for responding to the story. The teachers provide a range of creative options, such as painting, drawing, writing, sculpting, dramatising or retelling the story. These hands-on processes allow the participants to form complex ideas and concepts, expressing physically what they cannot verbally. Each person has the freedom to choose their own response instead of just following instructions. The teachers act as a “guide on the side” to help people explore the meaning they are uncovering.

Sharing time – To end the session, the group shares in a “feast” – maybe biscuits and juice – as a form of communion and fellowship. During this time, the teachers may speak with individuals and affirm their experience and learning, or they may share their artwork and insights in small groups or as a whole group.

Godly Play is a fun, playful and powerful tool for intergenerational exploration of God’s Word, inclusive of all levels of knowledge and wisdom. It allows people to learn from God’s Word, from the Holy Spirit, from their own time of reflection, and from one another – rather than one individual translating God’s story for the entire community. Most of all, it brings back our sense of wonder, and lets God out of the box.