The problem with church growth.

Rising profits

When you’re in the business of church, the easiest way to measure success is numerical growth. Are new people coming to your church? Are you retaining them? Are they bringing their friends along? Are the pews full on a Sunday morning? These are quick and obvious measures of how “successful” your church is. However, the growth we’re supposed to be looking for is spiritual in nature. Ephesians 4 makes it clear that the purpose of church is maturity. What we call success – more people coming to the church – can actually become a problem.

A few years ago, a church strategist gave us some wise advice. If something is going well in your church, don’t advertise it. You’ll attract tourists. Then you’ll have to babysit them. They’ll take up all your time and resources, and you won’t be able to achieve your original goals.

If your goal is butts on pews, watch out – you might just get it. At the beginning, you’ll be busy trying to attract them in – but then you’ll be kept even more busy keeping them happy once they come. They have expectations. You’ll need to maintain the service delivery at the same standard you began with, if not higher. If you pulled a rabbit out of the hat last Sunday, you need to do it again next Sunday. And the Sunday after. The more people who come, the more services you need to provide for them. You’ve become a big babysitter.

Attracting people to your church community is fine – if it’s a secondary thing. Empowering people has to be primary goal. When you put your effort into attracting new people, you have to use all your resources to keep them there. The newcomers who sit back and consume your resources will dilute, rather than concentrate, spiritual growth. Relationships will become shallower and more thinly spread. If you put your effort into empowering God’s people, you’ll be concentrating and building your spiritual resources, deepening relationships, and watching people mature and become spiritual elders.

It’s a bad thing to let people come and just sit back in a pew, week after week. It shuts them down spiritually from all the things that will help them grow – honesty, participation, one-another ministry. It sends a message that growth comes through passive listening, not active participation. It’s kind of like letting your kids sit and watch T.V. all day, and hoping they will develop into mature adults that way.

Success should never be measured in numbers. Success is when God’s people start to find their own voice, find their own gifts, when they bring a word of prophecy, when they speak the truth in love, when they confess to one another, forgive one another, teach one another and build each other up. If you’re building a community of people who need to be served and fed each week, you’re doing something wrong. It’s fine for new babies to sit back and be fed. It’s an embarrassment and a tragedy when adults, who should already be mature, get comfortable and wait for you to feed them.

Are you operating from an attractional model, where you provide a sit-back-and-watch-me-perform service to bring in the tourists? Or is your church willing to invest in an empowerment model, where God’s people are given a voice and a value, where participation is a priority, and spiritual growth happens naturally? Attractional models aim for numerical growth. Empowerment models aim for spiritual growth. Stop focussing on the wrong measures of success, and reshape the way you meet to see God’s people grow from spiritual infancy to maturity.

Three keys to transforming your church culture.

three keys

A number of readers have asked me to describe an actual session of “church in a circle”, so in this post, I’d like to walk you through the three main parts of our weekly meeting. However, what works for us may not work for you. Please don’t take our “format” and try to apply it in your local church next Sunday morning (it will probably go down like a lead balloon). Instead, think creatively about how you can incorporate these three concepts – honesty, participation and empowerment – into your gatherings with God’s people.

HONESTY

We start every meeting by sitting in a circle, reminding one another we meet around a central focus (Jesus) and that we each have something valuable to contribute. We are all able to teach and minister to one another. We then ask if anyone wants to share what God is doing in their lives.

Well, you should hear some of the stories that come out over the next 10 minutes or so. People share their deep joys and sorrows. It can be messy and awkward, but it can also be staggeringly beautiful. Something amazing happens when we encourage people to be honest in a safe environment. The masks come off. The barriers come down. The burdens are lightened by sharing the load.

I can’t overstate how important this part of the meeting is. It sets the tone for the rest of our time together. We rejoice with those who rejoice, and mourn with those who mourn.  Each time someone openly confesses their sins and struggles, it sets the rest of us free to face our own problems, and releases us to show love and acceptance for one another.

PARTICIPATION

At this point, we lighten the mood and change gears entirely by getting out of our seats and joining in a fun, hands-on activity. There’s often a lot of laughter, friendly competition and teamwork going on. It may look like a shallow game or an “ice-breaker”, but there is usually an underlying message (for those who have their thinking caps on).

The facilitator then asks three simple questions; “what just happened?“, “how did you feel?“, and “what did you learn?“. There are no wrong answers. It is fascinating to hear the many perspectives on the same shared experience. Often, the most unexpected people come up with the most profound insights.

This seemingly trivial exercise gets everyone bonding, everyone thinking, everyone participating. People become vocal and invested, and start to have a sense of belonging to the community. Those who don’t get much out of a lecture format engage in other multi-sensory ways of learning. People stop seeing “church” as the pastor’s responsibility, and start discovering their voice, their gifts and their capacity to impact others.

EMPOWERMENT

After a brief coffee break, the central part of our meeting is gathering around God’s Story. The leader pulls out a Bible – but doesn’t read from it. Instead, he (or she) tells one of the stories in Scripture, using good storytelling skills (setting the scene, using gestures and actions, lots of intonation) to help it stick. We then turn to our neighbour and try to retell the story, checking whether we can recall all the little details. As a group, we explore the story in it’s original context, asking questions such as “how would they have felt?”, “why did that happen?”, etc. We finish by applying the lessons to our own context – “what will you do differently this week?

The reason we use this approach instead of a sermon is to empower God’s people to have direct access to God’s Word. Many people in our group have low literacy levels and little Bible knowledge, so this is an excellent way for them to learn God’s word and remember it. Even those with theology degrees get insights they’ve never seen before. A sermon from the stage can unintentionally send the message that only the professionals and performers are capable of handling God’s message. In contrast, exploring God’s Word in community reminds us that the Holy Spirit can reveal God’s truths to each and every one of us, not just the “experts”.

Perhaps none of this sounds like “church” to you. After all, we don’t sing or have sermons or sit in rows! We don’t even serve grape juice and a crackers (instead, we eat lunch together afterwards – communion as a shared meal). Like I said at the beginning of this post, don’t try to apply this “format” to your gathering, but seek ways to prioritise honesty, participation and empowerment in every meeting of God’s people. I guarantee these three keys will transform the culture of your church community.

Stop bringing people to church, and start sending God’s church to the people.

crowd

Most churches I’ve been to operate from the “attractional church” model – you know, the one where we put on great programs aimed at bringing unchurched people to us, hoping we can then preach them into conversion, and absorb them into the church community. Churches run children’s holiday camps, sports teams, playgroups, parenting programs, marriage courses, ladies’ morning teas, men’s breakfasts, Christmas carol nights and Easter egg hunts, all as bait to reel in unsuspecting “pagans” and convert them. Often, 95% of the people who turn up to the events are already Christians, and the outsiders who come quickly realise they are the “targets” of the whole campaign, and leave feeling quite creepy about the whole experience.

This model of church used to be acceptable. When the local community had a church background and some sense of a “Christian culture”, it was possible to invite them into our buildings and ceremonies and rituals, without completely freaking them out. Today, things have changed. For one thing, our surrounding society has rejected religious Christianity. They no longer see us as harmless, but as sinister and harmful to their own culture and belief systems. Secondly, they are onto us. They can spot a marketing campaign from a mile away. They know when they are being targeted – and they don’t like it.

It’s time for us to stop asking people to come to us, and start going to them. It’s a much better use of our resources. Get your church members to join their local sports club, community playgroup, book club, local council, craft group – whatever appeals to them. But be strategic and intentional. Encourage God’s people to go out in pairs – then they’ve got extra support and encouragement as they show the world what Jesus-followers look like.

Bait-and-switch style evangelistic programs use up a whole lot of resources (people’s time, effort and money) without being terribly effective. Living real life in our neighbourhoods and everyday lives is more biblical, more sustainable, and more logical. Stop trying to trick people into coming to church, and start sending and releasing God’s people to be the church in their communities.

Listening to the least of the these

boredom

My husband just walked in the door with a huge grin on his face. He’s come home from facilitating Fresh Start Community, a weekly gathering of a rag-tag bunch of misfits on their journey towards maturity and unity in Christ. They come from all walks of life – many of them are in recovery from substance addiction, some are covered in prison tattoos, others are gentle grandmothers who come each week to love and be gracious. He always comes home refreshed and inspired.

Today he’s smiling because he’s so blown away by how God speaks through the most unexpected people. A young woman has been coming for a few weeks, and has been very quiet. Sometimes she sits on the outskirts of the circle, playing with the toddler of a single mum. Her own children are in care, while she takes part in a recovery program to overcome the years of drug use, prostitution and crime. During the meeting this morning, when the group were discussing Scripture together, this particular woman spoke up. Her words triggered deeper sharing and insights from others in the circle. Kevin-Neil says it was like the Holy Spirit was in the room. There was a power present, and a number of people commented on it afterwards.

Kevin-Neil is convinced that God loves to speak through the least of these. In a room full of people, it is often the most downtrodden, the most marginalised, the most overlooked person who has the deepest insight into God’s heart for the last, the least and the lost. This is why pastors need to talk less and listen more. This is why we should use our opportunities to lift up and empower others, rather than holding onto the pulpit, the stage and the microphone.

The voiceless have a voice – but the rest of us need to learn how to shut up and listen. We might just hear God speaking to us through those who are often unseen and unheard.

 

Troublemakers in the church? Or just people asking the right questions?

question

The church has a long history of pot-stirrers and righteous troublemakers. Every now and then, a group of people start asking questions from within, disrupting the peace, challenging the system, and driving the church back to biblical principles. The protestant movement was born when Martin Luther directly confronted the practices of the Catholic church. Various groups of dissenters arose over the next few centuries, rejecting a form of religion they saw as unhealthy and unhelpful. Most of our congregations and doctrines today have arisen from the efforts of the dissenters and protesters of the past.

Last year, Alan Knox cheekily wrote an article naming me as a troublemaker in the church (and many readers at Sermon Central would probably agree), because I ask questions about the way we meet, the way we learn and the way we lead. The irony, of course, is that Alan is continually provoking people to rethink how we assemble as the church. He also named fellow mischief-maker Miguel Labrador, who is always willing to tackle heavy questions front-on, generating robust discussions. I’d like to add a few more names to the list of modern-day dissenters – a few of my personal favourites, whose blogs I read regularly. If you haven’t already come across him, make sure you check out Jeremy Myers - he writes thought-provoking articles and e-books which will shake up some of your assumptions about church. Then there’s Eric Carpenter, who is currently working with Jeremy on a book called “What we’re for” (I’m a contributor). Make sure you read some of Eric Hatfield‘s blog too  - a fellow Aussie with a delightful talent for dry sarcasm. Keith Giles is another one who is willing to subvert the establishment and rattle a few cages. One of the newest additions to the network is Richard Jacobson, whose clever videos and cartoons add another medium for communicating some of the issues in the modern institutional church.

I’d like to give a special mention to the most visible and audible presence in the worldwide church today, Pope Francis, who (to my very great joy and delight) is willing to butt heads with the hierarchy and speak out against “clericalization” of the church. What a legend!

Through this blog and Twitter, I’m connecting regularly with pastors and laypeople who are willing to take on the establishment, ask hard questions, take risks, and grapple with a new way of “doing church”. You know who you are! Thank you for being willing to step out on this journey, which could bring so much change in your local church and beyond.

I’m so grateful for these many people whose voices are rising up to ask questions about the way we do church. I’m convinced God’s church is robust enough to cope with a good shakedown, and come out healthier at the other end. Questions need to be asked – and some people are brave enough to ask them. Jesus himself had no problem confronting religious practices gone sour. Please let me know if there are any writers or speakers who have inspired you to question and rethink church practices today, and where that journey is taking you.

Christian community – it’s not as easy as I make it sound.

water bottle & skipping rope

I try to write a blog post each week to inspire and encourage God’s people to stop filling rows and start forming circles – to find creative ways in their churches and in their lives to meet face-to-face, live side-by-side, and minister to one another. Over the past 20 years, my husband and I have had tastes of deep, rich, Christ-centred community which have thrilled and delighted us, and made us hungry for more.

But I’m worried I may have done the wrong thing by my readers. I’m concerned I may have painted a romantic notion of Christian community, which doesn’t match up with reality.

I think I might have made it sound easier than it is.

I’ve joined the gym recently – which is a pretty big deal for me. I haven’t exercised properly for years. I have 4 kids, aged 3-15, so the only time I can get to the gym is 6am – and I am NOT a morning person! It’s easy for me to fantasise about becoming fit, looking great and being able to jog for miles effortlessly. But in reality, it’s going to take a lot of hard work and discipline for me to get there (and I’m never going to achieve the “effortlessly” bit).

It’s not a perfect analogy, but the gym reminds me of the cost of community. I’m not going to get fit by buying a gym membership. I have to turn up and put in the effort. I’m not going to create authentic, Christ-centred community just by talking about it. I have to show up and put in the effort. I need to be intentional and focused. I’ll have to think about my goals and remember them when times get tough. I have to establish sustainable rhythms. I need to understand there will be pain along the way, but it’s worth it.

In many ways, going to the gym is much easier than living like God’s family.  Community is unpredictable and can be terribly painful. The deeper we go with people, the messier it gets. People are messy. Annoying, even. They bring different world views, personality clashes, power struggles and interpersonal conflict. Sometimes they have unhealthy reasons for being there. Sometimes they want to use us to meet their emotional needs. There are times when God’s family feels every bit as dysfunctional as any ordinary human family has the potential to be.

But we were made for family. Family is part of God’s design for all of us. Big, messy, extended families, with strays and adoptees and guests, and crazy Uncle Jim. We are most truly alive in relationship with others. If we put the work in, and consistently pursue reconciliation, there will be beautiful moments. It will be worth it.

I write about meeting in circles – so we can see each other face-to-face. So we can practice dialogue, and listening, and active learning, and mutual ministry. These elements are supposed to be part of our church life, and they’re much more likely to happen in circles than rows. But I also know that rows are easier than circles. A number of churches have tried meeting in circles – but pulled back – it makes people too uncomfortable, there might be conflict, it could get messy and out of control, the handicapped guy talks for too long, the wrong people speak up. There’s a big temptation to go back to a controlled, rehearsed performance. It’s ever so much easier to meet once a week, sitting in rows, listening to one person speak, and finishing up with a brief chat over coffee. Easier, but lacking the power of transformational community.

I hope I haven’t painted romantic, unrealistic pictures of Christian community which don’t ever meet up with reality. I pray you will be able to find, and create, and nurture, and develop spaces to be God’s family face-to-face.

And I hope tomorrow morning I make it to the gym…

The way of love vs. the way of power.

 love-inspirational-daily

One of the most profound theological statements is only three words long – “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Love is the defining characteristic of God’s nature, his personality, his code of conduct. Within the Godhead we find the ultimate picture of interdependent, mutually-submissive, other-centred community – love in its perfect form. Jesus put flesh to love, showing us what it looked like lived out in real life. And he calls us, his followers, to the way of love.

Only, our world doesn’t teach us to walk in the way of love. Since Adam and Eve turned their backs on God’s way, humanity has been broken and damaged. Our relationships have been marked by power struggles, violence and inequality. We jostle for position, prestige and privilege, at the expense of others. We adopt hierarchy structures to convey some sense of order to the continuous wrestle for control over one another. We establish “organisational charts” in our businesses, government and military as a visual reminder that those at the top hold the most authority and influence, while those at the bottom have little or none. Most of us put up with the-way-things-are without questioning, but ask anyone at the lowest tiers of our society – the ones who have no voice, no impact and no way of climbing upwards – and they’ll tell you the system is broken, violent and oppressive. It needs to be turned on its head.

Jesus did just that. To an oppressed people group, the Messiah who was expected to come in power and wrath came in gentleness and vulnerability – heralding in a new kingdom, striking a crippling blow to the powers of empire. In the midst of a power-hungry, revenge-seeking, self-oriented world, he showed his disciples a more excellent way. Serving one another. Looking not to his own interests, but the interests of others. The king who rides a donkey, washes his disciples’ feet, lays aside his claim to equality with God and takes on the form of a servant. Who lifts up the low, loves the unlovable, empowers the disempowered, restores the outcast to society. Who trumps the powers and principalities of this world by stretching out his arms and surrendering his life. An unexpected subversive strategy of non-violent submission, radical and revolutionary, inverting the way of power and overcoming with the way of love.

The story doesn’t end at the cross – or even at the empty tomb. The centre of Jesus’ strategy was modelling the way of love to a small group of followers, who would model and pass it on to more followers, creating a network to spread through the world like yeast through dough – small in size but significant in impact – to undermine the coercive nature of human relationships, undo the way of power, and reconcile the world to God. Just as Jesus embodied the loving relationship of the Godhead, his church is called to embody the way of love, submitting ourselves to God and to one another, and presenting a real and living alternative to the way of power.

10 principles which could transform your church practices – permanently.

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Over the past 15 years or so, my husband and I have been on a journey to find better ways to do church – ways that engage, equip and empower God’s people. We’ve tried to condense some of the “big ideas” we’ve learned over the years into 10 points, which we believe could transform the way God’s people meet, the way they learn and the way they lead.

1. Christ is the centre. We meet in a circle as a strong visual reminder that we have a central theme and focus, and that everything we do should revolve around Jesus. This arrangement also allows us to gather face-to-face, to see and hear one another and minister to one another.

2. One leader, many teachers, no professors. We already have a leader – Jesus. All of us are qualified to teach one another. “Professors” and “experts” shut down dialogue and participation and unintentionally disempower God’s people.

3. Stop performing, start empowering. Get off the stage and start giving people a voice, a value and an impact. Don’t position them as a passive audience, dependent on a professional performer.

4. “The least of these” are the greatest. In Jesus’ upside-down kingdom, the last are first, the foolish shame the wise and weak shame the strong. The most unexpected people have the most to offer the community. When you empower the “least of these”, you empower everybody.

5. Get people talking – unlock them early. Get them talking early on and you won’t have to work hard later in the session. Don’t be tempted to do too much of the talking yourself – push the “ball” out to others. Ask open questions. Look for involvement, not “correct answers”.

6. Create a “no-fail zone”. Accept everyone, as Christ accepted you – and demonstrate that acceptance by affirming people’s answers, opinions and stories. Set up a non-judgemental environment of respect, trust and safety.

7. Laughter leads to learning. Create a fun, active environment for learning together. “Haha” leads to “aha”. When people have fun, it primes the brain for learning and helps the community bond.

8. Discovery is the best teacher. Learning is more powerful when you do it yourself. Don’t spoonfeed people – make them work for their meal. Lectures impart information, but don’t help people think for themselves, change their attitudes and actions. Set up activities which make people think, problem solve and discover insights for themselves.

9. Whole body learning (head, heart & hands). Ears are not the only body part for learning. Engage different senses. Set up learning activities to involve the mind, mouth, emotions and movement.

10. Slow down, shut up and listen. Relax. Get comfortable with long pauses and awkward silences. Never answer your own questions. Have coffee breaks. Don’t try to cover too much ground – “Less is more”. Listen to individuals. Listen to what isn’t being said. Listen to where the group is heading together. Listen to the Holy Spirit – he speaks through the most unexpected people. Trust yourself less and trust God more.

The results are in – people prefer short sermons followed by discussion.

Pencil with "Y" Circled For Yes

This week, I conducted some research on Twitter. I asked which people would prefer; short sermons with the opportunity for discussion, or long sermons without. The results of my poll were resoundingly conclusive – 100% of respondents would like to have short sermons (or even long ones) followed by the chance to respond and explore the topic together.

Now, I’m not going to pretend these are statistically significant results. This was a small sample group, and a very biased one. But I still think this is a simple and easy-to-implement strategy most pastors and churches can take on board, with the potential to equip and empower God’s people.

Next time you are preparing a sermon, think about stripping it back to the essential points, then letting people break into groups of 4 or so to discuss what they have learned. They could answer questions such as;

What stands out to you?

What did you learn about God? About people?

Any life-lessons to apply? How do you plan to apply them?

How can we pray for one another?

The advantages to this approach are huge. You are training God’s people to have spiritual conversations. You can give them the tools they need to think for themselves, and to communicate their knowledge to others. You are sending the message that the church is an equal laity under the headship of Christ, not artificially divided into “professionals” and “consumers”. You are giving them a chance to respond to God’s Word and message, and to teach one another.

However – please take note – this suggestion comes with the following warnings;

WARNING 1: Once people get used to participating and having a voice, they’re not going back. They will find it difficult to sit passively through lengthy monologues, once they realise they can be actively involved.

WARNING 2: Some people won’t like this. They think the current format for church is the way it has always been. They don’t realise the early church meetings were interactive, multi-voiced and participatory.

WARNING 3: Dialogue is an open floor, not a pop-quiz. People are allowed to give any answer at all. Pastors may have to go through a period of “unlearning” – instead of having all the answers, they have to learn to shut up and listen. Get used to a whole new way of thinking as you move away from performance towards facilitation and empowerment.

Don’t rely on the results of my not-very-reliable research – conduct a poll of your own. Ask your congregation whether they would prefer a 40 minute lecture next Sunday, or a 10-15 minute presentation followed by a chance to explore and discuss it together. Your ego may take a bruising if they tell you to shorten your sermons – but it could be the start of a new journey for you and your church community.

Towards a better ecclesiology – the way we do church matters.

arrow on road

Most churches around the world operate from the same basic model – each Sunday morning, people sit in rows, sing some songs and listen to a sermon. Some churches are big, some are small, some have young people, some are older, some have modern music and preaching, some are more traditional – but despite the external differences in style, the “sit+sing+ sermon” model is essentially the same.

But what if this model is holding the church back from its full potential? What if the purpose of church is not to entertain and educate and attract greater numbers, but to build each other up towards maturity and unity, as each one of us participates and contributes (Eph 4:16)? What if rows are preventing God’s people from seeing each other face-to-face, loving one another and encouraging one another as the Bible commands us to? What if group singing has replaced mutual ministry and “one-anothering”? What if monologue sermons are not the most effective way for people to learn and engage with and apply God’s Word?

A growing number of God’s people are becoming dissatisfied with what churches are offering. They don’t feel a need to take time out each week to sit in rows in a room, staring at the backs of people’s heads, without having a chance to interact with them. They don’t see why they should listen to just one person speak on their behalf, rather than allowing all of God’s people to share and discuss what the Holy Spirit is speaking to them. They don’t get the point of sitting passively through a performance, rather than meeting together face-to-face as a relational, interactive, supportive community.

Some of these people are giving up on church altogether – not necessarily giving up on God, but certainly confused and frustrated by his people. Others are seeking out organic church communities – often struggling to find groups in their local area, often feeling disempowered and ill-equipped to start their own.

Some brave churches and groups are exploring a different way to do church, seeking a more biblical ecclesiology. It’s not easy for them. The existing structures, seminaries and Christian society don’t support them. They haven’t got many role models or examples to follow. They are often wandering in the dark, making it up as they go, experimenting and learning along the way.

There are a few bold pioneers who have trekked this path, who have wisdom and experience to share with you and I on our journeys. I highly recommend reading Thom SchultzAlan KnoxKeith GilesDan White JnrNeil ColeMike BreenFelicity Dale andHouse2House Magazine - just to mention a few – not just novices, but spiritually mature elders and mentors advocating and practicing a participatory, empowering ecclesiology rooted in good theology.

The way we do church matters. Possibly more than our theological position. If we can empower God’s people to discover their gifts and their voice, maybe we will see the subversive, upside-down kingdom movement Jesus spoke of, spreading like yeast through the world, unstoppable and uncontainable.