Why I’m slowing down my blogging (for now).

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Five years ago, my husband Kevin-Neil started running a “church service” with recovering drug addicts. Only, it wasn’t like any church service we’ve ever been a part of. It was a group of people sitting in a circle, and sharing their life stories, and engaging in interactive, hands-on learning, and exploring God’s story in community. And it was awesome.

We were so inspired by what we were seeing and learning that I thought I should write a book about it. I managed to put together an initial draft, and then realised I would get more conversation going through blogging. I made a commitment to myself to put one post up every week, to try to communicate a vision of what church could be like if we prioritised active participation, transformational community, and listening to the least of these.

I’ve been blogging now for over three years, and I managed to keep up my roughly-once-a-week commitment until around May this year. Kevin-Neil is still meeting weekly with Fresh Start Community – in fact, he’s in the process of launching similar groups covering the north, south, east and west of our city. I’m still passionate about ways to make church more interactive and empowering, and I still have an unfinished book in me, waiting to come out.

But… life gets busy. This is the first year my four children are in full-time schooling, and I’m beginning the process of retraining to get back into my career path, speech pathology. I have various ministry projects I’m involved in, and there just aren’t that many hours free in a week for a Mum-of-four. I’m coming into a season where I won’t be blogging as often (although I’m sure I’ll post something every now and then).

Looking back over the past few years, I’m quite amazed and grateful for how this journey has worked out…

I’ve gone from around 10 views a weeks when I first started out to an average of 100 views a day, even on the days when I’m not posting anything (it’s nothing compared to the big blogs, but seems like a lot to little old me).

One of my posts “went viral” (surely every blogger’s secret dream?) with over 100,000 views and 22,000 Facebook likes and shares.

ChurchLeaders.com and SermonCentral.com have shared a number of my articles with a much wider audience than I could ever reach, with some posts getting thousands of likes and shares.

I stirred up a heap of controversy on sermoncentral.com when I suggested that pastors should stop preaching and start facilitating.

I contributed regularly to the House2House Magazine website for about a year, along with some of the best-known bloggers of the simple church movement (unfortunately, the website has been taken down, which is a great shame, because it held a treasure trove of great articles from great writers).

I wrote a chapter for “Simple Church”, a collaborative book written by 24 bloggers, and coordinated by Eric Carpenter.

I’ve had some fabulous guest bloggers contribute posts sharing the variety of ways they are expressing “church in a circle” in their local context.

I’ve had posts translated into Greek, French and Portuguese.

Best of all, I’ve connected with literally thousands of people worldwide who long to do church differently, who are looking for creative ways to gather for mutual ministry and “one-anothering”. I’ve been in contact with writers and bloggers who inspire me. I’ve heard from churches who are adopting new approaches to gathering based on what I’ve written, which is incredibly encouraging and humbling at the same time. I’ve had wonderful interactions with my readers through the blog, Facebook and Twitter, and have made many friends in the process.

Thank you for being part of this journey. You may not hear from me as often, but I’m quite sure I’ll connect with you again from time to time, sharing things we are still learning, and contributing a small voice in a time of worldwide change within the church.

Blessings,

– Kathleen

Embracing the glorious mess of church.

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In churches, we tend to avoid mess. We run our Sunday morning worship services to a predictable schedule, we rehearse the music and performances in advance, we neatly package the gospel into a three-point sermon, and we send the children out to another area so the adults can listen in peace.

But does it have to be this way? Do adults actually learn best by listening quietly to a monologue lecture? Could all ages benefit from exploring their faith together in hands-on, tangible ways? In our attempt to keep church tidy and clutter-free, are we missing out on something vital and life-giving?

The all-age worship approach of “Messy Church” began just over 10 years ago in the UK, when Lucy Moore and her team wanted to create a space for families who didn’t normally come to church. They had a vision that church could be a place to be creative, to ask questions, to explore faith and to fellowship around the table together. Today, there are nearly 3000 congregations across 18 countries putting the Messy Church principles into place in their communities.

Lucy has written an easy-to-read, accessible book to help you start your Messy Church service. There are three main elements of each meeting;

FUN – everyone joins in an inclusive, participatory experience. It could be craft, or games, or gardening, or any creative activity that gets everyone involved.

FAITH – the group explore faith through a short worship service, or storytelling, or discussion, or facilitated learning experience.

FOOD – the gathering ends with fellowship and friendship through sharing a meal around tables, creating a space to connect and be human together.

I love the values of inclusion, participation and empowerment in this model. I especially love the name itself – Messy Church. We are all messy people. We live messy lives, have messy families and messy relationships with God. Church should be a place where we are welcomed and accepted as we are, without having to clean up or hide the messiness.

In his blog post, Martyn Payne describes Messy Church as “putting the communion back into the Eucharist; the conversation back into our worship; the community back into our conversion; the serving back into our services; and putting the shared experience of our friendship with Jesus and each other into true discipleship.” Let’s stop trying to make spirituality and community neat and tidy, orderly and contained, and embrace the glorious messiness of being the church together.

Welcoming the outsider.

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I am lucky enough, through no merit of my own, to live in a particularly lovely suburb in the nicest city in the world – Perth, Western Australia. It is a highly sought after area with excellent schools, close to the beach and playgrounds, sunshine most of the year around – a great place to live and to bring up kids. It’s also very cliquey and hard to break into the community if you’re not from around here. The people who live here are mostly white, wealthy and well-educated. I am one of them. I look like them, talk like them and have lived alongside them for many years.

I am an insider.

As a kid, my parents travelled a great deal, and I spent some years moving around the world. When we got back, I was younger than everyone else in my class, having started school overseas. My parents were both from migrant families, and some of the things we did were culturally different from my peers. I always felt different, not part of the group, not a “real Australian” (whatever that means). At 16, I went on an exchange program, and got to experience how it feels to be the minority, not to speak the language well. It made me feel vulnerable and awkward. It was scary.

I was an outsider.

A few years ago, God showed me how central my insider/outsider story is to my life, and how it is a gift. Whenever I’m at our local school (and with four kids, I spend a lot of time there), I notice the newcomers, the strangers, the lonely people. I find myself naturally drawn to people from other cultures and backgrounds, women with beautiful skin and rich accents. Most of my friends look different from me and sound different – although inside, we are all the same.

God also showed me how much Jesus loved the outsiders. He went out of his way to validate them, stand up for them, lift them up and place them within their communities. With words and actions, in front of the crowds, he identified with the lonely, the foreigners, the rejected, the least of these.

I have a passion to create a culture of welcome in my local community. I want to be a bridge-builder between the newcomers and the established families in my children’s school. I am not there to convert them (although I find my Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist friends discuss God and faith and prayer with me easily and naturally in conversation). I am just trying to be a friend. I am looking for ways to promote intentional inclusivity in our playgrounds, homes and neighbourhood.

This Friday, I am organising a welcome morning tea for new families in our school community. Can you join me in praying they find a safe, embracing sense of acceptance there? Can you also commit to looking for the outsiders in your path today, and intentionally including them in your community?

 

The most important skill for Christian leadership (it’s not what you think).

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If you’re going to take any leadership role in any style of church, there’s one skill you’ll need more than any other. In fact, if you are a part of any godly community, there is one capacity you’ll have to develop and use, time and time again.

The ability to apologize.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not great at saying the words “I’m sorry”. If I have a disagreement with my husband, I tend to think I’m right and he’s wrong, and it takes me a while to calm down and put things right. Luckily, he’s more gracious than I am and much faster to ask forgiveness. I deeply appreciate his commitment to reconciliation, and his willingness to humble himself to say sorry, even when I was the one at fault. He has taught me that there is always something I can apologize for – for my tone of voice, my insensitivity, my timing – and that confession and forgiveness lead to a better place and a deeper relationship for both of us. I’m still working on it (and probably always will be).

There are some church settings where you’ll never need to make up, where you won’t go deep enough with one another to ever be called on to work through an offense. But if you take Jesus’ teachings seriously, if you seek out deep, ongoing, loving relationships like a family, you will at some point unwittingly offend those you love the most. If you pursue being the body of Christ, you will step on each other’s toes. And you’ll need to work on your maturity and say those painful words; “I was wrong. I’m so sorry. Will you forgive me?“.

Nobody enjoys the humiliating, hard work of apologizing. We hate being caught out, stuffing up and looking bad. But we are called to a ministry of reconciliation, to the great and glorious task of reconciling the world to God – and the first place we need to work on this is in our relationships with one another.

Don’t mistake church for God.

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Maybe you’ve personally been hurt by church. You might have experienced judgement, hostility and hypocrisy from those who claim to follow Jesus. On the surface you look fine, but underneath, you bear deep wounds and emotional scars from the way you’ve been treated by those you thought would offer safety and love.

Perhaps you’re an outsider, an atheist even, who looks at the church in dismay, questioning how people who call themselves Christians could be so violent towards one another and towards the vulnerable in our societies. You read the history books full of wars and crusades and Christians who defend slavery, violence, oppression, sexism, homophobia, racism and capital punishment, and you want nothing to do with the God they worship.

Or maybe you’re one of the faithful, loyally attending week after week, but you’re starting to question some of the things you have taken for granted your whole life. You find yourself opening up to new thoughts, changing your perspective, questioning certain interpretations of scriptures, challenging the way things are done – and you wonder whether you should simply abandon it all.

Whatever stage you’re at, wherever your faith is at, I have some advice for you:

Don’t confuse church with God.

Don’t assume that what happens in churches is an accurate reflection of God. What you’ve seen was just a dysfunctional institution, not the God of Love.

Don’t turn away from following Jesus just because his people acted like jerks.

Don’t let go of faith, just because you’ve seen people being unfaithful.

Don’t stop meeting with God’s people, even if you never enter a church building again.

Don’t give up on Scripture, just because some of it has been misinterpreted and misused to support slavery, oppression, patriarchy and homophobia.

Church is just a bunch of messy humans, muddling along, trying to follow Jesus in the way they’ve been shown, getting distracted and confused and set-up by the system, losing their way or their energy, getting hurt and hurting others. At their worst, churches can go off-course, become dysfunctional and do a great deal of damage. At their best, they can be caring communities who love one another and create a sacred space to allow a meeting between people and God. But “church” and God are never the same thing.

If you’ve been hurt, or turned off, or disillusioned by church, I pray your pain and confusion drive you toward God, not away from him. If you need to, take a break from Sunday church. Have a change of scene. Revisit the Scriptures and see what the early church looked like (probably a far cry from what you have seen in your lifetime). Lean into God and away from institutions. Look for church outside the walls of the building, in cafes and living rooms and on the streets. And don’t give up hope that God’s people can give a glimpse of God’s glory and love, despite all their faults and weaknesses.

 

Why morning tea is the pinnacle of my worship service.

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My husband and I are involved in two church communities. Fresh Start Community is the “church in a circle” which inspires and teaches us, and the reason we write this blog. On Sundays, however, we attend “church in rows” – a regular church, which follows the same sit+sing+sermon model as most churches around the world.

As churches go, our local church is pretty awesome. It’s a multigenerational, messy bunch of local families, elderly residents, inspired young people, and nearly as many children as adults. The teaching is solid, and the highlight of the gathering is the participatory, open table, as we celebrate communion together.

But personally, I don’t think “church” starts until morning tea time.

You see, the writings to the early church are chock-full of instructions ending in the words “one another”. We are instructed to teach one another, serve one another, encourage one another, pray for one another – and above all, to love one another. Any form of church which herds us into rows and prevents us from connecting with one another is holding us back from being a family, a people group, a body, a community.

So, my favourite part of Sundays is when the official communion is over, and we begin a fresh act of communion. The volume swells the moment we stand up from our pews. Half the church end up chatting in the chapel, as the other half gather over the coffee cups. The whole place bubbles with conversation and confession, hugs and handshakes, prayers and encouragement, for about an hour, until people peel themselves away reluctantly and go into their week (sometimes people move from morning tea into lunch, so conversations can last longer and go deeper).

I love morning tea time at our church. I usually don’t even get a cup of tea or any food (the half-eaten cookies my children thrust into my hands as I stand talking don’t count), but I am fed with the joy of connecting with my church family. It always leaves me hungry for more. To me, this is the high point of our time together, this is the glimpse of community, this is the entry point to deeper connections and real relationships. Don’t tell our pastor, but there have been times where we’ve skipped the morning service altogether, and turned up just in time for morning tea!

Let’s stop thinking church is a set of activities we do (singing, sermons and sacraments) and realise “church” happens when we love, serve and connect with God’s people.

 

The myth of the perfect church

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Human beings are created with an inbuilt tendency towards idealism. Fairy tale stories and superhero movies reflect our need for happy endings and superhuman abilities. We grow up with romantic and unrealistic expectations of life, which are often dashed against the rocks of reality, leaving us hurt and disappointed.

You can see this idyllic imagination at work in our searches for a romantic partner. My youngest daughters (age 6 and 4) sometimes take turns being a bride and marrying each other, already living out the dream of “happily ever after”. They don’t yet know that every marriage involves two very different and flawed humans, who will have downs as well as ups, and who will never fully be able to meet each other’s needs and expectations.

When it comes to church, we have the same idealism, only even higher. After all, we have Scripture verses to back it up. We long to be part of an intimate community of people who love one another, accept us as we are and empower us to be all we can be.

Our idyllic notions often take a battering in institutional church, so we turn our hearts towards a romanticised notion of “organic church”. In our minds, this new-and-improved-model-of-church will meet all our needs and bring us towards “happy ever after”. In the real world, organic churches have their problems too – their power struggles, personality clashes and failure to meet people’s expectations.

Organic church life can be amazing. In fact, institutional church life can be equally amazing. However, just like a marriage, any of these relational settings needs to be approached with the right mindset and commitment to playing our part. There are certain characteristics which will create the transformational community we long for – honesty, authenticity, acceptance, kindness, patience, love. The problem is, these things come at a cost. They require effort and truckloads of maturity. They are not always easy and they don’t always feel good.

If you want to find some magical, picture-perfect church community, give up now. However, if you’re prepared to struggle with your own issues, put up with other people’s foibles, and commit for the long haul, you may just find glimpses of the joy and fellowship you crave. It won’t be an easy journey, but along the way you will change yourself and your church community, for good.

There is only one church.

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Today, I met some wonderful Christian brothers and sisters from the local Arabic Church. Their skin colour was different than mine, their cultural background was different, and their native language was different – but we reminded each other we are all from the same Church, we all worship the same God, we are united by the same Spirit.

I am very grateful that God allows so many diverse and beautiful representations of his church to flourish. I celebrate that we can worship God in rows or in circles, informally or liturgically, in living rooms and in mega-churches, contemplatively or loudly, in organic or organised structures. We have so many different personality types and contexts that we need different expressions, different denominations, different models of ministry. Jesus promises to be present when His people gather in His name – without setting too many ground rules for what those gatherings are supposed to look like.

I want to thank traditional churches for carrying the Scriptures and the message of God through the ages and keeping it intact for us to receive today. I want to thank local churches for caring for the folk in your area. I want to thank mega-churches for providing a high-quality, attractional service for those who are seeking. I want to thank progressive churches for engaging in complex dialogue with those who are questioning. I want to thank missional churches for stepping out of your comfort zone and going where God sends you.

This Sunday, my local church is combining with the Arabic Church to share together in a Love Feast. We get pretty excited about these events – not because two churches are coming together, but because there is only one church. No matter how we express ourselves, no matter what clothes the pastor wears (or whether there even is a pastor), we are united as a body with Jesus as the Head. We are members of the same family. And that makes me happy.

This is a repost of an article from August 2013. I’m still thanking God for the many and varied expressions of his church throughout the world.

5 reasons why young people are seeking old ways of doing church.

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When I was young, there was nothing worse for a church than to be “traditional”. We stripped back the liturgy, swapped the organ for a drum-kit, and replaced the hymnals with Hillsong. We unceremoniously dumped the icons, architecture and rituals that had fed the church for hundreds of years. We were desperate to present a cool, socially acceptable, “relevant” package for modern culture.

Today, something unexpected is happening. There is a small but distinct movement of young people abandoning the smoke machines, multi-purpose buildings and celebrity pastors of recent church models, and heading back towards traditional worship services, where sacraments are central, buildings are beautiful, and the liturgy has a historic rootedness about it. Gracey OlmsteadRachel Held EvansAaron NiequistBen Irwin and Erik Parker have written illuminating articles about why young people are embracing “un-cool” church and becoming “liturgy nerds”.

What is going on?

Every person’s journey is different, but here are a few reasons why those who have grown up in evangelical churches are increasingly drawn to high church practices and historical forms of worship.

AUTHENTICITY

Young people today have been marketed to all their lives, and they can see past gimmicks and tricks. They don’t need church to pretend to be something it’s not – an entertainment venue, a relationship course, a nightclub. They find it refreshing to enter a building which openly proclaims itself as a worship space, to take part in ceremonies and rhythms which unashamedly focus on worship. They’ve swapped the salesman’s pitch for simple sacraments.

ROOTEDNESS

In an era of continuous rapid change, young people are seeking to feel grounded and connected to their past. This is why retro and vintage fashions have made such a comeback in recent years. Farmers markets, knitted scarves and cardigans, typewriter fonts, nostalgic photo effects, thick-rimmed glasses and Op Shop clothing are the new “cool”. In the midst of chaotic change and technology, there is a strong desire to be rooted and grounded in traditions of the past.

MYSTERY

God cannot be contained in a 30 minute sermon. Or even a 45 minute one. We worship a God we cannot see, cannot truly understand, cannot adequately explain, cannot prove. Ancient forms of faith allow us to return to a sense of mystery, rather than containing God in a box made of words.

ICONS & SYMBOLISM

Shane Hipps points out that icons and images are replacing words as the main method of communication. This generation are deeply visual and iconic. The word-centred, book-dependent communication style of previous generations has given way to a love affair with symbols and imagery, which are far better expressed in ancient liturgies than in contemporary worship.

PARTICIPATION

Sacramental worship offers a hands-on, multi sensory, participatory act of community. The simple, everyday rituals of a bath (baptism) and a meal (eucharist) are tangible and interactive, inviting God’s people to actively participate rather than passively listen.

The departure of young people from “new” churches to “old” ones can be deeply confusing to many who grew up with strict denominational boundaries. However, it has the potential to lead to healthy, restorative spaces for many of God’s people. After all, we are all one church. As Brian Zhand expresses it; “we need the whole body of Christ to properly form the body of Christ. This much I’m sure of: Orthodox mystery, Catholic beauty, Anglican liturgy, Protestant audacity, Evangelical energy, Charismatic reality — I need it all!

 

From 2D church to 3D community.

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In primary school, we learned to convert 2D shapes (circles, squares and triangles) into 3D objects (spheres, cubes and pyramids). A shape is flat when it only has height and width, but when you add depth, it becomes robust, substantial and three dimensional.

It struck me recently that church in rows is very two dimensional. The sermons and the singing create a space for me to interact with God, but there is no structured space for me to interact with his people, even though we’re sitting together in the same room. I’m literally missing out on the third dimension of church life – one-anothering. Sure, I can catch up over a cup of tea afterwards, or meet up on Wednesday night, but it’s not that difficult to set up opportunities for God’s people to pray for one another, teach, encourage, build-up and love one another in our Sunday services. It just requires a shift in our concept of “church”.

When Jesus was asked for the greatest commandment in the Law, he replied “Love the Lord your God … this is the first and greatest commandment”. He could have left it at that, but he didn’t. He followed it up by saying; “the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself'”. Jesus never invited us into a two-dimensional, flat relationship between us and God, he wanted us to dive into the messy, three-dimensional space of loving God and others, of becoming his people, showing the world what it means to live in true unity.

We’re so accustomed to flat, two dimensional church in rows that we haven’t realised we’re missing out on the vital third dimension of one-anothering. When we rethink how gather, how we lead and how we interact as God’s people, we will create a robust, rich 3D environment for spiritual growth as a community.