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.

Jesus wouldn’t choose the same leaders you would.

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In church these days, we know how important it is to choose the right leaders. After all, these people will represent our local church (and God himself) to the community around us. We nominate selection committees and spend countless hours searching for the right person who will embody the moral and professional characteristics needed to lead God’s church in the right direction, to shepherd and guide and nurture and feed us. “Top Ten” lists of leadership characteristics tell us we should seek out church leaders who are skilful, competent, professional, influential, visionary, hard-working, energetic and gifted communicators.

Jesus didn’t seem to get that memo.

While we look for the most squeaky-clean, well-presented, got-it-together, charismatic communicators to lead the church, Jesus chose the most rag-tag, unlikely outsiders to be his ambassadors.

He publicly endorsed a despised tax collector who stole from his own people.

He commissioned a naked madman as his first missionary.

He entrusted a promiscuous Samaritan woman with his testimony.

He held up a Roman centurion, the military enemy of the Jewish people, as the greatest example of faith in Israel.

He let a woman sit in learning at his feet, in the place of a man.

He handpicked uneducated workmen as his proteges.

He selected a headstrong, unfaithful loudmouth to be the foundation for the church.

He chose the murderer of the church to proclaim his name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel.

Over and again, Jesus picked the most unlikely characters to represent him – the least of these, the outsiders, the bottom of the food chain. What was he thinking?

Fortunately, we know much better now. We’ve learned from leadership manuals and business studies what to look for in the perfect leader, the top 10 list of character traits to measure up against, how to get the very best people in the right positions.

But maybe, just maybe, we’ve missed the point?

 

If form follows function, perhaps we need to redesign our churches.

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The number one rule of architecture is “form follows function.” Buildings and spaces should facilitate and enhance their purpose, not detract from it.

The New Testament gives us multiple glimpses of what the function of church should be, in the 50+ “one another” instructions.

“Encourage one another.” 2 Corinthians 13:11

“Build one another up.” 1 Thessalonians 5:11

“Instruct one another.” Romans 15:14

“Accept one another.” Romans 15:7

“Serve one another humbly in love.” Galatians 5:13

“Teach and admonish one another” Colossians 3:16

“Spur one another on toward love and good deeds” Hebrews 10:24

“Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other.” James 5:16

“Offer hospitality to one another” 1 Peter 4:9

“Honor one another above yourselves.” Romans 12:10

“Have fellowship with one another” 1 John 1:7

“Love one another.” John 13:34

How can we focus on one-anothering if we are seated in rows, gazing on the backs of one another’s heads?

How will we confess our sins to one another, pray for one another, encourage and build one another up if we sit silently facing a stage?

How do we empower all of God’s people to be actively involved in one-anothering if we only give a small minority a voice, a platform, a position?

Perhaps we need to rethink our spaces, rearrange our seating, and redesign our buildings to reflect the purpose and function of gathering together as a church community.

Seasons of church

 Autumn

My life has been pretty busy lately.

I’ve taken on a few projects which I may write about soon. Also, the summer holidays have come to an end on this side of the world, and I have one child finishing high school, one starting high school, and the youngest starting full-time Pre-Primary. For the first time in 17 years, all four of my kids are in school during the week (yay!). This frees me up in some ways, but also allows me to fill up my hours with volunteer work and things-I’ve-been-waiting-to-do-for-years-and-years.

Anyway, in all the busyness of this season, I haven’t had much time to write. After three years of putting up one post a week, I’ve gone nearly 6 weeks without blogging! I hope you will all forgive me (if you even noticed my absence).

It strikes me that we move through busy and quiet seasons of life, and we may also move through different seasons of church. Most churches run a one-size-fits-all approach to gathering together, where we sit in rows, sing some songs and listen to a sermon, Sunday after Sunday after Sunday. But perhaps this model doesn’t fit with the seasons of life.

I love the concept of “organic church”. Rather than viewing church as a machine, which needs to be oiled and maintained, we see it as a plant, which grows, reproduces and dies in different seasons. It is incredibly liberating to realise that different forms of church we participate in don’t have to go on year after year to be successful – sometimes they may last a few months, or meet every-now-and-then, but they can still be powerful and effective in our lives.

Hopefully I get more time to write this year. I’d love to write a book about all the things we have learned about doing church in a circle. I look forward to seeing what God has in store for this season of life and church.

6 things you can’t do in a circle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One body, one head, many parts.

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

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

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

Here is what that looks like in the church -

the mature mentor the immature.

The elders instruct the younger.

The rich share with the poor.

Those who have gifts equip others for acts of service.

The powerful defend the powerless.

The strong bear with the failings of the weak.

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

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

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

Thank you for a great year!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy New Year!

 

Come to the manger.

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

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

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

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

This discordant song.

This juxtaposition.

Creator God, wrapped in rags.

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

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

Come to the manger.

The burden of one – why pastors are struggling in ministry

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

Pastors are under a lot of pressure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love Feast – communion as a shared meal.

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

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

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

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