Will podcasts replace pastors? Perhaps they already are…

wireless mice

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

The truth is, I actually rather like sermons.

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

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

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

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

 

Love God. Love others. The rest is details.

Faith

According to Jesus, the entire Old Testament Law and the Prophets can be boiled down to two commandments; “Love God“, and “Love others“. The first is our personal, vertical relationship with God. The second is our interpersonal, horizontal relationship with people.

These two love-actions are not separate from each other – they are intrinsically linked. That’s why Jesus says; “the second (command) is like (the first)” (Matthew 22:39). Loving God and loving others go together. If we say we love God, but do not love one another, we are lying to ourselves and do not know the truth of God’s love.

To me, the shape of the cross is a reminder of the intersection of vertical spirituality (love for God) and horizontal (love for others). We experience and take part in God’s love when we learn to stretch out our arms and embrace the other, when we lay ourselves down to lift others up, when we unclench our fists and forgive those who have hurt us.

We are called to a cross-shaped love in our relationships with one another. That is the main reason I believe churches need to prioritise face-to-face, side-by-side, heart-to-heart one-anothering in our gatherings. Creating spaces for God’s people to encourage, confess, teach, minister and pray for one another is a joy-filled experience which blows me away every time I encounter it.

Love God. Love others. Everything we do as “church” should be equipping each other to fulfil these two commands. The rest is just religion.

Scapegoating, terror alerts, and how Australian Christians should respond.

Red Light

Unpopular governments are always anxious to turn the anger of the people away from themselves and towards someone else. The philosopher Rene Girard describes the “scapegoat mechanism” all societies use to defuse internal tensions by agreeing upon a common enemy, a scapegoat, an outside party to carry the blame and anger and sin of the whole community. It’s a theme universal as time itself – scapegoating is at the heart of all wars and conflicts, as well as the basis for racism, patriarchy, homophobia, social injustice and genocide.

Since 2001, Australian leaders on both sides of politics have deliberately set up scapegoats to distract the focus from their own incompetence. Elections have been won on promises to “stop the boats” – stirring up anxiety over foreign refugees seeking freedom and a future by traveling to our nation by sea. Thousands of traumatized men, women and children have been locked up and hidden away, often for years, and now face being relocated as part of the cruel “No Way” campaign, hand-balled to nations with abysmal human rights records. Asylum seekers are no longer treated as vulnerable people with rights, but as human political pawns.

More recently, the peaceful, moderate Muslim population of Australia have become the target of prejudice and suspicion, as the government capitalizes on the horror of ISIL by stirring up fear of “homegrown terrorism” (conveniently distracting the population from an unpopular budget and rushing through laws which undermine our freedoms). In the past two weeks, since our terror alert was raised, we’ve seen a rapid escalation in hate crimes, racist attacks and threats of violence against mosques, Islamic schools and Australian women wearing headscarves known as hijab. The Muslim faith has become associated in some people’s minds with radicalized extremism, and has become a scapegoat for the internal tensions within our broader society.

Jesus showed us a different way to live.

Jesus became the ultimate scapegoat when he died on the cross. In this world-changing act, he exposed the forces of violence by which our societies operate, and welcomed in a new kingdom, a new way to relate to one another, the way of love.

Through his life and teachings, Jesus  turned the scapegoating system upside down. He lifted up the marginalized and ostracized. He embraced the outsider. He met the needs of the needy. He loved the unlovely. He healed the sick, supported the weak, celebrated the least, the lost and the last. But he also stood up to the authorities, the gatekeepers, the system of hierarchy and scapegoating which divided people into separate groups.

Jesus began a new kingdom.

As Jesus-followers, we are called to a radical, subversive position of nonviolent love. Not some passive, sit-on-your-hands-and-do-nothing position, but an attitude of identifying with the outsiders and scapegoats in our society, and boldly challenging the crowd in their thirst for violence. Our creative nonviolence is meant to expose the violence deep at the heart of our “civilized societies”.

This call to action is not without risk. Jesus was crucified by his own people group for preaching peace. Many leaders of nonviolence movements have been assassinated. Jesus was serious when he told us we would has to take up our cross daily if we were willing to follow in his footsteps.

In the midst of the hysteria and racism, I am encouraged.

I’m encouraged by the #WISH movement (Women In Solidarity with Hijabis), which emerged after Kate Leaney (from Welcome to Australia) wore a hijab for a week to identify with her Muslim friends. I am inspired by more than 70 Christian leaders (nuns and priests, Anglicans and Pentecostals, and every type of Christian in between) who have been arrested for sitting in politicians’ offices and politely asking when the children will be released from detention. I am excited that there are hundreds more from all denominations preparing to creatively demonstrate nonviolent love as part of the #LoveMakesAWay movement, despite the risks of taking on the system.

These brave people are exposing the heart of cruelty and violence in our system.

As Jesus followers, we don’t need to give in to fear, and we certainly don’t need to scapegoat other humans. Now is the time for us to stand in solidarity with the marginalized and scapegoated. Now is the time for us to befriend and defend Australian Muslims. Now is the time for us to reframe the conversation around asylum seekers, and stand up for the least of these.

Because Jesus shows us that where there is no way, love makes a way.

Blessed are the messy people.

Smiling Girl with Hands Covered in Paint

Thank you, God, for the messy people. They tear down my neat boundaries. They take me out of my comfort zone and invite me into the messiness of life.

Thank you, God, for the question-askers. They drive me back to the text to learn more. They make me admit I don’t have all the answers. They inspire me with their hunger for knowledge and understanding.

Thank you, God, for the vulnerable. They expose my own vulnerabilities. They give me courage to share openly and honestly. They draw out my empathy and gentleness.

Thank you, God, for the little people. They force me to behave like an adult. They remind me I am responsible for the well-being of others. They show me what simple, trusting faith looks like.

Thank you, God, for the outsiders. They see life differently. I need their rich and different perspective.

Thank you, God, for those who have suffered greatly. Their wisdom is written on their faces and poured out in their words. They shift the focus from shallow things to deep. They know the full value of life and relationships.

Thank you, God, for the broken and needy. Their hearts are close to you.

Thank you, God, for bringing people into our lives, who will push us, and stretch us, and challenge us, and shape us, and help us grow. May we always see their beauty and worth through your eyes.

Lectio Divina – an ancient church practice in a modern church setting.

Bible

 I’ve been Twitter friends with Fred Liggin for a while now (he also blogs at “Inside this guy’s head“). Each week, his missional community gathers with other communities for communal worship. Some weeks, they practise the ancient church discipline of Lectio Divina - a reflective, communal approach to Scripture, which can be used in churches in place of a sermon. I asked Fred to tell me more about this technique, and how it works in a large group gathering.

Each Sunday morning all of our missional communities and faith family come together under one roof. We sing, we share at the Lord’s Table, and we focus on God’s Word. As a church, we are learning to value dialogue (not only monologue), and are fostering a conversational community where communal discernment is embraced and invited, where shared leadership is emphasised, and each person actively participates. We use a variety of techniques to explore Scripture together, including Lectio Divina.

Lectio Devina: Discerning Life With God Together

The Sundays we practice Lectio Devina prove to be beautifully formative experiences. I could offer story after story of what we’ve seen and heard in the midst of our gatherings (and I will tell you one of them today). But first, this is how we practice it in a large gathering of people.

There are four basic moves in our practice of Lectio Devina (we call these “moves” in an effort to distinguish them from a “steps” mentality because it is not a four-step linear process; it as a movement between states of awareness where each stage naturally progresses). This is not a Bible study where we are interpreting the text, as much as allowing the text to interpret us. Here is how it works in detail.

Movement One: Reading Deeply

While sitting in a comfortable position after a few moments of silence (which is awkward in our noisy world!) we begin with silence before God. We are now ready to listen as someone reads the text aloud. Everyone is reminded to savor each word as they listen for a particular phrase that speaks to them and captures their imagination. After the reading a few moments of silence each person is invited to ask God, “What word or phrase do you want me to hear today?” A few more moments of quiet reflection is offered. Finally, anyone is welcomed to share aloud just the word or phrase. No elaboration is needed. This means we do not share anything that isn’t present in the text. In other words, we do not seek to make application. Not yet. We just listen. We simply allow God’s Spirit to speak through His Word slowly as we identify a word or phrase directly from Scripture.

Movement Two: Thinking Deeply

The text is read aloud again using the same translation, preferably by a different voice as it provides a different experience. Each person is invited to slowly repeat the phrase that seems to be for them while the passage is read again. We want to think deeply with God. We ask God, “Where does this  phrase touch my life?” After a few moments to reflect each person is invited to share their reflection aloud using phrases such as “I hear…” “I see…” “I feel…”

Movement Three: Living Deeply

The text is read aloud a third and final time. Each person is invited to speak to God in words or images what He places on their heart. That response may be confession, thanksgiving, joy, or repentance. Finally, each person asks God, “What do You want me to do in light of this phrase?” This may come instantly for some while for others it unfolds throughout time. After a few moments of reflection anyone is invited to share aloud their response.

Movement Four: Rest

Finally we simply rest in silence in God’s presence, meditating on this experience with His Living Word.

Once we have enjoyed this time together I usually ask the church if we could identify any consistent themes within the room. I don’t force it. I want to allow the chance for deeper listening to what the Spirit could be saying to us as a community. I may offer extra insight into the particular Scripture in its context, but for no more than 10 minutes and only after we’ve all listened deeply to God through the text. I do not want to shape our readings, only ask God to shape our understanding of what it means to live from this text as His people joined with Him in Williamsburg, Virginia. My hope is that this part of the experience gives our collective reading theological and missiological integrity while inviting all of God’s people to work out the text in their lives as disciples of Jesus.

Lana’s Story

Lana had joined us in our gatherings for quite some time. She wasn’t sure what do with Jesus, much less church. Like many she had been burned. And like many she enjoyed complete and utter independence. If anything Lana was a New Age spiritualist. But over the past few months Jesus had been capturing her attention. Most weeks, Lana would come late to gathering and leave early in an effort to avoid as many people as possible. This Sunday would be different.

After practicing Lectio Devina with Psalm 131 (which is a great text to introduce Lectio Devina with, by the way), Lana was compelled to share her reflection from movement three: “I think God is telling me I need to forgive my ex-husband, who abused me and left me almost homeless along with our children.”

She began to weep. And as she did, many in our community stepped out of their seats and just simply surrounded her in silence. It was as if God wanted her to know she wasn’t alone. No words were said, no advice given. People just surrounded her. Some were praying silently for her peace while some were just simply sharing her burden.

Making space for God to work

A sermon on forgiveness would not have created the space for that to happen. Yes, of course the Holy Spirit can work in, through, beyond and in spite of a sermon, I get that and I believe it. It’s why I preach. I’ve seen God use sermons in countless ways. But God is often a both/and Person, not an either/or. He is not limited in His capacity to work through a variety of circumstances, moments or mediums. Because I believe in His creative power to work among us, I feel it is my responsibility to make space for God to work when we gather.

At Williamsburg Christian Church we are finding that using a variety of practices of learning from Scripture blesses us and forms us in particular ways. We are embracing mutuality as a core value as we learn what it means to be citizens of God’s kingdom in everyday places and spaces. We are learning to listen to the Holy Spirit, and to one another.

Have you practiced Lectio Divina or “Dwelling in The Word” in your church community? How has it impacted you? Do you see the value in this practice of listening to God’s Word and to each other?

 

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.