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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time for change

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

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

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

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

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


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

Cup of Coffee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Intergenerational ministry

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our four week cycle looks like this :

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

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

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

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

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

We have a number of principles that guide us-

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

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

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

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

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

Businessman Thinking on Steps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Young Man with His Hand on His Forehead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

worn white cardboard box isolated on white background..

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Going DEEPER with Jesus – a seminar in a circle.

Water Being Poured Into Glass

Ray Hollenbach blogs regularly at Students of Jesus, and is the author of “The Impossible Mentor: Finding Courage to Follow Jesus“, as well as writing for a wide range of Christian publications. He spent 15 years preaching from the front, but has recently begun looking for a way for God’s people to go deeper with Christ – and with each other. His search led him to start up DEEPER Seminars this year (here’s a great testimony from a pastor who took part in one). I asked Ray to share what goes on in these seminars – here is his response;

Leonard Sweet likes to call it the “Big Jug” theory of learning: when one source (the expert) has all the knowledge in a big jug and the rest of us (the students) gather around to passively receive. “The little jug’s job is to catch all the droppings from the big jug,” Sweet explains. I know there is a place for this kind of learning, but I’ve come to the growing realization that such a setting has very little to do with discipleship.

Each year thousands of people (tens of thousands, really) descend upon large cities to attend Christianity’s “big shows,” faith conferences—the parachurch equivalent of mega-churches. On stage is the big jug and the little jugs in the stadium seats soak up the droppings. I’m grateful for these gatherings and the excitement they generate. I also see how much is spilled and wasted when the big jug distributes the water of life apart from listening and relationship.

As a pastor of 15 years experience, I have great respect for the pulpit and the role of preaching, yet in the years after I stepped away from weekly preaching, I began to realize that preaching does not make disciples, people do. Preaching can (and does) lead people to Jesus. It sows hope like seeds on a hillside and dares people to believe the impossibly good news of God’s Kingdom. During those 15 years I also came to understand the limits of preaching—even on a Sunday morning.

At the beginning of 2014 I began visiting other churches with a subversive agenda: to engage in conversations about discipleship, rather than to lecture folks on what to do. This was the birth of DEEPER Seminars, an interactive small-group setting that leads to discovery of our deepest assumptions about what it means to follow Jesus. As the facilitator of these conversations, I’ve received more than I’ve given. Here are three lessons I’ve personally learned:

Each person’s history holds the presence of God. Through good decisions or bad, our lives confirm that Jesus really is Emmanuel, God with us. I’ve heard story after story of how God has used our past as the foundation for spiritual understanding, and how he infuses every life experience with the wisdom necessary for our good and our growth. If I were the only person talking, these stories would never come to light. The church needs to hear these stories.

God’s grace is about more than forgiveness: it’s about growth. I’ve listened to men and women tell stories of how the Spirit of God whispered to them in their failures and taught them lessons that go way beyond book learning or doctrine. In the messy everyday situations of life, the Spirit brings insight and revelation, and this, too, is the proper operation of his grace. A preaching-only method of communication tends to reduce the vast topic of grace to acronyms and slogans. I’ve watched as people gathered together for conversation light up and say, “What? You too? I thought I was the only one . . .

Sometimes we box Jesus into the role of “Savior.”  Together, as we read the scripture in intimate settings and look closely at the life of Jesus, we discover the Lord’s longing for us to receive him as “Example” as well as “Savior.” This is good news with a deep challenge: instead of merely appreciating his actions, we are called to imitate them. I’ve discovered there’s no greater transition required of us today, and lectures can never accomplish this transformation.

I’ve found that the deepest transformations come in living room sessions, church basements, and in the circle of sharing the word of God with one another. This discovery has given me the passion to schedule DEEPER Seminars in the most unlikely places, and to realize that in God’s kingdom even the teachers have much to learn.

Do you see any value in a “seminar in a circle”? How would this compare with the Christian conferences and seminars you’ve attended over the years? 

Seminary in a circle – insights from Miguel Labrador.

seminary in a circle

Miguel and Claudia Labrador are missionaries in the Cloud Forest Region of Ecuador. When they started up a formal structure to train local people in theology, they made the deliberate choice to structure classes in a circle. I asked Miguel to tell me a little more about this decision.

I was recently asked about the ‘Seminary’ we have established in the Andes Mountains Cloud Forest Region of Ecuador. To be honest, I’ll have to admit that I don’t exactly know why we call it ‘Seminary,’ but I suspect it fulfills a felt need for affirmation amongst a religiously conquered people. From the very beginning, I, and several others, sought to create a different kind of seminary, and looked for a different kind of seminary student. The pool of the first class consisted of those already actively engaged in God’s mission.

Our goal was not to remove students from their native environments, train them in some esoteric or theoretically detached theology and then reinsert them back into their natural settings to figure out how to make what they’ve learned relevant. In fact, it was quite the reverse. We brought them into seminary with their relevances, we dialogued, and through healthy and continued debate and exploring God’s Word in community, we learn together.

Our ‘classes’ are not structured in common lecture format. We form a circle of the students where each can see the other, there are no ‘teacher’s pets’ sitting up front, and no missed misunderstandings or disagreements. What do I mean? Well, in normal formats, when someone doesn’t understand a particular comment or teaching and that person is situated in a row ‘behind’ others, no one catches it. When someone has another point of view, a correction to be offered, or an outright disagreement, they are often lost in the regimented crowd. This is clearly demonstrated when, in a rowed class, someone from the back of the room has to strain to be noticed and those in front have to turn around to get eye contact with them, or to even hear.

Being in a circle with other students requires a certain amount of vulnerability. The vulnerability is equally dispersed when each one is equally distanced from the center. There is no caste system, no raised physical or mental platform, and no mechanically engineered linear divisions which only serve to separate people. There are times, however, when the professors may feel surrounded if they go into the center of the circle. But ultimately I think this is healthy. It certainly is for me.

Lastly, gathering in a circle is not just talking about the layout of the room. Changing the seating might not change anything. A circular ‘attitude’ is also required. Believers tend to focus on the vertical relationship and neglect the horizontal. They have been taught to look up for strength, guidance, peace etc. Yes, by all means, look to the One, the Head, He who is above all, but also look to each other, horizontally, as the church of the living God. ‘Seminary in a Circle’ is a little bit more formal (than our regular fellowship meetings) in the dissemination of information, yes, but it also assumes participation expressed by eating together, doing life together, missioning together, and constantly moving the center of the circle to where the Spirit leads.

Our seminary is just one circle in a multi-rippled set of concentric circles and one piece of a multi-pronged approach to sustaining a robust, organic, and flourishing disciple making movement. If you have further questions, let me know. You can contact me on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/missional.

I recommend following Miguel on Facebook, Twitter or through his blog, God-Directed Deviations – he’ll ask you questions to provoke you to think more deeply about everything you think you know about missions and ecclesiology. 

What do you think? Would it be better to study theology in rows or in a circle? Is there any need for seminaries to rethink their teaching techniques?



Are circles better than rows? A new blog series about fresh approaches to church.

office meeting

The majority of churches around the world use roughly the same format and layout, no matter what size, or denomination, or demographic. Chairs are arranged in parallel rows, facing towards a stage. After some group singing, a qualified professional takes the microphone and interprets God’s Word for the rest of the community. No response or interaction is required from those in the rows, apart from 60 seconds of “say hi to the person next to you” and singing along with the worship team. Any interaction which does take place is in a separate area, over tea and coffee, without any structured attempt to facilitate spiritual conversations.

Sure, there are advantages to rows (you can fit more people in, you can deliver a well-rehearsed presentation without interruption, you can minimise the distractions of eye-contact and interaction with the people around you), but there are distinct limitations to what you can achieve when people are seated so they can only see the backs of one another’s heads.

A completely different dynamic comes into play when people are seated in circles, rather than in rows. They can see, hear and interact with one another. They can minister to each other. God’s people are visually positioned as equals, gathering around a central focus, all with equal access to God and to the Holy Spirit. Every individual present  becomes important, rather than elevating a single performer over a passive audience. The meeting is less predictable and less controllable in a circle than in rows, but this messiness comes with the opportunity for great beauty and life-changing interactions.

An ever-growing number of churches around the world are gathering in circles. This week I read about a refurbished church who’ve replaced the pews with rocking chairs around a fireplace – unconventional, yes, but increasingly making sense in this era where we value connection and participation over lecture and monologue.

Over the coming weeks, I am going to talk about different models and methods of “church in a circle” which are happening around the world. I’ve invited some bloggers and readers to contribute articles sharing how they are approaching church in a fresh way, and the value of gathering in a circle. I’m excited to share their stories with you – and I welcome you to contribute to the conversation about how circles are changing your experience of God’s church.

From mega-churches to monasteries, from Sunday school lessons to seminary in a circle, from pastors exploring failure to addicts celebrating recovery, I look forward to a journey over the next couple of months as we hear about different formats of God’s people gathering in circles. I pray these posts are helpful to the many pastors and churches who are ready and willing to explore a new model for meeting together as a community.