About Kathleen

Hi, my name is Kathleen Ward. My husband and I are passionate about seeing the church change and adapt for the future. We also long to see people freed from drug and alcohol addictions and are working in this area.

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

geometry-625155_1280

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.

Don’t mistake church for God.

church-692722_1280

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

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

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

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

Don’t confuse church with God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Why the eucharist is useless (unless we put it into practice)

bread and wine

Every Sunday, in churches the world over, millions of Christians take part in the Lord’s Supper. This hands-on sacrament is rich with imagery and symbolism. Christ’s body, shared by his body (the church), sustaining our physical bodies. Emblems of death and of resurrection life. The message in a meal. Tangible and tactile. Earthy and everyday. Ordinary yet sacred. Succulent icons dripping with metaphor.

But have we missed the point of communion?

Jesus wasn’t calling us to a religious ritual or a theology lesson, but to an everyday, lived-out practice of eating with one another. He gave his command to remember him in the context of a real meal – and it wasn’t some fast-food, takeaway dinner. The Passover meal is the ultimate family storytelling session, discipleship done around the dinner table, story in edible form, where each piece of food and table decoration tells the history of God’s deliverance. Where elders share their knowledge, children are allowed to question, and families reflect on faith. “Whenever you do this“, Jesus said, “remember me.”

The early church took Jesus’ command to eat together seriously. They committed themselves to breaking bread, to eating in one another’s homes, to feeding the poor, and to celebrating the Lord’s Table as a shared meal. In “A Fellowship of Differents“, Scot McKnight points out that this scandalous act of eating with one another as equals, with no regard for race, gender, status or wealth, was a glorious glimpse of God’s kingdom breaking through on earth.

Somewhere along the way, the eucharist has become a ceremony within a ceremony, reduced to a ritual, trivialised into a cracker and a shot glass of juice. God’s people no longer gather around a table as equals, sharing their lives and stories and pieces of themselves as they journey through faith together. When communion was reduced to an object lesson, we lost something huge, a central component of our faith expression, a core practice that changed us from isolated individuals into a connected family.

The good news is, God’s people are rediscovering the centrality of the table in worship.

  • St Lydia’s Dinner Church in New York cook together, eat together and explore God’s story together at the table.
  • Sarah Harmeyer of Neighbor’s Table has started a love mission by inviting over 1500 of her neighbours to her own backyard table over the past few years, and encouraging others to follow her example.
  • IF:Gatherings empower women to go deep with one another at the table over real stories and Christ centred conversations.
  • More than 3000 congregations worldwide host some form of Messy Church, which invites adults and children to fellowship through fun and food, ending in a shared meal.
  • Based on the models taught by 3DM, Missional communities gather in one another’s homes over a meal to become a spiritual family on mission.
  • In Australia, where refugees have been marginalised, the Welcome Dinner Project and First Home Project give newcomers a heartfelt welcome as they eat together.
  • Fresh Start Community, the inspiration for this blog, is now meeting in four locations in my city. All of them begin or end their gathering over a meal.

These groups are putting dinner back on the Lord’s Table and gathering to share meals, share God’s story and share their lives. True community always happens around food and drink. We make memories in the slowing down, preparation, serving, eating, stories, laughter, mess and packing away together. Eating is a rhythm of life, a necessity which turns into an excuse for a party. It connects people and creates community. In “From Tablet to Table“, Leonard Sweet talks about life’s three tables; the table in the home, the table in the church, and the table in the world. He encourages us to take our table time seriously, whether it is the dinner table, the banquet table, the coffee table, the backyard barbecue or the picnic rug.

The eucharist is more than a symbol, it is a lifestyle. If communion remains just a crumb of cracker and thimbleful of juice, it is a dry and tasteless ritual, an unsatisfying obligation. If it calls us beyond ourselves and into a life of true communion and community, gathered around tables and storying with one another, it truly becomes the Lord’s Table, an invitation to fellowship with God, love his people and live alongside one another.

 

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

Religious Candles and Cross

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

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

What is going on?

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

AUTHENTICITY

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

ROOTEDNESS

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

MYSTERY

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

ICONS & SYMBOLISM

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

PARTICIPATION

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

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

 

Jesus wouldn’t choose the same leaders you would.

chess-316658_1280

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. We use “Top Ten” lists of leadership characteristics to remind us to look for church leaders who are skilful, competent, professional, influential, visionary, hard-working, energetic, charismatic, highly trained 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.

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?

 

Why morning tea is the pinnacle of my worship service.

girl-690614_1280

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The hard, slow work of rooted Christianity (insights from Chapter 4 of “Subterranean” by Dan White Jr.)

tree-trunk-569275_1280

Every one of us longs for impact. Nobody wants to be a nobody. We want to leave a legacy, start a movement, and make a meaningful difference. As followers of Jesus, we are inspired to change the world (and change it now). It sounds so innocent and worthwhile – we rarely see the danger in our mindset. We are driven by a sense of urgency, a pressure to prove our worth, a commitment to having impact at any cost.

We are rarely inspired to be ordinary, go slow, think small, live local, and wait on God’s timing.

Dan White Jr. is a prophetic voice to the modern church, calling us to return to rootedness, to work on the structures below the ground, rather than the visible ones above it. In Chapter 4 of his new book, Subterranean: Why the future of the church is rootedness, Dan reveals that we have made an idol out of impact. He addresses the pressure to grow churches bigger and better, the drive to “expedite production” and bypass God’s slow and steady ways. Dan highlights the danger of our impatience by reminding us of Judas Iscariot, an ambitious man longing for impact, who ultimately took matters into his own hands in order to force God’s hand. He points out the risk of seeking impact without restraint, of superseding our limits, of having a microwave mentality of trying to speed things up, of bulldozing God’s work with the tyranny of demand. He ends the chapter by reminding us that God is not in a rush, that his ways may seem slow to us, but they help us build the patience we need to dwell in true community alongside others.

I’m a huge fan of Dan’s work. I love his writing style – he has a deft touch with words and a poetic cadence in his prose – but it’s the substance of his message that really resonates with me. Dan is calling for a subversive, upside-down approach to kingdom life. He is prophetically crying out to the institutional church that we have lost our way. He freely admits to his own personal struggle to commit to community, live locally and be ordinary rather than extraordinary. I highly recommend you get a copy of his book (you’ll get 40% off if you use the code ROOTED before 23rd October) and wrestle with what it means to choose slow over fast, small over big, local over global, and consistent over impressive.

 

I was honoured to be asked by Dan White Jr. to participate in the blog tour of his new book. Make sure you check out these recent posts, and look for those to follow, as 11 bloggers draw insights from the 11 chapters of this book.

Zach Hoag has written a review of Chapter 1: Hotels or Trees

Tim Suttle discusses Chapter 2: Excessive Personality

Ben Sternke reflects on Chapter 3: Extracted Perception

I have written about Chapter 4: Expedited Production

I’m looking forward to the next seven blog posts covering the remaining chapters! Thank you, Dan, for inviting me to be part of this blog tour.

 

Could you share your heart with a circle of strangers?

sand-716648_1280

There are very few safe spaces in our day-to-day lives where we can take down the barriers, open up our hearts and be truly honest with one another. Perhaps in the company of an intimate friend, in an unguarded moment, or with a paid professional. Certainly not with a group of complete strangers.

And yet, that’s exactly what I was able to do, a few weeks back, when I was invited into a Circle of Trust.

The Circle of Trust I took part in was a day retreat aimed at mothers. I took a few hours out from my busy world and drove to the an artist’s cottage on the edge of the city. Every nook and corner was filled with delightful artwork and sculptures, and the colours and light and creativity fed my soul. I met a beautiful group of women, and spent the day with them, slowing down, sharing our stories, exploring themes of motherhood, reading poetry, journalling and creating our own artwork. Although I had never met these women before, we were able to be vulnerable before one another, and give valuable gifts of attention, insight and acceptance.

The Circle of Trust approach was developed by Parker J. Palmer, and borrows heavily from Quaker practices. Each one of us has an inner journey to travel, issues to work through, burdens we carry. Most of the time, we try to do it on our own. The Circle of Trust approach recognises that we can’t do it alone, that we need the company and voices of others as we do our inner work. A facilitator invites the group into a safe, creative environment to slow down and explore the thoughts, feelings and complexities that lie beneath the surface. Participants learn about the Touchstones – guidelines for offering each other a warm welcome, being fully present, listening without judgement, speaking truth in ways that respect others, observing confidentiality, being comfortable with silence, and resisting the temptation to fix, correct or advise one another.

I believe that churches can learn a great deal from the Circle of Trust approach. Rather than setting up church as a classroom or entertainment venue, we should put effort into creating spaces to listen to and love one another as we seek to follow Jesus. Seminaries should be training church leaders to facilitate, not just preach at people. As my husband and I have discovered over the past five years, there is tremendous power in reshaping the church into a circle, rather than rows, and creating transformational spaces for God’s people to open up, let people in, and impact one another.

Embracing the glorious mess of church.

Childhood Girls floor painting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The myth of the perfect church

child-643234_1280

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

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

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

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

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

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