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.

 

6 things you can’t do in a circle.

Teenagers Smiling in Group Hug

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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!

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.

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?

 

 

Why conferences (and churches) should include facilitated conversation.

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Business Discussion

I often hear of fantastic conferences I would love to attend – but most of them are overseas (I live in Perth, Australia, one of the most isolated cities in the world). I wouldn’t have the money or the time to attend these conferences (and besides, there’s no way my 4 year old and 6 year old would let me go without them!). I sometimes have the option of streaming the main sessions live, or purchasing videos of the keynote speakers – but to be honest, this doesn’t inspire me. I don’t just want to go for the speakers. Ultimately, I want to attend these conferences to meet like-minded people and interact with them. I find the most important time in these gatherings is not the lecture, but the coffee breaks, the conversations and the connections.

The greatest resource of any conference is not the speakers, but the attendees. Sure, the guest presenters are always dynamic, inspirational people with a great take-home message – but the real treasure is when you gather together multiple “regular folks” who share a heart for that message. These are the people who don’t just want to listen to lectures about the topic, but want to put it into action. These are the men and women with the motivation and manpower to make a difference in their unique neighbourhood and setting. Wouldn’t it be great to intentionally create spaces for them to interact, and network, and exchange ideas and information?

This is why I was so excited to read the information page for the upcoming Justice Conference Asia, to be held in Hong Kong 22-24th May. They have a great line-up of amazing speakers, including the widely-respected Shane Claiborne, but what caught my eye was the description of the “Practitioner Day” (a full day of facilitated conversation and interaction).

The Justice Conference is designed to inspire and energise the Justice community in Asia and for practitioners it is a critical time of refreshing, networking and sharing. However with so many interesting sessions to attend, like-minded people do not always find time to meet together to talk, discuss and engage over areas of common interest. This year we are offering an opportunity for practitioners to meet together for a whole day geared around their particular needs and interests. This will be held on Thursday May 22 before the main conference commences.

During this time we will be considering common areas of interest such as; issues and difficulties in the field; how to create a networking platform; sharing resources; and collaboration on new ideas and possible solutions. This time will be facilitated by Viva with minimal formal presentation time in order to give maximum opportunity for interaction and sharing.

I love this! The organizers of this event have seen the opportunity this conference presents. Amazing, talented people with a shared passion will be gathering together from across the world, and it would be tragic not to give them a voice and let them connect. Imagine what long-term impact may come out of this one day?

I think every conference should create spaces for facilitated interaction. I think every church should, too. God’s people are a network of believers called to love and support one another – providing structured opportunities for them to go deeper and have spiritual conversations together should be a major priority for every church community.

Three keys to transforming your church culture.

three keys

A number of readers have asked me to describe an actual session of “church in a circle”, so in this post, I’d like to walk you through the three main parts of our weekly meeting. However, what works for us may not work for you. Please don’t take our “format” and try to apply it in your local church next Sunday morning (it will probably go down like a lead balloon). Instead, think creatively about how you can incorporate these three concepts – honesty, participation and empowerment – into your gatherings with God’s people.

HONESTY

We start every meeting by sitting in a circle, reminding one another we meet around a central focus (Jesus) and that we each have something valuable to contribute. We are all able to teach and minister to one another. We then ask if anyone wants to share what God is doing in their lives.

Well, you should hear some of the stories that come out over the next 10 minutes or so. People share their deep joys and sorrows. It can be messy and awkward, but it can also be staggeringly beautiful. Something amazing happens when we encourage people to be honest in a safe environment. The masks come off. The barriers come down. The burdens are lightened by sharing the load.

I can’t overstate how important this part of the meeting is. It sets the tone for the rest of our time together. We rejoice with those who rejoice, and mourn with those who mourn.  Each time someone openly confesses their sins and struggles, it sets the rest of us free to face our own problems, and releases us to show love and acceptance for one another.

PARTICIPATION

At this point, we lighten the mood and change gears entirely by getting out of our seats and joining in a fun, hands-on activity. There’s often a lot of laughter, friendly competition and teamwork going on. It may look like a shallow game or an “ice-breaker”, but there is usually an underlying message (for those who have their thinking caps on).

The facilitator then asks three simple questions; “what just happened?“, “how did you feel?“, and “what did you learn?“. There are no wrong answers. It is fascinating to hear the many perspectives on the same shared experience. Often, the most unexpected people come up with the most profound insights.

This seemingly trivial exercise gets everyone bonding, everyone thinking, everyone participating. People become vocal and invested, and start to have a sense of belonging to the community. Those who don’t get much out of a lecture format engage in other multi-sensory ways of learning. People stop seeing “church” as the pastor’s responsibility, and start discovering their voice, their gifts and their capacity to impact others.

EMPOWERMENT

After a brief coffee break, the central part of our meeting is gathering around God’s Story. The leader pulls out a Bible – but doesn’t read from it. Instead, he (or she) tells one of the stories in Scripture, using good storytelling skills (setting the scene, using gestures and actions, lots of intonation) to help it stick. We then turn to our neighbour and try to retell the story, checking whether we can recall all the little details. As a group, we explore the story in it’s original context, asking questions such as “how would they have felt?”, “why did that happen?”, etc. We finish by applying the lessons to our own context – “what will you do differently this week?

The reason we use this approach instead of a sermon is to empower God’s people to have direct access to God’s Word. Many people in our group have low literacy levels and little Bible knowledge, so this is an excellent way for them to learn God’s word and remember it. Even those with theology degrees get insights they’ve never seen before. A sermon from the stage can unintentionally send the message that only the professionals and performers are capable of handling God’s message. In contrast, exploring God’s Word in community reminds us that the Holy Spirit can reveal God’s truths to each and every one of us, not just the “experts”.

Perhaps none of this sounds like “church” to you. After all, we don’t sing or have sermons or sit in rows! We don’t even serve grape juice and a crackers (instead, we eat lunch together afterwards – communion as a shared meal). Like I said at the beginning of this post, don’t try to apply this “format” to your gathering, but seek ways to prioritise honesty, participation and empowerment in every meeting of God’s people. I guarantee these three keys will transform the culture of your church community.