Don’t mistake church for God.

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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.

 

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!

 

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.

From 2D church to 3D community.

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In primary school, we learned to convert 2D shapes (circles, squares and triangles) into 3D objects (spheres, cubes and pyramids). A shape is flat when it only has height and width, but when you add depth, it becomes robust, substantial and three dimensional.

It struck me recently that church in rows is very two dimensional. The sermons and the singing create a space for me to interact with God, but there is no structured space for me to interact with his people, even though we’re sitting together in the same room. I’m literally missing out on the third dimension of church life – one-anothering. Sure, I can catch up over a cup of tea afterwards, or meet up on Wednesday night, but it’s not that difficult to set up opportunities for God’s people to pray for one another, teach, encourage, build-up and love one another in our Sunday services. It just requires a shift in our concept of “church”.

When Jesus was asked for the greatest commandment in the Law, he replied “Love the Lord your God … this is the first and greatest commandment”. He could have left it at that, but he didn’t. He followed it up by saying; “the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself'”. Jesus never invited us into a two-dimensional, flat relationship between us and God, he wanted us to dive into the messy, three-dimensional space of loving God and others, of becoming his people, showing the world what it means to live in true unity.

We’re so accustomed to flat, two dimensional church in rows that we haven’t realised we’re missing out on the vital third dimension of one-anothering. When we rethink how gather, how we lead and how we interact as God’s people, we will create a robust, rich 3D environment for spiritual growth as a community.

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.

 

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.

Why we “organic types” shouldn’t abandon the established church.

Empty School Bus

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know there’s been a movement going on in the church for the past few decades, picking up momentum over the past 10 years or so. An increasing number of God’s people are shunning organised religion and seeking organic expressions of church life. They can clearly see the problems inherent in the “machine” of institutional church, and they’ve decided to get off the bus. They are swapping rows for circles, Sunday sermons for missional communities, formal lectures for interactive learning, and professional clergy for the priesthood of all believers.

People make the decision to get involved in organic church for various reasons. Some are deeply hurt by traumatic experiences in institutional church. Others are searching the New Testament for the original design for God’s church. Still others are bored with the traditional “sit+sing+sermon” model of service delivery, and long to find something more.

I celebrate the changes that are happening. I love to see the creativity and vision of the organic church movement, in all it’s many forms. But I’m also worried. There’s a danger that our disappointment and discouragement may cause us to abandon the established church altogether. I want to put forward a few reasons why we “organic types” must not completely give up on the institutional church (despite all her problems).

#1. There is only one church.
God has established Jesus as the only head of the worldwide church. Each and every Jesus-follower is part of the same church – even the ones who worship differently from you and I, or interpret the Scriptures differently. The established church is filled with millions of our brothers and sisters in Christ, men and women who long to follow Jesus, love people and change the world – and they’re worshipping God the way they’ve been shown and taught. If we think we have a better model, we owe it to them to communicate it effectively (not aggressively).

#2. The church needs us
We are the risk-takers, the change-embracers, the non-conformists, the free-thinkers. We are discontent with what is, and seek a vision for what could be. We question the status quo. We have useful experience, practical knowledge, and prophetic imagination. We’ve made mistakes – and learned from them (which is even more valuable than our successes). We’ve been thinking about and studying the issues relating to church and culture for some time. The established church needs our input if she is to navigate this season of change.

#3. The world is watching. 
The world is watching God’s church closely, and with great interest. Have you seen how excited they are about the current Pope as he confronts the institutionalisation of the Catholic church? It may seem strange, but the world is longing for the redemption of the church. They don’t want us to be self-absorbed, inward-focussed, fragmented, greedy, judgemental, hypocritical or irrelevant. They are curious to see what it looks like to follow Jesus in community. They crave the hope we offer, our capacity to point to God. They are horrified and disappointed by what they have seen in the past, but they still have a faint hope that we may, indeed, have something to offer them.

#4. The time is now. 
We are living through a time of rapid change to the underlying structures of our society. The connectedness of the internet and social media is overturning our established ways of relating to one another, and opening up a world where everybody can have a voice and participate. We are no longer restricted to one-way broadcasting methods of communication, as we were in the past. Church-as-we’ve-always-known-it isn’t appealing in the 21st century. The message hasn’t changed, but it’s time to rethink the model.

I’m grateful for the leaders in the organic church movement who have not cut their ties with the institutional church, but are clearly communicating a new vision of how churches can be more missional, more relational, more empowering. Alan Hirsch, Neil Cole and Mike Breen are just a few of those who are working alongside “normal” churches to help them shift their way of thinking and discover a new paradigm for God’s people in community.

I’m not asking you to sit silently in rows and be a passive audience member. I think you have a gift to offer God’s church, in your own unique way. I think your voice, your story and your vision are important, even critical. This is a time to be courageous and creative, to take risks and forge new pathways. To ask big questions and challenge the-way-we’ve-always-done-things. To paint pictures of what could be. To let go of hurt and resentment, and seek ways for God’s church – with her weakness and her beauty – to face tomorrow in unity and maturity.

 

The problem with church growth.

Rising profits

When you’re in the business of church, the easiest way to measure success is numerical growth. Are new people coming to your church? Are you retaining them? Are they bringing their friends along? Are the pews full on a Sunday morning? These are quick and obvious measures of how “successful” your church is. However, the growth we’re supposed to be looking for is spiritual in nature. Ephesians 4 makes it clear that the purpose of church is maturity. What we call success – more people coming to the church – can actually become a problem.

A few years ago, a church strategist gave us some wise advice. If something is going well in your church, don’t advertise it. You’ll attract tourists. Then you’ll have to babysit them. They’ll take up all your time and resources, and you won’t be able to achieve your original goals.

If your goal is butts on pews, watch out – you might just get it. At the beginning, you’ll be busy trying to attract them in – but then you’ll be kept even more busy keeping them happy once they come. They have expectations. You’ll need to maintain the service delivery at the same standard you began with, if not higher. If you pulled a rabbit out of the hat last Sunday, you need to do it again next Sunday. And the Sunday after. The more people who come, the more services you need to provide for them. You’ve become a big babysitter.

Attracting people to your church community is fine – if it’s a secondary thing. Empowering people has to be primary goal. When you put your effort into attracting new people, you have to use all your resources to keep them there. The newcomers who sit back and consume your resources will dilute, rather than concentrate, spiritual growth. Relationships will become shallower and more thinly spread. If you put your effort into empowering God’s people, you’ll be concentrating and building your spiritual resources, deepening relationships, and watching people mature and become spiritual elders.

It’s a bad thing to let people come and just sit back in a pew, week after week. It shuts them down spiritually from all the things that will help them grow – honesty, participation, one-another ministry. It sends a message that growth comes through passive listening, not active participation. It’s kind of like letting your kids sit and watch T.V. all day, and hoping they will develop into mature adults that way.

Success should never be measured in numbers. Success is when God’s people start to find their own voice, find their own gifts, when they bring a word of prophecy, when they speak the truth in love, when they confess to one another, forgive one another, teach one another and build each other up. If you’re building a community of people who need to be served and fed each week, you’re doing something wrong. It’s fine for new babies to sit back and be fed. It’s an embarrassment and a tragedy when adults, who should already be mature, get comfortable and wait for you to feed them.

Are you operating from an attractional model, where you provide a sit-back-and-watch-me-perform service to bring in the tourists? Or is your church willing to invest in an empowerment model, where God’s people are given a voice and a value, where participation is a priority, and spiritual growth happens naturally? Attractional models aim for numerical growth. Empowerment models aim for spiritual growth. Stop focussing on the wrong measures of success, and reshape the way you meet to see God’s people grow from spiritual infancy to maturity.

Stop bringing people to church, and start sending God’s church to the people.

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Most churches I’ve been to operate from the “attractional church” model – you know, the one where we put on great programs aimed at bringing unchurched people to us, hoping we can then preach them into conversion, and absorb them into the church community. Churches run children’s holiday camps, sports teams, playgroups, parenting programs, marriage courses, ladies’ morning teas, men’s breakfasts, Christmas carol nights and Easter egg hunts, all as bait to reel in unsuspecting “pagans” and convert them. Often, 95% of the people who turn up to the events are already Christians, and the outsiders who come quickly realise they are the “targets” of the whole campaign, and leave feeling quite creepy about the whole experience.

This model of church used to be acceptable. When the local community had a church background and some sense of a “Christian culture”, it was possible to invite them into our buildings and ceremonies and rituals, without completely freaking them out. Today, things have changed. For one thing, our surrounding society has rejected religious Christianity. They no longer see us as harmless, but as sinister and harmful to their own culture and belief systems. Secondly, they are onto us. They can spot a marketing campaign from a mile away. They know when they are being targeted – and they don’t like it.

It’s time for us to stop asking people to come to us, and start going to them. It’s a much better use of our resources. Get your church members to join their local sports club, community playgroup, book club, local council, craft group – whatever appeals to them. But be strategic and intentional. Encourage God’s people to go out in pairs – then they’ve got extra support and encouragement as they show the world what Jesus-followers look like.

Bait-and-switch style evangelistic programs use up a whole lot of resources (people’s time, effort and money) without being terribly effective. Living real life in our neighbourhoods and everyday lives is more biblical, more sustainable, and more logical. Stop trying to trick people into coming to church, and start sending and releasing God’s people to be the church in their communities.

Troublemakers in the church? Or just people asking the right questions?

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The church has a long history of pot-stirrers and righteous troublemakers. Every now and then, a group of people start asking questions from within, disrupting the peace, challenging the system, and driving the church back to biblical principles. The protestant movement was born when Martin Luther directly confronted the practices of the Catholic church. Various groups of dissenters arose over the next few centuries, rejecting a form of religion they saw as unhealthy and unhelpful. Most of our congregations and doctrines today have arisen from the efforts of the dissenters and protesters of the past.

Last year, Alan Knox cheekily wrote an article naming me as a troublemaker in the church (and many readers at Sermon Central would probably agree), because I ask questions about the way we meet, the way we learn and the way we lead. The irony, of course, is that Alan is continually provoking people to rethink how we assemble as the church. He also named fellow mischief-maker Miguel Labrador, who is always willing to tackle heavy questions front-on, generating robust discussions. I’d like to add a few more names to the list of modern-day dissenters – a few of my personal favourites, whose blogs I read regularly. If you haven’t already come across him, make sure you check out Jeremy Myers – he writes thought-provoking articles and e-books which will shake up some of your assumptions about church. Then there’s Eric Carpenter, who is currently working with Jeremy on a book called “What we’re for” (I’m a contributor). Make sure you read some of Eric Hatfield‘s blog too  – a fellow Aussie with a delightful talent for dry sarcasm. Keith Giles is another one who is willing to subvert the establishment and rattle a few cages. One of the newest additions to the network is Richard Jacobson, whose clever videos and cartoons add another medium for communicating some of the issues in the modern institutional church.

I’d like to give a special mention to the most visible and audible presence in the worldwide church today, Pope Francis, who (to my very great joy and delight) is willing to butt heads with the hierarchy and speak out against “clericalization” of the church. What a legend!

Through this blog and Twitter, I’m connecting regularly with pastors and laypeople who are willing to take on the establishment, ask hard questions, take risks, and grapple with a new way of “doing church”. You know who you are! Thank you for being willing to step out on this journey, which could bring so much change in your local church and beyond.

I’m so grateful for these many people whose voices are rising up to ask questions about the way we do church. I’m convinced God’s church is robust enough to cope with a good shakedown, and come out healthier at the other end. Questions need to be asked – and some people are brave enough to ask them. Jesus himself had no problem confronting religious practices gone sour. Please let me know if there are any writers or speakers who have inspired you to question and rethink church practices today, and where that journey is taking you.