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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!


Why so many Christians are “done” with church.

walking away

A couple of weeks ago, Thom Schultz posted an article called “The rise of the Dones“. I suggest you read it. It is an acknowledgement of a very real process taking place across churches – the best and most reliable church-attenders are getting tired of the system and leaving for good.

Churches have worried for some years about the rise of the “nones” (people who are reject traditional faith and decide not to associate with formal religion), but the “dones” are a different category altogether – sincere believers who are walking away from the institutional church after decades of faithful attendance and service. Schultz says these people are leaving and aren’t coming back. This strikes a blow to the future of churches, who rely on this group to serve on rosters, pay the bills and fill the pews. It’s enough to fill a pastor’s heart with fear.

I’ve been watching this phenomenon play out amongst my peer group over the past few years. People I grew up in church with are taking more and more Sundays off, until they stop attending altogether. Often, these are people who were actively involved in ministry and committees, sometimes even pastors. They feel a little guilty, but also experience a sense of relief at no longer having to turn up each week, sit passively through a service, and pay for buildings and salaries. They still love Jesus and try to follow him, but regular church attendance is no longer important to them.

Some are leaving to create transformational, Jesus-centred communities who engage in their neighbourhood and impact the world around them. Others don’t have the energy to build or find groups like that. They’ve given up on finding purpose and meaning within the wall of a church building. Their spiritual needs can be met elsewhere, and they’re ready to move on.

What can we do to reverse this trend? To be honest, I’m not sure we can. Even if we tweak the service, or change the model, we may not be able to re-inspire these people and attract them back. It’s worth using this time to ask hard questions, and listen closely to the answers – whether we like them or not. The culture and society around us are shifting, and the church is not sustainable if it cannot shift as well.

Will podcasts replace pastors? Perhaps they already are…

wireless mice

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

The truth is, I actually rather like sermons.

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

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

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

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


What can churches learn from the ice-bucket challenge?


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.

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

office meeting

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

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

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

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

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

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


Why conferences (and churches) should include facilitated conversation.


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.

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.


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


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.

The church is beginning to shift – strap yourself in for the ride.

Countryside as Seen from a Moving Train

Something big is happening in the worldwide church. We seem to be gearing up for a tremendous shift which will impact the way we interact with the world and with each other. It’s already happening in countless churches who have bucked the status quo and no longer rely on a performance-driven model which positions 99% of God’s people as passive spectators and dependent consumers.

I was excited to read the promotional material for the church-planting conference, Exponential ’13, which is happening in America right now. Based on the theme Discipleshift, it’s about helping churches “make disciples who make disciples” by going through five major shifts;

From reaching to making

From teaching to modeling

From attending to participating

From connecting to transforming

From attracting to releasing

Yesterday’s church fed into a mindset which allowed the majority of people to sit passively, while the professionals did all the workTomorrow’s church needs to be set up very differently to create an environment where everyone is involved, everyone is active, everyone has a voice, a value and an impact. It’s a shift which requires more than tweaking our song choices and sermon themes – it requires a rethink of how we lead, how we learn, and how we live alongside one another.

The church worldwide is starting to shift. It may take time, but there are big signs and small signs that it’s already underway. Strap in and come for the ride!



Flip the classroom, flip the church.


In the past, schools and universities gathered people to a central location so they could access information from the “expert”. Lessons were given as lectures, and students were given extra work to do at home, by themselves, to extend their learning.

In an increasing number of classrooms around the world, this model is being turned on its head.

Today’s technology means that students can watch a pre-recorded lesson at home, when it suits them, and use the valuable class time to extend their learning through collaboration, discussion, and hands-on learning. The teacher stops being “the sage on the stage” and becomes “the guide on the side”. Students no longer have to flounder through hours of “homework” without access to support and role models. The “flipped classroom” is making the most of the time learners spend together in the same room.

Can you imagine the potential this model has for the church worldwide?!!

Most churches spend the bulk of their financial resources on mortgages and salaries. When God’s people gather each Sunday, they spend the majority of their time together sitting in rows and listening to a monologue, instead of looking each other in the eye, sharing their lives and stories, and ministering to one another.

What if someone started up a kind of TED Talks / Khan Academy venture for churches; where gifted communicators condense big ideas into short soundbites; where well-resourced churches used their creative departments to produce engaging video presentations; where we can build up a free resource of high quality, easy-to-understand talks to replace sermons?

Imagine the implications!

– People could watch the “sermon” at home to get them thinking, then use their gathered time to learn and explore ideas at a far deeper level.

– Leaders could become facilitators, using their communication abilities to listen to and empower others, rather than doing all the talking.

– God’s people could make the most of their time together, meeting face-to-face to impact one another.

– Meeting together would be more likely to inspire real change, real action, and real community.

– New churches wouldn’t need to put all their money into hiring professionals and buying venues.

– The world would have access to thought-provoking, life-giving messages about Jesus and His ways.

Can you think of any other advantages (or potential disadvantages) to flipping churches?