Could you share your heart with a circle of strangers?

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

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

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

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

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

Embracing the glorious mess of church.

Childhood Girls floor painting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

Will podcasts replace pastors? Perhaps they already are…

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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.

 

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 you model is what you multiply – why facilitation is healthy in church.

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They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Children grow up to be like their parents, imitating their values, their mannerisms and their way of life.

In the same way, raising generations of God’s people in sermon-centric churches produces a vast sea of Christians who believe the only way to communicate God’s message is through monologue and having all the “right answers”.

We have a problem on our hands. The world does not want to be preached at. Who can blame them? I don’t want to be preached at. I’m sure you don’t, either.

Nobody likes being lectured, but every person on this planet longs to be listened to, to be known and heard and empowered and encouraged. We will open our hearts and our lives to those who take the time to relate to us, empathize with us, see us as we truly are and love and accept us.

Jesus did that. He spent time with people. He partied with them. He asked them questions. He showed compassion, empathy, respect and value for the ostracized and abandoned – the ones who were normally chastised and sermonized for their life choices.

Since we’ve been running “Church in a Circle” with recovering addicts, we’ve discovered the power of facilitation – a radically different approach to teaching and learning. Instead of giving people all the answers, we see the value in setting up thought-provoking stimuli and asking the right questions for people to learn for themselves. We see how powerful it is simply to ask people to share their stories – and then listen attentively and respectfully. We see how people are capable of directly interacting with God’s Word, not just listening to others interpret it for them. We see God’s people taking ownership of and responsibility for their own learning, being empowered to move forward rapidly in their spiritual journey and dragging others with them.

There’s a secondary effect to facilitation we didn’t expect but which really excites us – everybody in the group seems to pick up facilitation skills along the way. By watching the leader ask good questions, and listen well, and be flexible to the needs of others, the whole group start to spontaneously minister to one another, both inside and outside of the meeting.

Christians who think sermonizing is the most effective evangelism tool drive away their friends and family by lecturing them and always trying to have the right answers. The world needs more Christians who can interact and listen respectfully, ask the right questions and admit they don’t have all the answers.

What we model is what we teach. Sermon-centric churches produce passive listeners who only feel they are able to spread God’s message if they have a seminary degree or can deliver a convincing monologue (which is rarely socially appropriate in any setting). Facilitation allows God’s people to pick up helpful interaction skills which are valuable in developing kingdom relationships within and outside of the church community.

Children often grow up to look like their parents, and God’s people often end up looking like their leaders. Let’s encourage our leaders to move from preaching to facilitation, from speaking to listening, from performance to empowerment.

This article was recently published on the House 2 House Magazine website.Be sure to head over there to read a fantastic range of articles by simple church advocates. The theme for this month has been “Multiplication“.

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.

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.

 

Listening to the least of the these

boredom

My husband just walked in the door with a huge grin on his face. He’s come home from facilitating Fresh Start Community, a weekly gathering of a rag-tag bunch of misfits on their journey towards maturity and unity in Christ. They come from all walks of life – many of them are in recovery from substance addiction, some are covered in prison tattoos, others are gentle grandmothers who come each week to love and be gracious. He always comes home refreshed and inspired.

Today he’s smiling because he’s so blown away by how God speaks through the most unexpected people. A young woman has been coming for a few weeks, and has been very quiet. Sometimes she sits on the outskirts of the circle, playing with the toddler of a single mum. Her own children are in care, while she takes part in a recovery program to overcome the years of drug use, prostitution and crime. During the meeting this morning, when the group were discussing Scripture together, this particular woman spoke up. Her words triggered deeper sharing and insights from others in the circle. Kevin-Neil says it was like the Holy Spirit was in the room. There was a power present, and a number of people commented on it afterwards.

Kevin-Neil is convinced that God loves to speak through the least of these. In a room full of people, it is often the most downtrodden, the most marginalised, the most overlooked person who has the deepest insight into God’s heart for the last, the least and the lost. This is why pastors need to talk less and listen more. This is why we should use our opportunities to lift up and empower others, rather than holding onto the pulpit, the stage and the microphone.

The voiceless have a voice – but the rest of us need to learn how to shut up and listen. We might just hear God speaking to us through those who are often unseen and unheard.

 

The results are in – people prefer short sermons followed by discussion.

Pencil with "Y" Circled For Yes

This week, I conducted some research on Twitter. I asked which people would prefer; short sermons with the opportunity for discussion, or long sermons without. The results of my poll were resoundingly conclusive – 100% of respondents would like to have short sermons (or even long ones) followed by the chance to respond and explore the topic together.

Now, I’m not going to pretend these are statistically significant results. This was a small sample group, and a very biased one. But I still think this is a simple and easy-to-implement strategy most pastors and churches can take on board, with the potential to equip and empower God’s people.

Next time you are preparing a sermon, think about stripping it back to the essential points, then letting people break into groups of 4 or so to discuss what they have learned. They could answer questions such as;

What stands out to you?

What did you learn about God? About people?

Any life-lessons to apply? How do you plan to apply them?

How can we pray for one another?

The advantages to this approach are huge. You are training God’s people to have spiritual conversations. You can give them the tools they need to think for themselves, and to communicate their knowledge to others. You are sending the message that the church is an equal laity under the headship of Christ, not artificially divided into “professionals” and “consumers”. You are giving them a chance to respond to God’s Word and message, and to teach one another.

However – please take note – this suggestion comes with the following warnings;

WARNING 1: Once people get used to participating and having a voice, they’re not going back. They will find it difficult to sit passively through lengthy monologues, once they realise they can be actively involved.

WARNING 2: Some people won’t like this. They think the current format for church is the way it has always been. They don’t realise the early church meetings were interactive, multi-voiced and participatory.

WARNING 3: Dialogue is an open floor, not a pop-quiz. People are allowed to give any answer at all. Pastors may have to go through a period of “unlearning” – instead of having all the answers, they have to learn to shut up and listen. Get used to a whole new way of thinking as you move away from performance towards facilitation and empowerment.

Don’t rely on the results of my not-very-reliable research – conduct a poll of your own. Ask your congregation whether they would prefer a 40 minute lecture next Sunday, or a 10-15 minute presentation followed by a chance to explore and discuss it together. Your ego may take a bruising if they tell you to shorten your sermons – but it could be the start of a new journey for you and your church community.