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

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The number one rule of architecture is “form follows function.” Buildings and spaces should facilitate and enhance their purpose, not detract from it.

The New Testament gives us multiple glimpses of what the function of church should be, in the 50+ “one another” instructions.

“Encourage one another.” 2 Corinthians 13:11

“Build one another up.” 1 Thessalonians 5:11

“Instruct one another.” Romans 15:14

“Accept one another.” Romans 15:7

“Serve one another humbly in love.” Galatians 5:13

“Teach and admonish one another” Colossians 3:16

“Spur one another on toward love and good deeds” Hebrews 10:24

“Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other.” James 5:16

“Offer hospitality to one another” 1 Peter 4:9

“Honor one another above yourselves.” Romans 12:10

“Have fellowship with one another” 1 John 1:7

“Love one another.” John 13:34

How can we focus on one-anothering if we are seated in rows, gazing on the backs of one another’s heads?

How will we confess our sins to one another, pray for one another, encourage and build one another up if we sit silently facing a stage?

How do we empower all of God’s people to be actively involved in one-anothering if we only give a small minority a voice, a platform, a position?

Perhaps we need to rethink our spaces, rearrange our seating, and redesign our buildings to reflect the purpose and function of gathering together as a church community.

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

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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.

 

There is only one church.

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Today, I met some wonderful Christian brothers and sisters from the local Arabic Church. Their skin colour was different than mine, their cultural background was different, and their native language was different – but we reminded each other we are all from the same Church, we all worship the same God, we are united by the same Spirit.

I am very grateful that God allows so many diverse and beautiful representations of his church to flourish. I celebrate that we can worship God in rows or in circles, informally or liturgically, in living rooms and in mega-churches, contemplatively or loudly, in organic or organised structures. We have so many different personality types and contexts that we need different expressions, different denominations, different models of ministry. Jesus promises to be present when His people gather in His name – without setting too many ground rules for what those gatherings are supposed to look like.

I want to thank traditional churches for carrying the Scriptures and the message of God through the ages and keeping it intact for us to receive today. I want to thank local churches for caring for the folk in your area. I want to thank mega-churches for providing a high-quality, attractional service for those who are seeking. I want to thank progressive churches for engaging in complex dialogue with those who are questioning. I want to thank missional churches for stepping out of your comfort zone and going where God sends you.

This Sunday, my local church is combining with the Arabic Church to share together in a Love Feast. We get pretty excited about these events – not because two churches are coming together, but because there is only one church. No matter how we express ourselves, no matter what clothes the pastor wears (or whether there even is a pastor), we are united as a body with Jesus as the Head. We are members of the same family. And that makes me happy.

This is a repost of an article from August 2013. I’m still thanking God for the many and varied expressions of his church throughout the world.

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.

One body, one head, many parts.

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To be functioning at its peak, a body needs every part to be working effectively. Our role as the body of Christ is to equip and build one another up “until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:13). To this end, those of us who are stronger, more mature or given gifts, ought to use what we have to empower and equip others in their journey.

This doesn’t make us more important – quite the opposite, it requires an attitude of servanthood. Instead of the “hierarchy” of the world, where people jostle for power, prestige and privilege, we have a “low-rarchy” in the church – in God’s kingdom, the way up is down, the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.

We follow a king who rode a donkey, who washed his followers’ feet, whose coronation was a crucifixion, who laid aside his right to equality with God and took on the form of a servant. Unlike the power-hungry ways of the world, “leadership” in the church is always framed in terms of servanthood or building others up. We are never to “lord it over” or “excercise authority over” one another as the “rulers of the Gentiles” do (Matt 20:25) – the way of love ushers in an entirely new paradigm of inverted hierarchy, where those of us with high status need to step down the ladder to lift up those on the bottom rungs. We go down, not to debase ourselves, but to lift others up. “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matt 20:27-28).”

Here is what that looks like in the church –

the mature mentor the immature.

The elders instruct the younger.

The rich share with the poor.

Those who have gifts equip others for acts of service.

The powerful defend the powerless.

The strong bear with the failings of the weak.

And nobody ever positions themselves in Christ’s rightful place, as head of the church.

Our current structures for church are holding us back from empowering and building one another up, by positioning us either as performers or audience members, as broadcasters or passive listeners. Pulpits and pews separate us into two camps, and prevent the mutual ministry and one-anothering described over and over again in Scripture. We need to rethink our meeting spaces, our seating arrangements, our use of music and our information delivery methods to find creative ways which release all of God’s people to be active participants in their journey towards unity and spiritual maturity. We need to be willing to step off the stage and into the circle, to talk less and listen more, to use our status to lift others high, and to get out of the way and let God work in his people.

This is an excerpt from the chapter I contributed to “Simple Church: Unity within Diversity“. Order a copy now to learn about simple church practices from some great writers.

Simple Church: Unity within Diversity – a new book coming soon.

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Every now and then, you need to declutter your home (or your life) and figure out what is important enough to keep.

Over the past 2000 years, the church has picked up all sorts of clutter. Today, many churches, pastors and individuals are wanting to return to the basics, to the foundations of what church is supposed to be about. They want to learn from those who have moved from complexity to simplicity in their church practices.

That is why, earlier this year, Eric Carpenter approached a number of bloggers who advocate and write about simple ways of doing church. He asked us to provide a positive perspective on what we stand for (rather than what we stand against). From this collaboration, he has put together a book called “Simple Church: Unity within Diversity“, which will be released before Christmas. I was privileged to contribute a chapter, describing my vision of “a church of equal laity, with Christ the one and only Head”.

I love the subtitle of this book – “unity within diversity”. 24 writers have written about different topics, from different perspectives – but we are all seeking to discuss, and communicate, and share what we have learned about simple practices of being the church. I’m looking forward to reading  and learning from Jeremy Myers, Kathy Escobar, Chris Jefferies, Miguel Labrador, Christopher Dryden, Alan Knox, Guy Muse and many others.

“Simple Church” is now available for pre-order. I pray it blesses you as you work through what aspects of church are worth holding on to.

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Blessed are the messy people.

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Thank you, God, for the messy people. They tear down my neat boundaries. They take me out of my comfort zone and invite me into the messiness of life.

Thank you, God, for the question-askers. They drive me back to the text to learn more. They make me admit I don’t have all the answers. They inspire me with their hunger for knowledge and understanding.

Thank you, God, for the vulnerable. They expose my own vulnerabilities. They give me courage to share openly and honestly. They draw out my empathy and gentleness.

Thank you, God, for the little people. They force me to behave like an adult. They remind me I am responsible for the well-being of others. They show me what simple, trusting faith looks like.

Thank you, God, for the outsiders. They see life differently. I need their rich and different perspective.

Thank you, God, for those who have suffered greatly. Their wisdom is written on their faces and poured out in their words. They shift the focus from shallow things to deep. They know the full value of life and relationships.

Thank you, God, for the broken and needy. Their hearts are close to you.

Thank you, God, for bringing people into our lives, who will push us, and stretch us, and challenge us, and shape us, and help us grow. May we always see their beauty and worth through your eyes.

Family on Mission – an interview with a “Missional Mumma”

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There’s a movement that began in an Anglican church in England, which is spreading across the world and changing the way people do church. 3DM, started by Mike Breen, is an organisation with the visionto change the world by putting discipleship and mission back into the hands of ordinary people“. Instead of congregating in sacred buildings and putting on a performance to attract people in, Missional Communities of 15-80 people are gathering around a shared vision and focus, and living life side-by-side as “family on mission” as they seek to impact their neighbourhoods and world.

3DM stands for 3 Dimensional Movement, based on the pattern modelled by Jesus, who was in relationship with God (UP), with his discipleship community (IN) and with the broken world around him (OUT). The UP/IN/OUT triangle is one of 3DM’s LifeShapes, which simplify core teaching and practices of this model. A friend of mine, Kat Lockwood, blogs at Missional Mumma about her experiences as a Mum-of-two in a Missional Community which meets in a four week cycle of UP/IN/OUT/OF. I asked Kat to tell us more about their Missional Community, and their 4-week pattern of meeting. Here’s what she had to say…

How did your Missional Community and relationship with 3DM begin?

About three years ago, my husband, as an Anglican Church newly ordained curate, was given the responsibility of a planting a church in a growth corridor of Perth, Western Australia. We had heard of Mike Breen, 3DM and LifeShapes but were very hesitant about how it would work in practice – we had so many questions that eventually our mentors suggested we come to England with them to check it out. We went to Pilgrimage, where St Thomas’ in Sheffield opened up their church community and showed what the potential for a church based around Missional Communities could look like.  We used every spare moment – lunch breaks and coffee breaks – to find a team member and drill them with all our questions. We were relentless, we wanted answers, we wanted to know if it could work in our context in Australia – in a place where the only people we seemed to attract were those who wanted to do nothing but passively receive from the church.

We came home with some ideas to start us off, and in February 2013 we relaunched the church plant as a Missional Community. A Missional Community needs to be built around a mission – an outward focussed goal – so that people can join in with being good news in their community whether or not they believe what we believe. At first we really struggled with finding a mission. It needs to be something people can see and participate in. The possibilities in our area are endless – we have families, prisons, schools, the poor, and the elderly. For us, we have made a decision that whatever we do as church must work well for our family, as our first disciples are our children, and there is no point to us in winning the world but forsaking our children. So we decided to start with our local Retirement Home and to do an intergenerational service based around children interacting with the elderly. We had our mission – “to build families and friendships across the generations“.

You meet in a different way each week of the month. Tell us a bit more about this.

Our four week cycle looks like this :

1st Sunday- We do a social activity that we can invite friends to (OUT and IN). A time to build community and build friendships. We are always looking for those people God might be leading us to connect with, to build relationships with. One of the greatest problems facing our Western world is loneliness and isolation. We believe that, like in times past when the church delivered the solution to the greatest problems of the time (health, education, and welfare), that today, the church as a community can be the solution to the sickness of our time. We make time for intentional connecting with others.

2nd Sunday- We are part of a wider Christian church, so on this Sunday we celebrate that and join with our parent church or another church that we are working with. (OF and UP)

3rd Sunday- We do our missional activity at the local retirement village (OUT). This involves simple activities that anyone can organise or run – a children’s Bible Story, some action songs (which in the interest of simplicity and familiarity tend to be the same songs each month), a very short message, and a craft activity or game that everyone participates in – children, parents, the elderly. This is followed by some unstructured play time/conversation time. This is our favourite week of the month – everyone goes away blessed.

4th Sunday- We do ‘family church‘ (UP and IN) – a simple church service in our home that uses a Godly Play story – a Montessorri method of storytelling that adults and children, Christians or not, can all engage with and process what God is saying at whatever point they are at. We eat together and enjoy each others’ company.

How is your experience different from the usual way of “doing church”?

We have a number of principles that guide us-

We lower the bar on what is “church” and raise the bar on discipleship. And because of that, everyone can (and does) contribute. When you come to a Missional Community, we all serve each other. We all have things to give. God speaks to each of us, not only to the ordained. Our services aren’t flashy but that means everyone can do it. Everyone brings food and everyone helps clean up. This reduces the burden on the leadership to always being a service-provider, but also allows us all to be the church together.

We redeem the time – In a time-poor society we don’t ask people to do Sunday mornings plus a number of other evenings so they can fit in Bible Study, mission, social activities… We have a 4 week cycle so we use the time people have already committed to, so that people are able to fully participate in a balanced spiritual and social life even if the only time they can give is on a Sunday morning. We always include food, fun, prayer and the Bible – but in simple ways, not the formality and structure of “regular church”.

 Why do you do church in a circle, not in rows?

We do “Church in a Circle” because we believe that we are the vessels God is using on this earth and therefore, that it is our job to show the world what God is like. Anyone can belong – before they believe – and everyone can participate in God’s mission on this earth; to be good news and to make disciples. We can learn from the generations who have gone before us and learn from the ones coming up after us – everyone matters. We are also trying to kill the consumer culture that has invaded the church and rendered it apathetic and useless, instead trying to create a place where people can be empowered as Jesus’ disciples – ones who hear and obey Him themselves but also in community with others.

Today I baptised my friend – even though I’m just a “layperson”.

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This morning was a very special Easter Sunday service for my family and I. Today, my husband baptised our 15 year old son, Josiah, and I baptised one of my close friends, Helen. It was a joy and privilege to be involved in this public affirmation of their spiritual journeys, and the moment will stay with me for many years.

I’ve only recently realised “laypeople” have the right to baptise one another. Jesus gave all of his followers a mandate to make disciples, baptise them and teach them to obey his commands. These are not tasks we can or should outsource to professionals. I’m not a pastor in our local church. Neither is my husband (although he is an ordained minister and runs “church in a circle” during the week). In most churches, the clergy perform the baptisms on behalf of the whole community. I now believe it is appropriate for anybody to baptise the people they are personally discipling.

To be honest, I’m reluctant to use the word “laypeople” at all. I believe all of us are priests in God’s service. Our baptism is our ordination. Today, Helen and Josiah were ordained as fully fledged ministers in their own right, qualified to disciple others, baptise them and teach them to obey. Sure, they’re at an early stage of their journey, but they have the same status in God’s eyes as the greatest celebrity pastor of the biggest mega-church.

There are many little ways your church can work towards empowering God’s people to become involved participants, co-workers in Christ, rather than passive consumers. Allowing and encouraging them to baptise the people they are discipling is just one small, symbolic step towards activating the priesthood of all believers, and challenging the notion that any of us are “just” laypeople.