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 morning tea is the pinnacle of my worship service.

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My husband and I are involved in two church communities. Fresh Start Community is the “church in a circle” which inspires and teaches us, and the reason we write this blog. On Sundays, however, we attend “church in rows” – a regular church, which follows the same sit+sing+sermon model as most churches around the world.

As churches go, our local church is pretty awesome. It’s a multigenerational, messy bunch of local families, elderly residents, inspired young people, and nearly as many children as adults. The teaching is solid, and the highlight of the gathering is the participatory, open table, as we celebrate communion together.

But personally, I don’t think “church” starts until morning tea time.

You see, the writings to the early church are chock-full of instructions ending in the words “one another”. We are instructed to teach one another, serve one another, encourage one another, pray for one another – and above all, to love one another. Any form of church which herds us into rows and prevents us from connecting with one another is holding us back from being a family, a people group, a body, a community.

So, my favourite part of Sundays is when the official communion is over, and we begin a fresh act of communion. The volume swells the moment we stand up from our pews. Half the church end up chatting in the chapel, as the other half gather over the coffee cups. The whole place bubbles with conversation and confession, hugs and handshakes, prayers and encouragement, for about an hour, until people peel themselves away reluctantly and go into their week (sometimes people move from morning tea into lunch, so conversations can last longer and go deeper).

I love morning tea time at our church. I usually don’t even get a cup of tea or any food (the half-eaten cookies my children thrust into my hands as I stand talking don’t count), but I am fed with the joy of connecting with my church family. It always leaves me hungry for more. To me, this is the high point of our time together, this is the glimpse of community, this is the entry point to deeper connections and real relationships. Don’t tell our pastor, but there have been times where we’ve skipped the morning service altogether, and turned up just in time for morning tea!

Let’s stop thinking church is a set of activities we do (singing, sermons and sacraments) and realise “church” happens when we love, serve and connect with God’s people.

 

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.

The myth of the perfect church

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Human beings are created with an inbuilt tendency towards idealism. Fairy tale stories and superhero movies reflect our need for happy endings and superhuman abilities. We grow up with romantic and unrealistic expectations of life, which are often dashed against the rocks of reality, leaving us hurt and disappointed.

You can see this idyllic imagination at work in our searches for a romantic partner. My youngest daughters (age 6 and 4) sometimes take turns being a bride and marrying each other, already living out the dream of “happily ever after”. They don’t yet know that every marriage involves two very different and flawed humans, who will have downs as well as ups, and who will never fully be able to meet each other’s needs and expectations.

When it comes to church, we have the same idealism, only even higher. After all, we have Scripture verses to back it up. We long to be part of an intimate community of people who love one another, accept us as we are and empower us to be all we can be.

Our idyllic notions often take a battering in institutional church, so we turn our hearts towards a romanticised notion of “organic church”. In our minds, this new-and-improved-model-of-church will meet all our needs and bring us towards “happy ever after”. In the real world, organic churches have their problems too – their power struggles, personality clashes and failure to meet people’s expectations.

Organic church life can be amazing. In fact, institutional church life can be equally amazing. However, just like a marriage, any of these relational settings needs to be approached with the right mindset and commitment to playing our part. There are certain characteristics which will create the transformational community we long for – honesty, authenticity, acceptance, kindness, patience, love. The problem is, these things come at a cost. They require effort and truckloads of maturity. They are not always easy and they don’t always feel good.

If you want to find some magical, picture-perfect church community, give up now. However, if you’re prepared to struggle with your own issues, put up with other people’s foibles, and commit for the long haul, you may just find glimpses of the joy and fellowship you crave. It won’t be an easy journey, but along the way you will change yourself and your church community, for good.

Welcoming the outsider.

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I am lucky enough, through no merit of my own, to live in a particularly lovely suburb in the nicest city in the world – Perth, Western Australia. It is a highly sought after area with excellent schools, close to the beach and playgrounds, sunshine most of the year around – a great place to live and to bring up kids. It’s also very cliquey and hard to break into the community if you’re not from around here. The people who live here are mostly white, wealthy and well-educated. I am one of them. I look like them, talk like them and have lived alongside them for many years.

I am an insider.

As a kid, my parents travelled a great deal, and I spent some years moving around the world. When we got back, I was younger than everyone else in my class, having started school overseas. My parents were both from migrant families, and some of the things we did were culturally different from my peers. I always felt different, not part of the group, not a “real Australian” (whatever that means). At 16, I went on an exchange program, and got to experience how it feels to be the minority, not to speak the language well. It made me feel vulnerable and awkward. It was scary.

I was an outsider.

A few years ago, God showed me how central my insider/outsider story is to my life, and how it is a gift. Whenever I’m at our local school (and with four kids, I spend a lot of time there), I notice the newcomers, the strangers, the lonely people. I find myself naturally drawn to people from other cultures and backgrounds, women with beautiful skin and rich accents. Most of my friends look different from me and sound different – although inside, we are all the same.

God also showed me how much Jesus loved the outsiders. He went out of his way to validate them, stand up for them, lift them up and place them within their communities. With words and actions, in front of the crowds, he identified with the lonely, the foreigners, the rejected, the least of these.

I have a passion to create a culture of welcome in my local community. I want to be a bridge-builder between the newcomers and the established families in my children’s school. I am not there to convert them (although I find my Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist friends discuss God and faith and prayer with me easily and naturally in conversation). I am just trying to be a friend. I am looking for ways to promote intentional inclusivity in our playgrounds, homes and neighbourhood.

This Friday, I am organising a welcome morning tea for new families in our school community. Can you join me in praying they find a safe, embracing sense of acceptance there? Can you also commit to looking for the outsiders in your path today, and intentionally including them in your community?

 

The most important skill for Christian leadership (it’s not what you think).

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If you’re going to take any leadership role in any style of church, there’s one skill you’ll need more than any other. In fact, if you are a part of any godly community, there is one capacity you’ll have to develop and use, time and time again.

The ability to apologize.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not great at saying the words “I’m sorry”. If I have a disagreement with my husband, I tend to think I’m right and he’s wrong, and it takes me a while to calm down and put things right. Luckily, he’s more gracious than I am and much faster to ask forgiveness. I deeply appreciate his commitment to reconciliation, and his willingness to humble himself to say sorry, even when I was the one at fault. He has taught me that there is always something I can apologize for – for my tone of voice, my insensitivity, my timing – and that confession and forgiveness lead to a better place and a deeper relationship for both of us. I’m still working on it (and probably always will be).

There are some church settings where you’ll never need to make up, where you won’t go deep enough with one another to ever be called on to work through an offense. But if you take Jesus’ teachings seriously, if you seek out deep, ongoing, loving relationships like a family, you will at some point unwittingly offend those you love the most. If you pursue being the body of Christ, you will step on each other’s toes. And you’ll need to work on your maturity and say those painful words; “I was wrong. I’m so sorry. Will you forgive me?“.

Nobody enjoys the humiliating, hard work of apologizing. We hate being caught out, stuffing up and looking bad. But we are called to a ministry of reconciliation, to the great and glorious task of reconciling the world to God – and the first place we need to work on this is in our relationships with one another.

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.

Love Feast – communion as a shared meal.

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My all-time favourite TV show would have to be Joss Whedon’s Firefly. Set in the future, it follows the lives and relationships of an odd assortment of characters as they travel the universe in an ageing spaceship.

At the heart of the ship, named “Serenity”, is a common eating area. As they eat together, the passengers and crew share more than food – they share laughter, and stories, and conflict, and special moments. At the table, Mal is no longer captain, Simon and River are no longer fugitives – they are all equals, comrades with a common unity. Bonds are formed and strengthened which enable them to keep each other’s backs as they go out into dangerous worlds. They cease to be individuals, and become family.

The act of sharing a meal is one of the most simple and effective ways to build up any community of people. Jesus spent a great part of his ministry eating with people. Many of his stories were about feasts and banquets. The early church celebrated communion by eating together. The modern simple church movement and missional communities often structure their gatherings around a meal. One inspirational movement that excites me is called “Neighbor’s Table” – a love movement begun by Sarah Harmeyer in 2012, which is spreading across communities and neighbourhoods.

Each week at Fresh Start Community, we end our meeting by eating lunch together – nothing flash, just sandwiches and salad. We call it the Love Feast – communion as a shared meal. I think it would be beautiful for God’s people to rediscover the relationship-building, one-anothering power of sharing food with one another.

Love God. Love others. The rest is details.

Faith

According to Jesus, the entire Old Testament Law and the Prophets can be boiled down to two commandments; “Love God“, and “Love others“. The first is our personal, vertical relationship with God. The second is our interpersonal, horizontal relationship with people.

These two love-actions are not separate from each other – they are intrinsically linked. That’s why Jesus says; “the second (command) is like (the first)” (Matthew 22:39). Loving God and loving others go together. If we say we love God, but do not love one another, we are lying to ourselves and do not know the truth of God’s love.

To me, the shape of the cross is a reminder of the intersection of vertical spirituality (love for God) and horizontal (love for others). We experience and take part in God’s love when we learn to stretch out our arms and embrace the other, when we lay ourselves down to lift others up, when we unclench our fists and forgive those who have hurt us.

We are called to a cross-shaped love in our relationships with one another. That is the main reason I believe churches need to prioritise face-to-face, side-by-side, heart-to-heart one-anothering in our gatherings. Creating spaces for God’s people to encourage, confess, teach, minister and pray for one another is a joy-filled experience which blows me away every time I encounter it.

Love God. Love others. Everything we do as “church” should be equipping each other to fulfil these two commands. The rest is just religion.

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.