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.

 

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.

Is your church an orchestra or a one-man-band?

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Have you ever seen a “one-man-band”? It can be a little awkward. Sure, its impressive that one person can manage to play more than one instrument at a time, but the quality of the music pales when compared to the glory of a symphony orchestra playing multiple instruments and many parts.

When we “hire” a pastor to do everything for the congregation, it becomes like the performance of a one-man-band; one person performing at the front for our entertainment. The irony is, the people sitting in the rows are the actual orchestra players – the leader is supposed to be the orchestra conductor, not the whole show! Just as the music played by the orchestra has far more depth and beauty than one person could ever produce on their own, God’s people working together and ministering to each other will have a richer, deeper quality than a single person can ever bring to ministry.

If the orchestra don’t rehearse, they will lose their ability and confidence. If they never get to play their instruments, they will never develop talent and skill to perform for others. If they are made to sit and listen, and never to play music themselves, they will start to believe they have nothing worth listening to. When God’s people meet together, each person present has something beautiful to contribute; each person has gifts and life experience and knowledge to share. When we meet in a circle, there is an opportunity to empower each individual to perform and minister to one another, and to equip them to serve God and do his will. Just like the players in an orchestra have different instruments and different parts to play, we all have different gifts and different moments to use them.

When the conductor steps to the front of the orchestra, the audience hold their breath in anticipation, because they know something very beautiful is about to happen. Amazing things can happen when the leaders put away their own trumpet, and start to empower God’s people to make beautiful music together.  Its a powerful moment when you let the orchestra play.

This is a reprint of one of my earliest blog posts. 

I still see many pastors struggling to be one-man-bands, rather than empowering their congregations to each play their part.

Seasons of church

 Autumn

My life has been pretty busy lately.

I’ve taken on a few projects which I may write about soon. Also, the summer holidays have come to an end on this side of the world, and I have one child finishing high school, one starting high school, and the youngest starting full-time Pre-Primary. For the first time in 17 years, all four of my kids are in school during the week (yay!). This frees me up in some ways, but also allows me to fill up my hours with volunteer work and things-I’ve-been-waiting-to-do-for-years-and-years.

Anyway, in all the busyness of this season, I haven’t had much time to write. After three years of putting up one post a week, I’ve gone nearly 6 weeks without blogging! I hope you will all forgive me (if you even noticed my absence).

It strikes me that we move through busy and quiet seasons of life, and we may also move through different seasons of church. Most churches run a one-size-fits-all approach to gathering together, where we sit in rows, sing some songs and listen to a sermon, Sunday after Sunday after Sunday. But perhaps this model doesn’t fit with the seasons of life.

I love the concept of “organic church”. Rather than viewing church as a machine, which needs to be oiled and maintained, we see it as a plant, which grows, reproduces and dies in different seasons. It is incredibly liberating to realise that different forms of church we participate in don’t have to go on year after year to be successful – sometimes they may last a few months, or meet every-now-and-then, but they can still be powerful and effective in our lives.

Hopefully I get more time to write this year. I’d love to write a book about all the things we have learned about doing church in a circle. I look forward to seeing what God has in store for this season of life and church.

Thank you for a great year!

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2014 has been an enjoyable year for me as a writer, but only because of the collaboration and support of some very precious people.

First of all, a huge thank you to Fresh Start Community. Thanks for letting me come and be part of the circle, and sometimes facilitate activities and discussions. You guys are the inspiration for this blog, as you model courage, humility, and grace to us.

Thank you to the guest writers who’ve contributed to this blog this year. I’ve had posts from Fred Liggin, Steve Simms, Thom Schultz, Miguel Labrador, Ray Hollenbach, Gareth Williams and Katherine Lockwood about their own unique approaches to “church in a circle.” You guys rock!

I’ve enjoyed being one of the contributors to “Simple Church: Unity within Diversity“, which has just been released this month, and made it to the top 20 of Amazon’s Christian books. Special thanks go to Eric Carpenter for inviting me to join in this project, Jeremy Myers for publishing the book, and to the great writers who have shared their vision for simple church practices (Alan Knox, Alice Carpenter, Keith Giles, Kathy Escobar and many others).

Thank you to my readers, supporters and encouragers, you who have taken the time to read my thoughts and ideas, and stopped occasionally to write a comment or retweet a post. I really appreciate it and love connecting with you in your journey.

Most of all, I want to thank my amazing husband, Kevin-Neil, who collaborates with me in my writing, in my parenting, in my faith journey, and in the everyday moments of life. You are my strength, my inspiration and my best friend. I look forward to meeting 2015 with you.

Happy New Year!

 

Come to the manger.

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Come, shepherds and rabble, you who who have nothing in the eyes of the world, and gaze upon the Good News for the least, the last and the lost.

Come, wise men and foreigners from far away, outsiders and strangers, those with an ear to hear and eyes to witness the mystery of the world.

Come, you who are blind, or crippled, or poor, or lame, come to the banquet table and feast as honored guests of the king.

Come and see the peasant girl and her child. God slipping into our neighborhood. The quiet explosion of God’s outrageous love colliding with our lives.

This discordant song.

This juxtaposition.

Creator God, wrapped in rags.

The powerful become the powerless. The ruler of all, vulnerable and overlooked, homeless and ordinary.

Come, whoever you are – kings or shepherds, wise or simple – and see the world being turned on its head, the social order disrupted forever, a kingdom to end all empires. Listen to the cattle heralding the birth of a new era. Bow before a baby who will change the course of history, undo our political and religious systems, expose our darkness and usher in the light.

Come to the manger.

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.

Scapegoating, terror alerts, and how Australian Christians should respond.

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Unpopular governments are always anxious to turn the anger of the people away from themselves and towards someone else. The philosopher Rene Girard describes the “scapegoat mechanism” all societies use to defuse internal tensions by agreeing upon a common enemy, a scapegoat, an outside party to carry the blame and anger and sin of the whole community. It’s a theme universal as time itself – scapegoating is at the heart of all wars and conflicts, as well as the basis for racism, patriarchy, homophobia, social injustice and genocide.

Since 2001, Australian leaders on both sides of politics have deliberately set up scapegoats to distract the focus from their own incompetence. Elections have been won on promises to “stop the boats” – stirring up anxiety over foreign refugees seeking freedom and a future by traveling to our nation by sea. Thousands of traumatized men, women and children have been locked up and hidden away, often for years, and now face being relocated as part of the cruel “No Way” campaign, hand-balled to nations with abysmal human rights records. Asylum seekers are no longer treated as vulnerable people with rights, but as human political pawns.

More recently, the peaceful, moderate Muslim population of Australia have become the target of prejudice and suspicion, as the government capitalizes on the horror of ISIL by stirring up fear of “homegrown terrorism” (conveniently distracting the population from an unpopular budget and rushing through laws which undermine our freedoms). In the past two weeks, since our terror alert was raised, we’ve seen a rapid escalation in hate crimes, racist attacks and threats of violence against mosques, Islamic schools and Australian women wearing headscarves known as hijab. The Muslim faith has become associated in some people’s minds with radicalized extremism, and has become a scapegoat for the internal tensions within our broader society.

Jesus showed us a different way to live.

Jesus became the ultimate scapegoat when he died on the cross. In this world-changing act, he exposed the forces of violence by which our societies operate, and welcomed in a new kingdom, a new way to relate to one another, the way of love.

Through his life and teachings, Jesus  turned the scapegoating system upside down. He lifted up the marginalized and ostracized. He embraced the outsider. He met the needs of the needy. He loved the unlovely. He healed the sick, supported the weak, celebrated the least, the lost and the last. But he also stood up to the authorities, the gatekeepers, the system of hierarchy and scapegoating which divided people into separate groups.

Jesus began a new kingdom.

As Jesus-followers, we are called to a radical, subversive position of nonviolent love. Not some passive, sit-on-your-hands-and-do-nothing position, but an attitude of identifying with the outsiders and scapegoats in our society, and boldly challenging the crowd in their thirst for violence. Our creative nonviolence is meant to expose the violence deep at the heart of our “civilized societies”.

This call to action is not without risk. Jesus was crucified by his own people group for preaching peace. Many leaders of nonviolence movements have been assassinated. Jesus was serious when he told us we would has to take up our cross daily if we were willing to follow in his footsteps.

In the midst of the hysteria and racism, I am encouraged.

I’m encouraged by the #WISH movement (Women In Solidarity with Hijabis), which emerged after Kate Leaney (from Welcome to Australia) wore a hijab for a week to identify with her Muslim friends. I am inspired by more than 70 Christian leaders (nuns and priests, Anglicans and Pentecostals, and every type of Christian in between) who have been arrested for sitting in politicians’ offices and politely asking when the children will be released from detention. I am excited that there are hundreds more from all denominations preparing to creatively demonstrate nonviolent love as part of the #LoveMakesAWay movement, despite the risks of taking on the system.

These brave people are exposing the heart of cruelty and violence in our system.

As Jesus followers, we don’t need to give in to fear, and we certainly don’t need to scapegoat other humans. Now is the time for us to stand in solidarity with the marginalized and scapegoated. Now is the time for us to befriend and defend Australian Muslims. Now is the time for us to reframe the conversation around asylum seekers, and stand up for the least of these.

Because Jesus shows us that where there is no way, love makes a way.

Church in a cafe – getting out of our sacred buildings and religious routines.

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I hope you’ve been following my series “Are circles better than rows” over the past few weeks, where I’ve invited guest bloggers to share about fresh ways of doing church in the 21st Century. We’ve heard about “seminary in a circle“, from Miguel Labrador in the Andes Mountain Cloud Forest Region of Ecuador. We’ve journeyed deeper in Christ through a “seminar in a circle” with writer and teacher Ray Hollenbach. We’ve visited an “Epic Fail Conference” with J.R. Briggs, who realised pastors need the chance to circle up and confess their failures to one another. And we’ve experienced an intentional, intergenerational missional community who do “church in a nursing home” with my friend Katherine Lockwood.

Today’s post comes from one of my very favourite bloggers, Thom Schultz, who has written a number of books, including “Why nobody learns much of anything at church” and “Why nobody wants to go to church anymore” with his wife Joani. I highly recommend you follow Thom’s blog, Holy Soup, which is full of thought-provoking, stimulating articles on how to do church differently. Thom started up an innovative ministry across the U.S. called “Lifetree Cafe” – I asked him to share a little about this fantastic approach which allows believers and unbelievers to meet together in circles…

In an effort to rebuild connections between culture and the church, we began the journey of creating a highly relational intersection point where people could come together—build relationships with each other—and grow in a relationship with Jesus. The result of years of planning, preparing and praying was a fresh, new ministry concept we call Lifetree Café.

Lifetree Café is a time and place where people gather to hear inspiring stories and engage in conversation on a different topic every week. It’s the proven ministry that reaches the unreached with the love of Christ in a fresh, new way. Lifetree Café is an hour-long, interactive experience that features real people’s real stories on film, guided conversation, biblical insights, and time to build relationships.

Lifetree Café tackles the topics people struggle with in everyday life. Participants are encouraged to share their own stories and listen to others. As a result, people don’t just hear what the Bible says about their lives—they discover the relevance of God’s Word and a friendship with Jesus. And week after week, they acknowledge they experience God at Lifetree.

Lifetree Café is a place that reminds you of a cozy coffeehouse. It may be located at your church or elsewhere in the community, such as in a café, on a college campus, or in a community center. Lifetree is designed to work in a variety of venues.

We began planting Lifetree Cafés around the country over four years ago and we now have hundreds of Lifetrees planted in communities of all sizes. Every week we hear amazing stories of how people are coming together and growing in their faith. These relational circles of people are finding that they’re not alone in their struggles and they’re learning from other people’s life experiences. They’re finding Lifetree Café to be a safe place where their thoughts are welcome—and their doubts are welcome.

While Lifetree Café is seen as being a highly effective and proven outreach ministry—we’re seeing it as an amazing “in-reach” ministry as well.

More information on Lifetree Cafe can be found at Discover.LifetreeCafe.com

Going DEEPER with Jesus – a seminar in a circle.

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Ray Hollenbach blogs regularly at Students of Jesus, and is the author of “The Impossible Mentor: Finding Courage to Follow Jesus“, as well as writing for a wide range of Christian publications. He spent 15 years preaching from the front, but has recently begun looking for a way for God’s people to go deeper with Christ – and with each other. His search led him to start up DEEPER Seminars this year (here’s a great testimony from a pastor who took part in one). I asked Ray to share what goes on in these seminars – here is his response;

Leonard Sweet likes to call it the “Big Jug” theory of learning: when one source (the expert) has all the knowledge in a big jug and the rest of us (the students) gather around to passively receive. “The little jug’s job is to catch all the droppings from the big jug,” Sweet explains. I know there is a place for this kind of learning, but I’ve come to the growing realization that such a setting has very little to do with discipleship.

Each year thousands of people (tens of thousands, really) descend upon large cities to attend Christianity’s “big shows,” faith conferences—the parachurch equivalent of mega-churches. On stage is the big jug and the little jugs in the stadium seats soak up the droppings. I’m grateful for these gatherings and the excitement they generate. I also see how much is spilled and wasted when the big jug distributes the water of life apart from listening and relationship.

As a pastor of 15 years experience, I have great respect for the pulpit and the role of preaching, yet in the years after I stepped away from weekly preaching, I began to realize that preaching does not make disciples, people do. Preaching can (and does) lead people to Jesus. It sows hope like seeds on a hillside and dares people to believe the impossibly good news of God’s Kingdom. During those 15 years I also came to understand the limits of preaching—even on a Sunday morning.

At the beginning of 2014 I began visiting other churches with a subversive agenda: to engage in conversations about discipleship, rather than to lecture folks on what to do. This was the birth of DEEPER Seminars, an interactive small-group setting that leads to discovery of our deepest assumptions about what it means to follow Jesus. As the facilitator of these conversations, I’ve received more than I’ve given. Here are three lessons I’ve personally learned:

Each person’s history holds the presence of God. Through good decisions or bad, our lives confirm that Jesus really is Emmanuel, God with us. I’ve heard story after story of how God has used our past as the foundation for spiritual understanding, and how he infuses every life experience with the wisdom necessary for our good and our growth. If I were the only person talking, these stories would never come to light. The church needs to hear these stories.

God’s grace is about more than forgiveness: it’s about growth. I’ve listened to men and women tell stories of how the Spirit of God whispered to them in their failures and taught them lessons that go way beyond book learning or doctrine. In the messy everyday situations of life, the Spirit brings insight and revelation, and this, too, is the proper operation of his grace. A preaching-only method of communication tends to reduce the vast topic of grace to acronyms and slogans. I’ve watched as people gathered together for conversation light up and say, “What? You too? I thought I was the only one . . .

Sometimes we box Jesus into the role of “Savior.”  Together, as we read the scripture in intimate settings and look closely at the life of Jesus, we discover the Lord’s longing for us to receive him as “Example” as well as “Savior.” This is good news with a deep challenge: instead of merely appreciating his actions, we are called to imitate them. I’ve discovered there’s no greater transition required of us today, and lectures can never accomplish this transformation.

I’ve found that the deepest transformations come in living room sessions, church basements, and in the circle of sharing the word of God with one another. This discovery has given me the passion to schedule DEEPER Seminars in the most unlikely places, and to realize that in God’s kingdom even the teachers have much to learn.

Do you see any value in a “seminar in a circle”? How would this compare with the Christian conferences and seminars you’ve attended over the years?