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.

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.

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.

Seasons of church

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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.

6 things you can’t do in a circle.

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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?

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.

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.