You are welcome here…

Welcome mat

I grew up feeling like an outsider. The first few years of my life were spent overseas, and when we came back to Australia, I felt different to the other kids. It didn’t help that my parents were from migrant families and had different cultural celebrations, or that we went to church when nobody else at school did. I felt like I didn’t “fit in”.

My strongest “outsider” experience came when I was 16 and went on exchange to Germany. I could hardly speak the language, and people treated me as if I was an idiot. They literally thought I was unintelligent, because I couldn’t express myself. I felt vulnerable, alone and misunderstood. It was an enormous insight into how newcomers feel in a new country, culture and language.

The truth is, we’ve all felt like outsiders at some point – and it’s not a nice place to be. We all want to “fit in”. We only feel truly alive when we are loved, and secure, and connected into accepting communities. We bend over backwards to be embraced by the crowd (if you don’t believe me, look at the absurd fashions young people have worn over the years, just to gain a sense of belonging). Humans are designed for relationships – and we suffer greatly when they break down. We all need to belong.

Jesus was a friend to outsiders. Wherever he went, he could pick out the most hurting, needy individual and meet their emotional need. He treated the Samaritan woman with dignity and answered her questions as an equal. He elevated Zaccheus’ social standing by inviting himself over in front of the crowds, and connected him back into his community by calling him “a son of Abraham”. He touched the “untouchable” man with leprosy. He refused to condemn the woman caught in adultery, turning the spotlight on her condemners. He spoke the delicious words to our aching hearts; “Come to me, you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28).

As followers of Jesus, our gatherings are to be places of welcome. Outsiders should feel loved, and embraced, and knitted into community. Hurting people should feel safe. Welcome isn’t all about a big smile and a handshake when they walk through the door (although that’s a good start), but about creating spaces for connection, and deep relationships, and actively placing value on others. Instead, many people report feeling unwelcome and judged by churches, and feeling they have to “jump through hoops”, change their behaviour and shift their value systems before they can be accepted in “Christian culture”.

Who are the outsiders in your local area? Where are the hurting people? Do they feel welcome and safe in your gatherings? If not, what can you change about the way you meet, so they know how important they are to you?


Malls, churches and marketing psychology.

Couple Carrying Shopping Bags in Mall

The older I get, the more suspicious I become of shopping malls. Do you know they’ve studied human psychology and designed the whole mall to increase your buying behavior? They know exactly what flooring to use, what height to raise the ceiling, what colour schemes work best, what music to play, how to dress shop windows and how to position shops to maximize your spending. All I know is that when I go to a bright, new, shiny mall, I experience a mix of two emotions; one which suddenly makes me realize how desperately I needed new clothes, shoes, trinkets and knick-knacks to make me happy; and one which can smell manipulation a mile away and screams at me to leave as quickly as possible, and protect my heart and my wallet. My usual strategy is to stick to my local shops, and avoid stepping into these malls in the first place.

I worry that many churches are reading from the same marketing manual as shopping mall designers. I am concerned they are using similar techniques to influence consumer behaviour. I visited a different church recently and saw all the familiar marketing tricks; a beautifully presented, inoffensive and neutral building; friendly, welcoming people placed at strategic locations, smiling and establishing eye-contact with me; an intense time of group singing which directly altered my emotional state and made me feel like a small part of something bigger; a dynamic speaker who started the sermon off with humor and stories to establish his credibility, then weaved in an emotional hook to complete the sale.

The whole experience made me feel like a target, like a “potential customer”. It felt smooth and slick, coached and orchestrated. Even though I’m a regular church attender and know how sincere people’s motives were, my natural skepticism kicked into gear and warned me to hold back from the obvious emotional manipulation. It left me feeling a bit unsettled.

I love what this church was trying to do – and so very many churches like it. I know that God’s people are earnestly trying to present a comfortable, emotionally engaging, high-quality presentation of God’s message to the world. Many of these churches don’t understand why the world is staying away from their “seeker-sensitive” services. The people around us are natives in a marketing world. They know what we’re trying to do – shift their belief systems, convert them to a different way of thinking. And many of them will take steps to guard themselves and their emotions by avoiding stepping into our buildings in the first place.

Tomorrow’s church: Changing the way we meet, the way we learn, and the way we lead.


There are certain points in history when change is inevitable. Certain time periods are associated with broad scale social change, which eventually trickles down into every institution. The Industrial Revolution reshaped society and institutions. There are many signs that we are going through a shift just as significant, which is changing the way we do everything – including how we learn, interact and see ourselves.

The impact of the internet on our society is huge. Nobody has to be a passive consumer anymore. Everyone has the choice to be an active participant. We are never turning back from that. Once ordinary people are given a voice, and an opportunity to express it, they won’t ever give it up. Businesses, media, schools and governments are going to have to deal with this creatively and sensitively – and many already are.

Over the next few weeks I’m going to explore how the church can take advantage of this broader cultural shift to change church culture from within. The societal changes which are such a headache to businesses are a golden opportunity for the church. For the first time in many years, the church is poised to return to a more interactive model of meeting, where all of God’s people are empowered to participate and to minister to one another.

By the time we finish this series together, I hope to have communicated some adaptable strategies that every healthy church can consider to shift the way they meet, the way they learn and the way they lead. Here are some of the topics I will cover;

How to create a connecting culture
  • by rearranging the seating
  • by connecting through stories
  • by sharing food together

How to activate a hands-on learning environment

  • through action and reflection
  • through direct access to God’s Story
  • through one-another prayer
How to develop a liberating leadership
  • one true leader (Jesus), many teachers (each other)
  • facilitation, not performance
  • listening is the new talking
I hope you enjoy journeying through these suggestions with me, and that this triggers new thoughts and ideas for you – please share them with me along the way! Continue reading

A new format for a new era – a blog series to change church culture from within.

church steeple

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to release a 12-part series of blog posts on how to change church culture from within.

I’m going to start by discussing the new era we are entering as a society, and why this has profound implications for the way we meet together as God’s people. I’m then going to outline the three major shifts all healthy churches should embrace to create a connecting culture, a hands-on learning environment, and a liberating leadership. I will follow up with a series of nine adaptable strategies any church can apply to help connect, engage and empower God’s people more effectively. The series will finish with a look at change and the church – and why they can go together (even though they often don’t).

The following posts in the series are now up;

I hope you are able to follow my 12 part blog series – “Tomorrow’s church: a new formula for a new era”. Subscribe now or follow me on Facebook so you don’t miss any posts. I’d love you to interact and discuss the ideas presented here, and share your experiences. 

If you like what you’re reading, please take the time to share it with your network. Thanks!


A tale of two workers – an allegory of empowerment.

two men

Meet Mike and Peter. These two guys studied together, and have both recently started their new jobs. They both have the same training, the same skill set, and the same potential.

Mike is really happy with his new position. The boss seems like a great guy – intelligent and full of advice. He seems to know everything, the kind of guy who can talk for hours about any topic (and frequently does). He is willing to spend time telling Mike how to do his job well. He’s always quick to solve problems for Mike, and even takes over and does the work for him if Mike gets stuck. Mike has found a comfortable work environment and has settled in well. He doesn’t realise he is slowly being disempowered.

Peter’s new boss is also an experienced, intelligent kind of guy. He asks Peter for his advice and opinions. Continue reading

The medium is the message: preaching in church leads to preaching as outreach.

We learn more by imitating people than by listening to them. “Do as I say, not as I do”, say the hypocritical parents to their child. But they will find, again and again, that their children learn from their example, not from their lectures. This ability to learn by observing people is actually hardwired into us. Over 20 years ago, scientists discovered “mirror neurons” in monkey’s brains, that were activated both when a monkey performed an action itself or when it watched another monkey do the same thing. It’s where the saying “monkey see, monkey do” comes from. These brain cells allow us to learn by watching others. Modelling behaviour is far more effective than talking about it.

Think about the implications of this in most churches. On the front stage, as an example for everyone to follow, you will find the pastor and main speakers – professional, talented, persuasive communicators. They are often attractive and charismatic, and present a well-prepared message which answers the big questions of life with great confidence and a clever turn of phrase. They don’t hesitate or mumble or admit they just don’t know, and because of the lecture-style, monologue format, they don’t brook any argument.

This then, is the message to the congregation; Continue reading

One simple trick every church can use to change passive listeners into active learners.

Students have had difficulty concentrating through lectures since they were first invented. However, researchers have found a remarkably simple way for students to understand and remember significantly more from a spoken lecture without having to change the teaching practices or put extra strain on the listeners. Every 10-15 minutes, the speaker stops talking for 2-3 minutes and encourages the students to speak to each other about what they’ve learned. It only adds a few minutes to the total speaking time, but studies done in 1987 resulted in substantial improvements in long-term retention of information, and a two letter grade increase by the end of semester.

A lot of churches are starting to creatively incorporate opportunities for discussion into the sermon or at the end of the sermon. Some churches seat people around tables, and break for conversation at regular intervals; other churches sit in rows and break into small discussion groups after the speaker finishes. Either way, they’ve found a fantastic and easy-to-incorporate technique for turning passive listeners into active and engaged learners, and overcoming some of the inherent weaknesses of monologue/broadcasting method of communication. It’s a great starting point for becoming more empowering and participatory as a church, without going so far as to bypass the sermon altogether.

Is your church doing anything like this? How useful have you found it? If not, do you think it would be easy enough to do?

Doing church in a circle, not in rows.

When people sit in a circle, something powerful happens, which is totally unlike the interaction people have when they are seated in rows.

In rows, people look at and learn from the pastor. In a circle, they look at and learn from each other.

In rows, people are treated as a passive and dependent. People wait for the “professionals” to minister to them. There is a strong message of inequality between the leadership team and the congregation. In a circle, people are active and self-directed. They are implicitly empowered to minister to each other. There is a sense of equity and respect for everyone.

In rows, there is no opportunity to respond to the information presented. There is no place for prior knowledge or life experience to be shared. There is no chance to discuss, ask questions or disagree. In a circle, there is ample opportunity to interact with and explore new ideas and concepts. Individual life experiences are valued and sought; and robust discussion is allowed and encouraged.

In rows, learning is minimised and boredom is prevalent. Learning is constrained to a single event and a single intelligence (listening). The focus is on attaining knowledge from a single source (the pastor). In a circle, learning is maximised by tapping into multiple intelligences and promoting an attitude of continuous learning. The focus is on growing wisdom through shared experiences and interaction, and applying that wisdom to real-life situations.

A circle creates community.

A circle activates learning.

A circle empowers everybody.

A circle accelerates authenticity.

A circle gives everyone a voice and value.

A circle is a natural way of interacting.

A circle is symbolic in its very nature. A circle speaks of unity; of equality; of connectedness; of completeness. A circle is non-hierarchical, organic and natural.

I’m not saying that every interaction we have in church has to take place in circles. I am saying that we don’t use them often enough, and that we haven’t discovered the power of using circles in our Sunday church services.

Why churches need to learn from new trends in education.

In the past, all schooling took place in rows. People believed that the teacher had all the knowledge, and that sitting and listening was the best way to learn. We’ve realized since then that simply isn’t true. Kindergarten teachers, school teachers and university lecturers now know that people need to be actively involved in the learning process, otherwise they switch off and don’t learn much at all. Active learning is better than passive listening. All around the world, teachers are exploring better ways to help students be involved in the learning process. They are exploring hands-on learning, discovery learning, collaborative learning and reflective learning techniques in the classroom.

What about in church? Well, church members don’t get graded after listening to sermons, so churches aren’t moving so quickly to find better ways to teach. There is an urgency in the education system to rethink teaching methods as the world changes around us. In the church, not so much. Sermons are still considered as the most effective way to impart information, even by many of the “missional” church models.

“Mindshift: how we will learn” is a great education blog that shares innovations in the education sector. Many of these are applicable in the church context. When churches start getting creative with teaching methods, we will start to see God’s people increasingly empowered, and reduce the clergy/laity divide.

What can we learn from Jesus’ teaching methods?

Question: Why did Jesus mostly teach in parables, not sermons?

Answer: Because Jesus believed in active learning.

Hear me out. Im not trying to be flippant.

Parables are deceptively simple. You can’t grasp the truth of them without mulling them over, thinking them through. They shift the responsibility from the teacher to the learner. The message isn’t spelled out for you. It isn’t until you grapple with them that you discover the underlying truth. Parables teach to the whole brain. They activate our visual imagination, our curiosity and our emotional empathy. They take advantage of our innate attraction to and memory for story. They are easy to remember, and have application in the original context and in our own personal context. They have space for interaction. The listeners were allowed to question and ask for clarification. Parables aren’t neatly packaged, 3-point sermons aimed at a general audience. They require us to think, to interpret, and to apply in our own unique context.

Jesus intentionally chose not to spoon-feed his listeners. Those who longed to follow him wrestled with his message and understood it. He didn’t make his message simplistic, comfortable or formulaic. In the church today, we would benefit from not just focussing on the words Jesus used to teach, but also looking at the methods he used to teach. Despite our modern technology, universal education and mass literacy, we still learn best in the same ways we always have. We learn with our whole brain (not just one part of it), we learn by constructing meaning from our experiences, we learn through the familiar patterns of storytelling and we learn from each other.

In churches today, we’ve placed such high priority on “good teaching” and “correct theology” that we’ve reduced people’s ability to actively learn. We’ve bypassed the role of the Holy Spirit as our teacher, and employed humans to reduce the mystery of God’s message to a few well-chosen words. We’ve structured our meetings so there is no opportunity to listen to the Holy Spirit, and made the assumption that he only speaks to the theologically trained and verbally eloquent.

God’s message is not just for the intellectual elite. It is for everyone, and everyone has something to contribute. In fact, it’s often the messiest and most broken people have the most profound insights to share with God’s people. It’s going to take a fresh approach to our teaching methods to unlock the full potential of God’s people to learn together and teach one another.

What are some ways you would like to see the church use active learning, rather than passive listening?