Tomorrow’s church – Part 2: Participation changes everything.

In my last post, “Welcome to a new era“, I discussed the recent cultural shifts our society is going through. Social media allows people to participate and contribute. The internet gives ordinary people access to extraordinary amounts of information. What does this mean for the church?

There is an often-told story of a real-estate agent who explained to his client the three most important factors in selling a property. “I would say the first thing to consider is location“, he begins, “followed closely by location, and last – but not least – location.” It may be an exaggeration to say nothing else matters in real estate, but this familiar quote drives home a point – location is not something to overlook.

If you were to ask me the most important shifts needed in church today, I would hold up three fingers and say … “participation, participation, participation.” I’m not saying nothing else matters. I am saying participation is a major element that is missing in churches today – and that we are getting ready to embrace once again. Culture has changed, and it’s not going back. The internet has given people an opportunity to connect, interact and get involved. God’s people would like to participate in church, too. But churches will need to accept some shifts from within, because participation changes everything.

Participation changes the way we meet. If we are committed to allowing God’s people to participate, we can no longer line them up in rows and keep them silent during our meetings. We need to rearrange the seating to allow more interaction and involvement. We should share our stories and connect with one another. The time we spend sharing food and drink together will become more than just a coffee break at the end of the service, and take on a greater significance.

Participation changes the way we learn. Neuroscience has shown us that people learn best when they are actively engaged and involved – hands-on learning is more powerful than passive listening. Did you know that most adults are unable to listen effectively for more than 10-15 minutes at the longest? The Vatican has even recommended that sermons should only last around 8 minutes, as this is the ideal length of time for listening without shutting down. We’re discovering better ways of learning, and we should start using them in our churches.

Participation changes the way we lead. No longer should the pastor do all the talking. It’s time to get everyone involved, get everyone teaching each other, and to rediscover Christ’s leadership for the whole community. The payoff is enormous. When we move from performance to facilitation, we empower God’s people to have a voice, a value and an impact. We enable them to discover their spiritual gifts and use them to minister to one another. We release them to change the world around them.

The Bible compares the church to a body, with Jesus as the head, which will grow in maturity “as each part does its work” (Eph 4:16). The goal of church is spiritual maturity, not numbers. Every one of us has a part to play. It’s time for the church to prepare for participation. Continue reading

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

How to bring about change in an established church.

change button

A number of people have asked me how to move an established church towards change. Change from performance to empowerment. Change from sitting silently in rows to actively participating in circles. Change from a passive audience to a facilitated learning community.

Change isn’t an easy process. Change only becomes desirable when the alternative is too painful to live with anymore. People diagnosed with diabetes or coeliac disease are willing to give up their favourite foods in order to improve their health and well-being. Many churches and pastors are struggling with a dawning realisation that the model they have used for so many years is no longer working. Their dissatisfaction with the status quo is driving them to consider a new model for a new era.

Neil Cole has written a blog post which lays out five steps for a church wrestling with the need to change. The church needs to see it (develop a vision for change), want it (feel the need badly enough to pursue change), pray it (the most pivotal step of all), pay for it (change always costs something – but the price is worth it), and do it (slowly at first, in phases and incremental steps).

Cole is convinced that the established church in the Western world is ready to receive a transfusion of organic life which will alter the way we meet together, minister to one another and impact the world. His latest book seeks to gift the established church with the wisdom and knowledge accumulated from many years of working with the missional church movement worldwide, and is a timely contribution to the growing awareness for the need for systemic change from within.


Releasing polycentric leadership in a facilitated learning community.

high fives

There are certain time periods when change is inescapable. Take the Industrial Revolution, for example. Virtually overnight, the structure of society was shifted when people flooded from rural industry into cities and factories. Institutions, governance and culture had to transform in order to meet the needs of a very different societal landscape.

In his new book, “Creating A Missional Culture“, J.R. Woodward points out that we are entering the Digital Age, a time period with unique challenges and opportunities. He describes some of the ways churches need to respond to the broad cultural changes of this new era. One of the gifts Woodward gives us is the call to polycentric leadership in the church. He urges the church to move beyond hierarchical leadership models – which don’t sit well with the digital generation, who are sceptical of centralised power structures. Instead, he encourages the church to nurture and release the five kinds of equippers to act as cultural architects, developing a culture which empowers and activates all of God’s people to be involved in ministry. He goes on to describe how Jesus embodies each of the different ministry roles; apostle, prophet, evangelist, shepherd and teacher.

My husband and I have had a chance to see polycentric leadership in action – occurring quite spontaneously and naturally within an interactive, participatory church setting. After six years as lead pastor, Kevin-Neil grew tired of positioning God’s people to sit in rows as a passive audience. He now runs church as a facilitated learning community – a place where everyone interacts and participates, and where the leader is a facilitator, not a performer.

Each week at Fresh Start Community, we see people empowered to discover and use their God-given ministry gifts. They don’t even realise they are doing it. If you come and sit alongside me next week, you’ll be able to work out who’s who. You’ll recognise the prophet when he speaks words which hit deep in your heart, and leaves you with something profound to think about and work through. You’ll see the evangelist coming into the room, surrounded by any number of newcomers – always making everyone feel welcome and connected. You’ll work out who the shepherd is – she’s the one who notices the tear in another’s eye, and slips out of her seat to come alongside them to offer support. You’ll know who the teacher is when she speaks up and clarifies a concept that baffles the rest of the group. My favourite one to watch is the apostle – the one who empowers the others to find their gifts and use their voice to build each other up. None of these people are paid to take these roles. Not many of them have formal qualifications. They’re just using their natural gifts, because the environment releases them to do so.

God never intended the burden of ministry to rest upon one individual. He created each of us with different skills, abilities and gifts. Church should become an environment which recognises and nurtures our ministry gifts, and empowers us to use them to minister to each other and to a world in need.

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

Doubling up at church – filling our week with extra programs because Sunday isn’t meeting our spiritual needs.


We go to church to be with each other. We go to meet with God’s people, and worship God in community. Church is all about relationships – our relationship with God, and our relationship with his people. The most precious resource we have as a church is each other. We are God’s people, called to live out his story through our lives and in our neighbourhoods, and we need each other for support, encouragement and accountability. And yet our weekly meetings are structured to serve us an individual worship experience, not connect us as a community.

Churches are doubling up on programs because meeting in rows isn’t meeting people’s core spiritual needs. We’re running Bible study groups on Wednesday nights (so people can engage directly with God’s Word in a group setting), social groups on Friday nights (so people can get to know each other better), and mission groups on Saturday afternoons (so people can find ways to apply God’s Word in real life) – all for the same people who attend on Sunday mornings. Why? Continue reading

Placing value on the undervalued – turning competitive culture on its head.

My Dad, Dr George O’Neil, is a very clever man. He has designed medical products which are used worldwide. His most significant invention is an implant which breaks the cycle of heroin addiction, and he has poured his life into helping almost 8000 addicts on the path to recovery over the past 15 years. He could have made millions out of his inventions – instead, every cent gets poured back into helping more people. He has received many awards along the way, and I’m always amused to find them in odd places around the house, rather than proudly on display. That’s not where he places his value.

Dad places value on the undervalued. He believes in people – even those who have proven themselves untrustworthy. He loves the unlovable. I believe there is more to his success than the clever design of the implant. I believe there is 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

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.