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. 

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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.

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

Have you ever seen a “one-man-band”? Its a little awkward. Youtube it if you’ve never seen one, and cringe a little. Sure, its impressive that one person can manage to play more than one instrument at a time, but the quality of the music is nothing 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.

What church can be.

Church can be an others-centred, empowering experience where adults are given respect and value, and empowered to teach and minister to one another in authentic ways which grow a deep spirit of community and enable each other to enter more fully into God’s story and it’s relevance for our lives. It can be a place where people willingly interact and share their gifts with each other, and fulfil Jesus’ command to “love one another”.

I know it can, because I’ve been a part of that kind of church.

The bad news is, most churches don’t even come close, despite their best intentions; despite countless hours preparing high-quality music and detailed, well-developed sermons. They don’t come close, because they are not tapping into the full potential for God’s people to minister to one another.

Jesus has given us a mandate to love one another, actively. When we change our mindset about church and see it as a place to connect deeply; to learn actively; and to seek action through love and good deeds, we will transform lives – our own as well as those around us. But we can’t do that when we meet in rows as isolated individuals. Until we engage deeply with each other, face-to-face, we miss the point of church and the community of God’s people.

Its time to reconsider the current format and think about whether it is working. Its time to look deeply at God’s concept of church and make changes to the format, to align it more closely with his design and intentions. Its time to “do church”, not just attend church.

Are churches losing their best people?

Using the wrong methods of communication will frustrate the active, intelligent adults in any organisation and cause them to vote with their feet by leaving. In the past century of church life, we’ve watched helplessly as church numbers have drastically declined across the Western world. Instead of asking why we’re losing people from our pews, start asking who we’re losing. Are we losing the thinkers; the doers; the leaders and the youth? Will we ultimately only be left with the passive; the needy; the followers and the elderly?

Are we alienating men (and many women) by placing them in a passive, subordinate role? There’s a very real possibility that the very people we need to help the church change for the future are the ones who have already left. These are the same people who don’t like to be treated patronisingly as children needing to be educated; as consumers needing to be entertained; as followers needing to be led. If you can identify who is leaving the church, the why will become more  obvious. A passive model of church is going to attract passive people.

We seriously need to reverse this trend as soon as possible, so that the church can become a place of innovation and creativity in the twenty-first century, which is a time like no other. In the industrial age, it was in everyone’s interest for the church and the education system at large to churn out factory workers – passive, capable followers with a healthy respect for authority. In this post-industrial age, where technology is changing the way we do everything at breakneck speed, we need creative, courageous, critically thinking, innovative people who are willing to take risks and try new things. We need to re-think our model of church so we can create the type of environment which will develop these characteristics in our people, and empower them to impact the rapidly-changing world around them.

Church as a performance

In this consumer-driven world, church has very much become a performance. Everything about the way we are set up, including the seating arrangements, reflect this format. Music has, in many cases, become the cornerstone of the performance event, sometimes involving elaborate set-up and groups of professional quality musicians; some churches even producing and selling their own albums. Bright lights, large screens and pretty multimedia displays accentuate the performance nature of modern church services.

Performance-driven church has significant weaknesses. For one thing, everybody has different personal tastes, and different generations and cultures may have preferred styles of music and communication, which means that it is difficult to build an intergenerational, multi-cultural community when the basis of meeting is all about the performance. As for the people who don’t enjoy singing or listening to sermons (and there are lots of them) – they are left without virtually any options of church services.

However, a far bigger issue I have with the performance model of church is what it does to the people who are sitting in the rows – it disempowers them. It turns them into consumers; it takes away their voice and their value; it treats them all the same; and it provides no opportunity for active participation or responsibility. It is like feeding God’s people with milk, when they are grown up and ready for meat.

There are only two roles in a performance; one can either be a performer, or an audience. Church was never simply meant to be a performance. It is meant to be a place where God’s people are connected and empowered. If we change the underlying format of church, we will increase our ability to empower God’s people to learning; to growth; to transformational change, and to potent interpersonal ministry.

Church in a circle.

One small change to the layout.One giant leap for the church.

Every Sunday morning, churches across the globe seat their congregations into rows, expecting them to sit upright and attentive, facing forward and staying mostly quiet throughout the entire service, absorbing as much as they can from a performance by musicians and a public speaker, and to somehow retain the information presented and apply it in their daily lives.

We haven’t always done it this way. Jesus taught his disciples in a circle. The early church met in each others’ homes, seated in a circle. Even today, many churches around the world meet in circles.

Our home groups meet in circles. Our leadership teams meet in circles. Our Sunday School classes meet in circles. Many active Christians today are leaving the mainstream church to join house churches and simple church movements, most of which meet in circles.

The church today is struggling in the Western world. People just aren’t coming. Christians are leaving in droves, dissatisfied with what the church has to offer them. Unchurched people don’t come, because they don’t think the church can offer them anything at all. The people who do come are struggling to maintain their own passion and faith in a hostile world, against all the competition from popular culture. The world around them has changed, but churches continue to act as if a better music team and a more dynamic speaker will bring everybody back, and activate the people in the pews.

 People are afraid to change. But the gain is worth the pain. The reward is worth the risk. Allowing people to interact and impact on each other comes with risk. It requires a loss of control by the leadership. It takes away the power and gives it to the people. It can be unsettling to change our old ways and try out new ones. It requires courage, compassion and love. It can be messy sometimes; humans are messy.But the benefits of empowering a community of God’s people to love and teach each other; to openly confess and pray for each other; to contextualise God’s story to their neighbourhood and to their own lives; and to actively engage and learn from each other and from the Scriptures – these are goals that the church needs to have.
Its one small change for a lot of gain.