… and our buildings shape us…

I was pondering church architecture today, partly as I observed the fairly bland ‘multi-purpose’ nature of all newer buildings and partly as I read Petersen’s ‘memoir, The Pastor’ and reflected on the way he and his congregation planned together the shape and form of their new church building.

Petersen and his crew saw their building as an extension of their identity and as a definite theological statement. Hence their building was less of a ‘community centre’ and more of a reflection of their identity in Christ. The building needed to be shaped by them rather than shaping them. After a less than inspiring meeting with an architect who offered them ‘colonial,, ‘neo-gothic’ or ‘contemporary’, they decided to work at developing their own design and what emerged was a building that was uniquely them and where they fitted perfectly. (The chapter is called Bezalel if you want to read it.)

I have given buildings very little thought in recent years and seen them as purely utilitarian. I have abhorred the thought of churches spending millions on a new worship centre because its ‘nicer to have our own stuff’. But Petersen has challenged me to consider the role of the building in spiritual formation.

The trend in recent years in church buildings has been away from dedicated religious buildings with steeples and stain glass windows etc, back towards ‘shared use facilities’ that the local community can use also. This isn’t a bad idea per se and it emanates from both a missional impulse (to ‘bless’ the community) and a desire to ‘demystify’ our spaces and make them more accessible to the average punter. That said I’m not sure if our ‘demystifying’ has been such a good idea as I can’t help but feel that when people turn up to a church they want it to feel like a ‘church’ and if there is nothing ‘spiritual’ then maybe we have shot ourselves in the foot.

Today I was pondering how our buildings and gathering spaces influence our communal identity and then our behaviour. ie how do we express our identity as a church as a result of being in these spaces?

By and large most newer church buildings (while ‘multi-purpose’ in intent) are still auditoriums that facilitate a concert type experience. There may be out-buildings (halls/meeting rooms etc) that the community can use, but the actual ‘worship auditorium’ is still a stage / audience scenario. If Petersen is correct – that our buildings make a theological statement – then this has to sit uneasily with us – no matter how we explain it away… When church becomes a concert / motivational talk to attend and consume we are always going to struggle to move into discipleship mode.

Its not that the older architecture got it right either. Enter any of those cathedrals and there was a clear clergy/laity divide at work, and a very Old Testament flavour to the undergirding theology. They were ‘holy’ places with sections where only the qualified could access. Hence the idea of ‘reverence’ was an issue we used to hear talked about in thee buildings. (‘Cathedral God’ doesn’t like noise on a Sunday morning)

Then there are those of us who meet in schools, community centres or hired spaces – and use dual purpose auditoriums. One day its a music classroom and the next its a space for worship.  One day its got the Reiki crew meeting in it, the next the Baptist church. Its a shell, where the contents change day to day. What impact does that have on the people meeting there?

We are one of those churches. The room we use also seems to be the place where stuff gets put when you run out of room elsewhere, so it is often cluttered and uninviting. I’m still wondering what kind of a theological statement it makes, but I can’t help but feeling it is less than conducive to encountering God. Our building seems to say ‘it doesn’t matter where we meet – but that we meet’. That’s somewhat true… but I think ‘where‘ does matter. I feel like the tone of the space influences our experiences and needs consideration. If I had my choice I would meet in a different space to the one we currently have because the ambience is too utilitarian and non-descript. We are neither a cathedral or a concert. We are beige and bland and I sense that affects our worship.

A common practice in church buildings recently has been to do a factory refurb. Buy a warehouse in an industrial area and deck it out as a space to gather. I’m not a big fan of this either. The economics may work, but it still feels odd to have a worship space wedged between the  carpet store and boat mechanic. These buildings are also somewhat removed from the communities of people who inhabit them. That may not be a big deal, but I kinda like the ‘corner deli’ church a bit more than the factory one. I’m sure it can work, but I imagine if given a choice those who have bought factories would far rather be in the middle of a suburb.

If we want to get a bit more back to basics then we could meet in homes around a meal a bit like those first Christians before Constantine came along with his government grants and ‘lotteries money’ to help us build our ‘sanctuaries’ (there’s an interesting word…) The theology of the house type space sits well with me, even if the practicalities can bring it unstuck. Houses limit the numbers of those who could attend – which can be a good thing… Personally I think optimal church size is under 50 – a ‘household’. However houses are very private spaces and may not feel accessible to all – or we may prefer some folks didn’t have access to our homes. Therein is a great wrestle for what it means to be ‘the church’. ‘Hospitality’ is nice idea, but a more difficult reality.

Theologically I sit most comfortably in the house space – because my primary imagination of church is as family. Over the years our Christian culture has so morphed this original biblical idea that now we call ourselves a family but don’t operate as much like one as we might like to think. Larger buildings and gatherings make ‘hiding’ possible, both for those who don’t wish to be seen and for those who don’t wish to ‘get involved’, which seems very ‘unfamily’like

I don’t have a simple solution as everything is a compromise to some degree, but I do love Petersen’s idea of forming our buildings to reflect our theological identity and if I ever was forced to lead a church on a building project then I’d be doing this kind of thinking first and the economics and practicalities second.

What are your reflections on how the building in which you meet has either assisted or detracted from your own spiritual formation?

Sunday 9.30

Tomorrow in my teaching at QBC I want to ask people to consider the idea of our church community going purely online and digital – no weekly meetings – in fact no meetings ever… sermons uploaded, music streamed, facebook groups for interaction and all giving done online. No human contact needed and yet people still receive the input they seek. We could have private messaging for counselling and all the other functions would be digitised too.

Much more efficient I feel.

No running late, no crying kids, no set up or pack up, no lame coffee, no strange people to have interact with after the gathering.

I think I’m onto something. If efficiency was the goal then this would be one route. Heck we wouldn’t even stream our own sermons, we could just provide links to the best podcasts in the world and people could listen to their heart’s content.

There are plenty already choosing this as their experience of ‘church’.

The common theme in those who do so is that of convenience and accessibility for people with busy lives. In many ways church is inconvenient – it interferes with your weekend. You could be at the beach… and it happens every week… What else do you do every week? (Maybe we need a church season? At least netball ends in September for 6 months!)

Church is clunky – anyone can come – where else in society do you have kindy to aged care in the one room all trying to relate to one another? That can be beautiful, but often it can also be difficult…

It is repetitive – we do the same stuff every week – and some of us have been doing it for a very long time.

Church could be a lot more efficient – but efficiency was never the goal… Genuine human interaction is rarely efficient.

My conviction as I read the New testament is that the church must be a physical community of people who follow Jesus together and who bump up against one another in the flesh. There is something about the physical expression of the church that will never be replaced by an online expression or a detached form of digital engagement.

And it’s not just a kindle v real books debate. It’s not about preference for the way information is delivered. Its about an understanding of what actually constitutes a Christian community and its about realising that once we enter the family of God we no longer exist purely as individuals – we are part of a community even if that grates on us – even if we would rather retain our autonomy.

Every time I consider church as I read about it in the New testament and then lay it alongside church as we experience it here in 21st C western culture I can’t help but ponder the vast difference when it comes to an understanding of community.

I’ve just been gearing up for some teaching in the book of Colossians – nothing overly sexy in that – but even just reading the letter I am reminded again that this is a letter to a group of people – not to one, yet so often when we read it our default mode of interpretation is to ask ‘what is this saying to me?’

I wonder what would happen if we took time to read scripture together and asked ‘what is this saying to us?’ That’s a rather unwieldy method for a Sunday morning (and therein lies another question of methodology – should we meet as we do?) however it could be something small clumps of people could do.

If the church is the visible expression of God’s triune community and a tangible form of his kingdom in the world then it requires something more of us than weekly attendance at an event. (And more than a mid-week Bible study etc etc)

Because if the ultimate goal is for people to be formed into the likeness of Christ – to become mature – then that will never happen if ‘do church’ in front of our laptop while sipping a glass of red and keeping an eye on the football in the background.

One of the things I have said repeatedly over the last 10 years is that in the kingdom of God ‘we’ always takes precedence over ‘me’. Who “we are is more important than who I am. I believe it but I still find it hard to grasp it let alone live it.

You don’t lose your identity in that, but rather your identity is shaped and formed differently within Christian community.

Yet that is so difficult for us to see. Even as I write it I feel the implications and want to call it unreasonable, impractical and maybe even silliness.

One of the themes of this letter is Christian maturity and the fact that you cannot reach maturity on your own. In our individualised world that probably sounds bizarre – disturbing – maybe even controlling. But that’s because we are taught so consistently to think individually rather than communally.

I feel like I have a glimpse of what Jesus intended when he created the church, but my default settings are set so incredibly high to ‘individualism’ and autonomy that I can’t fully imagine how this could work itself out practically and maybe then if I’d still want to be part of it. Sounds radically different, wonderfully inviting yet also fraught with complications and inevitable mess.

Maybe we should just stick to Sunday at 9.30am?

Mono-ecclesial

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ok I’m inventing another word…

Its that time of year when the music stops and pastors who left their chair in this round of ‘musical churches’ either take their seat somewhere else or wait for the next round and hope to get a seat then. Its always interesting to see who finishes up where and to wonder what happens to those who didn’t get picked up.

It seems that we have grown to accept that pastors will change churches – that their ‘leadership will come to an end’, that the church will need ‘fresh ideas’ or that ‘their time was up’, but I wonder if that is a healthy idea.

What would it look like if we said ‘this is your gig and you stay with it – like marriage – till death us do part’?

As I reflect on my own marriage, there are things I have learnt after 25 years with the one woman that I never would have if I’d only given it 18 months or 5 years or even 10. There is a richness and a depth that can never be attained unless you have done the hard yards.

I wonder if we need to hang around a lot longer as pastors – if sometimes a ‘fresh call’ is a convenient escape route (maybe out of the frying pan and into the fire) from a new phase of learning and growth both for us and our churches?

Monogamy is accepted as standard (ideal) practice in marriage, but I have never heard anyone promote the idea of being mono-ecclesial, or if I have, its with the words ‘stale’ and ‘overstayed’ in the same sentence.

I don’t think that has to be the case at all. I am beginning to wonder if we sometimes miss out on the ‘real growth’ that takes place once we get past the niceties?

When church leadership is a profession, or a career then we will think of it in those terms, but if we retrieve some pre-20th C ideas and begin to think of church as a family then its harder to imagine dad doing a runner after 5 years because he’s given all he can give to the family…

Just some food for thought…

Remember ‘Making Friends’

Should churches still run small groups?

Obviously the answer is ‘yes’, because everyone does – and everyone can’t be wrong… Right?…

Or maybe its time to give ‘small groups’ away?

Seriously…

Maybe its time to rethink what we are trying to achieve and try some different mechanisms. I want to suggest one. Its called ‘making friends’.

For most churches the purpose of small groups is connection and discipleship. People form stronger connections in these smaller groups than they do on Sunday and in engagement with one another, the Bible and prayer there is some element of spiritual formation taking place. Sometimes they do those things well and other times they limp along.

And for the most part I think that is true. For some their small group is their lifeline, while others do not attend a group of any kind and live with that nagging sense of ‘ought’ gnawing at them – even though they don’t want to.

I am wondering if small groups operate on the basis of people being somewhat relationally incompetent. Maybe that’s overstating it, but I do wonder if we develop groups structures because people are not good at simply making friends.

Remember ‘making friends’?

And I realise we want to go beyond just ‘making friends’ to having ‘soul/spiritual friends’, but I wonder if its time to put the onus back on individuals to make the significant connections. How often have I heard people moan about their small group not being ‘deep enough’, ‘biblical enough’, ‘friendly enough’, whatever enough! And the small group simply becomes another aspect of our religious consumption.

What if we said ‘we don’t do small groups here – we do spiritual friendship (and yes we would need to unpack that) – so the onus is on you to make friends – to invite people around for a meal, open your life up (as appropriate) and form a friendship that doesn’t rely on a leader, a curriculum or an overseeing body. And its on you to sustain and nurture that relationship because that’s just what people do…

I wonder what would happen if said ‘hey you’re all adults – just do what adults do! Get on the phone to someone you’d like to know better and invite them over. Maybe invite a couple of people…’ Then see how it goes and if you connect well, then do it again.

I am 100% convinced that in an age of individualism, a strong commitment to community is essential if we are to really ‘be’ the church, but I wonder how much of that initiative needs to come from a structured approach and how much needs to be pushed back to the people who genuinely want spiritual friendships.

Those who don’t will never attend a small group anyway and often for those who do, a small group doesn’t come close to the depth of conversation needed to really be called spiritual formation or discipleship.

So I’m wondering – what would it look like if we said ‘no small groups for 12 months, but just connect with people as you feel the need.’ It may be your need or their need.

The idealist in me sees this as a way of reforming imagination around this issue. The pragmatist in me says people will find it too hard and if they aren’t ‘forced’ into being part of a group they will lack any sense of greater connection.

The ‘pastor’ in me says what can it hurt to begin encouraging people back into intentional, meaty relationships that go beyond the trivial and inane and genuinely nurture faith for both parties

Funda-gressive?

forcetension

Hmmm… Its not a word that comes together easily – either as a combo-word or as an idea. It sounds a little angry… But then ‘pro-mentalist’ sounds equally disturbing!

However it may be a word I’d use to describe the kind of church community I’d hope to lead – one that allows fundamentalists and progressives to co-exist, learn from one another, enrich one another and help one another become more like Christ as they have to deal with one another’s quirks (theological and otherwise).

My observation is that many churches are formed around fairly clear theological boundary markers – often the non-essentials. Some even put them on their signs out the front of the building to ensure others don’t accidentally slip in… I’m sure you have seen the ‘non-charismatic’ statements, which are nicer than ‘anti-charismatic’ although the intent is the same…

Its not just the fundamentalist end of the spectrum that create hard edges though. King James loving, dispensationalists who ‘take the Bible at its word’, may make it clear where they stand, but ‘progressives’ (for want of a better word) can be equally exclusionary.

While the talk may be ‘centred set’, and inclusivity, there would be some crowds where you would figure out pretty quickly that you didn’t belong and in fact were an embarrassing annoyance if you held even middle of the road views. There can be a disparaging scoffing that goes with this crowd that does not allow for what may be perceived as narrow mindedness or unevolved thinking.

Both groups can bring an arrogance either because of their fidelity to the once and forever revealed truth, or in their new gnosticism, so that there is little room left to question or explore or learn.

As I was reflecting on our own church community I realised its one of the things I like about who we are. We’d have a few King James only folks in our midst who aren’t just ‘hangers on’, but are valued members of our church, as well as some progressives or deconstructionists who would hold non-conformist views on some contentious issues. My hope is that we can keep this as a mark of who we are because I believe it enriches our identity rather than detracts from it.

When we simply gather with people very similar to us we risk limiting our learning – or only learning in one theological trajectory and that can never be healthy.

It was as we met last night and I was asked for my view on Revelation, that I began to see the diversity we have just on this one subject. While Tim Lahaye has captured the popular imagination with his ‘Left Behind’ series, I wanted to suggest we need to consider the variety of perspectives on offer, before allowing ‘easy reading’ to sway the vote.

I imagine it may get hard to hold people at extreme ends of the spectrum but that is often because they feel so passionately about their non-essential distinctives that they feel the need to advocate for the cause and get frustrated if others will not side with them.

If we could simply be passionate about the core matters of the gospel and not 6 day creation or gay marriage then perhaps we would be in a better place to hear one another on these issues when they do arise, because at the centre is our shared identity in Christ rather than our need to bat for our point of view.

Formed to Forming

So 52 years on I’m still in church.  That’s an achievement in itself given all that’s gone down… But more than that, Christian leadership has become a primary focal point of my life.

If you’d told me as a child, while I was counting boards in the roof of the church during sermons, that I’d be a pastor for over half of my life I would have laughed. But life has a way of sneaking up on you and catching you off guard.

This series came out of catching a glimpse of a pastor who took me back to childhood. He had babysat me once when he was dating the pastor’s daughter in our church. I didn’t know him and I doubt he would recognise me in the street. But one face led me to remember another and another and another… and so on.

And I guess that’s the heart of what I’ve observed.

Faces…

Some faces have encouraged and inspired me. Others have bred a caution in me and a wariness. I’d like to think that generally I think the best of everyone until proved wrong, but some people push buttons way quicker than others. Some folks drag up memories of other people who were manipulative or abusive and I instinctively hold them at arms length. Some folks exude a natural authenticity that I warm to and that immediately connects us. I’ve become pretty good at reading people, but occasionally I get surprised.

But its more than faces – its structures too. Structures form us and give shape to our identity and beliefs. Those early days of church in formal structures formed some more rigid theology in me and some rigid attitudes. I imagine rigid structures still produce rigid people.

I think my connection with ‘lower’ church forms has been an intentional reaction to the churches that formed me early. They taught me facts, but often left me cold. I imagine lower church forms (less formal, more relaxed etc) will facilitate warmth, but the embedding of ideas and information is much harder in a looser system. I am willing to accept with the trade off, but I’d still like to see some better theological reflection and understanding of scripture in my more recent expressions of church.

I could write a list of people who have given shape to my own identity today, but I’d forget some of them… and some of them shouldn’t be in print because the experiences of them were negative.

One of the major shifts in the last 15 year of life particularly, has been the transition from church forming me to me now ‘forming it’ more consciously and thoughtfully. In the early years of pastoring I was still ‘falling in line’ and playing the game. But those days are long gone. I’m sure some of what happens in me is still a instinctive response to a past experience, but I’d like to think there is a bit more intentional leadership and a better thought out understanding of what church is and what its purpose is.

And in that is the hope that those who are part of communities I am involved with leading will not see their church experience as a time of dread and boredom, but may even be encouraged to see life in the church as inspiring and life giving. Well, that’d be nice…

 

 

 

End of the Road

quinnsbeach

With Upstream winding up I was looking for something to do. I had begun my retic business, but I knew that running a business wasn’t my primary calling in life. I had been doing some preaching at Quinns to help them out while they sought out a pastor, and that is always easy. You can run thru your ‘greatest hits’ from the previous 10 years and give the appearance of being a much better communicator than you really are. You also get to go home after the service and think nothing more about the church community. Its easy and enjoyable at one level, but equally unrewarding at another level, because you only involve yourself in one small aspect of the community life.

When we agreed to join the church for a trial run we had no idea there were a couple of factions set on a collision course. I don’t think the people in the church even saw it that way, but the ideas we came with and the fairly direct approach with which we offered them certainly unearthed those issues very quickly. There was a very conservative, almost fundamentalist contingent and a more relaxed and earthy contingent. I didn’t come in gently because I wanted to leave no question as to who we were and what we were about and within a month we had stirred up a hornet’s nest.

The church had polarised and we were the catalyst for that. The next few months were painful and difficult as we worked in an increasingly untenable environment. We had people supporting us, but this rift was exactly what we were worried about when we indicated we weren’t a good fit. Things were unravelling fast and tempers frayed often.

Again this isn’t the time and the place to revisit the ugliness of that period. The short version was that we left for our lap of Oz in April with people due to vote on our appointment around July. One afternoon while walking the Strand in Townsville we got a call to say that the church vote had gone against us and we weren’t going to be re-appointed to Quinns leadership. While the support was about 50/50 there were enough voting members for us to be out the door. This event co-incided with news of a big financial hit that we hadn’t seen coming. So now we were a quarter of a million bucks down and out of work. We pondered whether to head home or keep travelling. We kept travelling and that was a good decision because it would have been another blow to have to cut our trip short.

While we travelled, the church had some further conflict that saw those who voted us out leaving, and then we had a phone call saying we could return. We really didn’t want to. We didn’t want to say that either, but we just didn’t like the tone of the whole situation and we were reluctant to re-enter a place we had been so badly treated, even if those who disliked us had gone.

But we couldn’t escape the sense that God was saying that he wanted us to do it. We also felt a sense of allegiance to those who had stuck their neck out for us. So whether it was a ‘god thing’ or a ‘duty’ thing, I don’t know for sure. But in the absence of anything else to do, we just went with it.

That was how things started and they got worse from there for a while, with more strained relationships, declining numbers and morale bottoming out.

It can only get better from there hey?…

The focus of these posts is the way in which the communities I have been part of have helping shape who I am today.

Quinns didn’t begin well and the way in which I was formed initially was into a guy with his guard up everywhere he went. I had a couple of good relationships, a whole bunch that were ambivalent and some that were still vehement and hostile. It was hard to relax. I didn’t lose confidence in who I was or what I was about, but I began to lose interest in simply being bothered. Within a year I would have happily left – even with nothing to go to, except that I would have abandoned a few others who had worked with us to try and restore health. So we stayed – that sense of duty, mixed with divine calling, but never really able to discern which was which. But I know for a period there I entered relationships cautiously – guardedly and of course that didn’t work well.

Simply enduring the struggle and absorbing the pain was in itself a formative experience. I had seen other people suffering in churches and I’d been part of churches where dumb stuff had taken place, but now I was leading one and on the receiving end of that stuff. I hadn’t been here before so I needed to learn how to process all of it.

Again hindsight is a wonderful teacher and I would have to say that my direct and at times intentionally provocative approach to leadership was a factor in my own struggle. I didn’t want to be misheard – to be seen as returning to a typical pastoral role – but in being blunt I also came across as somewhat arrogant and uncaring. In those days I don’t remember really getting to know people. I remember trying to both lead and survive at the same time and building friendships (we did have some good ones) was a bonus.

One of the reasons a good friend gave for staying at Quinns as a church was that he saw it as a ‘fixer upper’ and somewhere he could make a contribution rather than warming the pew of a larger church. He was right. We were a fixer -upper but I had never perceived myself as a renovator. I liked to start things – not fix them.

It was time to learn some more new stuff.

After a rocky start we prayed hard and some new faces joined our community – healthy, positive energetic people who came to build up and help us ‘renovate’. In time the culture began to change, I began to drop my guard and warmth began to spread rather than caution.

As much as I had been in the team leader role at Lesmurdie for a period and also at Upstream, this was a different situation. I didn’t have a ‘Garth’ who’d been around a while to help me figure out the situation and this wasn’t a bunch of long term friends like Upstream. It was a new environment and one that had begun badly.

As I write this tonight I can’t imagine any church I would rather be part of now other than QBC. I love who we are and I can’t think of where I’d fit if I ever left. I’m sure it wouldn’t be that hard, but I could actually see myself staying here until I hang up the paid ministry boots. I guess the question is how did it get to this from where it was?

Initially when we came back to QBC it was with the hope of moving the church in a very focused and creative, missional direction. In the midst of conflict and tension the ideas that accompanied that began to sound unnecessarily disruptive and misunderstood so we ended up shelving big dreams and instead sought to just survive.

That was disappointing, but I’d run out of energy and couldn’t be bothered any more. That’s not a good place to be, but I gave myself permission to just coast for a bit.

Slowly we gathered good friends and began to see a community form. It was a new community within an old one, but it was feeling healthy. We began to invest our energy here and it was rewarding.

One thing that happened in this time – and how QBC shaped me – was that I became better at being  a ‘pastor’ – an actual pastoral kind of person. That was what was needed in that time and I began to pastor more and lead less. (Yes I do see them as different skills and gifts).

As things began to get healthy again I moved back into leading and giving direction, but from a place of seeking communal discernment rather than the ‘visionary leader’ approach. In the last few years one of my most valuable learnings has been around the importance of the community in the kingdom of God and the way we have individualised faith so much in the western world. In QBC I gave myself to intentionally trying to figure out what a more substantial communal expression of church looks like. That doesn’t come naturally to any of us, but I sense we have made progress.

Being a part timer hasn’t always been intentional, but at QBC it has always been my preferred mode of operation. In the past it may have been a concession to a lack of funds, but this time it was a way of keeping myself earthed in everyday life, of allowing us freedom to employ a diverse staff and also a way of making sure that as a church we are never backed into a corner by rich people and their $$. The part time experience has been one of the most valuable learnings of the last 7 years and I reckon many more pastors should give it a go. It not only frees your church to have a range of staff rather than one paid guy, but it also gives you another string to your bow if all goes belly up. I know too many people who have no other options and that is a horrible place to be when church life is up the creek.

Having to work within the part time constraints also forces you to focus on the main tasks – the core things you need to do that no one else can do. I lead, teach, meet with blokes and do some admin. That’s pretty much it, but all those things are things I can do well and that add to who we are.

Then there’s what I call the ‘dad’ factor. Around the church I feel a bit like ‘dad’… and maybe its a reflection of how I have led for the most part. Dads care for their families, make decisions based on what’s best for them and they miss them when they have to go away. A family also notices when dad isn’t around… Beds don’t get made, dishes don’t get done quite as well… everyone is a little less at ease until dad comes home. I’ve  noticed that when we have travelled people have always expressed that it feels ‘safer’ when we are around and I guess that’s a part of the dad factor. I wouldn’t want to overstate that, but I sense it as a very real thing.

In all of that is a very settled sense of personal identity that allows me just to be myself these days and without the need to impress or wow. It means that if I have 8 hrs for a sermon and it isn’t ‘polished’ then I go with the raw version and hope it does the job. I know people love us and they would rather hear from our hearts than have slick, carefully crafted stories that have taken days to create.

How has QBC formed me? In a nutshell I feel like its given me a very diverse range of experiences, from the ugly and abhorrent to the rich and inspiring that have allowed me to learn to lead in a range of situations. If the time comes one day to move churches again then I know I will go with a sense of confidence in who God has made me to be and a settled knowledge of what I have to offer.

Perhaps this will be the last stop on the way to ‘retirement’ (whatever that word means) and we will enjoy the next 13 years with these people. Then again, I never predict the future any more because I am infamously bad at it.

I’m going to wrap this up later in the week with some final broader reflections on this idea of how communities form us and why they matter.

Becoming a Backyard Missionary

obj60geo43pg1p15It was in 2003 that I started blogging and the title of this blog ‘backyard missionary’ captures the essence of the journey I was on – to be a missionary in my own backyard – to figure out how we reach Aussies with the message of Jesus in a way they could understand and engage with. Initially the blog was going to be a way for those back in Lesmurdie to stay in touch with our journey, but it ended up becoming a place for me to think out loud and share my learning. There was a time when blogging was big, this blog was popular and I had 2000 readers each day…  Now it averages 30 and I am probably related to most of them…

I have thought and written more about this issue of mission than any other subject but you may need to go back a few years in the archives to find the guts of it. My early days were full of untested theory and pontificating, followed by some practical reflection and now the ‘distance’ from those years allows me a different perspective yet again.

Simply put, the plan was to go to Brighton as a missionary team of 5 families, to live in the community, love and serve people and develop a church community as people came to faith. I expected that within two years there would be 150 -200 people in our community and that most of them would be new Christians. We even dissuaded Christians from joining us initially as we didn’t want to get railroaded into the business of church too soon.

Early on I realised my expectations were going to be beyond us and the further along we went the harder it became for me.

When I reflect on this time I view it as a time of failure – because I didn’t achieve what I set out to achieve. By contrast Danelle sees it as the greatest experience she has had in regards to church community. When we left Lesmurdie she had become swallowed up by the program monster and had lost the ability to be her relaxed relational self. In this new space she came alive again and just loved loving people.

upstreamlogoI was more concerned with converting people. That’s a harsh statement isn’t it? And it took me a while to realise that that what was driving me was not love, but success. I wanted to do well at this missionary stuff and my mark of success would be people who came to faith for the first time. I went pretty hard at it and nothing happened.

I don’t want to dwell on all of that and re-tell the story of Upstream here. I have done that in other posts – but I do want to reflect on how this community of people formed me and helped me grow further.

It wasn’t a big community – 5 families or 6 at most, sharing a ‘more or less’ similar vision. And all were good friends – people who I deeply loved and cared for. But the ‘more or less’ similar vision became a problem as we didn’t seem to always be on the same page with stuff and in a small team that shows up readily and easily. You also can’t hide when you have conflict in a small team and we had our share of that.

I was thinking more new thoughts about mission, church and leadership and experimenting with everything. It was a very questioning and curious community, but as a result it didn’t make a very safe/predictable environment and by choosing to take a more collaborative approach to leadership I allowed the team to drift for quite a while. I couldn’t see at that time that I needed to give more leadership. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

As we went along I struggled to accept that people had time limitations, and sometimes just fears and apprehensions that paralysed them in mission and I wasn’t sure how to deal with that. During my time at Lesmurdie a friend called Mark – a middle aged man – had lunch with me one day and gave me a most useful piece of advice. He said ‘Andrew – you need to lead us – not drive us.’ Working with youth I did a lot of driving and they allowed me to drive them, but its hard driving adults – maybe even dumb… I was trying to implement that learning in this new space, but in the absence of being a ‘driver’ I wasn’t sure who I was again.

We had very supportive and loving relationships in the team as well as deeply strained relationships, almost to the point of being irretrievable with some of our closest friends. Perhaps one of the most valuable experiences in that time was being able to move thru that deep relational darkness and come up the other side and slowly rebuild those friendships to the point where they are strong and healthy. It helped me see the possibility of reconciliation when two parties are committed to the relationship and has led me to believe that very few relationships are beyond healing. There was a time when I may have given up on a dodgy relationship and walked away, but our commitment at the front end of the project was that we wouldn’t do that no matter how painful it got and grinding thru the relational struggles was formative.

As an aside, one of the interesting aspects of this journey was that our friends Gavin & Helen from Wagin who I met when I was 21, wrote to me one day and said they’d like to join us. I chuckled – what farmer sells up everything and goes to suburbia to be a missionary? Two weeks later he had an offer on the farm, had bought a bobcat and was getting ready to start a new life in the city. How good was that?

As well as leading Upstream, I was leading Forge, both at a state and national level and I was doing a lot of speaking at various gigs around the country. I was probably the most unsuccessful missionary I knew – the Eddie the Eagle of mission – but people kept on inviting me to speak in churches… I think it helped them to know that it was hard out there, and I always told the truth about where we were at, so at times it took its toll as I heard myself describe my inability to be who I wanted to be.

One of the real benefits of being in this team and in the Forge space was the freedom to question – to question everything – and we did. At times it paralysed us as we were in essence ‘starting again’ and trying to imagine what church and mission would look like if we weren’t constrained by our existing forms, by powerful people with preferences or by laziness. This was truly invigorating and exhausting at the same time. Being with a group of people where there was both permission and intention to question and think was wonderful. I could never have asked these questions or delved into these issues in my early church experiences. By linking my name to the emerging church some had already branded me a heretic and a lost cause, but this was a hugely valuable time. I never feared losing my way theologically or in faith as I had a real clear sense of grounding – probably courtesy of my previous church experiences…

Aside from the theoretical learning around missiology, ecclesiology I learnt that I could’t make ‘God stuff’ happen. I couldn’t do anything more than be faithful to the task and not quit. I was used to being successful in virtually everything I’d done and Lesmurdie had been a big win as we led the youth scene, so I expected that I would do well here too. I have heard it said that around middle age we often experience a great and significant failure and mine was here. I realised we were experimenting, pioneering and that failure was always a possibility but I didn’t ever think it was a real possibility…

At Forge we spoke of needing an R & D dept within the church (research and development) and we saw ourselves as that when we were planting Upstream. As we questioned a great deal together and formed new ideas it made it hard to simply slot back into regular church life because now we had experienced a whole different imagination of church. We took the red pill and discovered how deep the rabbit hole went…

Recently  as we holidayed with friends from that time, there was talk of an Upstream reunion and I must admit it brought a tear to my eye to think of being in the room with those folks again – to see how our kids have grown, how our lives have changed and what God has been doing.

I cannot say how valuable those years were both with Upstream and the crew of people who shared the road there and were willing to take the risk of failure with us. And also the incredible time we spent with the Forge crew, sharing learning with some of the sharpest and most creative thinkers in the world. It was hard to ever imagine going back to regular church.

That said, over time key people left the team and slowly it dwindled to a couple of families. We were too ‘out there’ for people to join and we weren’t making a dent evangelistically. I was also growing weary and needed a break. Gavin and Helen decided to move to the northern NSW and we decided to take an extended holiday travelling around Australia. It was looking like time to call it a day.

Then Quinns called us and asked if we would like to go and lead them. We told them we were the wrong people.

They seemed to think we would slot in just fine.

We told them that the previous 8 years had changed our thinking dramatically and that we were not a good bet.

But they insisted it would be ok – that they could roll with the way we were thinking and that all would be fine.

So we agreed to give it a trial run for 6 months before we took off on our big lap of Oz. As a result I have decided I will never do a trial pastoral gig ever again.

More about that next time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Didn’t See That Coming

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While others saw the need for me to get ‘out of home’, it took a while for it to register with me. But around the end of 1995 I began to consider moving on from Scarborough.

I had been working 3 days a week in church and another 3 teaching Phys Ed and both had become exploding jobs. I was struggling to keep up and looking for some sense of clarity as to where to from here. It was while I was meeting with the local community centre manager that it dawned on me. He simply asked me ‘what do you really want to do Andrew?…’ The immediate answer was ministry – not teaching and I realised I had just made a self discovery. My teaching days were over.

A freak conversation shortly after saw me about turn and decide to sign up for theological education at the then Baptist Theological College – now Vose. I had been avoiding study as much as I could, despite the efforts of John Randell to try and get me to consider it, but I had this realisation that if ‘this was going to be my life’ from hereonin then I better get prepared. Into that mix came a phone call from Lesmurdie Baptist Church and the question as to whether I’d consider going there as a youth pastor. I laughed and dismissed it. Do people really live that far from the beach?

However knowing I was finishing up I had to find somewhere to be a pastor while I studied. We spoke with Riverton, but the chemistry wasn’t there. We actually considered moving to Quinns Rocks as volunteers and joining the church up there that was in its very early days, but Lesmurdie called back and we agreed to a meeting.

We were surprised by the sense of connection we felt there and slowly found ourselves drawn to life in this far-off place. So in 1996 we packed up the house we had literally just built in Karrinyup and headed for the hills, where we stayed until the end of 2002.

It was the best move we ever made.

I was able to shake the the ‘boy’ feeling I had carried for most of my time at Scarborough and was now in a space where I was able to think for myself and experiment. I was also immersed in theological study and thinking thoughts I had never thought before. I watched some folks think those thoughts and actually come unstuck – a seminary is a tough gig for those with brittle black and white opinions. I was becoming curious and Vose (I’ll call it that because its easier) challenged me to think. I loved it.

The church at Lesmurdie had a definite ‘permission giving’ culture and in that space I discovered a side of myself I had never expressed in church life. I had been creative in school, but I hadn’t found much creative traction in my church experience. I was too concerned not to offend, mess up or get into fights with power brokers.

At Lesmurdie the staff team trusted me and encouraged me to do what I thought was best. I don’t think I scared anyone initially with my ideas, but it was the start of a new phase where I began to explore what was possible rather than what was permissible. It was nice to be in a community that viewed us differently. Scarborough was a wonderful church in many ways and I am grateful for the time there, but I couldn’t shake my own self perception of being a boy.

From young people to older people we felt welcomed and loved and encouraged. I know that happens for a while in church, but this kept on after the ‘honeymoon’. The result was that I grew in confidence and began to think differently. A combination of my time in study and a community of people who believed in me catalysed some new energy and my stunted imagination began to expand.

Our staff team was fantastic. Garth led us and was a wise, thoughtful presence in all we did. I didn’t appreciate his wisdom as much then as I do now. He was 50 when I was 35 and now I’m 50 I can see some of what he saw then. Colin was energetic and passionate, dare devilish almost when it came to risk taking. He had some unique prophetic gifts and in our staff team I felt comfortable exploring aspects of ministry that were unfamiliar to me with these men.

We were part of church meetings that were healthy – where the people contributed and cared for how they interacted with others. I didn’t witness any dummy spits – even in some difficult times. My belief is that Garth set the tone for how we interact and that simple observation has been valuable for me in my own role as a leader. I get to set the tone. More than that – I have to set the tone.

Another significant memory was of the 3 older ladies who attended the evening service every week without fail and who supported all that we did. Loud music, craziness and youthful silliness didn’t dissuade them. They came to encourage and support. I doubt they enjoyed the form, but I know they enjoyed seeing young people seeking God. And the young people loved them too. They saw their hearts and loved these ladies who were able to get over themselves and see what God may have been doing. That informed my thinking of who I want to be as I age. That old guy in church who doesn’t always ‘get it’, but who cheers on those who do – not mindlessly – but with heart and passion because its not all about me and my petty preferences.

After 5 years of youth pastoring and a long process of prayer and reflection as to where we were headed as a church Garth led us down the path of appointing me as the senior pastor with him as the ‘associate’ pastor. It seems weird to say ‘associate’, but he recognised that the form of leadership gifting I had was going to be helpful to the church at that time and he offered a role shift. Again this left a mark. How many older guys have the sense of personal security to do that – and then get behind the person they have let into their role? Its made me consider how I lead with grace and from a place of personal security rather than the need to be ‘the boss’.

There were some difficult times at Lesmurdie but without wanting to gloss over them I felt like the church handled them with good form. We had enough conflict to make sure people dealt with the stuff, but without manipulative behaviour or tantrums.

I lasted just two years in the new role and from the beginning was calling the church to plant another church. It was as simple as saying ‘either let’s do it  – or let’s fund someone to do it!’ After 18 months we weren’t getting anywhere and that was when I sensed that maybe God was stirring us in that direction.

I’ve written about all that happened there in other places. It wasn’t an easy time as we chose to be the ones to lead a church plant and to leave LBC with 4 other key families. Some felt confused and others abandoned. There was no simple way to go about things and we ended up leaving feeling ‘released’ but not ‘sent’. I’ve often pondered what I would do differently there, but whichever choice we made was vexed. We invited people into the process, but few joined in which meant that when we announced our intentions to move to Butler with 4 other families there was surprise, consternation and disappointment. Had we stopped and taken a more collaborative approach I’m not sure if the negative emotions may have prevented us from actually making the leap into church planting.

That said, one of my more recent learnings is around the importance of communal discernment. We made that decision within a small community – mainly leadership and others who ‘opted in’ or were part of the team. But the wider church didn’t travel the journey with us and therefor didn’t own it.

If I did it again?… Yeah, I’d definitely slow down and engage more people.

So the time at Lesmurdie was valuable for forming a sense of identity in ministry, for processing theological ideas in a practical context and for learning how to lead in a number of different ways.

As we left for our missionary work in Butler I did so with a great sense of confidence and anticipation. At that point I hadn’t clicked that the church wasn’t as behind us as I’d hoped, and I certainly didn’t countenance that the new venture wouldn’t go to plan. So there was some new learning to be done around failure and disappointment.

 

Lacking Imagination

So from being a church member all of my life I found myself a little unexpectedly in a pastoral role. I had no ambitions of this when I left UWA in 1985. I had finally made it to being a Phys ed teacher and I was loving the experience of teaching at Kingsway. I had a sense that Bible college was on the cards at some point, but it was with a view to heading back to the Philippines to work in sports ministry.

When I began as a youth pastor those ideas disappeared. In their place came the realisation that I really didn’t know what a youth pastor did, other than run youth groups and preach occasionally. So I called up the best bloke I knew at the time – Rob Cain – youth pastor at Mount Pleasant Baptist – and asked him if I could literally spend a week with him and just follow him around. He agreed, so I shadowed him for an entire week, picked his brains and learnt a heap. I chose Rob as a mentor and it was a good decision. I also read every book I could on youth ministry and learnt the theory pretty well.

Then began 5 years of leading a youth ministry and what I discovered what that I had a very limited imagination for what a church could be. I had never really given ecclesiology any thought. I had assumed that whatever we did on Sunday we did because that was how things were and they weren’t to be messed with. It was the era of seeker services and then seeker sensitive church (another mild controversy) and I remember being given permission to be creative but ending up in more of the same. I think I frustrated John the senior pastor in this way, who was trying to encourage me to take some risks and experiment, but I simply couldn’t imagine church any differently.

Our Baptist liturgy was pretty predictable and it had been ground into me. So I kept on doing what I was familiar with. The church’s evening service moved up the road to the community centre in the belief that being in a ‘non-religious’ building would break down barriers for those who wanted to come but couldn’t see themselves in a church. Turned out they couldn’t see themselves in a community centre either so maybe the building wasn’t the problem…

In the absence of my own original ideas, I rolled with what John wanted to do – seeker stuff. The theory made sense to me, because I actually  believed that maybe people would come if we got the formula right. At that time I had begun teaching again at Scarborough High School, the school I attended as a kid and I rolled into the Phys Ed office one day with a bunch of flyers to give to the other staff inviting them to a seeker service where I was going to be preaching. I still remember their faces. It was like I’d invited them to a nude knitting party.

As I reflect on those first years of Christian leadership I see a person so formed by the institution that he lacked the creative capacity to really explore new ideas. In a daring frenzy of fresh thinking I used a Simpson’s video in one of my sermons to make a point. That was a daring move. I sensed the disdain from some at this introduction of secular content into a holy space but I didn’t really want to get into conflict over it, so I just sucked it up.

Occasionally we would be allowed to have youth lead morning worship services. I’m sure part of it was in the hope that they would begin coming on Sunday morning – because for many this was considered ‘real church’ while the evening service was like a B grade option for the less serious. I imagine more would have come and stuck with it if some of the oldies didn’t frown or walk out on music they found unacceptable. I remember meeting one of those oldies down the shops after they had made an angry exit on a Sunday morning. The man started into me about the noise of the drums and the inappropriate type of music for worship. I had just started pushing back on those who were critical and difficult and this bloke got it both barrels, both for having the lack of awareness to think Woolworths was a good place to chastise me, but also just for being a grumpy, self centred traditionalist who couldn’t abide a different expression of church and couldn’t see the detrimental effect his attitude had on the young people.

I still dressed up for church occasionally – another way in which the culture had shaped me and I recall an older woman sarcastically remarking to me ‘nice to see you well dressed in the house of the Lord today…’

‘Well, that’s the main thing isn’t it?’ I replied, to which she huffed off insulted by that young pastor.

We made a pretty good crack of leading a youth ministry, but it was becoming apparent that I needed to ‘get out more’ and have an experience of church where I could lead unconstrained by those who still saw me as an 18 year old doing burn outs in the carpark. Or maybe that was just a self perception?…

John Randall nudged me towards study at Vose college – I shut him down. He also saw that I needed to get out from the culture I was in and begin to think for myself. As I look back I think he saw my potential but also saw the constraint of being ‘stuck’ in the church I had grown up in. But the thing was that I needed to see it.

It wasn’t that the church was forming me so much any more, but more that it had stopped me in my tracks and was limiting who I could become and where I could lead them.

Change was in the air