Small Church Big Impact

I’ve slowed my blog reading right down these days and read only a select few, but a new one popped up today that I think will be well worth adding to the RSS.

Its entitled ‘Small Church Big Impact‘ and looks at the challenges and opportunities that are present in the smaller expression of church – about 90% of Aussie churches I’d guess…

Its author is Andre Van Oudtshoorn, a local small church pastor and Academic Dean at Perth Bible College. Andre is well known for being a provocative thinker and lecturer and he has also managed to lead a small church through some difficult waters and into good health, so he knows what he’s on about.

As one who is now leading a small church – and very happy to be doing so – I have found great joy in the kind of community that the smaller expression creates. There are things that are harder when you are ‘small’, but almost anything that needs to be done to create disciples can be done well by the smaller crew.

I look forward to reading Andre’s thoughts.

Fun… Ministry… Work?

It starts as fun and ends in ministry… or maybe even work…

A couple of conversations over the weekend sparked my thinking about how things can start as spontaneous fun, develop into some form of ministry and then maybe even shift into being ‘work’ or a chore.

I was out surfing with my friend Stuart and our sons Sam and Micah and we got talking about how much fun it was – dad’s and kids doing what they love to do and having a blast. Stuart mentioned that he has come across some other parents who also enjoy surfing with their kids and is in the process of establishing a Christian Surfers group in his local area for that particular niche.

They would get together fortnightly on a Saturday to surf, be able to have some competitions, instruction and some Bible study. It would be ‘under’ Christian Surfers and would be a project that at least a few people would need to commit to being part of and present at.

Its a significant shift from just getting together when it suits and enjoying the spontaneity.

Then there are the guys from QBC who get together to fight each Saturday morning. A group of 5 guys meet in another blokes garage to spar, hang out and enjoy offloading some testosterone. One of those blokes suggested this morning that it could become an outreach – a ‘ministry’ of QBC.

It began some interesting conversation around what that would mean and how it may change the feel and focus of the group.

Now both of these activities are great and currently they meet the needs of the people involved and they are proving to be a heap of fun.

So my pondering is whether it is a help or a hindrance to formalise either.

I see benefits and drawbacks to both approaches. What was once just fun now becomes more purposeful. It requires some commitment on the part of the key players. In the case of Fight Club it probably needs some special insurance. In the case of surfing, it means showing up on days when you might otherwise choose not to hit the surf. It means a level of organisation on the part of some to make it happen for others.

There are advantages too.

In both groups the people pulling it together do so with a sense of focus and purpose. Its not just a bit of fun – its bringing mission more to the fore in the flow of life. Its building community and helping people connect more significantly. But a decision like this requires people to give up some of their freedom and to make some commitments. With that comes the potential for weariness and maybe even a loss of enjoyment.

Some would say ‘why not join a local fighting group?’ or ‘why not join a local surf club?’

And they are fair questions too – philosophical questions that relate to why a group exists and theological questions about how ministry and mission occur. If we are to be salt and light then are we better off doing that by joining the local crew?…


Perhaps one of the reasons to consider establishing a group with a specific focus is that you then get to set the culture rather than trying to shift the culture in an already established group. At a pragmatic level I think it is much harder to shift an existing culture (especially a surf club or a ‘fight’ club) than to establish one and call people into it.

At a more basic level it seems that we tend to shy away from anything that actually calls us to commitment whether it is Christian based or community based. I would feel the same way about joining the local little athletics club with the kids as I would about joining a Christian surfers crew. So maybe its less about ministry and more about the broader culture of self-centredness, convenience and choice.

I know that being a pastor is sometimes a right pain in arse because it means I am committed to being there 99% of Sundays – and some days I’d rather not be. The challenge for any of us in this space is to accept the responsibilities, appreciate the benefits and keep the joy alive rather than getting frustrated at the aspects that are less exciting.

That’s a bit longer than I intended to post, but I’d be interested in how others perceive this challenge.

What if its Me?…

‘Its not you – its me…’

‘No really…’

I was reading Mark Sayers blog yesterday where he lists his top ten questions he has been asking about church and culture – and the first one pretty much nails the heart of the problem for me.

He writes:

1: The almost overwhelming consensus in the West is that Church needs to change. But what if Church is not the problem what if we are? In the past people were part of the church because of their sense of devotion, their expectations of Church were much lower. What if we are looking for Church to give us the transcendence that we are meant to find in God?

I think there is plenty in church to critique and even as one who leads a church these days I have no problem finding the oddities and failures of our western church. I think we need that ability to look at ourselves critically. But we could literally critique for ever and not get on a positive footing.

As Mark states ‘church critique’ (in its current form) is a fairly recent phenomena. Wind the clock back 40 years and a church was a church was a church. There weren’t different flavours to try. There was simply vanilla – or vanilla with sprinkles on top if you were a pentecostal…

But in asking the question ‘what if its me?’ I feel Mark gets closer to the real issue. It was Chesterton who when asked ‘what was wrong with the world’ answered ‘I am’ and maybe the same is true of church. Maybe we need to take it more personally though and ask what it would look like for us to shift our own priorities so that we were engaging in our churches in completely different ways.

I imagine some of this comes down to:

– taking responsibility for our own spiritual formation rather than hoping Sunday Am will do the trick

– investing more time (lots of it) in genuine community and discipling of one another

– seeking to give more than we take in all areas of life

It circles around again to the issue of personal spiritual formation and the need for us to be increasingly pursuing Christlikeness rather than increasingly trying to make our church function better or look better. Like most things in life of value there are no shortcuts and this will take some effort from us.

But if we chose to make the effort then perhaps the church critique would dry up because there would be a complete change of focus…

I certainly feel that part of the problem with the church I lead is me and I don’t mean that in a self deprecating way. Its just true. I have become part of a seductive and selfish culture and to resist and live differently is often more than I am willing to do.

Its something God has been speaking to me about these last couple of weeks and I’m just looking at what it means to raise the bar in my own life, rather than improving the plausability of the excuses.

Functional and Flexible

Its ironic if not tragic that the very religion that was waiting on a Messiah failed to recognise him when he came – and then rather than admitting their mistake after his resurrection, decided to persecute and kill his disciples.

It seems little of the conflict we see in the gospels and the book of Acts is related to religion per se, but in fact is more about power and authority and control. Its about ‘who gets to call the shots’.

That Judaism wasn’t able to contain the new move of God that arrived in Jesus is somewhat bizarre, and yet quite understandable. He came along claiming to be a (the) king, and Messiah, but then broke many of their cherished religious rules. He established a community of people with huge influence and supernatural power (see Acts 3-5) who did not conform to the established order either.

And it wasn’t just that they were mavericks. I think that’s too easy a solution and maybe too appealing for those with an anti-authoritarian streak of their own.

They were people who had learnt a whole new way of life – a way of life that was in sync with the priorities of God – and oddly enough sometimes out of sync with the priorities of their own religious tradition. Whatever structures had formed within Judaism (and no doubt some of them were good) were now serving to undermine the future of their faith rather than advance it and the main culprits were the ones in power – the elders and chief priests – the Sanhedrin.

I wonder what would have happened if the Sanhedrin had been able to say ‘wow – God is really at work among us – take a look at that!’ I wonder what have happened if they had embraced this new move of God rather than fighting it.

Instead the ‘system’ wouldn’t bend. Power could not be re-allocated and the people were the casualty. As I was reflecting on this last week I was thinking again that any structures in churches must always be functional and flexible. They need to serve the cause and the people and be easily adaptable when they fail to do so.

Everything has structure of some sort, so to be ‘anti-structure’ is just a bit naive, but to recognise that structures can facilitate either good health or poor health is important. In Acts 6 the apostles need to work out a ‘food roster’ for the widows who weren’t getting their fair share. We don’t have one of them today… and rightly so because its a non-issue.

But we still seem to have many other irrelevant or superfluous structures that don’t change easily. If you aren’t sure what is a ‘not negotiable’ structure in your community then just try and change it. You will soon find out.

So the challenge to us this week as we read this book of Acts is to consider how to create and sustain a church community that has healthy structures and then to recognise when those structures need to change without worrying about who ‘gets control’.

The Edge of Inconvenience

A few weeks back when preparing for some teaching thru the book of Acts I sensed God speaking to me and in turn I believe speaking to our church community.

Acts has always inspired me but as I sat and read I felt like I could have been reading the phone book. Maybe its familiarity with the story, or maybe it’s just the state of my own spiritual health that I was left woefully unmoved. I knew I could bash out a decent sermon, because Acts lends itself to that, but who needs more sermons?…

As I was reflecting on this I sensed that part of the problem is that we teach more than we practice and that if we wanted to meet God in this journey thru Acts then maybe it would come by ‘going there’ – by experiencing some of what those early Christians did. It wasn’t a desire to create the ‘first century church’ all over again, but a sense that we have become way too used to gathering information and that we needed to learn less and engage more.

So out of that I felt that maybe we should be taking some time together to pray and fast and ask God for a fresh encounter with him – to seek God out with a bit more focus and intent than we do currently.

To be honest I felt ambiguous about this. I had a very strong sense that it was a Holy Spirit leading, but I had also had a very strong awareness that to follow it would disrupt my comfortable and relatively easy life. It would bite into my current routines and I’d lose some sleep… I was tempted to ignore the promptings and leadings because I like my comfort.

I sensed we should be gathering each day of the week to pray – most likely mornings around 6am and then choosing to fast, either regular ‘food fasting’ or abstaining from something we enjoy for the next month. I suggested sex was a good biblical fast when it comes to devoting ourselves to prayer, but I’m not sure many were up for that one…

I also felt it wasn’t something we ‘invite’ people to or ‘encourage’ people to participate in as another optional church activity, but rather it wa something we lead strongly with and we ‘call people to pray and fast’. This isn’t a ‘nice thing to do’ if you feel like you have the time or inclination. Its something we feel God is leading us to do and we need to make time for it.

Its always a challenge to lead strongly and yet recognise that for some this will simply be an impossibility. But my gut feel is that for many its not impossible – just very difficult – extremely incovenient. And perhaps that’s ok. Perhaps we need to recognise that our lives have become tangled in things that we never expected they would and we need to choose to break free from that. I have no qualms about challenging people to consider that maybe life’s priorities are all screwed up. In fact I think we are saying that this is where its at for many of us and we aren’t happy about that.

An equal challenge is to lead strongly, call people to step up and recognise that some people will simply choose to say ‘no’. Some will feel the same ambivalence I felt about doing something difficult or inconvenient and will choose to follow the path of least resistance. I believe its very possible to be unequivocal in our message and yet respect and love people who say ‘not for me thanks’. We definitely do not want a caste system in church and to marginalise people who don’t conform or join the crew who are saying ‘yes’.

Having said that I believe this process will spur some interesting conversations and challenges as we go thru it. If nothing else it will cause people to reflect on their lives and their priorities. It places people in a position where they need to make a choice and then consider why that was their choice.

What’s most disturbing for me in all of this is that I sense we consider a month of daily communal prayer and fasting to be a huge commitment / imposition on our lives. I know it felt a stretch to me. We may even think we are really putting in the spiritual ‘big ones’ when in reality we are barely scratching the surface of some communal disciplines. As I watch the Biggest Loser (Ellie’s favourite show…) I see overweight people getting excited at their ability to run non stop for 5 minutes on a treadmill and while I’m happy for them, its only because they are in such terrible shape that this becomes an achievement. I sense this is where we are at with discipleship in many of our churches. Perhaps we are a community of ‘biggest losers’ who take the path of least resistance so often that to move in the opposite direction appears to be a monumental effort. Personally I feel shame at that and I think we ought to feel some level of shame if that is an accurate image of our so called discipleship.

On the up side of the ‘biggest loser’ analogy what develops over time as that community forms and those people learn new disciplines can be incredibly inspiring – so maybe we will see some massive transformations in our own community as we struggle together and get in shape.

So I am looking forward to seeing what develops of this time. We don’t know exactly what God is wanting to do in us, but I believe others have sensed the same need and gathering by the faces present and the energy in the room there is a desire for more and that is encouraging.

Personally I find myself torn – torn between wanting God to turn my life upside down and then wanting him to leave me to be fat and lazy…

In my better moments I dream of a life where I am not driven by my ‘lower self’ and where the stuff that matters to God really matters to me and I long to be with a bunch of people who want to live there.

The lure of comfort and convenience is strong and let’s face it – no one is ever in a position to call someone else on this stuff. But if we are to lead churches then maybe it is our job to reshape our own lives, to intentionally practice something different and then call people to do the same.

But let’s be honest.

Its not really a ‘maybe’ is it?…

Same Story Different Boat

Ahn Do nearly didn’t make it to Australia. Fleeing communist Vietnam in the 1970’s he and his family crammed onto a small overloaded fishing boat and made the treacherous journey to Malaysia. They were robbed and left for dead on two separate occasions by pirates. Drifting with no motor, food nor water and ready to die, they were miraculously were picked up by a German ship and taken to safety.

From there they made it to Sydney where Ahn’s parent worked long and hard to establish a new life for their children. Ahn has since gone on to finish a law degree and then become a well known comedian while his brother Khoa was named young Australian of the year in 2005.

Around the same time a young Irish family were also fleeing their war torn country and looking for a happier life in Australia. It was common for those kids to lie in bed at night and hear bombs explode nearby, or to see tanks and barbed wire lining the streets. A shopping trip could easily get cut short when the bomb alarms sounded and people would run for their lives just in case the shop was about to explode. So the hope of a new and peaceful land was powerful. In 1974 when religious violence in Belfast was at a peak, their ship left Southampton bound for Fremantle and a fresh start.

Ahn Do’s story is an inspiration because of what he and his family have achieved since their time in Australia and we now own him as ‘one of us’. My own story – yes, I was the Irish kid – really doesn’t sound like a refugee story because we immigrated officially and weren’t forced to spend time in any detention centre, but the privilege we had doesn’t the lessen the truth that I was also a refugee.

Every time I hear people complain about the ‘boat people’ I want to suggest they walk a mile in their shoes. I want to ask ‘why should we be the privileged ones who enjoy safety and prosperity while others watch their families beaten and sometimes killed before their eyes?’

How does that work?…

When Jesus was on earth the thing he spoke about more than anything else was the ‘kingdom of God’ and by that he didn’t mean a physical place, nor did he mean heaven. He was speaking of the world as God intends it to be – where there is love and justice and peace and goodness. Where evil is no more and where people do not have to live in fear of their lives. It’s the world we would all dream of – the world we would love to live in.

Many of us would remember the Lord’s prayer where Jesus prayed ‘your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.’ Jesus’ hope is that even in the midst of the brokenness and selfishness that is so evident in this world there would be people who would walk to a different drum and who would choose to love rather than hate and give rather than take., who would put the needs of others above their own needs.

Maybe then we would see those ‘boat people’ differently?

Maybe then we’d see them as fellow human beings desperately seeking to stay alive and care for their families. Maybe we’d welcome them and seek to help them in their plight rather than lock them away and treat them as if they were criminals. Maybe then we could get rid of those obscene and disgusting stickers we see on the back of cars and replace with them words of welcome to those who need our help.

It all starts with a vision of a different world – the world as God intends – and there is one bloke who can point us in that direction.

Oddly enough he was a refugee too…

The Survival Camp

On Friday I walked into the staffroom at Quinns College to say g’day to some of the staff and recognised an old face – ‘Mrs S’- a woman who I taught with in my second year of teaching, a brilliant teacher and a wonderful woman from whom I learnt a huge amount about teaching. It was great to see her and as we chatted she reminded me of my days teaching English at Kingsway and our infamous ‘Survival Camp’.

In my second year of teaching I somehow found myself with a year 11 English class and one of our texts was Goldings ‘Lord of the Flies’, a real classic.

I was lying in bed one night pondering what we could do to really get the kids into the story – to actually help them connect with it and get its significance… and I began to wonder…

What if we were able to dump the entire class on an island for a weekend, scatter some food around and let nature take its course?…

What if we created our own ‘Lord of the Flies’ simulation?…

What if we let them experience it rather than just read about it?…

Wouldn’t that help them get into the story far better than ‘Brodie’s Notes’?!…

Just a bit…

I didn’t sleep much that night as my mind was racing and I couldn’t wait to put it to the other staff and see who was ‘in’. My brain was buzzing with all sorts of wild ideas that would make English a little more interesting… In case you are wondering if I am joking, remember this is 20 years ago before the ‘fun police’ declared any risky experiences off limits.

I was thinking Lancelin island would be the go. We’d paddle them across on surfboards or hire a boat and we’d stay there for an entire weekend. As staff we’d have food, beds and all we needed but the students would be ‘shipwrecked’ and would have to fend for themselves…

Of course Lancelin is a bird sanctuary so we had to drop that idea straight away – but the idea still had currency. So we finished up heading up to a Tuart Forest somewhere in the Cervantes region. I don’t think I could find it again today if my life depended on it, but it was a great spot. With 20 kids, and a couple of staff we headed off to ‘do English’.

The students weren’t allowed to bring anything but the clothes they were standing in. No matches, no knives, no toilet paper… No food.

Nothing… not a cracker…

We managed to get to the Tuart Forest after a fun drive and as teachers we set off hiding fruit and veg in the forest. The deal was ‘Whatever you find you can eat… if you don’t find you don’t eat’. Or you need to learn to negotiate and ask others for help.

We did leave some matches lying around, a knife and a tarp. It was ‘finders keepers’ when it came to the stuff. Some got lucky. Others did it tough for the 2 days.

We released a couple of live chickens which were caught, killed and eaten by the students. They were promptly vomited back up the next day… I’m guessing their cleaning procedures weren’t world class. Fortunately things didn’t degenerate quite like they did in Golding’s novel, but it was a taste of what those kids experienced when they landed on the island.

The following year we did the same down at Conto’s Springs. The picture above is of the Conto’s area. We stopped the cars at the top of the cliffs and as staff we made our way down and scattered the food among the dunes. Then we let the kids go and they either ran straight thru the bush to get to the bottom – a bit of a dangerous route, or they ran the 2ks down the track to the bottom. Either way the fittest got the food and the least fit – those who were used to eating a lot – discovered that they were going to be enjoying an enforced diet.

These blokes got the lion’s share…

Anna didn’t…

Other’s managed to negotiate…

It was another successful camp, but with some real tension and conflict at times. It needed some better debriefing than I was able to do at the time, but again the kids entered the world of the novel rather than just imagining it.

There is no way in the world any school would let us run a camp like this these days. The physical dangers, psychological dangers and the risk of litigation just wouldn’t be worth the risk. Which is very sad in my opinion. The ‘fun police’ have won the day and I reckon we’re poorer for it.

Any time I see those students and we get talking about school days do you reckon they remember Survival Camp?…

School days can be pretty damn humdrum, so some wacky experiences like that make it a little more memorable and who knows maybe they even learnt something…

I know I had fun!…

Hurry Up?

From John Ortberg via Dick Staub : What did I need to do, I asked a wise friend, to be spiritually healthy? Long pause. “You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life,” he said at last. Another long pause. “Okay, I’ve written that one down,” I told him, a little impatiently. “That’s a good one. Now what else is there?” Another long pause. “There is nothing else,” he said. “You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.”


To add to the last post here are some great thoughts from Seth Godin. I have copied and pasted the entire post cause I reckon its on the money

Rightsizing your passion

Excitement about goals is often diminished by our fear of failure or the drudgery of work.

If you’re short on passion, it might be because your goals are too small or the fear is too big.

Do a job for a long time and achieve what you set out to achieve, and suddenly, the dream job becomes a trudge instead. The job hasn’t changed–your dreams have.

Mostly, though, it’s about our fear. Fear is the dream killer, the silent voice that pushes us to lose our passion in a vain attempt to seek safety.

While you can work hard to dream smaller dreams, I think it’s better to embrace the fear and find bigger goals instead.

5 Years

I reckon that’s how long it takes me to get itchy feet and a need for change. Some people seem to be able to stay in a job for 20 or 30 years but I’m not that person.

When you’re 47 you have enough life in which to observe patterns and this seems to be my ‘transition point’. No matter what it is I’m doing, after 5 years I seem to be scratching my head and wondering if there is something out there that is more meaningful, more stimulating, more purposeful…

Mid-life crisis aside I think I am just about there with retic and turf. Maybe its been the heat of the last 3 weeks that has smashed me a bit, but equally I’m feeling a bit over it all.

It seems the ‘5 years’ has several discrete stages:

1. A new adventure – where I discover a new skill, ability or focus and I get my teeth into it. This is often an exhilarating time as I am usually out of my depth and just surviving. I like the steep learning curve but you can’t live here!

2. I can do this – In this stage I have got the basics happening well and I’m enjoying being able to do something new.

3. I can do this well – By now competence is high and some of the job is virtually automatic. Its a time to focus on doing things better. Improving systems and getting a better result for the same effort.

4. I am not enjoying this as much and losing interest – In all the roles I have had (and there has been a heck of a lot of variety) there seems to come a point when I lose interest. It happens slowly and shows up in poor work, or a lack of effort maybe because I feel I am competent and can cruise. Of course that only re-inforces the feeling of needing a change.

5. I’ll give this one more year… – If i learnt anything from the past its that this phase needs to be cut as short as possible. Usually a year is enough to finish up actually hating whatever it is that I have been doing and hoping I never need to do it again. So once I observe myself in ‘disinterest’ phase its time to flag it and look to shift into a new space.

I’ve never had to do a job I have hated simply to pay the bills and I hope I never have to. However I know that’s where many people live and have no choice.

So I’m currently observing that with retic I’m in a ‘stage 4 mindset’. I’m struggling to stay interested and motivated and on the lookout for new opportunities. It makes me chuckle a bit because it was only 6 months ago that I was loving it, feeling inspired and wondering about what the future may hold for it. I considered expanding and ramping things up, but realised that wasn’t where I wanted to invest my life. Maybe that choice – to ‘maintain’ – has been the catalyst for my discontent.

These days I find myself limiting my work, and my work areas, giving heaps of work away because I don’t want it and living with an ear to the ground for any new adventures or business opportunities.

The big challenge in any change would be relinquishing my autonomy and taking a drop in income as that would be inevitable, but I’m even at a point where I’d be willing to drop a decent slab of income to feel inspired again and get back on the learning curve.

The flip side is that I wonder if there is something I need to learn in moving thru the boredom phase. Maybe nothing else will present itself and I will just have to figure out how to be content in this space.

Anyone else observe any similar patterns in their lives?