And So We Meet…

It’s what Baptists do right? Have meetings?

Well, this weekend just gone was our first ‘church meeting’ for Yanchep Community Church, a gathering of the tribe to reflect, pray and look forwards – to have an open conversation about what we sense God doing in our midst and in our community.

I’m as excited about this venture as I have been about anything I have done.

It’s been 9 months since we first got together on August 5th and ‘pressed play’, and in that time we have been slowly gathering people, seeing some ‘stick’ and become ‘regulars’ while others have come, looked around and said ‘nah not for us.’ No worries.

The first 6 months were very much ‘slow and steady’, with just a small handful of people gathering regularly. On a big week there would be 30 of us there including kids and on a slower week just 15-20. You could get disturbed and discouraged by that – or you could look at the quality of the people in the room and see that God was gathering a very strong core group of faithful, and seasoned people.

More recently we have had an influx of people seeking to find a church home in the area – a mix of Christians who haven’t been to church for a while, a number of Catholics and other people just keen to find a church in their own community or at least close by. Our building legally holds 50 and we have been pushing past that most Sundays as the word has got out. It’s been great to see the small crew swelling and the energy in the room rising as people begin to put firm roots down and call this church home. Including our core team there would be around 20 families or households who are now YCC regulars – hardly a massive mob, but a growing tribe almost all of whom live locally.

What has surprised me is the willingness of many people to bypass a local church and continue to head south to large churches, some for reasons of longstanding relationship and others simply because they can deliver ‘better services’. That’s fair enough – although because my own thinking about church is so intensely ‘local’ I have never understood why anyone would travel for church when a community is right there.

So it’s been 9 months now of running Sunday mornings at Quinns and then turning around at 3pm to do it all again on a Sunday afternoon. The demands were more than I anticipated at first – my body clock was very used to winding down after a full on Sunday morning, but now it needed to keep going. My new routine is leave for church at 8.00am then surf or snooze before heading off to church again at 3pm. It makes Sundays a full day and the goal in that is to ensure it isn’t ‘busy’, that we don’t end up frazzled and frustrated. So far so good. We have managed to sustain a steady pace and I have rarely gone home exhausted.

I never thought I’d say these words, but I am feeling it would be really valuable for us to have a concrete presence in the local community in the form of some kind of venue / building. I mused about this in March last year but its become more of a reality now as we have to grapple with questions of growth and space. I loathe the idea of being a fund raiser, but I see the value of a building as a statement of permanence. How that happens is yet to be determined, but I have been sniffing around the local real estate to see what is suitable. I don’t have a couple of million dollars to spare – but I know someone with a lot more than that…

In my own prayers for this community I have sensed two phrases resonating over and over. The first is ‘here to stay’ and the second is ‘big faith’.

I think the ‘here to stay’ idea is very simple – it’s about permanence and commitment for the long haul – about letting people know we aren’t ‘giving this our best shot’, and hoping it all works out, but rather we have ‘dug in’ and come hell or high water we will keep going. No one wants to align with a group of people who lack a common purpose or a will to move forwards. ‘Here to stay’ feels to me like saying ‘you will carry me out of here in a box’ – hopefully not too soon… But in the meantime we will be making long term plans and putting down deep roots.

‘Big faith’ on the other hand is a simple call to look well beyond what I/we may be capable of creating or doing and believing that maybe God wants to do something bold, significant and even surprising in this area. I sense my part will be to call people (and myself) to follow that God sized dream and to grow in my own faith. I am not sure how all of this works out, but I know that after 28 years of leading churches I can do the regular stuff with ease. Where the challenge lies is in stretching and trusting that God can do far more than I can if I will get out of the way (mentally) and allow him to ferment new possibilities in our imagination.

Our mode of planting this church has been to deploy a small group of people including 2 pastors to ‘run a bit harder’ for a period of time in the hope of establishing a community that can then be quickly be self sustaining. While a small crew have borne the bulk of the strain during this time, it has also implanted clear DNA and given strength and form to this new community. In gardening terms it feels like we ‘taken a cutting’ off the QBC tree and put it down in Yanchep. While there are some differences in the shape of the community, the culture is largely the same and that was the intention.

We feel like the future sees Ryan spending more time in Yanchep and being the main hands on deck around here – giving day to day leadership to the church. At this stage I think I will continue to span both churches and give my own type of leadership to them while Danelle attends Yanchep but works at Quinns. It’s a ‘messy’ model in some ways, but its quite organic in its form and we feel like its working – at least for now.

We discussed whether we see Yanchep as a ‘campus’ of Quinns or whether it will become a separate entity. The second option seems much more likely. Right now we are thinking parent-child and that child will get all the support she needs as she matures, but eventualy she will ‘move out of home’ and be self sustaining. At that point she becomes her own entity, and does all the stuff that goes with that. I’m not sure where that leaves me – either employed by two different churches or needing to jump one way or the other. I feel like somehow having ‘dual citizenship’ is the way to go, but I’m not sure how all that works out either.

Anyway – that’s the scope of things at the 9 month mark. Exciting and challenging – stirring new thoughts in my mind and feelings in my heart and I’m beyond grateful for it all!

The Spiritual Discipline of Showing Up

I was chatting with a mate this morning about what was going on in his church and he let me know he wasn’t sure as he hadn’t been that often lately – maybe fortnightly – maybe less often…

I asked why.

Because some days you’re tired, you’ve had a full on week, need a break etc. I’m sure you know the deal. Most of us wake up on Sunday morning with some sense of weariness and entitlement to an easy day. After all – it is a day of rest right?…

There was a point in my life (maybe 20-30 years ago) where I would have encouraged him to listen to that inner voice saying ‘slow down’… ‘take it easy’ because so many people I knew were busy with church activities and church itself had often become a dutiful commitment. He may not have made it on Sunday but he was gonna be at 3 other church events that week!

Not so these days.

So my response was a hefty push back to seeing participating in the church experience as an important and significant spiritual discipline. (We had been talking about other disciplines of engaging scripture and prayer, so that was the context of the conversation).

It used to be a ‘given’ that we would turn up every week to worship with the church family, but more recently it has become one option among many. In those days when church often felt  ritualistic and routine and we sometimes attended weekly out of duty or fear of being visited by the pastor, it was important to show people freedom and encourage them to discover anew the joy of Christian community. But the ground has changed and now it’s much more common to ‘attend as we are able’. . And in that new context it’s all too easy to mistake genuine weariness for laziness, to have a little more ‘me time’ than perhaps is warranted and eventually to turn up to church every now and then.

Even for the faithful ‘every Sunday’ can seem like a lot. But I am sensing we need to shift our thinking around church gatherings to see them as a key part of our spiritual disciplines – to ‘turn up’ whether we feel like it or not (like we do with footy practice and other sports) partly because its good for us and it is forming us in ways we may not see, but also because when we don’t turn up we actually deprive the community of our presence and our input.

My encouragement to my friend was to see Sunday church as an almost unbreakable deal, to be there every week, but not just to turn up and digest some teaching and be inspired by some great worship music – but to go there asking ‘God what do you want of me in this space today?’

When we are ‘irregular attendees’ rather than part of the family the church will feel unfamiliar, we will not be in the loop of the community life and more than likely we will go as consumers rather than contributors.

But the value of the church experience is found being in it rather than sniffing at it from the fringes. A few weeks back we said goodbye to a family who were moving interstate and there were tears all round – not because any of us are particularly emotional people – but simply because we loved on another and had shared life for a significant time.

I want to be able to be part of a community where I am elated when things go well for people and I feel it deeply when there is sorrow, but it only happens by turning up and choosing to be intentional about being part of the family.

I never thought I’d write a post saying ‘you should go to church more often’, but in this current climate I think you should… An important factor in that call is the realisation that for most people their Sunday interaction is likely their only church engagement for the week (we no longer run anywhere near as hard as we used to).

And as with all disciplines don’t quit if the results don’t immediately wow you. It takes time and it takes genuine discipline to participate (more than just attend) and to become a part of the family.

Losing Sight of Land

Back in the days when I owned a boat I would often use it for getting to a distant reef break to surf, or some remote diving, even the odd sad, pathetic fishing venture. We would head out a few kms, maybe even 7 or 8, but at no point did we lose sight of land. It wasn’t so much fear that kept me close, but simply that I had no need to go further. (I could fish just as badly 5kms off shore as I could 20kms off.)

However I imagine there would be something a little chilling about losing sight of land in a 5m runabout – losing your most primal bearing and being afloat in a very, big and unpredictable ocean. You would need tools for keeping your bearings and a steely crew not easily unsettled by the absence of that clear source of guidance and comfort.

In that sense I have a feeling the ‘Christian’ boat is losing sight of land – and it’s not heading back any time soon. If ‘land’ is the security of a society that both recognises and affirms the Judeo-Christian story then my sense is that we are headed for the horizon at an ever increasing pace.

The growing secularism we are living in is fast taking us away not just from the structures we are familiar with, but also from the story we claim to align with. The question I am currently pondering is how we speak to the challenge of forming disciples of Jesus in this fast shifting and disorienting culture.

Each year at this time, as school holidays end and people settle back into regular routines we (as pastors) ‘rally the troops’.  For some its ‘Vision Sunday/s’ and we do our own version of this, except every year we say the exact same thing albeit in slightly different ways.

‘Follow Jesus – do it – don’t talk about, think about it, whine about it – just do it.’

It’s not very nuanced. I don’t believe in the need to shape a new vision each year or to inspire people with a fresh picture of the future. If there are new things there to get excited about then all well and good, but the primary task of the church never changes – ever.

It is to form people into Christlikeness and send them into the world while praying ‘your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

That’s my ‘job’ and I love it. I also take it very seriously. There is nothing more important in the world than that task.

The unique challenge at this time in history is that we seem to be moving further and further from an old and familiar (albeit tired) Christendom towards a seemingly hopeful and glossy  secularism. As the church our strongest inclination may be to sail the ship back towards Christendom – back to land – to ‘safe and familiar’. But while there was much that was good in that time, (and some stuff that wasn’t so good), it is definitely not the form ‘Christianity’ will take in the years to come.

Simply put – we no longer have the same authority in society. In fact we are often cast as the ‘bad guys’, the ones standing in the way of a world that could be. A real danger in this space is that in the absence of a ‘Christian heritage’ to appeal to, we will find ourselves aligned with either the left or the right side of politics and we will see this as pivotal to shifting society back towards a Jesus like posture. We will look for sources of power to leverage and with Christendom dead in the water those sources are most likely going to be political parties.

I don’t believe we don’t want to go that route.

My son came to me today and told me about a 16th C protestant group called The Levellers, a far left group who practiced ‘Christian communism’ based on their reading of Acts 2. One of his school friends who is an ardent Green supporter pointed him to them as an example of ‘Christians who had got some stuff right’. The levellers were an interesting mob, but as we talked I found myself again saying that the answer is not in any political ideology.

While these may seem to be our only ‘visible’ options at the moment the answer has been and always will be the kingdom of God as it takes form in local churches. The kingdom of God is neither ‘left’ nor ‘right’, (although both can put their cases for it being better represented by them). Instead this will be the way in which the world will be changed – as ordinary people give their lives to a ‘powerless’ way of living that inspires by its Jesus like qualities rather than its ability to rule and exert power.

So as a pastor preaching to a garden variety suburban church at this time of year my focus will be on preparing people for a world that is going to be increasingly unfamiliar and unforgiving – a world that at times will be openly hostile. It will be to encourage people to find strength in the tools of faith that have always been there – the spiritual practices that form us into Christlikeness and to prioritise being together as the church to encourage and support one another to follow a different story.

I won’t be encouraging anyone to head back to land. (I don’t believe ‘Christendom’ was ever the answer.) Rather I will be equipping people to sail confidently and humbly into the world trusting that the spirit of God is able to work thru a church that no longer has its position in society to appeal to, but rather only has the lives of its people as a credible witness.

It worked pretty well 2000 years ago…

Soul Church Final – Beyond Perfection to Raw Beauty

This has been a longer series than I intended so time to wrap it up with some closing thoughts.

I was once a certified, card carrying rabid (and competitive) pragmatist. If it works then lets do it – and lets do it better than anyone else… in Jesus’ name…

‘All things to all men so that by all possible means’ was a catch cry I held up and I meant it.  We should do whatever it took to communicate the gospel to people outside of faith. All that mattered was whether from ‘false motives or true Christ was preached.’ And I know I have had my fair share of ‘false motives’.

To be fair… I think Paul is willing to concede that people could possibly meet Jesus in a Benny Hinn shindig, as an act of God’s grace, but I don’t think for a moment he is endorsing our selfish and corrupt methods. Paul is stating that in spite of our foolishness and sin God is still able to get his work done. 

So if we cannot completely ditch the corporate influence on church life then how can we lead and live in a way that prophetically counters the relentless pull to ‘succeed’ and ‘win’.

I would imagine it starts with a brutal and raw assessment of where we are at. Its no use kidding ourselves that we aren’t affected by the culture, when we go home depressed every Sunday because the numbers are a bit low. If we are ‘enterprise driven’ then just acknowledge it and accept that moving forwards is going to require change (if we want to change). If we are ‘family driven’ then we still face the temptations to ‘pursue greatness’ and do great things for God. 

I’ll say it again… the church is not a business and it should not be run like one.

Our methods matter because our methods form our identity .

I confess that I am still sometimes hobbled by the enterprise virus. When the numbers are down on Sundays or we see people leave, when the finances run tight, and when the church down the road just seems to have it together so much more than we do, there is a primal part of me that just wants to say ‘Alright… Game on! Let’s really make this thing really fire!…’ And by that I am meaning lets improve our outputs to attract people back, to make ourselves look like we have something to offer compared to the ‘successful’ churches. I move into competitive mode… And I feel it…If not for the people around me who deeply share our family identity I think there are times I could easily slip back into old habits.

Recently at church finances have been tight – in fact we have been running well behind – and we discussed what to do. We can ‘ramp up vision’, have dedicated vision sermons and have longer offering calls or we can make the family aware that for various reasons we are struggling to make ends meet. People are smart – they can join the dots. And if they don’t then there will be consequences to those choices. I just can’t bring myself to selling the ‘wow factor that is Quinns Baptist and if you need me to do that to unlock your wallet then you’re in the wrong church.’ I’m not doing it any more…

So avoiding the black hole of enterprise church is for me primarily about having clarity of identity and knowing what is and isn’t important – knowing my own convictions around the kind of church community I am willing to give my life to. Its church as family – church that operates as a healthy family – because I realise families can be dark places too. I have chosen that line, not because I have lost the urge to do great things for God, but because I believe this is the best biblical expression of what he calls us to do. 

My great fear for younger Christian leaders who simply grow up in this current paradigm is that they will be enculturated into it without having heard a different story, or without having been exposed to a critique of this practice. They will not see the church as a family where we learn to love and accept one another just because that’s what we do – whether we are impressive or not. They will just accept that churches need to be big and significant to be valid. They will hop on the treadmill and run till they drop because there is no end to the work when you have to win.

It dawned on me as I was writing these posts that there will be literally thousands of young people who will never know anything other than an enterprise expression of church complete with all the bells and whistles. Which makes me ask ‘what happens when they get their first teaching posting in Cuballing?.. Or a nursing role in Wyndham? Do they find their way into the local expression of church or do they drop out because church is lame?

I’m still fully convinced of both the power and beauty of the church as central to the unfolding of the kingdom of God in our world. But I am deeply concerned that an unrestrained enterprise approach will see us subsume people into a ‘thing’ that calls itself a church but looks a bit more like a rock concert with a Ted talk 

I began with a surfing analogy – observing what happened to the simple beauty of riding waves when it became competitive and an industry formed around it. The latest disturbing shift has seen surfing competitions held in man made, land locked wave pools where flawless waves are created and pushed through every few minutes to surfers who now look bored while riding them. Make no mistake these are perfect waves – created with mechanical precision and replicated every few minutes. You’d think it was surfing heaven…

But… that’s not surfing… Surfing is about being in the undomesticated, unpredictable ocean where gnarly windswept waves sweep in from constantly shifting directions challenging your ability to adapt, where a massive sneaker set appears unannounced on the horizon, and catches everyone unawares exploding boards and bodies everywhere… 

There are still those out there who surf simply for the joy and exhilaration of being in the ocean with a few mates – of feeling the sheer power of the waves and the majesty of natural creation. 

In the same way may we return to the raw beauty of the church as a simple community of people who inspire one another to follow Jesus and who live shared lives in a local community, demonstrating the awesomeness of the kingdom of God and unashamedly calling people to follow Jesus as Lord.

Thanks for engaging and offering your thoughts. 

Soul Church IV – The ‘McDonaldisation’ of the Church

After 3 days of posts that offer critique of our enterprise expression of church I am about done. I don’t really like writing with this tone as I know it makes me some enemies and makes me sound plain critical. Sometimes I am plain critical, but I also believe that sometimes you need to be confronted with the stark reality of the problem to even consider moving to action. So I have one more post in the same vein before I get positive and hopeful. This one concerns the McDondaldisation of the church.

‘McDonaldisation’ is actually a real sociological term coined by a bloke called George Ritzer in his book The McDonaldisation of Society published in 1993. Scottish theologian John Drane came along not long after and wrote his own book called the ‘McDonaldisation of the Church’ drawing on Ritzer’s ideas and observing how they have been adopted (to our detriment) in church.

Ritzers key argument was that “the principles of the fast-food restaurant are coming to dominate more and more sectors of American society as well as of the rest of the world.” He highlighted four primary components of ‘McDonaldization’:

Efficiency, calculability, predictability and control. You can unpack their broader content by reading the wikipedia article. Suffice to say these aren’t bad things in a business – but when applied to a church they just don’t sit well at all. In fact his argument is that when we ‘McDonaldise’ society we dehumanise people and we sabotage the very thing we are seeking to create.

So when we do it in church?…

The church was never – never – never intended to be a business operation!

The church was never intended to be a business operation!

Its that simple.

When it takes that on as its primary sense of identity people become cogs in a relentless machine. I have heard congregation members referred to as ‘giving units ‘- revenue sources that need to be recruited and attended to often to ensure the organisation continues its march to glory.

When a church gets McDonaldised then the bottom line rules.

Pastors become fund-raisers for the ongoing activities and the senior pastor becomes (as Bill Hybels would often remind us) the primary fund raiser. It is his or her job to inspire and motivate with big vision which then unlocks the funds needed to resource that vision.

If it sounds a bit like pitching to investors then its because that is what it becomes. Then once a train gets in motion it needs people to keep it moving and those people become busy – very busy. Volunteers are recruited and worked hard (with accountability for their output).

If KPIs aren’t met then heads roll.

I followed a link to a Facebook ad yesterday, directed at ‘Lead Pastors’ and specifically about ‘Church Health and Growth’. Some of the content included these gems:

Our passion is to help increase engagement and attendance whilst also lifting resources to assist and transform the community. It is our mission to continue this work and help as many church leaders as we can.

I’m imagining better days where ALL the church health dials are heading in the right direction! Where the church is attracting more guests than ever AND actually retaining them. Life groups are growing at >20% per year & made huge leaps forward in your serving teams! It’s kicked into a realm of financial strength where you can actually start investing in future vision & growth beyond paying the bills!

Once this all this cranking, you can expect double-digit growth to kick in sustainably


We’re talking about a church right?…

Help me Jeeeeeesus!

Surely at some point there is somebody somewhere in leadership who asks ‘Is this really what we are about? Increasing engagement and attendance? Shooting for double digit growth?’

But if your job and your mortgage depend on your meeting these kinds of goals then you just shut up and keep working because those bills aren’t going to pay themselves.

This is just what happens when you set your course in that direction. You get trapped… and even if you want out you have to find something else to do. Many pastors don’t have another option – they have one skill and are trained in this one paradigm of church.

In this system the big get bigger and the rest struggle to survive or they live in a different space altogether (more about that later). The franchising of Hillsong into different cities and states must surely come at a cost to local churches who are hillsongesque, but not the real deal.

So the impact is on church leaders who now have to work harder again to compete with a behemoth and also on the people in the pews who can now ‘attend’ and ‘hide’ if they so wish. There are opportunities to serve, but my hunch is that most people don’t go to a church of this ilk to find a place to serve. They go there initially to join the crowd and enjoy the experience of being in a euphoric environment each week – an experience that could possibly even be confused with encountering the presence of God…

In the end we have church leaders running harder on the hamster wheel just to keep up and offer something comparable to the Hillsong standard and people in the ‘pews’ who now experience less of what it means to actually be the church. Its the dumbing down of discipleship – not because the teaching input is poor, but because the very system itself attends to the consumer impulse – the dominant spirit of our culture.

As with any franchise the real winners are the people at the top of the pyramid who see their empire growing and their reach expanding.

I began with a spiel on the shifts we have seen in the surfing world as the industry has grown and ultimately become globalised and franchised. The losers in this sphere are the local shapers who try to compete and end up working for a pittance just to keep their head above water. But the other ‘losers’ are the local surfers who choose to ride poorer imitations of quality surfboards and in the end do not find the joy in surfing that could be there.

No one wins when the world gets franchised and the bottom line rules.

There has to be a better way…

More about that tomorrow

Soul Church III – If Bigger is Better Then Biggest is Best… Right?…

If there are 5000 people in a room shouting ‘JESUS JESUS JESUS’ then how could something so ‘good’ be so bad?

That was the mentality I ran with in my youth work days. If we can pull a massive crowd of young people, many of whom ‘respond to the gospel’ then surely we are kicking goals in the kingdom of God? in the late 90’s I had hopped on the Church Growth train mostly courtesy of Willow Creek and was doing everything I could to lead a community that was firing on all cylinders.

And it did grow and it was exciting to be there. It was exhilarating to lead. People asked me sometimes ‘where is this whole thing headed?’ And I responded by saying ‘I dunno – but let’s just ride the wave and see where we end up!’

In the process I wasn’t aware that I was (at best) sending mixed messages to young people about what discipleship looked like and at worst shooting us all in the foot. It was always cool, always engaging and always about bigger and better. I would never have called it that as it sounded crass, but it was how I operated.

Numerical goals everywhere. Bums on seats and whatever it took to get them in – and if they left your church to come to ours then sobeit. We were about making sure everything was the very best it could be – in the name of Jesus.

I remember a well known Christian drama troupe coming to our Sunday evening service where we had around 200 young people in attendance and their performance was so unengaging that I ended up speaking to them during the ‘intermission’ and refusing to allow them back on stage. I sent them home and preached an ad-lib sermon to try and salvage the night and make sure the energy levels were up where they should be. The drama troupe members cried and were hurt that I found their sketches lame and irrelevant – they had never been cut off half way thru a gig before…. I was similarly annoyed that they could come to a church and offer such poor material. When you can’t have a ‘failure’ then people get crushed in the cogs of the machine. I was just doing what it took to deliver the goods… and I could be a hardass when I had to be.

We needed people on their game every week and if they couldn’t deliver then we had problems. It was the era of firing people for less than optimal performance. For moving on those who weren’t up to the demands of the job – and make no mistake – there were demands. I was working most nights to insane-o’clock just to keep things happening and there were a team of others also who needed to be on their game every week.

No pressure…

To hark back to the surfing analogy I began with we were no longer in this for the joy it brought, but now we were ‘on the circuit’ and needed to perform.

In that two year period we became flavour of the month in our local area, but then the consumers we had created either got tired of the show or found a better show down the road. The numbers waned, we all were exhausted and we began to question what we had been doing. We had pursued expansion and growth at every turn and it had slowly imploded.

To be fair it wasn’t all bad. But we needed to spend time in genuine critique of the model – because our methods are not neutral. They speak to who we are and how we perceive church. Our methods are our (actual) ecclesiology in practice.

So – If ‘bigger is better’ then surely biggest is best… right?…

Recently Hillsong came to town and it generated some interesting Facebook posts from local pastors. The tone of several I read were ‘So Hillsong are coming to Perth. I’m not worried. Are you?’

‘Worried’ about what?…

Why would you even feel the need to post that you ‘aren’t worried’?

If we cut thru the Christianese ‘for the good of the kingdom’ language we have to accept that if Hillsong decided to take up residence right next to your Hillsongesque (but not quite) church then chances are a significant number of your people would move across to the real deal.

Better music, better preaching, better coffee, better EVERYTHING! In a consumer culture why would you settle for less?

‘Biggest is best’ right?

That’s the system we have created and Hillsong happen to be top of the food chain at the moment in Australia.  They are the church to emulate and to be like – to learn from even. If church is an enterprise – a competition to get the most ‘followers’ then they have been amazingly enterprising. They are without doubt the best church in Australia in this mode of church.

I’m not blaming Hillsong for these issues per se as they are just the best local example of what we have hoped to see through the CGM, but surely this market dominance has come at a cost?

And yes – I use ‘market dominance’ intentionally because this is what it is.

Lately I am aware of churches being ‘patched over’ or ‘re-branded’ by other churches which seems to speak less to an indigenous flavour of church emerging in a community and more to a particular form being deemed ‘the way’ for all.

I’ll continue that thought tomorrow as we consider the ‘McDonaldisation of the Church’

Soul Church Part I – Soul Surfer – Soul Churcher

I started surfing back in the 70’s  – the era when everyone had a single fin and leg ropes were an optional extra. In that time surfers were perceived as a counter culture – an odd breed – hippie types who generally stood on the fringes of society – the type you hoped your daughter didn’t end up dating. In those days you surfed because you loved the ocean – you loved being one with nature and you loved the exhilaration and joy that came from this simple and beautiful activity.

Winton’s novel ‘Breath’ was set in the 70’s and he captured beautifully the spirit of surfing in that time:

“How strange it was to see men do something beautiful. Something pointless and elegant, as though nobody saw or cared… the outlaw feeling of doing something graceful, as if dancing on water was the best and bravest thing a man could do.”

It was also in the late 70’s and early 80’s that the surf ‘industry’ started to kick into gear. Surf shops started to sell more than just surfboards. There were wetsuits, magazines, clothing, watches… and so it went on. And then there were surfing competitions – surfers pitted against other surfers to work out who was the ‘best’… Sponsorships, magazine shoots and over time some decent money came to be offered for those who were good enough – while others limped around the circuit living in cheap hotels and surviving as best they could.

As the surf industry grew and the competition circuit expanded surfers were faced with the choice of embracing its offerings or standing apart from it all. Some top surfers opted out of the competition circuit in favour of surfing simply for joy and pleasure. These purists came to be known as soul surfers – they surfed simply for the sheer love of surfing – for the pleasure it brought rather than for what they may gain from it financially. They were the odd ones… who for some reason refused to conform to the world around them.

Most of us mere mortals didn’t have to make those choices, but we still observed how the surf industry grew and impacted surfing itself. Previously secret waves were published in magazines and crowds flocked to them. The surf industry began to shape ‘surf culture’ and in that time surfers (curiously and bizarrely) moved from hippie / outsiders to mainstream-boy next door types.

Those with a sharp business brain saw a $$ to be made and cashed in on an unsuspecting, but compliant cohort of surfers who were happy to part with their money to be part of a growing and now much more conformist tribe. There were those saying ‘this is going to end badly!’ But their voices were of those in the wilderness and went unheeded by most.

In time ‘surf shops’ gradually stopped being places to buy actual surfboards and came to be fashion stores – where the big 3 – Rip Curl, Quiksilver and Billabong dominated. If you wanted an actual surfboard you had to leave the high rents of shopping malls and find a dedicated shop usually in a factory unit rented by a struggling local shaper who would show you his offerings.

More recently as the industry has grown further and globalised we have seen the rise of the ‘Chinese import’ – a mass produced surfboard that to the masses is virtually indistinguishable from a locally made product. It may not be hand-crafted by your local shaper with loving care and finesse learnt from years of practice, but it is cheap and it floats. It is so cheap that Joe average will almost always buy one of these, rather than spending twice as much at the local surf shop (and that is if you can still find a local shaper.)

Recently I bought a new 8′ 8″ mal from Wade at Lancelin Surf Designs (LSD for short… yeah the counter-culture vibe is still there…) and it cost me $1000.00. I could have got one from Surfboard Warehouse for half that price and with my level of skill the difference in ride may not be that significant.

The next week I bought a mini mal from Karl at Alkimos Surf Warehouse. It was a Terry Fitzgerald ‘Hot Buttered’ teardrop design. Fitzgerald is an Aussie surfer shaper from the 70’s and 80’s who is still doing his thing. As I looked closely at the board I noticed that it was ‘proudly made in China’. I’m guessing the design may have been a T Fitz, but it was cheaper to send it across to China for mass production than to do in Oz.

Where is this headed for local board shapers?

When economics and bottom lines drive the world your local shaper will be forced to conform and send his own orders to the Chinese, or he will be forced to accept that he is a niche market – that there are still purists who will seek him out and while it may not pay the bills he hasn’t sold out to mass produced and inferior products.

Why do I tell you this story about the surfing industry?…

Because I feel like its a good metaphor for the struggle some of us have with the shape church has taken over the last 40 years as business principles and practices have become a more significant (and to some degree unavoidable) part of our identity and practice.

If any of you are as old as me then you may remember that in the 70’s (in Perth at least) there were no ‘megachurches’ or even ‘contemporary churches’ seeking to attract people into attendance. I doubt there were many in other states either. Your average church had a pastor (singular and male) and he was charged with all of the ceremonial duties of Sundays as well as visiting the flock. By and large churches did their thing and if you wanted to join them then you knew where they were. You could put on some decent clothes, put out your cigarette and go along. Not many did…

Church was generally traditional and often drab. Occasionally it took on a little colour, but mostly it was predictable, uninspiring and certainly unaware of any need to relate thoughfully to the wider community.

These weren’t good times for us evangelistically. While some still came to faith they did so often ‘in spite of the church’ rather than because of it. And when they did they were extracted from the very world in which they lived – with all of its sin – and back into the church sub-culture where they learnt how to ‘be Christian’ in a particular kind of way – a way that bore little relation to the world they had left behind.

The ‘evangelism’ issue was addressed in various ways – often teaching people how to better use the Bible to move people from disbelief to faith and failing to appreciate that people no longer had the same regard for the Bible or their Christian heritage that they once did.

In this time a bloke called Donald McGavran was responsible for initiating what became known as the Church Growth Movement – which was soon to become the Church Growth Industry…

Can you see where this is headed?…

Part II tomorrow.

When Silence Grows More Deafening

As the Willow Creek saga unravels further one of the most disturbing parts is the deafening silence of Bill Hybels himself – its as if he has vanished off the planet.


With 10 women making statements against him and the entire eldership and two senior pastors resigning there seems no question that tragically – sadly – he is guilty, and we may have heard just the tip of the iceberg.

The longer Hybels waits to come clean the worse he will be perceived – if that is possible. The opportunity to be perceived as a failed leader / a broken man has passed. If he had owned the failure we would all have been deeply disappointed, but acknowledged ‘there but for the grace of God…’

As time wears on you hope Hybels isn’t gathering a ‘spin’ team to either fight the accusations or to downplay them. That would be the worst scenario imaginable but right now, the longer the silence the less genuine any (possible) repentance appears.

While I’m not a megachurch fanboy I have found Hybels missionary heart inspiring and his teachings on integrity (Who You Are When No One is Looking) felt so valuable… albeit dissonant with his own practice… so watching this very public schmozzle has been actually distressing.

I love that churches are full of broken, screwed up people – that God’s love for us never changes in spite of our own darkness – but when we fail to acknowledge our brokenness and when we put on an air of togetherness we set the cause of Christ back and we wound the very people we claimed to champion.

Come on Bill… The clock is ticking… and many are watching to see if you can practice what you preach in the tough parts of life.




A Place to Call Home?…









Once upon a time in a city called Perth (and not so long ago) when a group of people began a church they did so firstly in a home, then maybe a community centre, or a public building of some sort until they decided that they really needed their own building… a proper church building with a foyer, a ‘sanctuary’ and a baptismal pool (if you are so inclined…)

So the people got together, gave gifts, sold assets, mortgaged houses, and by hook or by crook (or by faith… maybe a bit of both…) raised the funds needed to buy land and erect some kind of building – often a small ‘hall’, which served as ‘stage 1’ of any future work. Sometimes stage 1 was all there ever was and that was fine. But stage 1 created equity so that stage 2 could then happen. In those days land was cheaper and developers would often allocate churches space in new suburbs at minimal cost.

That was ‘then’. Those days are gone.

Today we are in a very different cultural and economic space, so the task of church planting and becoming established and rooted in a community becomes a very different consideration. The last 20-30 years has seen the ‘community centre’ church building, the sports centre church building, the commercial venture and the Christian school arise as significant means of establishing churches in the newer suburbs.

What seems to have has largely disappeared (in new church development) is the idea of a community of people pooling their resources, giving generously and/or taking a loan to build a dedicated space.

As I look around the far outer suburbs in Perth I see churches meeting in schools, churches meeting in community centres, but very few meeting in premises they own. It seems only the wealthier, centrally funded denominations (Anglicans/Catholics) have the resources to pull off that kind of thing, or the ‘franchises’ that can use equity in an established building elsewhere as security against a loan in a new development.

My musing comes as I’ve been wandering Yanchep looking for space to gather a bunch of people and its not an easy task. I have had very curt refusals from two schools, making me wonder ‘what happened there?…’ Maybe this is how it is now… There is precious little community space and strict rules around who can use it and when, and there is no larger facility in the suburb itself. Finding a space to gather people is one of the things we need to get sorted, but its proving problematic…

One of the limitations of being a church that currently meets in a school is that we have no asset base of our own if we ever did wish to build something else. (The upside is a fantastic free facility…)

Lately as we have scoured the suburb looking for space I have found myself wondering just what shape church planting will take in these next 20-30 years.

Will we have to wait for a denominational school to set up shop and give us space?

Will we be shunted from public building to public building?

We could decentralise and meet in homes, but my experience of this has been a degree of unavoidable fragmentation.

Maybe we need a new privately owned commercial venture that can double as a meeting space?

Perhaps its time to come full circle and rally the troops to raise funds? But no matter how strong your ‘faith’ the thought of a $2-3 million dollar building project being undertaken by a fledgling group of battling families in the mortgage belt just doesn’t seem like a wise move either. I’m sure this is why no one is doing it. I’m really reluctant to lead any bunch of people on a building project in this day and age, partly because it is such an all consuming thing, but it also moves me from ‘pastor’ to ‘fund raiser’ – a man with mixed motives… Its unavoidable when large sums of money come into play. And costs do tend blow out… just a bit…

So I’m pondering… and praying… wondering what’s next? What shape will our missionary endeavours take in the barren outer suburbs? Those planting in established areas with plenty of community buildings may yet experience the struggle to find space too, but when there’s no space available anywhere the question becomes ‘what now?’

I’m up for creative thinking and exploring new options – maybe there are possibilities we just haven’t seen.

Oddly enough in a recent conversation with a mate we were discussing the value of being a physical presence in the community – being seen – being there – being present. He suggested that a church that meets in a local facility often ‘doesn’t exist’ in the minds of the community, and perhaps even in the minds of the church people themselves.

So there’s that consideration too.

If you live at the fringes of the city where infrastructure is minimal and population is booming then church planting takes on some different questions to days gone by.

… 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?