Missional in the Neighbourhood 10 Years On – Part III








As I reflect back on much of what we talked about 10 years ago in regards to church and mission, there was a high degree of structural change being advocated. The church was broken and needed fixing. People weren’t coming and didn’t look like ever coming so a big part of the missional agenda was to consider how we could form more contextually congruent communities that would not seem like such a cultural leap from that of the surrounding society. It was a valid point. Churches could be wacky places sometimes.

Alongside the structural aspect was the personal – where the notion of focusing less energy on getting people in the community to come to church and more energy on getting the people in church back into the community was primary.

And I sense that while we tried to do both tasks simultaneously we spent more time critiquing and re-inventing the church form than we did helping people become effective missionaries in their every day lives. We spoke of cultural distance and the fluidity of ecclesiology, and it was interesting (fun even) for those of us leading churches to consider how they could adapt, but the reality was that most people who found faith didn’t care much for the form of the church. In fact my discovery early on was that when people came to church when we met in a home or a park, they would ask ‘so when do we do the real thing?’

It seemed that if people were willing to go to church then they had a mental image (for better or worse) of what they were signing up for. I sense we spent too much time trying to revolutionise form and not enough equipping people for simple, everyday mission work.

This morning I found myself preaching unexpectedly as one of our crew was sick. I’m not one for simply micro-waving an old message if I can avoid it, so I spent some time yesterday trying to sense what God may be wanting to say to us and I decided to kick off the missional series a week early.

In the teaching we looked at the shifts we have seen in our culture over the last 40 years from being a bunch of people fairly accepting of faith, to now being people (in broader society) who see it as simplistic and primitive. I was in conversation with someone recently at a party and they expressed interest in philosophy and religion so I asked them how they saw the church and God. Their response was that they had ‘evolved past such a simplistic faith based understanding of life… that they were more into logic and reason and not the stuff churches advocate…’ And that’s a fairly normal response – to perceive those of us who subscribe to a biblical worldview as backward and lacking intellect.

I read recently that Tim Keller refers to this period as post-secular, meaning that we have moved from a Christendom worldview, to a secular one and then past that to where we now consider a range of spiritualities, but definitely not Christianity. It is considered too uninformed and narrow for the world today – an analogue system in a digital age – quaint and quirky, but only of interest for its historical value. This guy I was speaking with definitely was a spiritual person and was able to discuss his spiritual experiences, but he viewed the church as more of a morality club filled with people who believed very odd things and without any reason.

So the question arises, how do we live as missionaries in this time when we are definitely not considered credible in any way? As I spoke with this person at the party I sensed that once they knew I was a Christian they eyed me with a degree of disdain – sad that I had been brainwashed into this stuff and couldn’t see a bigger worldview.

In teaching this morning I came back to John 1 as a foundation for local mission. Jesus is sent by the father into the world to be the one who initiates and calls into being the kingdom of God. He ‘becomes flesh and moves into the neighbourhood’, to quote Petersen and the question that raises is ‘so what did Jesus do in the neighbourhood?’ How did he live then and how would he live now if he lived in our neighbourhood.

The one ‘full of grace and truth’ lives in such a way that (some) people are drawn to him and other people are repelled by him, but its not the people you would think in each case. Our focus in this series is going to be unashamedly practical and even instructional at times, but this morning was the time for the bigger picture dreaming and imagining – ‘what would Jesus do if he was living your life in your shoes?’

The shifts in culture have definitely seen the church on the back foot and despite the efforts of the missional movement I wouldn’t say we have seen radical changes in our communities. Perhaps we just batten down the hatches and huddle together praying for Jesus to come back soon… Perhaps we get with the program and let go of archaic biblical ideas that no longer have currency in a clever modern world… Or perhaps we choose the path of adventure, re-imagining what it means to be God’s people in this time – seeing hope and possibilities rather than darkness. If the exiled Hebrews could re-discover their faith in that time of hardship then there is definitely hope for a church that is increasingly feeling its cultural isolation.

John 1 says ‘the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it’. And it never will. But it means those who bring the light need to be a little more creative and thoughtful about how we bring that light.

Missional in the Neighbourhood 10 Years On – Part I

forgeIt was 2006 and we were in full swing with Forge and some experimental church communities, working hard to poke and prod the missional imagination of the church and see if we could ignite some new thinking and practice around the core issue of mission. We had moved beyond simply being antagonists to being a voice worthy of a hearing, albeit a feisty voice. To be fair I’m not sure a tame voice would actually have been heard in an environment dominated by church growth thinking and where the biggest players still had the most credible voices. Now here we are 10 years later and what was once provocative is now mainstream – what was once disturbing is now acceptable.

This blog was born several years earlier when I realised my own identity was formed primarily by the missionary calling. Stepping into the Forge tribe in its early days was like coming home to a long lost family and those were great years as we mused, experimented and reflected on what a church shaped by mission would look like in Australia. A tough reality was that while the missional theory sounded good, the practice still came hard. Both churches and individuals were difficult to change.

Things are the way they are for a reason… (the path of least resistance) and significant change felt like a constant uphill battle.

In 2009 I finished up in any offical capacity with Forge and returned to a local church to lead and implement the things we had been speaking of. As we kicked off at QBC it was with the hope of growing a community of people committed to appropriate contextual expressions of mission and committed to being a church flexible enough to adapt to the environment. It was all the ‘Forge stuff’ that I hoped to get traction with among a local community.

A couple of years of plain hard slog followed while the church imploded and any outward energy got shunted to the backburner in deference to survival techniques. And then when we came out of that ‘ice age’ we were tired and weary, just needing to recoup and catch our breath. The dreams and ideals of the Forge era seemed like a distant memory and while I sometimes spoke about mission it was from a head that knew rather than a heart that was inspired. Raw information rarely moves people into action,with anywhere near the energy that comes from inspired information.

For a few years I felt myself simply rolling with the regular church agenda of doing Sunday church, running the usual programs and hoping that as we focused on simple discipleship people would find their way to a knowledge and experience of God and his church that they were happy to share. Interestingly the ‘results’ have been no more or less inspiring than when we were pushing hard into the missional ideas.

In the last 5 years some people have become Christians, some Christians have ditched discipleship, some folks have moved ahead in faith and some have dropped the ball or stagnated. It sounds like any church anywhere…


So a couple of months back we decided to focus again on the theme of mission and to lift the energy around our missionary practices as a church community. And the questions it raised for me were:

  • 10 years on what do I believe and see as core to mission in a local church community?
  • What would I see as essential for people to grasp and what am I prepared to let slide?’
  • What and who would I encourage people to read?
  • Who are we and what are our specific challenges in mission?
  • And what would I reasonably hope for as tangible outcomes?

I have more books on the subject of mission than anyone could ever need. I have files and files of stuff that I have produced as well that I can draw on, but the question of what is needed for these people at this time is what I am pondering.

My church would be all but unaware of the missional conversation of the early 2000’s and most wouldn’t care. By and large they’d like to see people come to faith. They’d like the church to grow thru new converts and they’d like to know that what we are doing as a church is making a difference.

That probably sounds like almost any church anywhere – you’d hope… But if I were to consider who we are then we’d need to see:

  • A large immigrant contingent with approx 50% of the church having lived in Australia for less than 7 years and most of them either South African or British.
  • The larger South African group come from a highly Christian culture which is quite conservative and many are still adapting to the secular mission field that is Australia.
  • Busy people often working long hours and many playing ‘financial catch up’.
  • Suburban people often commuting and having the ‘dormitory’ experience of their local community
  • People open to fresh ideas and experimentation – our church has repeatedly shown itself to be willing to ‘try things’.
  • White middle aged and middle class – by and large this describes us so all of the aspirational baggage of middle class living needs to be processed as we consider mission and discipleship.

What I want to do in this series of posts is articulate how I would go about equipping this local church for mission in this local context. I imagine that if you are a church leader then what you may do with your people in your context might be quite different so this is not a ‘how to’ by any means. No doubt there will be common concepts and transferable ideas, but I’m really more allowing you into the machinations of my mind as I try to come to grips with the thought processes and practices that I hope will equip and inspire people to be effective both individually and corporately.

I’m not sure how many posts there will be or how often they will be added, but I imagine they will flow as the ideas flow…


To Plant a Church

isaiahLike so many things in life, I once thought I knew a lot about this subject.

We have begun praying about whether the next step for our crew at QBC could be to plant a new community up in Yanchep. Danelle and I have been here 3 years now and haven’t sensed God poking us and urging us on, but I get the impression that those days may be numbered. It may be time to kick something into gear

But what to do?… Where to start?… And in fact haven’t we already started by being here, getting to know people, the rhythms of the neighbourhood and being a part of things?

Recently I was sharing some thoughts with a small crew of men I have the privilege to mentor and be involved with.  We were gathering on the tail end of a denominational meeting regarding church planting and I wanted to tap into that subject while it was on the radar.

So I began reflecting on what passage of scripture was giving shape to my thoughts on mission work these days. What would be framing my thoughts and ideas around mission and church planting?

I gravitated naturally to Luke 10 – a great passage and full of helpful insights, but as I read it, it just didn’t feel like where my heart was at with the whole thing. I rummaged around a bit, delving into Acts and exploring some of the other NT books, but finished up back in Isaiah Ch 6 – the calling of Isaiah…And the more I read this, the more the tone of it resonated with some of what I feel today. So I started trying to come to grips with what I was feeling.

I probably haven’t seen Isaiah 6 much in this light before, although I remember those old visiting missionaries used to work it death… As I took some time to meditate on it the things I observed included:

Isaiah opens with a vision of God that captures and inspires him – of a holy God – not to be messed, but awesome and compelling. I’d be hoping that anything we do in this world would have its roots in a vision of God that is like this. If we don’t start with a vision of God then chances are we begin with just our own vision and dreams. At the core of this is knowing God and having an encounter with him that inspires us.

There is also a realisation of who he is, ‘a man of unclean lips – who lives among a people of unclean lips’. Isaiah begins with a correct perception of himself. He hasn’t got himself pegged as the saviour of the world Mark II. He hasn’t got himself on a pedestal. In fact if anything he is lamenting his own inadequacy and failing. Perhaps if we began with this kind of humility we may have more of a chance of seeing God at work, because we would know that in his absence we are helpless.

Next follows a revelation and experience of atonement and preparedness – Isaiah is met by God and this event somehow prepares him and activates him for his mission. I’m not sure how all of that works, but it seems like a kind of commissioning.

There is the request from God – ‘who will go for us?’ An opportunity to accept or decline.

Isaiah’s willing response – ‘here I am – send me’.

And then the description of how things are going to unfold. And this is where it gets really interesting because its hardly an inspiring message…

He said, “Go and tell this people:

“‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding;
be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’
10 Make the heart of this people calloused;
make their ears dull
and close their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.”

11 Then I said, “For how long, Lord?”

And he answered:

“Until the cities lie ruined
and without inhabitant,
until the houses are left deserted
and the fields ruined and ravaged,
12 until the Lord has sent everyone far away
and the land is utterly forsaken.
13 And though a tenth remains in the land,
it will again be laid waste.
But as the terebinth and oak
leave stumps when they are cut down,
so the holy seed will be the stump in the land

Sounds like a hoot.

Its a mission that has very little promise of fruit being borne. It sounds futile and fruitless as people’s hearts become hardened but the task just goes on and on… I wonder what it was like to get that call and be given that job?

I couldn’t help feeling that there is some of this flavour to mission in the west today, especially in a place like Perth. I’m sure we aren’t alone in this, but mission in the west often feels like a very difficult task.

In fact I am conscious that one of the things that holds me back from going full tilt at something like this is a dislike of failure – of being the person who gives the message that falls on deaf ears. It isn’t fun. I know because I’ve done it for a while now. But maybe that’s not the issue.

Interestingly there is no checking in by God to see if he is still up for it, but rather an acceptance that this is how it will play out and that’s just how it is. Its hard enough to find people willing to plant a church in the west, but I wonder if we suggested that Isaiah’s call might be some sort of a frame for operation if any would put their hand up?

I think the right ones still would.

And for what its worth I’m not wanting to be overly negative there. I believe what Paul said – that the gospel is the power of God for salvation – but I wonder if we have overplayed the ‘taking the city for God’ hand and finished up with a lot of egg on our faces. Revival hasn’t broken out in Perth. People are not experiencing Acts 2 kind of conversion experiences – at least in my corner of the world – but the call is still there to listen to God, love people, speak the truth of Jesus and pray expectantly that he will do his work


The Death of the Church in The West


I was in a conversation with a friend on the weekend where he spoke of the impending death of the church in the west.

That might sound extreme but I think he is on the money. He doesn’t at all mean a decline in attendance until there is virtually no one left. Rather he was referring to the point in history when the lives of Christians are indistinguishable from those of people who do not profess a faith.

Its a pretty solid test. A frightening test…

Its no secret that in the last 50 years the morality and values of those who claim to be Christians has shifted to a place where there is little to distinguish us from those who do not claim a faith.

We are often just a religious version of the secular world – all the same values and aspirations but with a weekly Sunday meeting thrown in.

I like Steve’s definition of ‘death’ because it calls us to much more than regular church going. It calls to live a life that is truly remarkable – truly distinct – truly Christlike. I was listening to Seth Godin speak of the importance of being ‘remarkable‘ in a bland world and the danger is that we simply end up another shade of beige.

Attendance will continue long after the church has died but all that will tell us is how many people are willing to play the game.

Perhaps the question is how do we foster communities of disciples who live remarkable lives? How do we spur one another on to challenge the status quo and ultimately shift the trajectory of the whole church?

No easy answers but that’s the challenge I reckon…

So You Wanna Plant a Church?


I remember around 10 years back there was nothing I wanted to do more.

I was inspired by the opportunity to reach people in new ways, experiment with this thing we call ‘church’ and to hopefully do some valuable learning along the way.

Now 10 years on my response to that question is more measured. I would ask many more questions before launching in, and I sense some of that is good and some not so good.

I was speaking with Danelle last night about where we live – Yanchep – there is currently one church in town. The Anglicans just shut up shop to move to Alkimos and the only gig in town is a Foursquare, pentecostal mob.

Perhaps we should start a church?…


Because we could… Is that a good enough reason?…

But if I were to try again I think it would be with a whole lot of information that originally I didn’t have. Ten years ago there was a heap of idealism and energy and passion, but a fairly small understanding of what was involved. It got us off the ground in fine style, but it meant we were unprepared for the challenges and discouragements that assaulted us.

I wanted to use this post to reflect on some things I feel I have learnt 10 years on that would shape how we would approach church planting this time around.

Some of the things we learnt as we gave it our best shot were:

Its hard… not rocket science, but it was harder than we had ever thought. People get interested in spiritual issues when they are desperate, but as soon as life gets better or faith gets hard then its time to move on or let it go. Outside of those crisis moments, faith issues are rarely discussed in suburbia and its hard to engage in those subjects naturally with people for whom it is a whole foreign language.

In a mission team no one ‘buys in’ quite like you do… Even those who say they are with you, aren’t as deeply committed as you are. That’s just how it is so deal with it. No one will ‘run your business like you will’. Its a bit like that. I was disappointed that people didn’t seem to bleed mission like I thought I did, but I think it will always be that way.

I have found the normal distribution curve a really useful paradigm for explaining what goes on in church and discipleship. Some people soar and give and inspire. Some people suck. They drain you, lie and create problems. Most people are in the middle. Some bring energy and some don’t. But no one – no one – will own a project you are leading quite like you will. If that is going to be a disappointment to you then deal with it now.

People are busy… and the people in your team will be busy. Busy people doing mission amongst other busy people… That’s hardly a recipe for a strong community. Unless we address the question of busyness amongst ourselves then I think church planting is a waste of time. Seriously – all it amounts to is creating another Sunday church service, and like we need one of them… Yanchep now only has one church service on Sundays and it is a particular flavour, but do we need another flavour?… I’m not convinced that beginning a new church service equates in any way to planting a church. But for busy people this might be the only thing they can do. And I find myself reeling back at the thought of this being the central focus of a mission effort.

There is value in the familiar… not to contradict myself… but I see value in a regular Sunday gig. In our time with Upstream we noticed that the absence of a typical Sunday gig prevented us from having some good people join us. For some folks the leap from songs and sermon to house and food was just too huge. Part of the move back to QBC was a recognition that we had not been able to convince people to join us in our homes and that if we were going to build a mission team, then perhaps we needed to meet the Christians where they were at and lead them on that journey. So I imagine if we started again we would do something that resembled a Sunday gig in some form, but it would be a doorway in rather the focus of energy.

Need is endless… That said, in the absence of a Sunday gig to put your energy into what does a community do together? in Butler we did a number of backyard blitzes and the like. What was disturbing was the number of people we helped out were already part of churches, but their church hadn’t offered to help… I got pretty annoyed at that. And it seemed that everywhere you looked there were people in some level of need. And then I struggle with providing several thousand dollars to give someone a pretty backyard when others around the world die from lack of food. I am a little stuck with this one. I think there is a call on the church to bless and serve the community it in, but I am not sure quite how to do that in a way that is helpful to both the community and the church.

Friendship evangelism is a tricky business… because sooner or later you find yourself asking ‘is it friendship – or is it evangelism?’ Because if its friendship then there are only so many friends you can have in your life before you are maxed out. If its friendship evangelism then what does that mean if your friend clearly isn’t interested?… Are they still your friend? Or do you now seek new friends to evangelise? Ten years on I have a small handful of really good friends and none of them are non-Christians. I used to think that was a bad thing, but I’m not so convinced now. I’d like to have some more people in my life who do not share my faith, but I can’t force that and right now it just isn’t going there.

The experts don’t live in your suburb and lead your team… All the great ideas and books you read seem to make mission and church sound remarkably easy and just a case of getting a few key factors in place. I have read many many books on this subject and I know the theory very well, but while some of it is useful, its a bit like when I completed my teaching degree and had to actually go teach kids. All the educational theory makes sense in the classroom, but once you’re doing it you have to adapt and work with a bunch of kids who didn’t read those text books…

We need more missionaries in the west… Not just church attenders, but people who look and see the need and ask ‘God – what can I do?’ Right now my own sense of mission takes me into the workplace and that has been a good journey. Its hardly evangelism central when fixing sprinklers, but its like anything – the headspace you bring to the task affects how you do it and how you relate to people.

I said to Danelle last night that if we had two or three other families who were genuinely burning with passion to kick of some mission in Yanchep then I’d be keen to give it some leadership. I’d love to put my shoulder to the plough with a team of people willing to go hard. But if it is reliant on me to motivate people, inspire them and cajole them to do what they have already said they are going to do then I’ll stop now.

Just a Story for Monday Morning

I cam across this wonderful, yet disturbing story a few years back via an online ezine. As I was fossicking in some old files I found it again today.

If you want an inspirational story of how the Spirit of God works in spite of any of us then read this. If you want a challenge to consider how we can interact with what God is doing then this oughta spark some questons!

“The ‘E’ at the heart of emerging”
Paul Thomson

About 40 of us in late 70’s (all teens) found Christ IN our housing estate in Aberdeen, Scotland – we grew up in – this was completely outside known perameters of ‘mission’ at the time… BEFORE we ever came near a CHURCH.

No one ever told us about this incredible strange figure in that strange big book… WE stumbled on to him- it was OUR delicious secret – like finding ET in your kitchen, at the backside of the world -the estate was a terrifying place – many of us were beaten every week – day in day out by bullies at school or came through kids homes. Some of our chums – both boys and girls -were currently being abused by dads uncles. We were too young and scared to speak out (Aberdeen -70’s nuff said!) as we know now! no one would have listened to us – or believed us – anyway.

What did it look like … (church?) We would get together every day – we’d pack out our ma’s place – when she was at ‘yoga’ – 40 of us – some on ‘glue’ – bringing ghetto-blasters, biscuits, pocket money – to put in bowls to share we’d fill every room – kitchen, bedrooms, sitting room , hallway – outside in the back yard… when one of us said – they’re startin tae speak te God in the sitting room… everybody would squeeze in or join in thru the hatch (opens from kitchen)… sitting round – spikkin tae Goad … min… the heat in that room – I can still feel it (as well as the smell of glue and kids prefume and biscuits… the smell of God. I remeber that it gave us ‘guys’ permission to talk – really talk to each other… we even had a game – we would give each other all our wages – part time jobs – at the end of the week – or lay hands on our dog to see what would happen.

The words we used – our conversation with God – shocking even here among more refined – ’emerging church and mission’ sensibilities – (I count myself in here too now – so I’m not joshin you’all) the word ‘christian‘ – i don’t think – we…used or understood the word – yet – or church… NO ONE knew we even existed.. at this point – this is difficult to imagine, perhaps, but ‘I’ even wondered if any other of these ‘disciple’ types we read about to each other – in the gospels…existed in aberdeen??? until eventually I found a christian bookshop – I stammered – words to the guy behind the counter – ‘are yooz like in the bible… ‘ (I don’t think I even knew of the word: christian at this point – wasn’t in the gospels)

Now here is the really freaky bit.. I suddenly began to become ‘aware’ of ‘church buildings’ – It’s wierd but It was odd to me how I never noticed before.. their ‘existence’…. I’ve explained this to many people before – its like they were there – you kicked a ball against the wall of the thing – it made bell noises every sunday… but it WASN’T HERE…. it was an alien patch of ground from another place… where people had cars and came every week – (I was usually in my bed so I never saw them) and inside lived a mannie… with a funny soft voice… It’s odd but I had the distinct impression… that he looked so fragile – like he would break…something.. a sad soft posh person… I didn’t like him much… but thats all I remember. .

One day a man heard about us.. visited us and was blown away – he started using words like ‘revival’ etc… he was awfully happy … we were too… finally we made contact with the ‘outside’ and a real adult too to boot… he advised us to start ‘going to ‘church’ – very soon though… it died! They didn’t mean for it to… it just did. I now understand that – whatever lived in that soil or environment – was too fragile to be moved into an alien landscape – I remember watching it… the uprooted crew ….at church… slowly they got quieter less animated… less free and – ‘themselves’ … our language made people wince… our route into Christ completely alien… I was treated like a hero… they had me preach every 2 weeks – and got to ‘lead worship’ – with our own written stuff… that we had composed in the estate… It was all wrong – I felt it – but I was too young and scared – and we were all wowed by these al these bright talkative kind posh people with big faces, who knew better about church and God and a that! Now after being thru the – wimber alt worship/NOS to clubchurch now.. to the possibility of a wide luscious multicoloured valley – of tribes… linking out to the edges and beyond of the alternative and even – the anglosphere… altogether (O God i hope so)…. we come to Emerging church…. (with Big J nothing is lost and the best comes with us – NOS too).

without the E…. however, there is no E-merging anything … just good ol’ MERGING…. so here is my 2p (or whatever your currency is) worth …

E in E merging stands for (in the Uk anyway…) stands for ESTATES……

this time – for the first time, perhaps in 1500 years… i our aristocratic obsessed Country …the poor might just get back in…. from the cold…. the experience of the ‘absence of Christ’ – remarked by many in Europe since the before the world wars… is for a purpose… it induces the song of solomon phenomena – the search for him… in the wackiest places… but its, if you notice a story about the ‘king/prince’ choosing to hang out with the poorest… (dark)

….. if you miss the presence… spend a few years with/among/the outcasts…. be baptised among the religious poor… like the Jeruslamites and temple goers – immersing themselves among the cackling and rough tones and raw emotions of those at the jordan with John-the immerser…

if you are poor – for goodness sake don’t be ashamed of it – help the middle classes … let go.. their obsessive need to help you… and ‘communicate chunkily’ – with each other and God… from their heart… they’re so nervous of losing their ‘cool’ … of catching ‘ poverty’ and ‘neediness’ … oof protecting their masks… they are in great pain because of it.. help them let go a bit… aybe they can then go from letting God move their heart – to letting God move their butts! and dance…. something the poorest have always done….

can you imagine ‘NEDS’ leading … the emerging church… into her future …and heritage and promised land… why not? the benjaminites… (the smallest tribe) were asked to lead Israel across the jordan… I bet they were surprised….that must have been a sight…

or rough Galileans cluelessly leading the church into her future in Europe and Africa Century 1

ending up as stories from Egyptian traders among the tatoo’ed unwashed natives of Scotland and Ireland…

put ESTATES at the heart of the emrging church in the UK and enjoy the presence of Christ ….sup to yooz (ooh I’m gettin ma voice back min)

The Word Became Flesh

When someone in your church sends you a news article like this one then you know that you’re living in the same headspace.

This is an interesting article on what makes neighbourhoods ‘work’ and what makes them happy places to be. It comments on the ‘new urbanism’ that considers different types of design as ways of facilitating community, but it also makes this observation:

But while New Urbanism is making strides at the level of the neighborhood, we still spend most of our time at home, which today means seeing no one other than our nuclear family. How could we widen that circle just a bit? Not a ‘60s commune (“pass the brown rice, comrade, and don’t forget your shift cleaning the toilet ”), but good neighbors with whom we share more than a property line.

Great question. I’d agree that the nuclear family does still dominate the landscape for most of us, whether we like it or not.

The article cites Seattle architect Ross Chapin’s book:

Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating a Small-Scale Community in a Large-Scale World as having some valuable insights.

One of Chapin’s observations is:

Groupings of four to twelve households make an ideal community “where meaningful ‘neighborly’ relationships are fostered.” But even here, design shapes our destiny. Chapin explains that strong connections between neighbors develop most fully and organically when everyone shares some “common ground”.

That figure of 4-12 families has an ‘oikos’ / household feel about it. Small enough for people to be known and yet substantial enough to be able to help one another and allow for a diversity of relationships. Its about is about the size of what I would imagine an ideal church community would be… the size of an extended family.

The way neighbourhoods connect (or stay separate) has been one of my personal fascinations over the last 10 years. I reckon we made some great progress then hit some curly obstacles (people fighting and refusing to fix stuff up), and in the end got weary in it all. I’m certainly ready to begin again more intelligently but also aware of the difficulties that go with close proximity and the challenges we need to consider.

Chapin’s ideas go a ways towards bringing people together but at core I sense the issues for us in suburban Perth still revolve around individualism and isolation. We live close together in terms of actual space, yet live incredibly separate lives. Even people under the same roof can live bizarrely separate lives. And we Christians do it too…

As we consider mission in the neighbourhood – the process of bringing people together and fostering community we first need to get over our own selfishness (because community takes time) and then we have to contend with the individualism in others who may not share any of our ideals of ‘trinitarian community’. Privatopia has become the norm and they might just want to be left in peace…

I would even suggest that the basic skills of forming community are on the decline and some would have neither the skills nor confidence to engage with others around them in a healthy way. The sheer carnage we observed among relationships in the last place we lived was disturbing. People fighting and then simply cutting one another off rather than seeking to reconcile. After a few years the relational fragmentation was huge and you couldn’t just host a party or a brunch like we used to be able to because we needed to consider that if ‘X’was invited then ‘Y’ wouldn’t come and so on.

We are coming up for one year in our new location now and while we have met a bunch of people in the street and down the beach, we haven’t formed any significant relationships yet. But I’m feeling a new wave of energy rising and currently pondering and praying about what it looks like for the word to be flesh here in this neighbourhood.

Suburban Context – Residual Christendom and Hard Secularism

Ok so back a question of mission and theology in the west…

One of my observations over the last few years is that when it comes to mission and evangelism in the west we aren’t just facing a tough secularism, but we are also contending with a form of residual Christendom.

I’m not sure which is the bigger challenge.

While there are those who are a long way from the gospel and completely unfamiliar with the Christian story, there are also those who have an inkling of what we are on about and who would come back to church if they ever wanted to find answers to their questions about ‘religion’. What’s interesting is that those who have the residual Christendom thing going on want to be able to return to a church that sings songs and listens to sermons (a ‘real church’ I have heard it called) while those who are more secular have less hang ups about how church gets expressed and are just as likely to be content in a different environment.

Our challenge is that both of these groups exist in our local community and we have to consider them both in our mission and evangelism. I say we need to consider them because a significant part of mission is helping people connect with a faith community and different expressions suit different people.

How do we reach both groups of people and how do we express church in a way that makes sense to both?

You could say that for the ‘residual Christendom’ folks we don’t really need to do anything. They will turn up as they want to and generally their comments are ‘it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be…’ There are a number of these folks around, especially when half your suburb are South African. But simply holding a church service isn’t a form of mission to them. The church service is a form that they will feel at ease in if they choose the path of faith, but they are often quite content outside of faith.

Perhaps the question is ‘how do we connect with these folks rather than waiting from them to come to us?’

My guess is that for some of our church community these are the folks they will feel most comfortable engaging in mission with. They know the story, have some level of familiarity with church and just need some convincing to ‘come back’.

To use an Acts analogy (from ch 17) they are ‘The Jews’. They know Yahweh and are familiar with the Torah, but they haven’t discovered Jesus. On one level they are an easier mission field, because they have some sympathy for the worldview, yet on another they are much tougher because it can be much harder to change distorted preconceived ideas than to help someone new form fresh ideas.

If residual Christendom parallels the Jews then the hard secularists may parallel the Greeks. These are folks with no exposure to the story who are going to start from scratch. Lately I’ve been involved in some discipleship with an Iranian guy who is a new Christian and in some ways it much easier to help him ‘get’ faith than it is to help someone with some wacky fundo-bizarro ideas from their teen years.

But I think most churches find the hard secularists a really difficult gig. They are generally content with life as it is – unless there is a crisis – and then there is a small window of curiosity, before the shutters go up again. And when I say ‘hard secular’ I don’t say it pejoratively, it’s just an apt description for people who find their hope and meaning in life in the physical and tangible rather than in a God.

Paul described himself as the ‘apostle to the Gentiles’ – the one who sought out and even went after the ones with no history in the story of Israel. I feel some affinity with that framing, but there are days when I’m weary and I find myself just wanting to catch the fish that jump over the side of the boat… a bit lame…

I’m a bit lost for inspiration when it comes to ‘hard secularists’ as it seems that very little has had significant impact. Maybe that’s just how it is? Or maybe – as I consider Paul and his approach – we have trod too gently and need to be somewhat more confronting in our conversations?

If you read Acts you don’t see much of a slow relational approach from Paul – more of a short and intense blast… hmmm… food for thought…

The Swing

Anyone in church circles would have recognised that in the last 10-20 years there has been a growing emphasis on the importance of social justice in its various forms within the church. Where it was once the domain of the so called ‘liberal’ denominations, it is now standard fare for Baptists, Pentecostals and others who previously were much more concerned almost exclusively for ‘personal evangelism’.

I’m wondering how much of the shift has been because we have genuinely become enlightened and convinced of the truth and how much is a in fact a response to a culture that has become increasingly secular and hence difficult to penetrate with standard fare ‘personal evangelism’ methods.

If our context hadn’t become so secularised and our attempts at evangelism so poor would we have given ‘social justice’ the time of day?

You know… I’m not convinced we would have. For sure, there would always be those who carry the torch for the poor and the oppressed, but I’m not sure most of evangelicalism would have made the shift if the old strategies had still been working. If people had still been coming to church I’m not sure we would have seen any need to re-think what we were doing.

Perhaps our evangelistic dark period has been a blessing in disguise as it has actually allowed us to see and experience some truth we may never have seen otherwise.

Just a thought that rumbled through my mind today as I joined some pipes and laid some lawn…

Random Reflections on Acts

This week at QBC we get stuck into the book of Acts so lately I’ve been reading it again and reflecting on it to get my head & heart in the right space to approach it.

I reckon its a grenade just waiting to explode the life of any church that reads it and I’m both genuinely excited and apprehensive about what it could bring.

Of course we could just teach thru it systematically and (re) learn all the same stuff we have done for the last umpteen years or we could lob that grenade in and see what new inspiration come from it… Perhaps ‘grenade’ is the wrong image as its one of destruction and read freshly Acts can be incredibly constructive, but perhaps some deconstruction is required first.

For example as I began reading Acts I found I was placing myself in the disciples shoes and asking ‘so what do we do now?’ Jesus dies, comes back, spends 40 days hanging with us, then ascends and we are left with the commission to ‘go and make disciples of all people groups, baptising and teaching them to obey eveything they had been commanded from Christ.’

‘So how shall we do that?…’ must have been a prime question.

And hopefully they would look back to the time spent with Jesus to see how he went about his mission and how they were involved with that. Hopefully they would immediately be asking questions of establishing the kingdom on earth. Hopefully they would be asking ‘so what really matters?’

What I can’t imagine them doing is immediately figuring out who was responsible for running the weekend gig. What I can’t see them doing is drawing up a roster for music and preaching… Forgive me if I sound cynical, but I am constantly disturbed that the priorities of the church in the 21st C seem so different from those of the first Christians. And I don’t want to stop being disturbed until I see us really grappling with the questions. I understand that we live at a different time in history and I don’t think our goal is to be a first century church. But in the process of reading the book of Acts it seems almost impossible not to read it thru the lens of our 21st C experience.

When we read the classic Acts descriptions of church being both from home to home and in the temple courts its easy to read that as ‘small groups’ and ‘Sunday worship’ because that is our frame of reference. But that wasn’t where they were starting. Jesus didn’t leave them with the church planting manual that explained how to move people from ‘community to core’, in 5 steps.

So when we look at the highly predictable format that the vast majority of 21stC churches take I can’t help but imagine that if Jesus lobbed in, he might say ‘really?… that’s what you thought I wanted you to focus on?…’ I am sure he would be glad that we hold some core DNA, but I think he’d be somewhat mystified that our core DNA had become our denominational / cultural preferences rather than the foundational elements of a church.

I sense that our familiarity with ecclesial processes and procedures of all kinds may have a tendency to stunt our ability to read this book afresh. We may struggle to ‘clear our heads’ and think afresh about what the mission of church is.

As I observe it in the western world the biggest priority for the church is to run the Sunday service and to do that as best we can. Can someone please find that priority for me in the book of Acts?…

Seriously, I’m not for dissing the importance of meeting together, but I can’t help but wonder if our enemy may have created a perfect distraction for us – a seemingly positive distraction – that consumes so much of our time, energy and resources that we find it hard to get on with the other things that matter to the establishment of the kingdom.

Anyway that’s probably incendiary enough to provoke some thinking and to give you a taste of what I see as I start to read this book. I see the danger of both rigid thinking – that reads Acts thru the lens of our own expeirience and lazy thinking that says its all too hard to re-imagine, but I hope to lead us in some creative thinking that will ask questions of ‘what if?’ and see where they lead.