Murky Boundaries

I have it on good authority that a previous generation of pastoral leaders were advised often not to become friends with their congregations, to keep them at a (professional?) distance and maintain the relational boundaries – the pastor / congregant divide. So when ‘the pastor’ came to visit everyone was on their best behaviour as they sat in the ‘good room’ and drank tea together. I think we know such talk is utter nonsense now. In a world where authenticity is our greatest currency who wants to be a number on a church roll?

My generation heard another rather binary message. Maybe it wasn’t intended as so, but the essence of it was that you needed one day off / week where nothing of church entered your realm and when you took holidays you allowed no church business to be part of what you did. It was intended to allow clear boundaries between work and rest and to ensure recharge actually happened. Good in principle but maybe not so much in practice, especially if your church community are your friends and you want to go on holidays with some of them, or if you are able to live in such a way that life is not a desperate 6 day sprint followed by a brief window of collapse and exhaustion.

For the last 15 years or so we have allowed the boundaries in our lives to become increasingly blurred, to mix work and fun, rest and engagement and we haven’t come close to burn out or to disillusionment. My hunch is it’s partly a maturity/identity thing where we feel at ease in who we are and don’t feel a need to attend to every request the moment it comes in, but it probably a result of a more peaceful approach to life in general. Rarely do we have nothing to do and rarely are we bordering on exhaustion.

So as we trundle off for two weeks of holidays I know I will answer the phone to people, I will respond to emails and I will think about work both in its pastoral form and my business. But the boundary I have is that I do it when I choose to. I ignore what I don’t wish to deal with and I engage with that which I do.

This morning an inspiring email came in from one of our church community offering their service to help others.

‘What are your thoughts Andrew?’

I don’t use an autoresponder these days – because I generally like to respond – and I wrote back straight away. It was good – a great idea and one we can discuss more when I get home. That didn’t hurt – I wasn’t offended that he had emailed me while I was on leave. I enjoyed the energy the idea brought to me.

We’ve been thinking thru a new venture as a church community. It feels like a great idea that we are pursuing, but I don’t have the time to be the primary driver in it. Conversation with our friends while in holidays has helped me see what my role needs to be. It wasn’t hard to have those conversations. It’s just who we are and what we do and it would be weird not to talk about one aspect of our lives because it was holidays. And the outcome was clarity and peace – a win.

Perhaps you need the distinction of the ‘day off’ or the uninterrupted holiday. That’s fine – I don’t think there is a one size fits all approach to Christian leadership, but if you’ve only been sold the one binary model then maybe you should (intentionally) experiment with a different way – ‘intentionally’ because then you won’t feel guilty and see if there are other ways to live that work better for you.

I get the sense that frustration is inevitable when we try to make that which is fluid and complex into something solid, defined and clear, because it just won’t play out like that. So when a day off gets interrupted or a boundary breached we get gnarly rather than just rolling with it.

We are very much at home now in the murkiness of indistinct boundaries and a fluid work, family, play schedule. Occasionally we may just turn everything off and disconnect but now that’s the exception rather than the rule. It is a way of being that fits the life we have chosen and the rhythms we live by. But I wouldn’t want to make it a rule…

Then we’d be back to square one 

The Final Word On Sunday Sport














I remember back in 1981 I entered a high school basketball skills competition and after getting thru the school round and the district level went on to the WA final where I came second to a bloke named Eric Watterson. I didn’t know who he was because I didn’t mix in elite basketball circles, but he later went on to play for the Perth Wildcats for many years. As a result of the second placing I was offered the opportunity to train and play with a local district basketball team who were coached by Henry Daigle, an American who had come to Perth specifically to develop talent. He also coached the Perth Wildcats and was the leading coach in Perth at the time.

I was pretty ecstatic as in 1981 basketball was my great passion and this was going to be my pathway to greatness. Then I discovered that the team trained on a Sunday morning and the decision to participate entered a whole new realm of complexity. The 80’s was an era where you could skip church to play sport, but it would still have been frowned upon. I wasn’t that worried about the negative response I may have received – I just wanted to make the right decision. And as a young Christian it was a challenging one.

I didn’t have the cultural savvy and theological awareness to work thru the issue so it felt like I was stuck with choosing to conform or rebel. Not a great set of options for a 17 year old really…

It was easy to choose conformity, but everything in me raged against it. This was a genuine opportunity to move into a whole new sphere of competition and this was ‘my moment’. I tussled with the decision, but don’t remember talking with anyone about it. I’m not sure if I had people in my life who would have enabled me to really think about it rather than just giving me the party line.

Then one Saturday evening while in the throes of my decision I went to the movies and watched Chariots of Fire, a movie I knew little about, but that left a mark like no other. For a kid trying to make a decision about what to do with Sunday sport it was like God had jumped into my world and given me a hero to champion the cause of faithfulness and self denial in the face of great temptation. When Liddell made his decision not to run in the heats of the 100m at the Paris Olympics just because they were on a Sunday I felt my question had been answered directly.

That night the decision was made not to accept the offer to join the Perry Lakes Hawks team (or whoever they were then) and to simply keep on playing church league basketball and going to church on Sunday. I remember feeling both peace and disappointment at the outcome. The boat I wanted to be on had sailed and I wasn’t on it… and I never would be. But I had put a stake in the ground in relation to faith and that was significant.

It was the right decision. But it was my decision made in that context at that point in my life. It was one of the first critical ‘discipleship’ calls I had to make as my faith matured and I still believe it was the right call.

That said I don’t know if I’d make the same call today, or if I’d insist on it for my kids. The line in the movie that carried great weight at that time was ‘He who honours me I will honour’, a verse from 1 Samuel that spoke to Liddell’s conscience decision to withdraw from the 100m. However in recent years as I have watched the movie the line that has impacted me is from the conversation between Liddell and his sister Jenny who is trying to convince him to give up running and become a missionary in China. In that encounter we hear him say:

“Jenny, God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast, and when I run I feel his pleasure.”

(I have written more about that in this post.)

If you know Liddell’s story then you’d be aware that he ran for a time, used his running as a platform for the gospel and then went on to be a missionary in China. He kept his bearings in Christ and managed to navigate the challenge of success, achievement and faith.


In our 21st C church context where many are facing the challenge of how to raise kids in an increasingly secular culture the question of Sunday sport is more complicated than it may once have been. We recently had lunch with some good friends who are in the throes of trying to work this one out and the questions being grappled with are complex. There is no ‘correct’ ‘one size fits all’ solution to the question.

Perhaps it is as simple as stating that the gathering of the church community always takes precedence over whatever personal enjoyment I want to have? (Did your heckles go up as you read that statement? If so why?…)

And some parents will make that call. Some will make it and their kids may learn to hate church because it is then seen as the obstacle to their sporting enjoyment. We genuinely don’t want that as an outcome because that bad taste can linger for a long time.

But to ‘compromise’ and allow for no church in footy season or no church when surf club is on, does that communicate a message about priorities? I framed that as a question, but it should have been a statement. I think it does. Kids tend to think in black and white and the nuances of this post may be lost on them. It could simply say to them that ‘we value surf club more than church’ (and that may be true…) and that message will be embedded over a number of years too into the child’s psyche. So when they are adults the church community will be a choice they make if there is nothing else on.

With our friends we discussed briefly the idea of having an afternoon gathering to accomodate those with kids’ sport on Sunday morning, but it was quickly dismissed as ‘please don’t organise the church around us’. True. It would be doing that… Perhaps if it was all pervasive we may consider this, as I know of at least one church in Perth who have consciously made this choice. But that then makes Sunday a very busy day for everyone with sport in the morning and church in the afternoon… farewell to any rest that may have been possible. And how many would actually turn up?

I know some folks will let their child play sport on a Sunday morning so long as they attend a church service somewhere later in the day, but I think that is missing the point again. I don’t want my kids to lob in with someone other than their own church community just to tick a box. Church then becomes a religious observance rather than the gathering of God’s people.

Perhaps one of the emerging issues in this current context is that of ‘child worship’, where the needs and wants of our children are placed front and central to our lives. This is also known as idolatry – but its acceptable idolatry and for that reason becomes a blind spot for many. As a result some parents become unwilling to say ‘no’ to a child’s wants and this then becomes the shaping motif for the family’s life.

Some may argue that Sunday sport is a mission opportunity… and maybe it is… but I honestly haven’t come across too many who have taken this approach. My hunch is that rationale gets used to defend a sometimes awkward decision. I’d rather people just articulate the challenge of the situation than hide behind a convenient excuse.

So what is my answer?…

Is it ‘he who honours me I will honour’ or ‘when I run I feel his pleasure’? If it were simple then you wouldn’t have read this far.

Currently I don’t have kids wanting to play Sunday sport, but if I did I think it would involve a lot of conversations around the place of the Christian community in our lives as well as helping them work thru processes of discernment to listen to God themselves, however my kids are teenagers and fairly capable of reasonable thought. I imagine that while there was an open and frequent conversation around the challenges of discipleship in this culture I would be willing to negotiate on the outcome. I will always lean heavily in the direction of choosing Christian community (note: not the Sunday event) over and above other pursuits, partly as a theological conviction but also because it has been part of my heritage and shaping, so I see the world that way.

If your kids are small and not at a point where they should be given decision making responsibility then it comes back to you and what you want to communicate to them. On one hand the church as a ‘binding restricting force’ may leave a negative mark while on the other a simple ‘surf club is more important than church’ statement will leave a different mark.

I’d love to hear the reflections and thinking of those who are also grappling with this question because I don’t think it is one that presents with easy answers, so if you are willing to offer your thoughts and insights then please do so in the comments. As a parent my greatest hope is that my kids will own their faith and live lives of strong discipleship and my concern is to provide the soil into which their roots can go down deep and I’m sure that is yours too so perhaps the thoughts of others on the same journey may help you – or your thoughts may help them.

And no – its not ‘the final word’ as the title suggests, but it does make for a more provocative lead in!

Complexities and ‘Simplicities’


I ‘shared’ this quote from my old friend Alan Hirsch on Facebook today but as I’ve pondered some thoughts over the day I’m not so sure the answer is actually a revised ecclesiology more fitting to our time. I think ecclesiology might look past the real problem we face and may provide a superficial fix.

It begs the question ‘what are the 21st C complexities?’ (You might like to elaborate Hirschy?…)

But it was a coffee with a mate this morning that percolated my thinking. So I’ll start to unpack it and you can see what you think.

We don’t live in the 16th century (thank God – or we would probably be burning pro gay advocates at the stake), nor do we live in the 20th century, not even 2014. In his book Kingdom Conspiracy, Scot McKnight describes the latter part of the 20th century as an optimistic era (especially the 80’s)  when we believed we were going to ‘take back ground ‘ and make a significant dent in a secular world. From the contemporary church movement to the missional / emerging church we all had an answer.

But… I’m not convinced that in the west we have taken much ground at all or made much of a dent in culture. l can’t speak for other parts of the developing world where the church seems to be growing, but my experience of church in the secular west is that the influence has been more upon us than by us. I would sense we have conformed to the culture more than we have influenced the culture.


The problem may be that we can’t see it…  because it’s hard to notice an environment you are immersed in. Our sexual ethics have shifted – and I’m not referring to the gay debate. I doubt there would be many young people ‘waiting for marriage’ these days or even keeping themselves to one partner. The last stats I heard were about 15% ‘wait’. Our economics are decidedly similar to the world around us, and our politics are often similar too.  We veer right or left when the kingdom is in fact an alternate reality completely.

One of the oddities we were discussed  this morning was the challenge of church attendance in this time. In the 60s and 70s it was twice on Sunday that everyone attended church. In the 80s it was once but we were committed to the once, the 90s started to become fortnightly and the naughties and the 20teens have seen regular attendance pushed out to 3-4 weekly.

Is it ecclesiology that needs to shift to address the reason people aren’t part of the Sunday gathering?

Before I go on my concern is not with ‘attendance’, per se as you can attend a Sunday gig and not be a disciple, but my question is around how we imagine church for the future if this trend continues.

Is it OK to call yourself part of a church (or even ‘The Church’) if you only go once every 5 weeks?  6?… 8?…

What about twice a year?

That’s absurd you say…  Maybe…  but when does it start to become silly? When do we actually say ‘whoa… time out! ‘?

The conversation we had this morning focussed on the fact that people who were now irregular church attenders were not necessarily floundering disciples.  They may well be godly people for whom life has become increasingly complex and they are trying to balance the scales of work, family, friends, kids sport, the need for rest and so on.

So my point is that it’s not poor church attendance that is the problem – rather this is a symptom of how we have been immersed and inculturated into western values – how we have been secularised rather than the community being evangelised.

We need to work hard and provide… And provide well
We need ‘family time’… We need ‘me time’…
Then there are the kids activities that have us chaueffering endlessly… There are extended family to see, friends to catch up with, birthday parties, weddings, and then some days you just don’t feel like getting out of bed on a cold Sunday morning…

With all that ‘life’ going on it seems easier and wiser to eliminate church from our lives rather than anything else.  Because ‘church’ won’t complain…  church will ‘understand’…

‘How hard for you being so busy… ‘

‘How tricky for you to get time with the family…

And so on…

Reality is it wasn’t this hard 40 years ago.

So the question that arises for me as a Christian leader is ‘are we trying to run with a 20th century form of church in a 21st century world and do we need to seriously grapple with a strong but more fluid approach to church?

Or…  do we need to start calling it as the secularisation of the church?  Do we need a different expression, or we just need a rocket?

I’d suggest the problem is that we have allowed ourselves to believe that the secularisation we have experienced is just normal life, rather than challenging it and asking how we orient our lives around Jesus call and the community of faith.

The church is no longer central to the life of many Christians as it was 40 years ago. And while there may have been some unhealthy motivations in those days based around guilt and legalism, as well as a very inward focus, now we see a church that is fraying and in danger of either slowly dissolving or re-forming as an anaemic secularised version of itself.

The flip side of this argument is that we must simply adapt to the context we are in and currently the context is that everyone’s life is busy, busy, busy, so we simply can’t expect to do church as we once did.

Perhaps we genuinely have to consider a church that meets sporadically and where the major connections are outside of Sunday? Perhaps we need a shift in imagination that allows us to ‘roll with the punches ‘ in regards to how secular society shapes us and be less concerned with what happens on a Sunday? I don’t see us moving back to the 70s any time soon. So maybe we have to adapt our ecclesiology to suit? I have a pretty low church perspective anyway so that isn’t hard for me. I can meet in homes, I can meet in smaller communities, but…  what if people cant commit to participation in groups oriented and scheduled around their busy lives? Because I suggest we will simply see the same problem replicated in the smaller and more fluid environment…

At it’s core the church in its local expression is a community but if people are never together then it cant be a community and by definition can’t be a church either. In his book I referred to earlier McKnight puts Jesus and church as central to the coming of the kingdom and I sense we have allowed church to be a ‘desired’ focus, but not essential.

I don’t believe the problem is ecclesiology. The problem is that we have lost sight of who we are and who we are called to be. Life is complex today – no question – so more than ever we need to draw a line in the sand and in the words of Hauerwas declare ‘Jesus is Lord and everything else is bullshit’, because right now the bullshit seems to be having its way with us.

That’s a dark post I realise. But I’m close to the end of my rope as a leader wondering just how we lead communities where the shape of lives is more dictated by the culture than by the gospel and the call of Jesus.

Whatever Happened to the Emerging Church?

imagesIt depends on who you ask…

It depends on what you mean by emerging church…

This question was asked in the comments section of a recent post by a long time reader and I thought I’d take a few words to offer my thoughts on the subject. This blog began around the time the ’emerging church’ was becoming a valid topic of conversation – a hot topic in many instances and was a specific focus of what I wrote here for several years.

In its infancy ’emerging church’ almost became anything that wasn’t traditional. It was definitely more nuanced than that, but the early tone was a breaking away from established modes of church that clearly hadn’t been over successful in engaging the culture. It paralleled the great interest (among evangelical Christians) in the subject of post-modernism and how the church related to the world in this age of relativity and uncertainty.

images (1)

This blog began as part of my own journey into a missionary adventure – one that had overlap with the emerging church scene. But one of the great struggles was always in the defining of terms and ’emerging church’ became and still is a very loaded term. Recently I listened to someone in our own church who knows nothing my involvement in this movement speak in disparaging terms of ‘Rick Warren and the emerging church’. I said nothing partly because I really don’t care. I don’t care that Rick Warren was never really in the ’emerging church’ camp (which camp?) nor do I care that my friend sees the emerging church as heretical and off-beat. I found the misinformed comments little more than amusing.

We weren’t long into the ’emerging church’ conversation when we realised that it meant fairly different things in different countries and to different leaders around the world. Being a grassroots movement that was always going to be both its beauty and its struggle. So in 2006 when Don Carson came to Perth to speak about the his book ‘Becoming Conversant With the Emerging Church’ and Geoff Westlake and I were invited to have a public conversation with him (it was called a debate, but it was nicer than that…) we saw that Carson’s critique might have had credence in some parts of the world but not others. (My old mate TSK gave a write up here and my own notes are here). The Australian scene in particular had taken on the description of ’emerging missional church’ as a way of giving some focus to the impetus of the movement. At Forge we were about preparing people for mission in the first world and calling the church back to its task of mission, as opposed to simply deconstructing theology and critiquing.

what do we call it now

I have fond memories of many conversations (both on here and in person) that developed as a result of walking down the ’emerging church’ road – of being with people who now had permission to think differently and question, yet also with a sense of focus and purpose – that of recovering a missional agenda for the church.

So where are we now?

I can’t speak for the rest of the world but my take on where things are at in Oz is that the ’emerging missional church’ served primarily a prophetic function in the church from around 2000 onwards thru to about 2008/9. It served to poke the church and critique its modes of operation, sometimes kindly, but often with a hot stick. My observation was that the ‘people in the pews’ resonated well with the language and intent, but pastors and leaders often felt threatened. It was after all a critique of the way they were functioning so that made sense.

The influence of thinkers like Newbiggin, Bosch and Guder etc on those of us in leadership was quite significant. I remember feeling like a veil had been lifted over my eyes and permission given to really think differently about how we organised ourselves as church.

What I noticed over time however was both an acceptance of missional language and rhetoric by churches and a softening in critique by those of us deep inside the movement. If I were to sum up much of my focus in that time it was simply ‘lets stop trying to get people in the community into to church and start trying to get the church back into the community.’ Much of what I read in denominational literature is now flavoured with a missional incarnational bent. Churches are encouraged to approach mission creatively and innovatively. There is a move from bigger is better to missionary effectiveness is better. And from my own observations the stuff that was offensive in 2003 is now mainstream in 2014. In fact I’d go further and say its virtually passe.


The message has been heard and the energy has shifted. It’d be hard not to find a church these days that takes local mission seriously and that is willing to explore new avenues to connect with those who are in the community.

I don’t know that any of us in the movement knew at the time that its primary role was to be prophetic. I think we hoped we were giving birth to a church planting movement, but that really didn’t happen and many of the communities that were born in that time have since faded out or morphed into more regular expressions of church.

I haven’t written much about ‘missional church’ on this blog for a very long time. Not because I don’t think its important, but more because its like writing about breathing. You just do it. You just get on with it. Oddly enough I doubt many (if any) in our current church would know anything of my time in this space as I rarely speak of it. I don’t ‘hide’ it, but it just doesn’t bear talking about much.

Having said that my own expression of church that I have been part of and leading for the last 5 years is spectacularly unsexy and probably lacking what I would have once considered visible missional energy. I use the word visible intentionally because what happens in people’s everyday lives is generally invisible. If we measure missional energy by the projects we engage in together then we aren’t kicking many goals, but if I listen to the men and women in our community speak of how they live their everyday lives then I hear and see an intent to listen to the spirit and follow him into the places he leads.

As we consider and pray about a church here in Yanchep it isn’t with some sense of starting something new and funky – which was early days ’emerging church’ form. But it is with the intent of immersing ourselves in this community of people, listening to them, getting to know them and discerning what it would look like for the gospel to take root here, what it would look like for a Christian community to be birthed here and what it would look like if the kingdom of God were to spark here.

So my personal assessment is that the ’emerging church’ is no longer needed as much as it was. It did its job – sometimes well and sometimes not so well. The language has definitely shifted and some of the practice as well. But for me… I guess I’ve moved on. I don’t mean that either proudly or disparagingly. I can’t summon much energy for the things we once spent hours debating and fighting for and that’s partly because the air has gone out of the ball and partly because I’m ten years older and in a different space personally.

I dunno what others think, but my guess is that even this post won’t garner much in way of response because the topic is dead in the water.

It certainly doesn’t mean seeking the kingdom of God is dead, or missional energy has gone, but I think the energy that once gave rise to these subjects is pretty well dissipated and I think that’s a good thing.

We can pay attention to what God is saying to us now and get on with that instead




So How’s Your Church Going?

So there’s an interesting question.

My mate Travis asked it today as we chatting. Its not a question that produces an easy answer because it begs the response – ‘what do you mean by that?’

Do you mean ‘how’s the numbers’, do you mean vibe, do you mean the strength of discipleship and mission? Do you mean the funkiness of the band?… the quality of the programs… etc

When I get asked that I tend to do a scan across the ‘flow of energy’ in the community – whether its on a trajectory towards Christlikeness and the kingdom of God or whether we are becoming increasingly selfish and inward focused. As a leader I feel like I have (and ought to have) a pretty good finger on the pulse in that regard.

There have been times when the ‘flow of energy’ in the church has been depressingly self focused and unChristlike, there have been times when I feel like we are are really getting places, but most days it looks something like the image below.

2000px-standard_deviation_diagram_svg copy copy

These days when people ask me how church is going I find myself drawing an imaginary normal distribution curve in the air…

‘Well its like this – some folks are fired up, renewed in faith, powering ahead and inspiring the rest of us. Some are doing well – growing, moving and changing. Some are in the game but preoccupied, struggling to create space for God to work, while others are either disinterested, struggling or plain difficult and resistant.

I’d suggest that at any one time all of those people are likely to exist in our community, and they probably exist in ‘normal distribution’ form. Very few at the front end, very few at the back and the largest number in the middle.

I’d also suggest that we all move through different zones from time to time in our faith journey too. Sometimes I find myself further along the curve and other times further back (sometimes all in the same week) Perhaps the bottom axis needs to be entitled submission to Jesus with the left side being ‘all in’ and the right side being ‘not for me thanks’. The vertical axis would then be the number of people in each space at any given time.

Perhaps this is why in one shape or form, I find preaching and leading to be largely centred around moving people towards submission to Christ in whatever place they are in and the people who I find most difficult to work with are those Christians who are either disinterested or preoccupied. (Its a whole different ball game when we consider the folks in our communities who aren’t followers as our expectations of them need to change accordingly)

Using this paradigm its quite possible for the church to be led by people who are living at the right end of the axis – un-submitted to Jesus – but are capable managers. Its possible to get the mechanics functional while the heart is empty. In that case ‘church’ can look the goods but lack any real energy.

My hope for our own church is that we will increasingly see people move to the ‘submitted’ end of the spectrum whatever form that takes and whatever that looks like. I think the danger is in being over prescriptive on this one. It looks like more regular attendance, less swearing and better behaved children… really?…

So when you ask how my church is going don’t be surprised if I find it difficult to answer because its actually a very complex question. You could ask me how I’m going and I could probably locate myself somewhere along the X axis but it will vary at times too.

It also makes me consider that one of the significant functions of a church leadership team ought to be that of challenging, encouraging and supporting one another in our move towards living Christlike lives. If our leaders are not well up the front end of the curve when taken as a whole, then I’d suggest a church is in trouble.

It also gives me some sense of focus when it comes to who I seek to work with. I don’t think time spent with the resistant and difficult is ever time well invested. If you don’t want to move then that’s ok. Good luck with that… In the short time I have to invest discipling and spurring others on I want to spend it on people who are willing to rise to that. Maybe that sounds harsh, but maybe its why the title ‘pastor’ doesn’t fit me too well some days.

So how’s my church going?… Just like the curve suggests. Some are leading the charge, some are digging their heels in, most are somewhere in the middle either hoping for more or lost in their own busyness. But I get the impression that this is how its always going to be.

That’s not at all a defeatist position, but possibly a way of surviving the inevitable variance that will always be there in any community. On the day you ask me that question I may have just been hanging out with those at the front end of the curve and I will feel alive and hopeful. If you catch me when I have been stuck around negative, difficult people then I may well be about to toss it in because it feels like a waste of time. Truth is those realities always exist.

I know as pastors we often get plagued by the question ‘why do we bother?…’ when church feels flat, people fight and squabble or just seem disinterested in anything that requires commitment. But in those moments there are always a few at the front end of the curve who say ‘whatever it takes…’ Whatever it takes to follow Jesus and see his kingdom come – count me in.

So long as those people exist there is great hope for the church.

Oh… and how are the numbers?…. In case you hadn’t guessed I really don’t care…


Headspace, Real Life and Status Quo

I used to blog a lot – because I used to think a lot. I used to think a lot about issues of faith and theology and I am coming to realise that a big part of that was just having the time to think.

I like to think and I like to mentally ‘4WD’ – head down some unexplored tracks and experiment with ideas, but it requires a certain amount of emotional energy and headspace, something I have been lacking in the last few years.

This week on 3 separate occasions I have found myself lacking the mental reserves to really dig into issues that I would like to chew thru more thoroughly. A friend sent thru an article on ecclesiology and I skimmed the first page before realising I wasn’t ingesting anything, let alone reading it thoughtfully. Another friend asked if we could catch up and discuss an aspect of theology I thought about a bit 5 or 6 years ago, but as he asked I realised I didn’t have much to contribute to the conversation – in fact I had pretty much forgotten what I read back then… And then I began a conversation on Facebook asking if there is such a thing as a ‘pragmatic Anabaptist’ and I was going to blog about it, before realising I just didn’t have time time or headspace to really do it justice – although I still think its a good question…

Its not that these things don’t matter to me, or interest me, but they simply have to take their place in the mental/emotional queue and I will get to them when the more pressing issues have been dealt with. They are the ‘luxuries’ in my headspace these days.

Right now my brain is awash with a heap of retic jobs I need to try and get thru before we take a break next Friday. That coupled with an unexpected day off today means I am running a bit behind now. Mixed with that is the knowledge I am speaking to our church crew twice in the next week and I need to get my head around the content there… And then there is Christmas… what do I need to do for that?…

I used to wonder why people in churches didn’t really think about their faith more carefully and critically. Why didn’t they ask more questions and explore more intelligently? My more recent experience suggests that maybe its because their mental reserves are already being eaten into by the stuff of everyday life and the ability to think about faith really is constrained by everything else that is going on.

If that is the case is it any wonder the status quo rarely gets challenged when people are just trying to keep afloat with job and family? If most people come home from work as weary as I do then its not surprising that the brain gets put into cruise control while they veg on the couch and watch another re-run of CSI… (I don’t watch CSI…)

So we’ll just let church roll along and not question what’s going on because to really get into that is to open a can of worms that requires far more headspace than most people have available. That ought to concern us because in the absence of critical thought we don’t progress – we stagnate. But then those who do make time to think and explore will often seem to be mavericks and heretics to those who don’t have time to get their heads around new ideas.

That’s a conundrum in itself! But it explains why most folk in churches simply want leaders who will (creatively) lead them back down old familiar paths and not add to their mental fatigue with unnecessary questions and new ideas that bring discomfort and disorientation.

It genuinely raises the question of how we lead and how we keep (ourselves) from stagnating and simply accepting what needs to be confronted and challenged. Part of me wants to ‘down tools’ in my business and allow the mind to get more active in this space again, but then my hunch is that it really is just a recipe for frustration and angst, because even the best and most supportive people will be in the space I am in now and will struggle to genuinely process even a small amount of what I may throw their way.

While I struggle with the frustration of this place, I have also come to appreciate it because it has made me aware that what I am experiencing is what the majority of our churches experience – people with limited headspace to really work out whether you can be an Anabaptist pragmatist… and let’s be honest no one gives a shit anyway!


What God Put in Your Heart

One of the things I am really enjoying about the experience of leading a church community at the moment is the opportunity to learn and experiment myself.

Today was our ‘prayer and planning’ day, where we set aside time to listen to God, listen to each other and hear where God may be taking us in the coming year. We have been doing it for a couple of years now and each time has been a little different. I think that’s good because it hasn’t become a formulaic process with predetermined outcomes.

I am very conscious of who we invite to these days. For us its an ‘opt in’ day where anyone who sees this church as their local expression of faith is welcome to come and participate. It isn’t for leaders, ‘members’ or those who have been around for a certain length of time. By making it purely ‘opt in’ you end up with those who really want to be there – and who are keen to be part of the process. I’m sure some would have liked to be there today, but couldn’t, but for the most part, these days reflect who the key players are in the life of a church.

One of the things I find perplexing about church planning days is the sense of need to arrive at concrete outcomes that we can action for the next year. Personally I don’t think we have to do this, but I am concious that some feel the day hasn’t been time well spent if we haven’t decided on ‘new stuff to do’. By the same token I am very much for concrete outcomes if they are stuff that God is leading us towards (atlhough I think that in the absence of genuinely hearing God we tend to invent stuff so that we can justufy our existence). Easy to do with our evangelical heritage.

I wonder, what if God said ‘I don’t want you to do anything new’? What if God said ‘all good – just keep rolling’? I think we tend to find that scenario a little hard to imagine. I certainly have in the past. But maybe he does that some days.

As I was reflecting on the process we would use for today I felt it would be valuable to :

– reflect on our history – to tell the story of where we have been – where we have come from to be here today (a very biblical process actually) and in doing so observe the fingerprints of God over our community. I always find this valuable and we enjoy sharing the story together.

– give thanks for what we have – because acknowledging how good things are, helps us kick off with gratitude and an awareness of God’s goodness to us. There was plenty to be grateful for and that is healthy.

– listen for what God has put in our hearts. I am convinced that our future flows out of our passions more than out of cold, formal planning. We reflected on the story of Nehemiah and how he felt compelled to do ‘what God had put in his heart.‘ I don’t want to try and put stuff in people’s hearts and I don’t want to simply push people into stuff that isn’t in their hearts, but I have a strong sense that if we listen to what God has already put in our hearts then we will likely find the next steps come easily. We split into smaller groups to answer the question:  “Where do I feel energy and where do I feel the stirring of God in me for the greater good of the church and his kingdom?” In other words what is firing in YOU?

– listen to one another and listen to God – from this smaller group discussion we came back together to hear what God is stirring in us. For some it was easy to articulate, while for others it was a little less obvious and that is fine. As we talked we heard what God was firing up in people, we heard what was important… And from there we took time to listen to God to see what he may have been saying.

– break for coffee – I don’t think you can ever underestimate the value of the ‘break’ in these kinds of gatherings. People can only focus for so long, but in the break what has been discussed often percolates and brews ready for the next interaction.

– distill – we came back to distill what we were hearing and interestingly it was less about  things to ‘action’ and more about the priority of keeping Jesus central in all we do. I guess you say that’s stupidly obvious… and it is. Except that I sensed what God was saying to us was that we are to find contentment and purpose in simply this and we are to hold this as our top priority. I reckon that’s a little piece of gold.

– consider practical actions – as we agreed not to actually choose any specific actions a discussion began around how we are gathering in smaller communities and what flowed was an awareness that we need to create some different spaces for people to connect and experience church. Before the day had ended one family had said ‘we want to do this – this is what God has put in our heart’. Another person wanted to gather our worship crew to help them focus and reflect on how we worship together – yet another practical outcome that flowed from what was in a person’s heart rather than from cold strategic planning. I am sure more will flow as people listen to what God has put in their hearts and as they respond to him. And that’s how I’d like it to be…

The day finished with lunch and then flowed on into coffee for a few of us as sat by the beach and enjoyed the beauty of being the church together.

It was another day to give thanks for the community we are part of and to observe again that if we pay attention to Jesus and listen for his voice, then he can do a pretty good job of leading his church.







Moving Forwards (Slowly)

A busy week last week meant that didn’t get much more time to wind up my series of posts on how we are working to help our church become an effective missionary community.

So this will be the final post in this series until there is more to write, either positive or negative.

The last month or so has seen us raising the awareness of mission among our people and putting it squarely on the radar as a priority for us at this point. When I first felt disturbed by what I was seeing developing (a safe, happy, comfortable community) my default ‘organise something visible’ response kicked into gear. If we all ‘do something’ very consciously and visibly then that will help… Fortunately I’ve been living with my defaults long enough now to know that they are usually my reactions and while a few others may share them, many won’t.

In fact one of the things I am fairly sure I was feeling was a discontent with my own life and I was then projecting on that onto our church community. I’m a bit frustrated with my own mission efforts and I don’t seem to be making a dent = you aren’t doing much of value either.

Not helpful for those who are, but whose lives I can’t see – and chances are there are plenty. (Makes you wonder how much of our leadership driving actually stems from our own internal frustrations and how much is from a genuine concern for effectiveness?) So what began as a full frontal assault morphed slowly into a more reflective couple of weeks as we encouraged people to consider who God has made them to be, where they are positioned in life and what their natural gifts and abilities are.

I don’t know that it will translate to ‘tangible visible action’, but then I’m confident it will translate to action of some kind – perhaps a truer form of action. If there is a drum we have beaten to death at QBC its the one that says, ‘learning more information about God/Jesus/faith is absolutely useless unless it converts to some form of transformed life.’

I doubt anyone would have escaped that regular tirade. And I make no apology for that. I really believe that many of us are educated beyond our willingness to obey and that further information is pointless. Its like filling a car with petrol and then continuing to fill it even though its spilling out of the tank, but never actually driving the car anywhere… yeah… dumb.

I imagine some would be reading these posts thinking ‘I wonder what the answer is?…’ or ‘I wonder what the key is to getting a church moving?’ Well I’m likely going to disappoint you because I think if we take the evolution road then its a long slow change (and to continue the metaphor) sometimes impossible to observe while you are in it. I’m happy to let you know what we are doing, but I don’t believe there are any specific ‘one size fits all’ answers. There are likely some principles and broad brush ideas that can be transferred but I reckon that’s about it.

Some of what we have done over the last few weeks to stir people’s hearts has been to:

Earth stuff biblically – sadly the whole idea of mission has become trendy and has become a bit of the flavour of the month. So people can see it as the next fad. By taking our cues from Acts I think we get to really engage with the biblical story and see that although we live in a different age, the hope of seeing the gospel spread and the kingdom come is one that is constant. And we can learn from the stories in Acts. For those who think we have ‘gone all emerging’ or are doing something dodgy they need to argue with the scriptures rather than us.

Bring people in to tell stories that will inspire – Andrew & Sharon work among the gay scene and the sex worker communities and Sharon came to share some of that journey. Alisha lives in a slum in Thailand with the UNOH crew and she came and share her story also. I think its good for people’s imaginations to be stirred and to be encouraged to see paths that can be taken outside of running a craft group and a playgroup. To be fair, for some people a playgroup or craft group is a fantastic idea, but I sense our imagination gets stunted after a while and we find it hard to see beyond these regular church gigs.

Reflection on Who We Are As Individuals – last week Billy led us in an excellent process that caused us to reflect on who God is, who we are as individuals, and how we are placed in life. The desired outcome was “to help people use their uniqueness to make a big deal of God every day of their lives.” It was good on several levels. In church that day we spent a lot of time in pairs helping each other reflect, so there was a strong relational dynamic at work, but there was also real value in validating who people are as individuals and helping them to see that there isn’t a ‘type’ they need to conform to in order to be validated as a missionary at QBC. Everyone could go away hopeful.

Reflection on Shapes Mission Can Take – Yesterday I took the final session in our 5 month series to tell stories and get people interacting around some possibilities. We did an interesting exercise that looked at how confident we feel in mission situations and asked people to physically move and stand on a continuum from feeling very confident to totally lacking confidence. Some of the discussion that flowed out of that was really helpful. One reflection I found particularly helpful was when I observed one of our newer South African immigrants standing right at the ‘low confidence’ end when it came to mission. She is a confident woman so I asked her why she found herself there and she said that it was because she didn’t feel confident with sharing the gospel in Australian culture yet – she was still feeling her way. Very cool – because she was doing what missionaries do – learning the context before barging in.

We moved from there to asking people to form groups around various different (and some times overlapping) expressions of mission.

I set 8 different boards up around the room with the following categories:

a) Programs – church organised, specific activities that mix Christians and non-Christians

b) Hospitality – making a welcoming space for others in your life and home

c) Community Activities – joining in existing community based activities and being salt and light in those places

d) The ‘Dark Places’/Needy – going to groups that others see as outcasts and showing God’s love to them

e) Service Projects – using practical skills to serve and bless people

f) The Workplace – seeing your workplace as the primary place where God wants you to demonstrate his love and reach out to others.

g) Organic relational mission – connecting with people in the flow of life

h) Another Idea – Another idea I haven’t thought of

People headed off to sit in different groups and share some learning around the focus they felt was most natural for them. This activity really needed an hour to be of any benefit, but it got truncated to 20 minutes. Hopefully it allowed people to think a little, meet others like them and spark some fresh ideas. Interestingly the only group that had no participants was ‘Community Activities’. It wasn’t a perfect scenario as people obviously move across several groups, but it did cause people to locate themselves and engage.

I am fairly convinced that anything that requires a physical response of us as well as some verbal reflections is likely to evoke more learning than a simple sermon.

So as we get to the end of this we haven’t made any more tangible plans. We don’t have a 5 year strategy for changing the world, but I think we have stirred people and we will continue to appropriately poke and prod, encourage and challenge over the rest of the year.

That’s all for now on this series of reflections, but I will update this ‘category’ as I see it necessary and as things develop.

Growth by Immigration

Following our church meeting in late January we started to get on withe job of building a community. As leaders we established some priorities for the year to try and help us focus and then began working towards those priorities.

They were pretty simple. We would:

– explore and develop our connection with the school, one of our primary mission fields

– develop and implement a process for spiritual formation. As a church we had no particular approach to discipleship and helping people become like Christ. We decided to give this some focus.

– build community within. We would have parties, camps, bbqs and the like just to help people connect. We would ‘hang out’ a LOT.

– establish a regular Sunday rhythm and have some predictability about how we gathered

– communicate well, often and clearly

A fair slab of this was focused on us becoming a better version of ‘us’, a healthy version and one that would naturally focus outwards. Being connected to a school means we are blessed with free facilities and plenty of them. We also have a community of people right there who we can connect with, if we are able. The challenge is to find people with time, energy and vision to actually do it. Living in a suburb a long way from the city means many people commute and leave early/get home late so time can be hard to find.

Oddly enough around the time we framed these up a number of families joined our church. Healthy people – contributors – people who were willing to accept that we were a work in progress and who actually wanted to be with us. There were 3 or 4 families pretty quickly, then another 2 or 3 families and before long the vibe was quite different. It was beginning to feel alive again. Amazing what a bunch of positive new faces can do. Almost all of them were from overseas, mostly South African, but with a few Brits as well. Aussies were hard to find, but hey we weren’t that fussy… We were just wrapped to see friendly faces who were keen to join the team.

As the year began we had a few initiatives taken to try and make connections with the school. A mentoring program ran, a playgroup and a coffee morning. Each had different degrees of success, but that people were taking initiative and making stuff happen was really encouraging.

We began looking at the book of Exodus in our Sunday morning gatherings – the story of a bunch of people on an adventure together… It was good as it tapped right into our own story. Later in the year we read Ephesians and worked thru it as a way of getting a better picture of who we are as the church in the bigger plans of God. We used this time to call people to actually commit to the church and become ‘members’. Now there’s an odd concept if ever there was one… But it is one of the ways people can put a stake in the ground and say ‘we are with you’. Our membership pretty much doubled overnight.

We re-formed our bloke’s group and invited men to really step up the intensity of their own spiritual formation. It was a hard core call to spiritual discipline. I didn’t expect a crowd, but around 10 blokes responded to the call and met together regularly. This was a huge shift and one I found great hope in. The women also gathered each week for prayer or some form of Bible study and their energy levels rose too.

It was the classic scenario of a group ‘forming’ and getting to know one another. Into the mix of regular church stuff we added lots of parties, impromptu beach trips and 4wding and it wasn’t long before we were forming a strong bond. All of these activities were open to all, so anyone who wanted to be part of them could join in. People were liking each other and enjoying being together. This was good…

So from near despair in January, by the middle of the year we were feeling great hope and energy. Now when people came to visit on a Sunday I was able to say with confidence ‘This is a great group of people. I love being here and if you’d like to join the crew then you’d be welcome.’ What a relief that was…

2011 rolled on and the church slowly grew, not by people coming to faith, but by people leaving their homes in other countries and coming to Australia. I’m not a big number cruncher these days, but in this expression of church there does seem to be a number that is a critical mass. Fifty is around that number, but seventy feels better. There is a buzz when a decent sized group of people are together that isn’t there when there are just 20 or 30 of us.

While I wasn’t excited at all about our ‘growth by immigration’ scenario I was very excited to be with a bunch of great people and to see the changes that were taking place. One of the things that happened over that year was that as people came they brought their children and our kids ministry grew. Now when the kids left the main gathering to do their own thing, about half the congregation left. A nice change. Danelle had been developing the kid’s stuff and had done a fantastic job of slowly growing a great group. Just a couple of months ago she let that role go and we appointed someone to work in the role 2 days a week. Janet was one of the first of those new faces – a slightly crazy Scottish woman who came to Oz looking to be a primary teacher and finished up as a kid’s minister…

Earlier this year we did a ‘wordle’ as a church to see how people felt about who we were and the image above kinda summed up where we had come to in the previous 12 months.

It actually came out exactly as I had imagined it would. This was what we had been working towards for the last year and we had actually formed a ‘family’ and a warm, genuine community. This was a great step forward and something to be happy about.

So why was I feeling an inner sense of concern?…

Loaves, Fish, Theory and Reality

Its not often a pastor would actually tell people not to join their church… but for a time during 2010 when people came to visit and ‘check us out’ I would suggest to them that maybe they would be better off joining a different church. I had a few conversations that ended with me recommending other local churches and suggesting people give us a wide berth until we sort some stuff out. However once we had moved thru the repentance process and were beginning to regroup, I began to believe that we were on a positive trajectory even if the numbers said otherwise and even if I really just wanted out.

So if you’ve found it all a bit depressing up to now, this is the bit where it starts to get better. Let’s be honest it couldn’t get a lot worse could it?…

So as 2011 began we had one muso left and I had no idea how to write up a roster for a church with one muso and a handful of people. (Stupid roster…) As uninspiring as it was we called a meeting to discuss what to do. We already had one Sunday a month scheduled as ‘non-musical’ but now we were headed for three… So we got together in our newly decorated church office / lounge and met to discuss a way forward. I have no particular attachment to music as a form of worship so I was happy to roll any direction. We could have agreed to meet in the park and I would have been completely happy. As it turned out we had some people in the crew who could play instruments of various kinds and who were willing to do so to get us thru.

None of them felt overly confident in their skills but that they were willing to have a go is a huge credit to them. It was 5 loaves and 2 fish stuff. A small group of people said they would give it what they had to help us keep rolling.

Anyone with a missional brain would be reading this series and wondering ‘so what has all this got to do with forming a missional community? When do we actually get to the good bits?…’

Well, one of the things I have been learning is that it all depends on where you start as to how you move forwards. Starting where we did meant that we had some work to do before we could even begin to head out on another tack. I imagine that if I were back teaching ‘Re-Imagine’ stuff again I would have some insights from reality that are quite different from what I thought in theory. Theory is great because it ‘works’, it makes sense and it all adds up. Reality is messy, confusing and never linear. Theory can often set people up for failure as no one ever expounds a theory where things get worse first before they get better, or where things just continue to get worse. Or maybe they do but their books don’t sell…

The lines you read in books that say ‘how many people are you prepared to lose to make change?’ sound great until you realise that you are losing so many people that you are no longer viable as a community and its just damn depressing. So although this just sounds like the process of a community unravelling, I am actually getting to the part where we begin to re-focus on the original plan.

Despite my ache to be freed from this leadership, the one thing I hadn’t lost sight of was who I was and what I felt mattered. The idea of the church being a group of people genuinely on mission in their community and encouraging one another in that was still what I felt called to do. It was just a matter of how to get there from here.

The thing that needed doing right now was plugging the leaks in the sinking ship. It was as simple and as uninspiring as that. We needed to stay afloat if we were going to do anything more. There is a part of me that would be quite content to totally reframe Sunday gatherings, but my past experience at Upstream reminded me that it is difficult to find people willing to join a group and an expression of church that is unfamiliar. While that annoys and frustrates me – that people are so locked in their ways – it is a reality and one you just need to deal with.

So our first goal was to keep the Sunday boat afloat.

My hope however, was that as people came on board we would be able to teach, provoke and inspire them to consider the nature of church and the call God has put on us to be his people in the world. Some would say ‘the medium is the message’ and if we just put our energies on Sunday gatherings then we will send the message that Sunday gatherings are the most important aspect of church.

I believe if we are to help churches change – and become less absorbed with their Sunday expression – then it won’t happen by simply ditching typical Sunday services. There is too much invested in. There is too much heritage and the weight of it all means it is an unwinable battle.

But it cannot be allowed to be the focus of the church’s life and the primary dump point for resources and energy. So the balancing act we needed to work with was that of growing a community primarily via a Sunday gathering point, but in the process helping people understand that the aim of the church is not to have bigger and better Sunday gatherings… I admit it does sound somewhat counter-productive, but we needed to give it a try. I didn’t feel the Upstream approach worked as it called people to a bridge too far. This idea might die in the water because people don’t get stretched and called to think more strenuously about their concept of church and mission. Time will tell…

So… by now we were pretty much at the point where we realised that God wasn’t going to give us permission to leave so we might as well start to do what we could and see what developed. I wasn’t feeling positive yet, but I could at least write some names on that damn roster…