Re-thinking church planting and evangelism: A bunch of questions and maybes for post-modern, post-Christian Australia

What follows is a collection of (speculative) thoughts, ideas, and questions from a novice church planter about church planting and evangelism

My college principal (and friend), Gary Millar, caused a bit of a stir on social media with this post asking whether the new, trendy, church-planting-is-the new-black, movement is taking the focus off evangelism in the church. I like Gary a lot, and learned much from him, and I think it’s funny that a guy who was a church planter prior to joining the academy is copping flack online for being anti-church plant. He’s not. He’s certainly pro-evangelism. And pro-church plant.

His post, and the subsequent discussion have been stimulating, and got me thinking some thoughts that I needed to put into words so that I don’t lose them. I feel like it’s a conversation I should be part of, even though I’m not the most experienced church planter in the world, and didn’t even want to be a church planter. I think one of the big challenges the church faces though is figuring out how to do church and evangelism for people of around my age, and younger, and I feel like maybe I can offer some insight here, especially because Gary mentions “QTC graduates who are planting in Brisbane” and that’s me, and there aren’t many of us. I feel like he was singling me out a bit with the bolded line in this paragraph too…

“Biblical church planting flows from evangelism, as the message of the gospel is clearly proclaimed in every possible context. Some of this proclamation may be cutting edge, but some of it may look extremely mundane—teaching Scripture in inner city schools, building intentional relationships with baristas and road-sweepers, inviting the faceless residents of the other units into our block for dinner, eating at the same time every week in the RSL, going to the annual show just to be there… And doing it all to make the most of every opportunity to speak the gospel to a world which desperately needs to hear it.”

Before I begin…

And a slight disclaimer: This is the stuff I’ve been mulling over since Gary’s post, and while reading (and entering) some of the discussions about his post. Some of this reads like its a vague critique of strawmen ministers out there, and you might want empirical evidence that such ministers or thinking exists… I’d like to offer you Exhibit A, the only exhibit I’ll be offering throughout (apart from my ability to accurately represent the aforementioned conversations).


I’ve assumed at some points that how I feel and think is representative of how others might feel and think. I know there’s great stuff happening out there in many churches, and in many locations, and I thank God for that… but this is also based on conversations I’ve had with others and things I’ve observed as a participant in various churches that have either planted churches with varying degrees of success, or suffered as a result of people leaving to join new churches.

On the necessity of more evangelism

I think most people in Gospel ministry, if asked “is enough evangelism happening” would, and should, say no. Right up until the time that 100% of living people are following the living God (the new creation we long for), the answer to this question is no. That’s why the parable of the lost sheep is so profound in how it values the lost. We live in an age where there are maybe three ‘found’ sheep, and 97 lost…

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” — Luke 15:1-7

So evangelism is necessary. And obviously it’s about pointing people to the good news. The ‘evangel.’ Which is the good news about Jesus.

But I wonder if we really need to figure out is what it is we mean by evangelism (both in content and form), before figuring out what the relationship is between the church, members of the church, and what a proper emphasis on evangelism in the church looks like.

Maybe the problem Gary identifies is more about how we think of church being somehow distinct from how we think of evangelism. Maybe the move to church planting is actually a shifting understanding of the relationship between church and mission

It could just be me, but I’m pretty sure that evangelism has slipped down our agenda. Church planting has, it seems, taken up the headspace that was once occupied by evangelism. And much as I love church planting (it’s what we did in Ireland), it does provide more places for people to hide who don’t want to talk about Jesus to their friends.

Churches in our circles, especially in Australia, tend to think about church as the gathering of believers for the sake of believers. Sundays are inward looking, they’ll often feature the Gospel pretty heavily, because we realise that the Bible is ultimately a story centred on Jesus and to teach bits of the Bible without the Gospel is to not teach the Bible properly… but this way of thinking, that the body gathers for the sake of itself, doesn’t really give much clarity on how mission, or evangelism, fits with the life and rhythms of the church. So preachers throw “tell your friends about Jesus” in as the application to most sermons, churches put on evangelistic events, and might, if they’re really organised, occasionally teach people how to have conversations about Jesus with their friends (and I can’t help but think we make this more complicated than it needs to be, I don’t need coaching to tell my friends about the new coffee place I found, or my love for the Manly Warringah Sea Eagles, even in a terrible year, perhaps people just need to be convinced that the need is urgent and that this isn’t something they have to do by themselves). Here are some things I think we forget that we need to remember.

1. Jesus came to seek and save the lost. (Luke 19:10).

If the Zacchaeus story is the culmination of a bunch of stories that show who Jesus thinks the lost are — sinners who know they need a saviour —then this climaxes at the Cross, and in the resurrection. The reason to think this is how this verse should be understood, as a summary of Jesus’ lifelong journey to Jerusalem, is that Luke tells the Zaccheaus story in a way that ties together a bunch of different lost ‘types’ we’ve met on this journey.

2. Jesus sent the Spirit to the Church so that we could be united with him, and then sent the church into the world the way God sent him. (John 17, John 20).

As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the worldMy prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” — John 17:18, 20-23

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said,“Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” — John 20:19-23

What’s interesting, I think, is if the prologue of John’s Gospel (the first 18 verses) sets up the themes of the Gospel, the way God sent Jesus is as the life-giving word who becomes flesh and dwells in the world (John 1:1-5, 14).

3. The Church is the body of Christ (and God gives gifts to the body to help it be the body). Part of being the body is corporately imitating Jesus in seeking the salvation of many.

Paul says this in 1 Corinthians 12. If the letter makes sense as a whole, I don’t think it’s a massive jump to link the stuff he says in 12, with the stuff he says in chapters 9-11, and 13-14, to figure out how people might do together what he sees as imitating Christ (1 Cor 11:1).

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” —1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1

Perhaps we have a problem if the way we understand church (ecclesiology) is not deeply connected to the way we think church should be oriented to the world (missiology). I think the short shrift evangelism gets in our reformed evangelical churches in Australia is a product of us thinking that church is a community for believers, not that the church is the community of the people of God for the world. Church isn’t just a Sunday gathering (or a gathering), but the way we gather, and what we invest in, will reflect what we think church is.

Evangelism is necessarily proclamation, but it’s not necessarily something an individual does as an individual. It necessarily involves words, but words are amplified or cancelled out by the actions and emotions of the proclaimer(s). Evangelism is more than saying “Jesus is Lord” — it’s living this truth together in a way that is intentionally compelling and persuasive to the people we dwell with.

Maybe, then, we proclaim the Gospel as we live it out in our community, as community, and speak clearly about why we live the way we do, because of points 1, 2, and 3 above.

If you think the church exists to proclaim the Gospel, and church communities exist to do that in particular places and cultures — then the dichotomy breaks down. Church planting is evangelism. That’s why we preach about Jesus every Sunday at the church plant I’m part of, and in our established mothership. If churches are missionary communities gathering to reach and serve a hostile culture, not simply the place where everyone from a culture is expected to rock up for an event on a Sunday to tick some sort of box, where evangelism is another checkbox on the “good Christian” to do list, then the dichotomy at the heart of Gary’s post gets resolved a bit.

It’s only in churches that don’t think of church or evangelism in this way that this conversation is a problem.

Evangelism has to be something that stretches beyond the Gospel being clearly proclaimed on a Sunday, it has to be part of the lives and relationships of Christians in community in their wider community.

Maybe there’s also a more complete approach to the content of evangelism (the Gospel) than exclusively emphasising the atonement, which also changes the forms of evangelism we look for, develop, and promote?

I don’t hear of many churches who are doing evangelism training these days.

Maybe what’s happening is we’re realising that evangelism training isn’t actually about learning to draw stick figures in six boxes, but is more about authentically living and sharing the Gospel story in the places we live and the relationships we develop?

Maybe part of this is because we think the Gospel is something best shared by a community of people — the body of Christ —  rather than individuals by themselves, apart from that community. Evangelism will always involve individual people boldly proclaiming and living the good news of the resurrected Lord Jesus, but we don’t have to feel like it’s something we do on our own (nor is it something just for specialists).

Maybe we’re realising that the Gospel isn’t best summarised as “Jesus died to save you (individual) from your (individual) sins (of which there is a long list)” but “Jesus is Lord of God’s kingdom and he calls you to turn to him as Lord (forgiveness of sins is then a benefit of this)”… maybe the way to present this isn’t a series of propositions or leading questions about an individual’s sin and the judgment they face, which Jesus takes (though this is part of it), but, instead, is a compelling presentation of the Biblical narrative which centres on Jesus and flows to us.

We have a really powerful story, and the opportunity to invite people to be a part of it. I really enjoyed this post today from First Things about how to reach cynical Gen X. Here’s a long quote from it. Feel free to jump to the next heading…

So you’re in quite a pickle: you can’t tell us that the Church has “the Truth,” and we know that the Church won’t miraculously cure us of our misery. What do you have left to persuade us? One thing: the story. We are story people. We know narratives, not ideas. Our surrogate parents were the TV and the VCR, and we can spew out entertainment trivia at the drop of a hat. We treat our ennui with stories, more and more stories, because they’re the only things that make sense; when the external stories fail, we make a story of our own lives. You wonder why we’re so self-destructive, but we’re looking for the one story with staying power, the destruction and redemption of our own lives. That’s to your advantage: you have the best redemption story on the market.

Perhaps the only thing you can do, then, is to point us towards Golgotha, a story that we can make sense of. Show us the women who wept and loved the Lord but couldn’t change his fate. Remind us that Peter, the rock of the Church, denied the Messiah three times. Tell us that Pilate washed his hands of the truth, something we are often tempted to do. Mostly, though, turn us towards God hanging on the cross. That is what the world does to the holy. Where the cities of God and Man intersect, there is a crucifixion. The best-laid plans are swept aside; the blueprints for the perfect society are divided among the spoilers. We recognize this world: ripped from the start by our parents’ divorces, spoiled by our own bad choices, threatened by war and poverty, pain and meaninglessness. Ours is a world where inconvenient lives are aborted and inconvenient loves are abandoned. We know all too well that we, too, would betray the only one who could save us.

Also, while I was writing this post, Stephen McAlpine chucked his latest post up, which is also relevant and provocative.

Maybe this needs to come with a shifting sense of what evangelism looks and sounds like in a post-modern/post-Christian context

Maybe stories resonate better with a post-Christian world and the way people think about life in it. Maybe while Penal Substitutionary Atonement is an essential part of the Gospel, this is a little individualistic in its approach to the Gospel (in its content), which might make us think a little bit too individualistically about evangelism (in its form). Perhaps a slightly different nuance on the Gospel that captures both the corporate and the individual implications while utterly emphasising the person and work of Jesus, especially his divinity, his humanity, and his life, death and resurrection (content) could reshape the way we talk about and practice evangelism in our churches — be they plants or established communities.

I don’t want to unnecessarily caricature the evangelism in Sydney from 13 years ago as Two Ways To Live, but Gary did this a bit for me…

“13 years ago, I made my first trip to Sydney. I came at the invitation of John Chapman and David Mansfield to spend a month working with the Dept. of Evangelism in the Sydney Diocese. It was a real eye-opener for me. Everywhere I went, it seemed like people were doing evangelism. Guest events in church. Dialogue dinners, evangelistic barbecues, men’s events, women’s events. You name it, it was happening. Everyone was learning Two Ways to Live, and new courses were coming out regularly.”

I think Two Ways to Live has been a fantastic servant for many years, and it represents a modernist/individual approach to evangelism and the Gospel. I think it has had its day, and if we’re going to train people to evangelise we need to think pretty carefully about what that looks like. We need people who walk around imitating Jesus, like Paul did, not people walking around spouting tracts or training material.

Two Ways to Live simply assumes too much that doesn’t mesh with modern Australia. It starts by assuming that the person you’re talking to believes in a creator God. Maybe this is based on the assumption that the kind of suppressing the knowledge of God that Romans speaks about is deliberate and intentional on the part of the person doing it, not something that happens corporately or culturally, maybe people relying on this material think the people who reject that concept have already ruled themselves out of hearing the Gospel through this choice (I hope not)…

TWTL works on getting people to assent to a bunch of propositions that lead to a particular conclusion. I think this method has had its day. I understand that others disagree — especially those who hate post-modernism and think people should be assenting to truth based on very clearly articulated, logical argument.

I think post-modern evangelism needs to rest more on helping people see who God actually is (that he’s not some being-in-creation, subject to the laws of nature, but the being within whom nature exists), helping them see how his plans and purposes for the universe, which centre on Jesus, include them, and helping demonstrate the plausibility of belief in Jesus, and the beauty and appeal of living life as a member of his kingdom. This isn’t the sort of thing you learn in a course, or can necessarily articulate in an adversarial large scale debate, or a conversation at a pub. Event evangelism, like the stuff Gary talks about, has a place, but it’s part of a suite of tools that a person might use in the context of a relationship with a non-believer they hope to see won to Christ.

And personally I think both the way we posture ourselves, and our content/emphasis, needs to shift gears a bit too — for an example of what I’m talking about see the difference I loved between how William Lane Craig debated with Lawrence Krauss (where I thought Krauss won) and how Rory Shiner approached his conversation with Krauss (where Rory Shiner was “gently crucified”— which I think is a substantial win).

How can we shift the way we train people to evangelise to actually speak the language of the people around us. Like Jesus did, and like Paul did as he imitated him?


I don’t want transfer growth (but I probably need it in order for evangelism to lead to discipleship)

We all know that transfer growth is something we should be seen to be against (even if we quietly say ‘But you know what? They’ll be much better off in our church anyway!’). But our real attitude to transfer growth is seen in the priority and energy and focused prayer we give to evangelism. If we aren’t pouring ourselves into the work of evangelism, then by default, we are just doing church in the hope that people show up… None of us wants to steal people from other churches (although a little bit of recruiting key people from other ministries is almost always necessary in the start-up phase).

I think this is interesting. I don’t just want to be seen to be against transfer growth. I’ve been part of small and large churches that have lost people to the next cool thing. I’ve thought about those churches as parasitic. I have. So I don’t want to be that church. I’m not interested in our church being the latest and greatest church that people move to until a newer, greater church starts up (as it inevitably will, because, you know, City on A Hill is coming next year). Here’s where I think Gary and I would absolutely agree about our patch of Australia. Brisbane is massive, and it’s projected to get even bigger. The city is going to grow to 3 million people by 2020. The reason it feels like we don’t need more trendy, evangelical, church plants in inner city Brisbane, the reason we wring our hands, is because honestly most of us are still trying to figure out how to do ministry in modern Australia. We can’t rely on turning on some lights and putting on a good kids program anymore. The reason it’s scary to hear about a schmick new church plant led by cool people with great ideas is because we’re (and by we I mean me) often insecure about what we bring to the table, and to our city… focusing on the size of the mission field and trying to reach lost people, rather than the limited pool of human resources around, is the best way to get a bit of perspective about this insecurity. Church plants can’t afford not to be on about evangelism (but neither can the established church).

But here’s the rub. Say my small church really goes gangbusters on evangelism, and say God blesses that effort, and say we triple in size from new converts. Who takes the responsibility for pastoring these new hundreds? Who shepherds them, who answers their questions? Where do we get the manpower from? Where do we find mature Christians if not the churches around us. Maybe if there were genuine innovative partnerships happening between churches the answers to these questions would obviously be “the church next door” — the one thing I reckon Gary absolutely nails in his post is the idolisation of numbers in church planting.

“It’s hard for those of us who aren’t church planting to appreciate just how big an issue ‘numbers’ is for those who are. Let’s face it – when you meet someone who is in a recently launched church plant, what’s the first question you want to ask?”

But it’s not just established churches that care about numbers. I ask every minister I meet how church is going, and what I mean is “how are numbers.” Almost every minister I know answers based on numbers  — and that means we’re very unlikely to be excited about not just releasing, but proactively sending, people to serve in another nearby church, be it for a season, or permanently.

At South Bank, we’re in a position where our leadership team is praying for some mature, gospel hearted, Christians to plug in with us to support new Christians. Especially new Christians from the margins of our community. These can only come from elsewhere. But where I think the transfer stuff gets messy is when people proactively seek those sort of people from other churches as they look to establish a core group. I’m happy to pray and to trust God to provide the people where necessary while we train and equip the people he’s already provided for us. So far our “transfer growth” has largely come from people relocating to Brisbane.

How do we figure out how to co-operate across churches to make sure new sheep are being cared for and fed? What does it look like for churches to partner together so that we don’t think of “sheep stealing” but “shepherd sharing”?

Maybe the reason evangelism and church planting seems like a dichotomy is because the way church planting happens is (sometimes) broken

If we played a word association game with the words around the church planting discussion, what image would pop up in your head? What do you blurt out before your brain pops into gear? Let’s try.

Church plant?

Probably a new set up with better branding, a nicer website, and a cooler pastor than you, meeting in some funky “third place” in a suburb more trendy than yours. Am I wrong?

Not all church plants are like this. Lots of them are tedious. But the ones that get all the attention because their pastors add friends and followers online if there’s even the hint of a second or third degree of separation between you and them are like this… some of the time.

Play the game with “church planter” and, well, the picture isn’t much different. Before (and during) college I had a particular set of words reserved for church planters, not many of them were nice.

Most would-be church planters take themselves too seriously, and don’t take the (established) church seriously enough. They also don’t tend to be realistic about just how hard it is to be the church in post-Christian Australia. We can’t all plant megachurches, nor should we want to. But most would be planters seem to think they need the branding/corporate identity of a mega church. I don’t mean my friends. Obviously. And I think the assessment processes of the bigger evangelical planting networks weed this out. But the perception is shaped by those people who self-identify as church planters before they’ve even designed a logo or married a hot wife (see my now ancient post on how to church plant, but if you want a funky name you can also pick a sanctified one word verb, previously reserved for conferences, or, as seems to be the case with hipster plants, a solid sort of noun that connects you to something even more solid, if you’re really stuck you could use the Hipster Business Name Generator).

Too often church plants happen in a way that dismisses the work of the established church — be it traditional churches or denominations — and this sort of differentiation comes at the cost of both the new and the old, the new because it can cut off support from the establishment, or just irk the people flogging their guts in those churches, and the old because there’ll always be a percentage of people in those churches feeling just disgruntled enough to get up and leave (which is where bad transfer growth happens). I say this reflecting a little (contritely) on how my own plant was promoted both in house, and online. There were people who had their noses put out of joint by the suggestion we needed new and different approaches to church. Typically from churches that are going pretty well and have reached a sort of critical mass.

Here are some things I hope everyone in this conversation agrees with, that change the nature of church and evangelism.

1. Australia is increasingly non-Christian. Post-Christian. Post-Christian people feel like they know what church is, but often have no idea what the Gospel is.

2. Many churches have not changed their methodologies significantly (especially outside the cities, but not only those outside cities) in response to this fairly rapid shift. Some want to, but don’t really know how. Sometimes this is because the change experienced in 1 happens slower outside the cities.

3. By the time the church catches up to change, the change will probably have changed again. Leaving us behind. And the pace of change feels like it is increasing.

4. The result of 1-3 is we need more churches being churches differently, but still proclaiming the Gospel, if we want to reach Australia.

What would it look like if we weren’t anxious about church planting in our neighbourhood but genuinely celebrated it? It happens sometimes, but even the people publicly celebrating are perhaps privately anxious (I know I am, especially about what newer, cooler churches will do to our capacity for transfer growth).

What would it look like for church plants to be supported by existing churches with people and resources even if those churches aren’t in a sort of mothership relationship? I think there are some great examples of this new paradigm in the Brisbane Presbyterian scene?

No Church (plant) is an island. Whatever church plants do it shouldn’t be done in isolation from established churches and networks

When planting happens best, churches plant churches. If churches are investing in planting churches, and partnering with the myriad planting networks and using planting resources from these networks, to put churches in more parts of Australia, then this is evangelism. It’s possible the church hasn’t stopped doing evangelism. It’s changed tactics.

I think the “churches plant churches” mantra is great. Especially in my experience. But I’d love us to get to the stage where “the Church plants churches” — where we all celebrate when new churches start (obviously, and its a shame I feel like I need to qualify, I mean churches that show they’re part of the body of Christ by presenting the good news about Jesus, you don’t need to celebrate every time someone puts up a sign that says “church”).

What if we were able to celebrate like this even if that church started in our suburb or town (so long as they start outside of the eastern suburbs of Sydney)? What if we looked at the number of people we’re completely ill-equipped to reach in our area and figure out what it might look like to share resources (including people), rather than competing? Where we view other churches at partners in the Gospel with such familial affection that we might even encourage our own people to patch over and serve there if it’s a better geographic fit, or the unique mission/vibe of that church is a better fit for a person, or just if the need is there and the person is willing to serve.

We need a big umbrella to do that, and I think denominations need to play a part in this because they’re the best set up, organisationally to do it. Too many church plants are independent, and this is an indictment on the denominations that have been suspicious of church planting, or worried about ‘protecting’ established churches. What do we need to protect geographic areas from? More Gospel converts?

But I don’t think denominations are the solution by themselves. I like the idea that church planting isn’t something that we leave to young, restless punks who have a bone to pick with the ‘establishment’ (no matter how well assessed they might be), or something we leave to a few innovative churches to do by themselves, or something that denominations set a budget for that happens in an ad hoc way… this is why I love it when groups like the Geneva Push and Acts 29 try to have a big enough umbrella to allow different groups and individuals to contribute to starting new churches. The more the group ‘sending’ the church planter looks like the universal church — the broader the ‘gospel coalition’ —and the less it looks like a random action of some splinter cell, the better.

If churches are being planted by churches that believe that the church being the church is a significant part of evangelism, then the church planting conversation doesn’t happen at the expense of the evangelism conversation. It is the evangelism conversation.

How do we reinvent the way we do church, and start new churches, so that new and old churches benefit from the reinvention? Maybe the answer to this question is tied up in the way Paul talks about (and fundraises for) mission to new places, and for the established church in Jerusalem in his letters (Romans 15, 2 Corinthians 8-9). I don’t know how sustainable it is to suggest the more established churches are owed respect and recognition in the way Paul wants new Gentile churches to recognise the Jerusalem church (Romans 15:27-28), but there could be something there…

We’ve got to try new stuff somewhere, and perhaps it’s easier to innovate in a new church.

I’ve grown up being part of some great churches, soaked in the Gospel. But I didn’t head off to college and into ministry because I wanted to see those churches duplicated. Well. Not completely. I wanted to see those churches produce fruit via the lives of the people shaped by those communities and the Gospel DNA. People like me.

I don’t want churches I lead to be clones of the churches that shaped me, nor do I want the church I’m part of to simply be a projection of the things I like. I hope we all feel the same. That we don’t want churches we’re part of to address the Australia of the past, but the part of Australia we’re in in the present, in a way that makes Jesus and his cross-centered story of redemption come alive as we embody him and live it. I hope we want to be a part of church communities that pass on the DNA that allows our ‘children’ (be they future churches, or our literal offspring), to shape the way church participates in the Australia of the future.

While the Gospel message doesn’t change, I believe there is continuity in terms of the beliefs the church has received because the Gospel has been faithfully transmitted from generation to generation, if we did church like my grandparents did church when they were kids, or like my dad did church when he was a kid, for my kids, my kids would not want to stick with church. But most churches get comfortable with their culture, and somehow baptise their practices as the “traditional” way of doing church. Being part of a church plant lets you at least tilt at a few windmills, or tip a few sacred cows over without too much damage. And gives other churches something to look at as a way forward.

Here’s an analogy. Parents know their kids need to eat good healthy food if they’re going to survive in the big, wide, world as adults. You can’t survive on KFC alone (trust me. I’ve tried). So a good parent teaches their kids to cook before letting them leave the nest.

Sometimes that child doesn’t figure out their identity, or what food they like, until leaving home. Sometimes you don’t know what you’ve been missing out on until you’re out there experimenting, or eating at new places in new neighbourhoods, with new people. This variety can be a massive danger, and might stop parents letting a child leave home, or stop a child taking the risk of leaving, but sometimes the teenager moves out of home, tries a delicious new sort of food, and brings it back to the family home and everybody benefits. This is only a benefit when there’s nothing unhealthy about this new food and its simply because the family home didn’t think or know about the option that it hasn’t always been on the menu.

That’s the sort of benefit that might happen if church plants are seen a bit like teenagers leaving home and growing towards adulthood as members of the family… rather than like teenagers who feel like they need to run away, or have been kicked out.

Maybe the reason evangelism doesn’t look like it’s working is that the people in the conversation tend to be focused on people just like us

I quoted Gary’s picture of the life lived evangelistically above. And I reckon it’s a great starting point. But I think we need to come to terms with the idea that white, middle class, post-Christian Australia doesn’t really want to listen to us anymore and doesn’t think we should have any particularly privileged place in society or their lives (think the place of religious ceremony in the calendar of the average Aussie). Even if they tick “Christian” on the census, Australians aren’t getting married in church, aren’t really going to church at Christmas and Easter, and aren’t making every day decisions with reference to Jesus Christ.

Evangelism seems really hard if you think evangelism is about converting your best buddies. And certainly you should hope to convert your best buddies. But our best buddies tend to be wise, powerful, wealthy types. If we’re honest about our wealth (and if you’re reading a 5,000 word blog post you probably fit that bill). Why do we think this should be the standard makeup of our churches? Paul didn’t seem surprised that the church in Corinth didn’t look anything like Corinth’s middle class.

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. — 1 Corinthians 1:26-30

The middle class makeup of our churches is a vestige of the social privilege that came with Christendom, and as we lose that we need to be prepared for a shift in the demographic of our church communities. Not in a way that wipes out the middle and upper classes. Paul expects some people from these echelons to be part of the church (and to play their part), but in a way that upsets the default, and changes the way we think about how and where to do evangelism, and how to measure success.

Evangelism has to involve talking to people just like you. Your friends and family. Your neighbours. People who think like you and like the same stuff as you. But I don’t think we can afford for it to be limited to that… We need to break the shackles of our own personal affinities and start getting out of our comfort zones a little. I think this will be made easier because the people in our comfort zones or “target demographics” might not want to listen to us any more.

All evangelism is hard. For the reasons Paul spells out above. What we’re saying looks and sounds stupid. But the wisdom and power of God rests in us looking stupid to those who want worldly wisdom and power. And who doesn’t want worldly wisdom and power?

Why aren’t more churches working at the margins of society? You know who wants to know Jesus? International students, asylum seekers, and other people we forget in our comfortable little enclaves. I don’t know for certain where the vast majority of church plants happen, or who they try to reach – but I bet it trends urban/suburban, and trends trendy, and trends towards Sydney’s eastern suburbs if you’re a Moore College graduate or an Acts 29 planter in Sydney.

It’s hard to figure out how effective evangelism is when most of our human resources (think people being paid to do Gospel ministry in Australia) are in a relatively small pocket of a relatively big city, in an incredibly geographically diverse and increasingly culturally diverse nation.


What the Church gets wrong, but Jesus makes right

This term at church we’re tackling nine big issues. Issues we think are something like belief blockers for our friends and neighbours. Issues where the Church gets things wrong, but issues that the good news of Jesus transforms (where we, the Church, need to keep transforming). You can read more about the series and the title here. We’ve put together a massive resource for people to tackle these issues in the form of our Growth Group booklets — if you’ve been wondering why I haven’t been posting much here, this is why. These booklets are available online as a PDF, and there’ll be extended versions of each topic available online in coming weeks.

The topics we’re tackling (starting this Sunday) are:

  1. Judging Others
  2. Gay Marriage
  3. Abortion & Euthanasia
  4. Abuse
  5. Feminism
  6. Asylum Seekers
  7. Climate Change
  8. Human Trafficking
  9. Greed

If you’re in Brisbane and you’re suspicious about the Church, or any of these issues stop you investigating Jesus, I’d love to invite you to join us at church in South Bank, at the Queensland Theatre Company (Montague Road). We have services at 10:30am and 5pm. If you come in the evening we can grab a beer (or wine) in the bar afterwards and have a chat.

One more sleep

Remember that time I posted stuff about starting a church in South Bank. Well. That happens tomorrow. If you’re the praying type – could you pray for us?

If you’re not the praying type – and you live in Brisbane – you should come, find out what it means to be the praying type.

Here’s a video with some details.

Creek Road – A new church in South Bank from Creek Road on Vimeo.

Also – that post about starting a church in Brisbane’s inner city led to an interview with the Sunday Mail – you can read the interview and see the story here – turns out South Bank is the most ‘godless’ part of Brisbane.

Next year…

For those who came in late (I’ve always wanted to start something that way), this year is my last year at Queensland Theological College.

My last year of being a “Candidate for Ordination” for the Presbyterian Church of Queensland. And it’s almost September.

It is traditional, at these times, if one is a college student, to be thinking about one’s future. To be thinking about next year – and the years after, and where one might end up serving the body of Christ, his church, and in what capacity.

Today I stood up in front of all four services at Creek Road, with my friend Joe, and we spoke about next year – and where we’re headed. For a bit more on what Joe is doing see this post on the Creek Road blog.

Long long time readers might remember some things I wrote in my pre-college years about ministry in regional parts of Australia. And might remember some of my passionate pleas for people to take the gospel to regional Queensland.

You may also remember some of my cynicism about missional theology centered on “the city” – as if inner city ministry is hugely transformative and thus, of more value.

You may remember some of the things I said about “church planting” and the types of people who are attracted to the glamour and excitement of not having to deal with “traditions” and stuff.

It’s all here in the archives.

You may know that Robyn and I have continued to champion the cause of Queensland’s regional areas in our time at college.

You’ll be happy to know – on the basis of these well documented commitments – that our immediate, and probably short to medium to long term future has been sorted.

God, it seems, has a sense of humour.

Next year, and beyond (subject to me passing college, my trials for license, and a congregational meeting) Robyn and I will be continuing to serve with the saints at Creek Road in a new campus. Creek Road is going multisite (don’t worry – all the stuff I said about video preaching and the need for a preacher to have a flesh and blood presence with his congregation still stands).

This campus is in South Bank. Brisbane’s cultural hub. Brisbane’s inner city.

We’re very excited about serving with Creek Road – it is a church that is serious about the gospel, and is serious about reaching the lost. It is a church that has a clearly articulated theology of ministry, and philosophy of ministry, and approach to ministry that I’m more than on board with. It is a church that makes sure Jesus is at the heart of each sermon, each song, each Growth Group study.

If you come to Creek Road on a Sunday – you’ll hear about Jesus.

Which is great.

South Bank is a really exciting part of Brisbane. It’s where a lot of the good cafes are. It’s where culture happens. We’re even meeting at the Queensland Theatre Company.

We’re going to be opening a campus, a church, in the heart of Brisbane – where stories are told – and we’ll be sharing the best story in the world – the gospel of Jesus.

Which is exciting.

This may all seem something like a slap in the face to regional Queensland – but it’s not. At least not in my head.

I still love regional Queensland. Especially North Queensland. I’m still keen to see great ministry happening outside of the south east corner, I’m hoping that I’ll be able to be a part of that in a more effective way than I would be were I to head somewhere else (and there aren’t a huge number of competing offers out there this year).

I’m particularly excited about Creek Road’s commitment to partnering with, and resourcing, churches all around the state, and even all around the country. There are concrete examples of this happening already – in regional Queensland and beyond. That is one of the things that really excites me about joining the team at Creek Road.

There are a heap of synergies in terms of things I’m passionate about seeing our denomination do to share the gospel and this role at Creek Road.

One of the things I’ve become really passionate about since I wrote all that stuff about regional ministry is the sort of public Christianity sphere this blog has started to occupy, that represents a significant aspect of my thinking about ministry, and there have been a few conversations I’ve had with people around the country in recent weeks on that front that make me think this is an area I should continue exploring and developing.

There’s huge scope for developing this stuff further in this role – producing things like this, and working with our team on things like this smart phone app, and helping think about how we share and distribute these videos.

10 great videos to use for church

I love me some good multimedia – especially good multimedia that helps people meet Jesus.

So I’m thrilled to bits with Creek Road – the church I go to – and the decision to employ some people to make multimedia stuff that helps people connect with Jesus every week. Our videos link to our teaching series – but heaps of them are designed with more than one end user in mind. Here are some of my favourites. It’s pretty exciting seeing stuff like this roll off the production line every week. Grace and Wade – our media peeps – are pretty much geniuses.

We’d love people to use these in other churches, and to share them online. That’s kind of the point…

You can check out the Creek Road channel on Vimeo – our vodcasts go there too – if you have trouble figuring out how to use the videos or anything like that – shoot me an email.

An Open Letter to Brisbane after my visit to Hillsong

I’m not sure who to address this open letter to. Open letters, as a medium, allow opinions to be voiced from an individual for the people addressed, but the point of the genre is that it provides some sort of benefit for the “public” – the reader, as well as the addressee.

I thought about making this an open letter to Hillsong. But who am I to tell another church how to do their business. I’m barely out of nappies as far as this ministry caper is concerned. So I decided I’d try addressing the people we have in common – the people who live around us.

There will be people who say I should’ve sent this straight to Hillsong, without making it open. And I would’ve, but I can’t for the life of me figure out how to contact the relevant people at Hillsong. They’re not exactly transparent on that front. I will tweet them. It is also hard to provide criticism on the basis of “thought” when the well on that front has been poisoned in the sermon. More than once. Apparently trusting God’s word means not really grappling with it all that hard, unless you’re one of the few who can “rightly divide” it (2 Tim 2:15). So much for the priesthood of all believers. I’m also pretty sure that the people who watched our little group at Hillsong assumed we weren’t being moved by the Spirit, because we weren’t moving with the crowd. We weren’t responding to the talk the way we were called to. So I felt uncomfortable talking about the talk with anybody there tonight.

But I want to assure you, if you’re from Hillsong, that I, with meagre powers, love Jesus. He has captured my heart, and my head. And I offer this humbly as a suggestion that something was missing from Hillsong tonight. Something pretty big. Essential even.

Dear Brisbane,

I’m not an expert on Hillsong, or what goes on there. I’ve been once. Once was enough.

I’m not the emotional type. I’m, I hope, a relatively typical Aussie bloke. But I do go to church. Lots. I work for a church as a student, I’m training to be a minister. A few weeks back, when I was going through a pre-delivery critique of one of my sermons, someone suggested it lacked a little passion. I wondered a bit about whether or not I’m passionate enough about the gospel. I wondered whether I really do get excited about the cross. I wondered if I should be more like my brothers and sisters at Hillsong. None of this really matters. Except that I’m a typical person and I want to make where I’m coming from pretty clear. I’m no more or less special than the average church goer, but I am in a position to have some idea what should happen in church.

I try to give people a fair hearing. I try not to judge others. I’m not very good at this. We’re all a package of our prejudice,  our personalities, and our inherent self importance. So I fail. But I do try to be not just objective in how I assess things, but charitable. Using a standard that I hope is objective, and a standard that I’d want applied to me in return.

Let me declare my “bias” – I’m not a pentecostal, in part because I’m not an emotional type, in part because I’ve been raised in a non-pentecostal setting so I have a natural inclination towards non-pentecostal expressions of Christianity, and in part because I’m a more rational type and I have problems with some pentecostal accounts of theology and the human experience. I love my pentecostal brothers and sisters in Christ – and I think we have much to learn from them about loving people, serving people, seeking justice, and many many lessons in terms of connecting with society and not avoiding “cool” as though the gospel is purer if we’re not working hard to connect it to people. In fact, we were there tonight to learn from Hillsong. We wanted to learn about how to look after new people (hint – it’s not taking pot shots at people who aren’t physically expressive, who sit with their arms crossed, or are “intellectual” about their faith – three of the points from tonight’s sermon). Their production values are excellent. Their music is excellent. Their people are passionate, and warm, and care about changing the world – and they do something about it. Starting local, but thinking interstate and global too.

My problem is not with Pentecostal theology. My problem is not with the music, or the production values, or the social justice, or the passion of the people. My problem with tonight’s service is not with pentecostal theology – it’s with what I think is a failure to do what church is meant to be on about. Something that in no way undermines any of the great stuff that happened at Hillsong tonight.

So here’s what I think the church gathering should be about, because I think the church gathering should reflect what unites the church who are gathered, and the church that has gathered and will gather since Jesus, and until he returns.


Jesus, the God who created the world made flesh. Made human. So that we can know God.

Jesus, the son of man, the son of God, who went to the cross and was executed like the scummiest of criminals. Because when it comes to God’s standards we – humans who aren’t Jesus – are the scummiest of criminals. He died our death so we could live his life.

Jesus. God’s “word” to humanity. God’s communication to us. The one life that sums up what the whole Bible is about.

Church is about Jesus. Church is a gathering of people brought together by Jesus, for Jesus. Broken and imperfect people. Like me.

Any time someone gets up in a church and doesn’t talk about Jesus it’s a wasted opportunity. It’s worse, in my opinion, than getting up in the political sphere as a Christian and not talking about Jesus. If you’ve read my criticisms of the ACL  you’ll understand something of my feelings on this front.

The reason I’m writing this is that I went to one of Brisbane’s biggest churches tonight. A church that is part of one of the biggest networks of churches in the world. A mover and shaker in the church business. And apart from a few cursory references, and a couple of verses in a couple of songs, Jesus wasn’t spoken about. Jesus was there in name. And he was there as guarantor of our happiness and victory (effect), but he was absent as cause. He wasn’t there in the sermon underpinning the promises the Bible makes about humanity. And he should have been. And I’m sorry. Brisbane. Because people need to hear about Jesus.

Hillsong promises all sorts of good stuff for people who get on board with God. And God is powerful, like they say. But God demonstrates his power at the cross of Jesus. Power in humility. Strength in suffering. Honour in shame. Victory in sacrifice. The cross isn’t a message of triumph like we might understand it in human terms. It’s a message of triumph in subversion. It turns the world upside down. Victory, for the Christian, is cross shaped. It’s not shaped like the life we want to have. It’s shaped like the life Jesus had. Sacrifice for others. Discomfort for others. Voluntarily.

Tonight I went to Hillsong. The talk was about Psalm 149. Verse 6 of Psalm 149 that is. A verse that in the words of preacher Steve Dixon, is where the Psalm pivots from being about praise, to being about God’s word.

God’s word is important. We can’t know God without it. I’m not sure you can jump straight from one use of the word “sword” into every mention of the word “sword” in the Bible.

“May the praise of God be in their mouths
and a double-edged sword in their hands,”

But we went from here to Hebrews 4. Via a long description of the functions of swords through the ages. Why the function of swords in the Middle Ages and Scotland and in knighting people today was worth a significant chunk of time was a bit beyond me.

12 For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

A great verse. A powerful verse. God’s word is alive and active. It is powerful. It can upend lives because it upended the world. It created the world. It holds the world together. That’s what Hebrews 1 says anyway. And it equates God’s word with Jesus.

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.

The talk didn’t go there.

At one point, in a bit of ironic demonstration of why some actual Bible study is a good thing, Steve Dixon talked about the difference between the two Greek words for word. λογος (logos) and ῥῆμα (rhema). Logos, he said, rightly, is the notion of the whole counsel on an issue, the final word, the comprehensive word, the wisdom on a subject… But apparently that’s too much for our little human brains to comprehend. We can only deal with rhemas. Small parts of the logos given to us by the Spirit in particular moments. That sounds great. But it’s not really true. Because we have access to the full wisdom of God in Jesus. Here’s how John puts it. In chapter 1, verses 1 and 14.

In the beginning was the logos, and the logos was with God, and the logos was God.

14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

We can know the Logos. It’s mind blowing. But it’s true. We need to know God’s logos. The words or utterances spoken by God aren’t enough. The whole counsel is. We may not ever grasp it fully. We are finite, God is infinite. We may only grasp it from utterances (rhema). But God’s word is Jesus.

The worst part of the rhema v logos logic is that Hebrews 4, when it talks about the word of God it says “the logos of God.” Probably worse still, in terms of setting up some magical interpretive distinction between the two is that the Hebrews 1 passage above uses rhema. For something much bigger and grander than a small word applied to an individual. The logic just doesn’t stand up.

And if you’re going to talk about the power of God’s word to transform lives – any transformation of lives begins with Jesus. And it begins at the cross. The word (logos) of God that is living and active is Jesus, who speaks words that are powerful (rhema). There is no word of God without Jesus. There is no point talking about the word of God’s impact in our life without talking about Jesus – and that’s where tonight failed. It was all about the power of God’s word spoken into the lives of people, but it wasn’t about Jesus.

The transformation God works in human lives is through Jesus… not just through the words of moral wisdom found in the Bible. Which is, as much as I could tell, and I was listening pretty hard, the message of tonight’s talk. If we live by the words we find in the Bible it’ll change our life for the better. We’ll suddenly become passionate worshippers of God and the world will change through our actions.

It sounds nice. And the Bible is full of wisdom. Living the words of the Bible will make you a healthier, wealthier, and wiser, person. Probably. Until something goes wrong in your life – like your selfishness or the selfishness of someone else gets in the way. Or until you get the gospel and realise you’re called to sacrifice for others and to be prepared to suffer as you take up your cross and follow Jesus. As you give up your life. As you suffer well. As you die well.

It felt a lot like the talk had 1 Corinthians in the background – especially in the anti-intellectual bits.

18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written:

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?

That’s a powerful account of the usefulness of intellectual endeavour without God. But the next bit is more important.

21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

There wasn’t any of that preaching tonight. If there was it was so implied that I didn’t get it. I was listening out for it. I was waiting for it. I could feel every fibre in my body tensing as it became clearer and clearer that a long sermon was going to go by without God’s word being linked to Jesus. I was collapsing in on myself hoping against hope that we’d get to John 1, or Hebrews 1, or any presentation of the gospel.

Here’s a challenge I have for Steve and for any other Hillsong people who find this post via their google alerts, or Twitter… listen back to tonight’s sermon. Listen for anything that might point someone to the gospel. To the foot of the cross. To Jesus, the word made flesh, not simply to Scripture as a handbook for life. Scripture is Scripture because Jesus said it testified about him, and he showed he was God by coming back from the dead. Without him it’s just some old text. It is living and powerful because it centres on the cross. The pivot point in human history.

Steve used the example of two hypothetical people in the congregation who might respond to his talk in different ways – by fully physically engaging in worship, as he suggested the Psalm called us to, getting out of their comfort zone and giving themselves over to God, or by sitting back, arms folded, unchallenged and unmoved.

Jesus doesn’t care about how high you lift your arms, or how uncomfortable the self-aware bit of your psyche is when you are praising him. He cares about the condition of your heart – and sure, responding to Jesus with your whole being is part of responding to your changed heart. And the passion and social justice stuff Hillsong and churches of its ilk get into is fruit of a changed heart. I have no doubt about that.

I’m not a hypothetical listener. I’m not a sermon illustration. I was there. In the flesh. In the second row. I could’ve walked out at the end of that sermon insulted (I was sitting with my arms crossed apparently a sign that God’s word wasn’t engaging me), and that would’ve been sad, I could’ve walked out of that talk no clearer on who Jesus is, and that’s a tragedy. But I walked out angry. So at least Hillsong promoted a passionate response from me. I’m thankful for that. But mostly for Jesus.

So dear Brisbane, if you go to Hillsong and it isn’t clear what they’re on about in the sermon, or why they’re singing with such passion. Please ask someone. I’m sure they’ll be able to tell you. Then ask them, given how amazing the gospel is, why it isn’t front and centre every week in everything they do. It might be other weeks, it wasn’t this week.



Infographic: Australian church attendance

This is a handy infographic from McCrindle Research.


Church for atheists? What’s the point?

Image Credit: The first Sunday Assembly Meeting, BBC

Meet The Sunday Assembly. An atheist “church”…

“The Sunday Assembly is a godless congregation that will meet on the first Sunday of every month to hear great talks, sing songs and generally celebrate the wonder of life. It’s a service for anyone who wants to live better, help often and wonder more.

Come on down to hear inspirational speakers and to enjoy a morning that is part-foot stomping show, part-atheist church.”

The atheist church: it’s all about you…

The church’s co-founders wrote a piece as part of the same New York Times conversation as Penn Gillete’s piece I wrote about the other day.

“We started The Sunday Assembly… because the idea of meeting once a month to sing songs, hear great speakers and celebrate the incredible gift of life seems like a fun, and useful, thing to do.

What’s more, church has got so many awesome things going for it (which we’ve shamelessly nicked). Singing together in a group? Super. Hearing interesting things? Rad. (Our first reading was Theodore Roosevelt’s Man in the Arena bit.) A moment to think quietly about your life? Wizard. Getting to know your neighbors? Ace.”

This seems to be building on the theme of philosopher Alain De Botton’s Religion for Atheists (incidentally for a more eloquent treatment of De Botton’s work than you’ll find here, or elsewhere, be sure to read Dan Anderson’s observations on a night with De Botton while he was on the Australian leg of his book tour).

De Botton gave this talk at that spells out his thinking.

Here’s a summary of De Botton’s thesis in the book, from his own website:

Religion for Atheists suggests that rather than mocking religions, agnostics and atheists should instead steal from them – because they’re packed with good ideas on how we might live and arrange our societies. Blending deep respect with total impiety, Alain (a non-believer himself) proposes that we should look to religions for insights into, among other concerns, how to:

  • build a sense of community
  • make our relationships last
  • overcome feelings of envy and inadequacy
  • escape the twenty-four hour media
  • go travelling
  • get more out of art, architecture and music
  • and create new businesses designed to address our emotional needs.

De Botton has taken his idea a little further than the gathering (the ekklesia – which is the word we translate as “church”), he’s planning to build an atheist temple in the middle of London’s finance district.

“Normally a temple is to Jesus, Mary or Buddha but you can build a temple to anything that’s positive and good. That could mean a temple to love, friendship, calm or perspective … Because of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, atheism has become known as a destructive force… De Botton revealed details of a temple to evoke more than 300m years of life on earth. Each centimetre of the tapering tower’s interior has been designed to represent a million years and a narrow band of gold will illustrate the relatively tiny amount of time humans have walked the planet. The exterior would be inscribed with a binary code denoting the human genome sequence.”

His proposal has been pretty soundly criticised by other atheists who are less willing to buy into anything that uses “atheist” and “religion” in the same sentence without the qualifiers “not a”… Here’s another piece from the Guardian… and the concluding quote about how unnecessary De Botton’s approach is…

“To answer De Botton’s original question, atheists do have their own versions of great churches and cathedrals. If the antithesis of religion is scientific rationalism, then surely its temples are the British Library, theMillau Viaduct and the Large Hadron Collider? If it’s about glorifying creation, then why not the Natural History Museum or the Eden Project? What about the Tate Modern? Or Wembley Stadium? Or the O2? Or the Westfield shopping centre? Perhaps non-believers should decide for themselves what a temple of atheism should be.”

There’s something in that criticism, but it’s the same sort of criticism I might make against the notion of carving out “sacred space” from a sacred creation. If the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it – then why make a church building when you can meet on the beach. I think there are actually good sociological reasons for creating spaces to use and gather for mission, and great reasons for those spaces to look nice and inviting, and even for them to help people grasp something of the God we follow… but that space isn’t really sacred in any magical sense.

It seems from these two examples that some atheists recognise the good and compelling aspects of religion, and they’re trying to copy it by capturing some of the nature of religion, without the essence – it looks like, at this point, the process boils down to two alternative methodologies – trying to capture something transcendent in art and architecture, and trying to capture something more meaningful in human relationships built around a core commitment… and why not, these are fairly consistent with how religions operate in time and space, sociologically.

In recreating a gathering, and recreating a “sacred space,” these newer atheists are following the sort of religious handbook you follow if you believe religion is a purely human invention, and the transcendental aspects of religion are something we create through manipulating the senses and emotions.

These are the worst bits of religion. Not the best bits.

They’re good things – but they’re not the sort of good things that make religious belief worth sticking with.

A grand building is nice, and can be a testimony to the God who provided order and beauty in the creation. But, in the end, Dawkin’s criticism of De Botton’s project (from the article linked above) is essentially the criticism most protestants have when walking through massive and ornate cathedrals in Europe…

“I think there are better things to spend this kind of money on. If you are going to spend money on atheism you could improve secular education and build non-religious schools which teach rational, sceptical critical thinking.”

The Sunday Assembly went for corporate singing as one of the artsy elements of religion that is worth maintaining in a post-Christian (non-Christian) church. And corporate singing is good.

In fact, just to be clear, I’m not saying great architecture, and great music are bad things – they are good things, they’re just some of the worst parts of Christianity.

At this point it’s worth throwing to Dan Anderson’s assessment of De Botton’s plundering of the “gold” of Christianity… and the way it highlights something lacking in how my tradition, and Dan’s, do religious “culture”…

“Too frequently, conservative evangelicalism operates with a truncated theological anthropology. As a product of the rationalist Enlightenment, evangelicalism frequently forgets the power of exactly the kinds of practices that De Botton commends: we jettison liturgical habituation to the truths of the gospel, we fail to engage with the fact that we are creatures of desire, of community, who thrill to beauty, who are inescapably embodied. If the full galleries at the Opera House last night are anything to go by, people are craving the kinds of things that make church ‘churchy’. Ironically, in our passion to make churches as welcoming to outsiders as possible we actively trash our rich heritage of these practices until the church gathering becomes indistinguishable from the philosophical lecture, apart from some vestigial (embarrassed) singing.”

That’s important. But this is silver cutlery stuff. At best. When it comes to the treasures of Christianity.

Restored human relationships, and a bit of perspective about the universe and our place in it – the other, slightly more transcendental aspects of the Sunday Gathering and De Botton’s open air temple, are also great things about Christianity. Probably the slightly better gold plated tableware. But human relationships are really hard – even in a church context where some of our central tenets – that we’re all equals united in Christ, naturally sinners who’ll stuff up, but new creations, called to put others first, called to love our neighbours as ourselves, and to serve a common purpose – should mitigate selfishness and some of the brokenness in how we relate to one another. The church is full of people hurt by how they’ve been treated by other members of the church – who’d leave if these things weren’t true. If we were meeting on the basis of being able to relate well to one another without these central truths of Christianity we’d be splintering into denominations ad infinitum or at least until we had as many churches as there are people. The Sunday Gathering, or any atheist church, loses all of these elements and is pushing a pretty optimistic view of human nature.

That’s beginning to tap into the really good bit of Christianity, and the church, and it’s a good bit that is out of reach for atheists – precisely because atheism is not a religion, or a belief in something. At this point there are two questions I want to explore before wrapping up… the first I think is predominantly something for non-Christians (possibly atheists) to think about when it comes to the exercise of trying to copy the good bits about church, the second is for Christians given that there’s some sort of movement wanting to duplicate the good (but not essential) bits of church…

What is (good about) church?

A lot of this depends on the idea that Christians are gathering around something that is supernatural and true – that there is a God, who revealed himself in Jesus and through the Bible – in fact, those things are so central to what it means to be Christian that there’s no value to be redeemed if they’re not. I reckon Paul’s right at this point, in Corinthians, where he says if Christianity isn’t true, then individual pursuit of pleasure (eat, drink, and be merry) is really where it’s at (though, for extroverts, this might be found in something that looks like church). Because death is the ultimate reality. But if Christianity is true, then death is the penultimate reality – it’s a gateway, to God’s presence.

If there’s no truth to religion then there’s no point for doing anything altruistic, and it’s hard to demonstrate that the good life is tied up in anything other than selfishness – why you’d gather with other people who think this way anyway – unless there is a deeper human yearning for community and connection with something bigger than ourselves – is beyond me, perhaps you can explain in the comments. And if that deeper yearning exists, then it could be explained by an appeal to human nature, but it opens the door for a god to have created humans with this capacity. Anyway. I digress.

There’s really nothing good about the Christian church, in my opinion, if you take out the core bits of Christianity. This is especially true if most of the non-core bits of Christianity are shaped by human culture. And they basically are. Any good sociologist should be able to show that… it’s why churches look and feel different in different times and places. If you want to build a society around the best bits of culture then it’s only worth pillaging the church so long as Christians are doing our job and creating the best bits of culture. I’m not sure that’s been really true of the church since Bach (or maybe Tolkein and Lewis). Which is a tragedy, and reflects a bit of a failing of the church in terms of how we think about creation.

One of the really powerful movements from the Old Testament – where the Temple was kind of important – to the New Testament, is the movement in how Sacred space is understood. This is one of those cool things where seeing how something develops across the whole Bible, and into the future, is really cool – and it’s pretty foundational to how we define church, and what the “good” essential bit of church is.

It all starts in the beginning… one of the fun things about Genesis 1 and 2, and the Garden of Eden, is that the Garden is described using the same sort of language and setting that is later used for the Temple in Jerusalem. You can read more on this in this article “Eden, the Temple, and the Church’s Mission” which is a nice summary of Beale’s book The Temple and the Church’s Mission. Basically Adam and Eve were given the job of being priests, expanding God’s temple over all of creation (the verbs used when God gives Adam a job in Genesis 2 are used of the priests later). When things go badly, part of the restoration story of the Old Testament is pushing towards recapturing God’s presence with humanity – sacred space is represented in the Tabernacle, then the Temple… if people want to capture something good and transcendental the Old Testament centres this around the city of Jerusalem, which is part of the tragedy of Exile. Sacred space was really important in the Old Testament, because access to a sacred space was a measure of how things were going for the sacred people – when they were being faithful to God they’d have access to this space, and good things would happen, when they were bad, they’d lose access to that space and bad things would happen.

Then we get to the New Testament. And everything changes. First God dwells with the world in the person of Jesus (read John 1). Then, Jesus makes it clear who God’s people are, after he leaves, because they’re given his Spirit (see the closing chapters of John, and all of Acts). Sacred space isn’t a big deal for the early church. They’re meeting in houses, town halls, the mini-sacred spaces of the Jews (synagogues)… and the word “church” is being used for the gathering – and Paul freely uses temple language to describe individuals (we’re the dwelling place of God) and the church more corporately. There has been a movement. The people are sacred, the dwelling place of God, and space is relatively unimportant.

The church gathering – the people – is good because it anticipates where we’re heading in the long term, the Bible ends with a description of the church of the future – and in some ways this is the aspirational standard we’re struggling to meet now, as broken humans in a broken world.

“Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

Temples and religious spaces are pretty important to the sociology of religion, but they’re not really important in Christianity in terms of what it is to be part of the church. Where God dwells in us, in a way that unites us.

Gatherings of people around a purpose in a way that breaks down hostility and creates love are good things, and again hugely important when it comes to explaining religion as a social phenomenon – but unless the purpose is really big, and people are so bought into it that they’re able to overcome personality differences, or perhaps alternatively there’s either some really good external help for dealing with differences, or an internal change in nature, my guess is people will stay while it suits them.

The great and important bit of Christianity and being the church is that we gather around the ultimate purpose, not around an absence of purpose, or the purpose of trying to “live better” in a broken and frustrated world where tears, death, mourning, crying and pain are penultimate realities.

The better news is that our understanding of humanity changes – not only to give us a pessimism about human organisations and how individuals will react to situations, but because we’re united in Jesus, and our nature is changed through the Holy Spirit – we can truly love others and appreciate gathering together only if we’re cognisant of the God who is there, who we’re gathering to celebrate, and the work he’s done in bringing a bunch of broken people together. Church is fundamentally not really about self-improvement (though that might be a bi-product), but about thankfulness to God, and service of others in the hope that other broken people will know God too. We gather around a story that makes us something, connects us to something – each other, sure, but ultimately we gather because we have been connected to God, through Jesus, with an amazing future. Our narrative is pretty powerful.

The atheist church, especially as the Sunday Gathering defines it, is far too self-serving to be a long term proposition – perhaps that’s why they’ve set the bar pretty low at monthly, as opposed to the picture of what it means to be the church in the Bible, which sees the gathering as a regular expression of a permanent reality.

The other big problem I see with the atheist church is the complete and definitive absence of a positive narrative. By its very nature, atheism, and corporate atheism, is a lack of belief, or a gathering around a lack of belief. The strength of Christianity is the story it involves – of a God who creates the world, and redeems it from brokenness, through sacrifice, for each person who wants to become part of the story, and it offers a future. It interweaves with our history and resonates with our experience. We’re people who live lives as stories, and communicate in stories – and there’s nothing compelling about the atheist narrative. The story De Botton’s atheist temple tells is depressing. You are a small dot in a big and infinite amount of time and space. You are, essentially, nothing. How can you live a more fulfilling life if that’s the meta-narrative you’re buying into. You might be a bigger bit of nothing than other individuals if you do something great. But it’s a pretty hard sell. Who’d want to be a teller of that story? Who’d want to wake up with that story defining their choices. Believe nothing if you like – but gathering as a celebration of this belief doesn’t seem like the path to happiness. It doesn’t make any sense. Better to gather in an association that celebrates something positive – a wine club, a music club, an Epicurean society… If you really want to capture the essence of the church without its core, it’s tied up in the power of our narrative – this is true for other religious belief systems too, it’s why oppressed minorities are amongst the first to flock to Islam, it’s why Mormonism is big in the US… while De Botton is essentially trying to do this in the design of his temple which functions as an ode to the complexity of the human genome but simultaneously highlights our insignificance in the scheme of things –  the qualitative aspects of that story (the facts of which other religions acknowledge) aren’t all that compelling, they lack direction. A good story has a plot.

What can Christians learn from the Atheist Church?

300 people went along to the first Sunday Gathering – it is capturing something, at least initially, that humans are geared to look for. It’s sad that they appear to have a better doctrine of creation than we do, it’s sad that they’re interested in the ephemeral nature of music, the arts, and even science while we’ve, largely, abdicated the responsibility to be not just workers in creation but people who want to make good things that reflect who God is… There’s a balance here, but there are two reasons I think we should be returning to the abandoned field of producing good works – even good works that appear to have little value outside the cultural sphere – because when they’re not turned into some sort of idol, which is what this Sunday Gathering is basically doing, they testify to the God who revealed himself in Christ, in the best story ever told. Good art (and living a good life) is a good response to this story, and doing art (or life) well is a good way of telling this story.

I don’t mean making Christian sub-culture versions of current art either, they’re sub-standard by nature. I mean making the best versions of art, as Christians, having healthy theologies of creation, culture, and work… people are wired to appreciate that, especially post-modern people who have moved a little beyond the idea that we sway people with just the bare facts – which is where we’ve kind of found ourselves in the conservative evangelical circles that I’ve been shaped by. Dan’s quote that I posted above says this better than I will – or at least positions us to be thinking this through, but if these things are naturally attractive to humans, and not contrary to the gospel, then why aren’t we using them?

They can be a distraction from the main thing – the story that we’re on about – but they can be used to help tell our story in a more powerful way that resonates with people and tugs at more than the part of their brain that’s geared towards listening to a boring monologue.

Most idols are good parts of creation that we turn to when we should be turning to God – these things are the objects of idolatry, but they were gold created by God before we turned them into golden cows.

We’ve over-corrected in response to the insidious idolatry that tends to turn good cultural things into ultimate things, and it’s probably time to get the good golden dinnerware out of the closet and start using it, lest it get plundered, copied, and cheapened because of the glut of replicas in the market.

Mission starts with Babel: A cool Biblical Theology thing

I’m doing some stuff on the church for one of my subjects this semester (well, for three of them, but this one in particular is called Church, Sacraments, and Ministry). Here’s a cool bit of Biblical Theology that I’d kind of thought about before but I’ve just had to articulate it…

These passages work really nicely together to account for the global significance of the gospel…

In Genesis 11 you get the story of Babel, some entrepreneurial peeps try to build a big tower to be like God. Because they all speak the same language.

11 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward,they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lordsaid, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city.That is why it was called Babel —because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

It’s a nice little theological account for why there are different nations – which sits just before God calls Abraham (then Abram) to start his own people – and they’re meant to bless these other nations (Gen 12:1-3).

Skip ahead a few thousand years (well, you could incorporate the nations coming in to see Solomon. I probably would). And you get the great Commission… Especially these bits in Matthew 28:

18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

It’s global. But it’s global because the Babel type distinction (which has become a “Jew/Gentile” distinction) has been broken down by Jesus.

Paul says it this way in Galatians 3:

28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Here’s some cool stuff though… Babel starts getting reversed at Pentecost in Acts 2 (I know it’s probably obvious, sometimes the obvious can be exciting though)…

2 When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues[a] as the Spirit enabled them.

Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven.When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language?Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontusand Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” 12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”

That, in itself, is a pretty nice piece of Biblical Theology. But what I really love is when you throw in a picture of what heaven will look like, which seems to riff on this little thread that develops through the Bible – where people get together and sing with one voice…

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10 And they cried out in a loud voice:

“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.”

Cool. Hey. Babel gets reversed so that people can sing stuff about Jesus.



Famously good last words from Peter Jensen

Peter Jensen is leaving some pretty big shoes to fill in the Sydney diocese. His final speech to synod as Archbishop is a cracker – it’s a model of engaging with the problems of our world, and presenting Jesus as the solution.

“If the gospel contrasts so favourably with individualism in community, family and death, why is evangelism hard? Precisely because it is a spiritual matter and human individualism is the love of self which it takes the Holy Spirit to make us abandon. Our society is even more in the grip of a malign individualism than ever before and its resistance to all relationships and especially an all demanding relationship with God is powerful indeed. But there us another side to this. I think that many people are tiring of the fruit of individualism and want to know the God who brings order and family and acceptance and relationship into the community.”

“I have never had such good opportunities in speaking to people about Jesus as in the last few three or four years. Our theory of Connect 09 is true – there are people everywhere who would like to know the gospel and will want us to befriend them. In particular lay people are ideally placed to quietly but confidently share Christ and show what a difference he makes. It may be that the evils of individualism will become so apparent that the world will be more open to the gospel, especially a gospel which stresses love in the face of community and family breakdown and hope in the face of death. In the meantime we preach a gospel which offers a radically different view of the world. After all this Lord did seize another communications revolution and turn it to good. He did hear Tyndale’s last Prayer and he did open the King of England’s eyes and so we have our English Bible and so here we are tonight.”

I think this bit is especially nice.

“I see the gospel becoming visible in the media. We will engage with the ideas of this generation and refuse to accept the censorship which is so easily imposed on Christianity. We must find ways of putting our case for Christ and making it natural to speak about God in the general community. The large mail I received after the recent QandA program showed me that once the gospel is visible, Christians in the workplace can and will make use of opportunities.”

I still have some questions about why Sydney needs as many incredibly trained people for its mission, if it is the place where 1/5 of all Australians live, it’d be nice to see some sort of proportional approach to the distribution of reformed evangelical workers in Australia where the other 4/5 live (let alone globally) – but I realise that this isn’t how denominations, particularly Anglicanism, work.

Here are two pertinent comments:

“We have proliferated workers. Many denominations are declining in workers, with people becoming part time and being older. For us the reverse is happening. The biggest expansion of workers has been amongst the ordained clergy where the numbers have advanced by an astonishing increase of 26% from 480 to 604. Our workers are better trained and higher quality in gifts than ever before. Most parishes are now using teams of workers, including a very significant number of women.”

“Furthermore we have started to move forward in creating new parishes. For years we have been gently stagnating at around 260 parishes, quietly amalgamating the dying ones, leaving suburbs unpastored and letting buildings go. We have now begun to go forward, refusing to close parishes or amalgamate them without the hope of re-opening them in the future, finding new congregations and uses for buildings and doing what we had forgotten to do – inaugurate new parishes. This changed mind-set must be permanent.”

I’d say there’s an inefficiency at play here, and it might be based on the “small church in every suburb” mentality that appears to underpin some of the visions of the future, I’m not sure that this model of thinking about and doing church (ecclesiology) is necessarily the best fit for how modern Australians will meet Jesus (missiology), which the Archbishop suggests is his goal. I’m sympathetic for the need for small churches for the people who want small churches, but there’s a reason that corner stores are making way for big shopping centres. There’s something to be said for an “incarnational” approach to church – where being part of a suburb is how we minister to it, but I don’t think it follows that if a suburb doesn’t have a building with open doors operating in it that the church isn’t part of the suburb – especially if you’ve also got an incredibly able laity (which the Archbishop notes in his piece). This seems to deny most of the realities of life in modern Australia – we work, rest, play, and live in very different locations every day of the week.

I’m not sure that if every Christian in Australia adopted a completely fluid commitment to their time, resources, and approach to Christian community, in the interest of the gospel, that the current lay of the land would be what we’d produce – in terms of how we think about what we do on a Sunday, who does what, and where it’s done. I’m certain there are essential aspects of our ecclesiology that don’t make way for “contextualisation” – like clear articulations of the gospel in everything that we do, and some space for the sacraments, but I’m not sure that reproducing more of the same is the best response to the changing Australian landscape. But I’m open to being convinced otherwise.

In the last 15 years I’ve been part of a small and very faithful suburban church, a small and faithful rural church, a medium sized church in a regional centre, and two bigger and equally faithful churches seeking to reach bigger pockets of a city – and while God works through his gospel amongst all this faithfulness, and we should prayerfully expect him to, the economies of scale in the bigger churches create opportunities that were less than a dream in those smaller ones.

I’m very thankful for the Archbishop’s faithful and gospel centred approach to his work in the last ten years, he’s going to be incredibly hard to replace – his performance on Q&A recently is fairly typical of the way he’s discharged his responsibilities with the great gifts God has given, and he’s certainly (along with a couple of others) the model I look to, and point to, when it comes to engaging our culture with the gospel… but as an outsider looking in (albeit with incredible vestigial, substantial, and direct and indirect ties to the work of the diocese in the past, and the Jensens and others in particular) – I’d love to see the Sydney Diocese think a little bigger, and a little differently about the work of the gospel in Australia.

The lengths kids will go to to avoid boring church

Don’t be boring and your parishioner’s kids won’t steal their parent’s cars. This is what Eutychus would have done if cars were around.

The perils of local ministry

Sometime last year I preached on the passage in Matthew where Jesus talked about the paradox of a plentiful harvest with few workers.

I talked about Clayfield as the mission field of our church community. And emphasised “local” evangelism and the importance of relationships with people around us. Relationships entered into with gospel intentionality.

I thought it was a good sermon. Until a bunch of people who don’t live in Clayfield but belong to our church family started leaving, in order to be part of churches closer to where they lived. Then I decided my sermon sucked.

It certainly doesn’t help that these people are really involved in ministry at church – and pretty mission minded. The type of people you don’t want leaving a church.

I’m not suggesting that this particular sermon was the only factor in their decision. But even it played no part it’s prompting me to rethink how I think geography should shape our church communities. Especially when you’re ministering to an ostentatious suburb like Clayfield where it’s almost possible to make a case for not living in (especially owning a house) if you’re a Christian. A bad case. But a possible case.

It takes a bit of gumption to commit to ministering to a community like that when you’re not living in it. It takes more gumption to live in it and watch people leave. I’ve had first and second hand experience of ministry in just about every demographic context in Australia (big city suburban church, rural town community, and a regional centre) and I reckon this is the hardest one to crack.

Missional v Attractional

This video made me laugh a little bit. Too much or too little of both of these extremes is a bit dumb. If you sound like one of these guys (and only one of these guys) then you’re creating false dichotomies.

Jesusville from Granger Community on Vimeo.

Via ChurchCrunch

The iPulpit

Preaching from the iPad is such a great justification for buying one. I’ve said that since day one. I want to write an iphone program (though I have no talent) that functions as an autocue controller for text on an iPad. Autocue controllers are traditionally knobs that twist either sitting in the hands of a newsreader (that’s what they were at ABC online when I had a job interview/audition there a bunch of years ago) or the producer (that’s what they were when I was reading the news for QUT News on Bris 31 when I was at uni).

Anyway, that’s a digression. If you’re already ahead of the curve you’ll want one of these iPad lecterns so that you can preach the gospel unhindered, like Paul at the end of Acts.

From Little Mountain Productions, via PastorGear.