The TL:DR; version is: the New Eden Project is about revitalising and renewing the spaces churches already occupy, and reclaiming other spaces, for communities of up to 150 people, that duplicate and spread into other spaces, while not relying on any ‘one’ particular church leader. Its practices are built around re-narrating life around God’s Jesus-oriented story, as we are re-created by his Spirit, to resist the patterns of the world, while living lives in communities that anticipate and testify to the renewal of all things, re-imagining the status quo in our church communities, but also for our neighbours.
I mentioned that this project is prompted by our experience as a church meeting in rented venues for the last six years, and in the context of a denomination where lots of buildings seem to be being ‘consolidated’ or whatever corporate euphemism you want to use for selling up properties. We’ve been part of that; our first few years hire costs were covered from the sale of an old church building. The church buildings around our city that aren’t built for massive communities (and we have a few of those), typically have physical limits for how many people they can accommodate (and carpark limits) of around 150-200. There’s a sociological number (the Dunbar number) that suggests 150 is about the size of a group (or tribe) where the members feel safe and so there’s a natural limit there. So, as we ponder the future we’re exploring the possibility of meeting in a suburban church building — and such buildings are typically a bit older and built prioritising function over form. So if this whole ‘project’ is going to go anywhere there are some fundamental convictions about what buildings should look and feel like, and what they should be used for, driving things; but also, cards on the table, I think there’s stacks out there about growing churches through the 150 or 200 barrier and the systemic changes you need to make to make that happen, and I’ve been increasingly thinking we’re actually better off creating healthy churches of 150ish that are trying to duplicate.
Our church growth models that are often built on an exceptional leader/preacher are problematic because we don’t have heaps of those around (sorry other leaders), and because when we do, those churches tend to grow at the expense of other churches around them; and that’s fine, big churches are in a position to do great things for the kingdom, but this is part of why we’ve got empty buildings and pastors burning out all over the shop (this is also fed by a consumer mentality where people last in a small church until there’s an ‘essential program’ missing and so drive to the next suburb over to a different church). If I’m going to lead a church, I don’t want to lead a church of 500, I want to train and equip people in my church community to occupy another building and grow a church of 150-200 that duplicates.
We’re also in a weird position as a community where because we have been a city church we have people driving to us from all over the greater Brisbane area; and our challenge is that we want people to be building relationships with the people they work, live, and play near (we’re pretty keen on Sam Chan’s Everyday Evangelism gear from his book (see review)). Being a city church has been fun, and I love the people who live a long way away from me, but we need some structural changes in how we meet on Sundays, and in small groups, so that our community can get involved in ‘team style’ evangelism (see that review), where people are naturally building good relationships and connections; not expecting non-Christians to travel across the city to come to a Sunday church service (though some might).
Here’s a shape for church life that I’m pitching; it’s a mix of semi-traditional church structures (with a few tweaks), small groups, and ‘fresh expressions’ of service/participation in the kingdom/New Eden Project, and of informal church structures (that can be a bit more of a movable feast/less tied to a physical ‘hub’). This is the bit where I’m really picking up and playing with the model Rory and Stephen from Providence in Perth have been developing (I think). So credit where it’s due, but they can, of course, distance themselves from the bits that they see ending somewhere bad…
Once again, after you have a read over this, I’d love your reflections.
Hub and Spoke Network
The New Eden Project values space and seeks to reclaim and renew it; ordering the physical space’s form (aesthetics) and function (architecture) towards the Bible’s story. Physical spaces aren’t just rain shelters. Habitats shape habits. The trend to prioritise function over form in church spaces, especially around AV requirements or turning churches into ‘multi-use’ space with an eye to commercial imperatives has led to church buildings being ‘non-places.’ Since spaces tell stories (and the medium is the message) this has served to tell a competing story to the Christian story; there’s no ‘neutral’ story or space, really. There are ways to create desirable common spaces that are organised towards a ‘telos’ or a story, that might still benefit the community outside of church activities. But a neutral aesthetic or layout is not neutral at all; for too long the church growth movement has sought to grow the church by ‘adapting’ worldly forms for the proclamation of the Gospel; but those forms actually adapt or colonise the content of the Gospel message. When we’re trying to dig into the problems of a consumer mentality in church communities and we’re not asking questions about how our ‘commercialisation’ of space is contributing then we’re missing the link between architecture and practices and belief.
Buildings are hubs for this New Eden Project; whether church spaces, homes, or, potentially, commercial spaces reclaimed for social enterprise type activities. Revitalising churches must necessarily include revitalising our physical spaces — even though the church is absolutely the people, not the building, habitats shape habits.
Houses where Gospel Communities or Growth Groups meet are part of the ‘spokes’ in this network; but they’re also an engine room for church planting or duplication, and a key part of how leaders are trained. Where these groups meet is likely to overlap with any future ‘hubs’ emerging. The goal of a healthy small group is to be part of some sort of local church renewal.
In terms of how this project might kick off in a church building, homes, and public space, a week might look something like this (taking up the practices from the manifesto).
Sunday Mornings (Hub)
Re-narrate // Re-sist // Re-imagine // Re-enchant
- The church community gathers to be formed by God’s story in spaces cultivated and kept as ‘tastes of Eden’… gathered around God’s word as it is read, preached, sung, and practiced (prayer, spiritual disciplines, sacraments, liturgy, etc). Minimal technology. Relaxed vibe.
- The preaching would be shaped by our theological anthropology (how we think people work and are transformed), our theology of the church (that we are the body of Christ and each one of us has a part to play for the sake of the other), our Biblical theology (that we think the Bible is one “Eden-to-New-Eden” story fulfilled in Jesus), and our understanding of different types of speech going on in the New Testament church (preaching, teaching, prophecy, etc). Biblical exposition is some, but not all of the diet in these terms (and, for example, penal substitution is some not all of the substance of the Gospel). Faithful preaching could involve story telling, performance, a time of sharing, encouragement, etc, with the agenda set by not just the content of a passage of the Bible, but ‘media’ questions like its form (you don’t find many expository talks given in the talks recorded in the Bible, sometimes the epistles we preach on are shorter than the sermons we preach on them, the original recipients of the New Testament writings weren’t actually literate so sometimes simply reading scripture out and discussing it together might be enough, etc).
- The application of talks to the real world is not carried out solely by a male preacher operating as an authoritative priest (though I do still think there are roles in church that are determined, in part, by gender), but by the community via Q&A, a panel of members of the church (or guests), or in discussion groups. So our diet includes men and women offering Godly wisdom and proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus to one another, and listening to each other. Whatever ‘male leadership’ looks like in a world marked by the patriarchal power structures of the Genesis 3 curse, it has to look like men using our privilege and strength to cultivate ‘Eden like’ space for partnership with women who feel safe; some part of male leadership/eldership (which I think the Bible establishes), I believe, is providing such space, hearing, and elevating the voices of women. I get that some people will dismiss this as a sort of ‘benevolent patriarchy’ — but I think the first Eden and the picture of the New Eden are places where males and females come together in genuine cooperation, rather than one holding a particular position of dominance over the other.
- Kids program. Play based. Mix of outdoor and indoor time. I’d love to have a kids church curriculum integrate with the adult program but featuring lots of Duplo (ages 2-4) and Lego (ages 4-99+) where the imagination is being engaged around God’s story and how whatever part of the Bible we’re digging into fits into that story.
- Eating together. Both taking part in communion (or as we Presbyterians call it the Lord’s Supper), and a shared meal.
Sunday afternoons — Gospel Communities ‘in action’ (Spoke)
Re-create // Re-sist // Re-plant // Re-enchant
If Sunday is a day people are setting aside, at least partly, for church, it’d be good to see church not just as time spent in a building with other Christians, but as a time to participate in Jesus’ mission of renewal. This wouldn’t be an every week activity for everyone; but would be planned activities with buy-in and encouragement from the leaders of the community. These groups would be prayed for and ‘sent’ by the morning gathering; with an invitation for anyone to join (the church community is a plausibility structure for the Gospel so we want people to belong before they believe, and belonging involves some sort of participation in church life). These activities would be more geographically scattered (ie not just near the church building, but closer to where people live/Gospel Communities meet).
These activities could include renewal projects like tree planting or acts of service in the community; resistance projects like political action; rest or play together as a community (re-creation), but involve opportunities for groups to discuss the day’s passage or service side by side. They ideally are activities that include children as participants not bystanders.
Sunday Nights — Dinner Church (Hub)
Re-narrate // Re-sist // Re-create
Over time we’ll be looking for opportunities to invite non-believers to experience a taste of the Gospel, and of the rhythms of life in church community. This may or may not work best in ‘church’ space (it probably needs to have had a pattern of moving from ‘public space’ to ‘private space’ as relationships have developed — see Sam Chan’s stuff on “Coffee, Dinner, Gospel” and moving from the “front yard” to the “back yard.” and Mary Douglas’ Deciphering a Meal).
These would look like a stripped back gathering around a meal. Dinner church is a thing. It might meet in a home, or a community hall rented for a shorter period of time. These would involve a short talk, a Q&A or panel, and discussions (and maybe some singing). Coming to a ‘dinner church’ gathering would be a legitimate expression of participating in church life; it’s not a ‘come to everything’ operation.
Midweek : Growth Groups/Gospel Communities (Spoke)
Re-claim // Re-sist // Re-narrate
Midweek our small groups commit to spending time in community with each other, and embedding in a more ‘local’ context. These groups involve a commitment amongst members to meet one-to-one to read the Bible and pray together. The groups themselves are outwards focused — looking for opportunities to ‘merge universes’ (as Sam Chan describes it). But the regular rhythms of the group are eating together, reading the Bible (using a stripped back, resource-light approach — either the Swedish Method or the Uncover method AFES has developed, or other approaches that are big on digging in to the text). These groups meet in places we see as outposts for mission; homes or third spaces. They can be a movable feast, but hospitality involves being hospitable guests who partner in this work, not just capacity to host. A group might commit itself to the physical renewal of the places they meet in (spending time side by side working on projects in each others homes).
These ‘Gospel communities’ are open to outsiders as a first step towards Sundays. The church calendar is deliberately uncluttered outside Sundays to allow these communities to shape the rhythm of life together.
Midweek — Community Dinner
Resist // Re-claim // Re-create
Where a ‘hub’ type building exists we use it to host community meals and/or food pantries to provide a taste of Eden. These are for the marginalised, but also for those in our neighbourhood seeking community. These would be a great gateway to something like a Dinner Church series on the “Gospel in Four Meals” (a great evangelism course from Providence). Community meals could also happen before local Gospel communities meet (ie dinner at 6, the group meeting at 7:30) to provide a natural avenue for invitations into those groups (my friends at Village Church here in Brisbane have been doing something like this). Our Creek Road campus of Living Church does a great Friday night community meal for families after the afternoon kids club, and before the night time youth program.