New kinds of churches really are the hope of the future

New kinds of churches really are the hope of the future

This week I came across two news stories from different Anglican dioceses on opposite sides of the world, one of which heartened me greatly.   DECLINE IN SYDNEY The first story wasn’t the one that heartened me. It was from the Diocese of Sydney entitled “Behind the decline in Church attendance”, and in it, Anglican priest, Antony Barraclough tried to make sense of the dropping rate of attendance at Sydney Anglican church services. It caught my eye because even though falling religious affiliation is routinely reported across Australia, I often hear people holding up Sydney Anglicanism as a last bastion of growth and vitality. Not so, it turns out. Back in 2011, in an article entitled “Why Aren’t We Growing?”, Tony Payne reported that, based on weekly average service attendance data of all ages, Sydney Anglican congregations were barely growing at around 1.4% per annum. He then pointed out that the population of Sydney itself was growing at around 0.9%. In other words, back then Sydney Anglican growth had completely stalled. But now we hear it is declining. In his more recent article, Rev Barraclough tries to interrogate reasons for this decline. None of the reasons he suggests have anything to do with Sydney Anglicanism itself. The problem pretty much gets boiled down to “the world has changed and our

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God is a fountain of sending love

God is a fountain of sending love

Who doesn’t love a fountain? Fountains are extravagantly, unceasingly festive. Whether it’s the continuous trickle of Rome’s Trevi fountain, or the exuberant bursts of the Bellagio fountain in Las Vegas, a fountain is a thing of joy. Some fountains are flashy and show-offy, like Seoul’s Banpo Bridge Moonlight Rainbow. Others, like New York’s Bethesda fountain in Central Park, are stately and majestic. Human beings have been figuring out how to move water since time immemorial. The Assyrians, the Egyptians, the Greeks, they all built ingenious systems for hoisting water from rivers for drinking and irrigation. But the Romans perfected it. They built aqueducts and public baths. They worked out how to make fountains spray water into the air by using the pressure of water flowing from a distant and higher source. After them, the Islamic world built fountains in Pasargades, Lahore, Alhambra and Istanbul. And then, during the Renaissance, Europeans went crazy for fountains. They built them everywhere and in every possible configuration. But in this day and age, with our hot and cold running water and our swimming pools and jacuzzis, what exactly is the point of a fountain? Surely, they serve no purpose other than to be sheer, unadulterated fun. Nowhere is this more obvious than Jaume Plensa’s hilarious Crown Fountain in Chicago’s Millennium Park. More than merely

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Is your church a lawn or a forest floor?

Is your church a lawn or a forest floor?

Suburban people love lawn. We cut it, fertilize it, trim it, edge it. Some people even color it. No matter how good your own lawn might be, there’s nothing like the twinge of covetousness and admiration you feel when walking past the lawn-keeping skills of a grandmaster. We love it so much we think nothing of the prospect of watering and trimming a sizeable carpet of grass week after week. The perfect length and trim; the alternating mower lines; the absence of weeds — ah, there’s nothing like it. A perfect lawn epitomizes the suburban values of uniformity, symmetry, balance and neatness. American columnist Dave Barry writes, “The average American home owner would rather live next to a pervert, heroin addict or communist pornographer than someone with an unkempt lawn.” In fact, Americans spend $27 billion per year caring for their lawns, which amazingly is ten times more than they spend on school textbooks. But what if I told you that lawn breaks every rule of nature. Actually, lawn is a freak of nature!   Lawn is a monoculture, but every law in the nature handbook tells our planet to strive for biodiversity. Biodiversity is life; monocultures are on the verge of death, which is why lawn can’t survive without an elaborate life-support system of phosphate-based fertilizers, garden pesticides and herbicides. And

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This missionary’s portrait hung in honor until they found out who he really was

This missionary’s portrait hung in honor until they found out who he really was

This stunning painting was made by the British artist, James Barry, in London in 1820. For nearly a hundred years, it hung in pride of place in the hallowed mahogany-panelled halls of the Church Missionary Society’s London headquarters. That was because the powers-that-be in the Church Missionary Society (CMS) had mistakenly believed it depicted the Reverend Samuel Marsden, the pioneer Anglican missionary to New Zealand, with two of his Māori converts. It wasn’t until the early 1900s, when a New Zealand art collector T.E. Donne saw the picture, that he casually observed that the missionary depicted wasn’t Samuel Marsden at all, but his associate Thomas Kendall. And the Māori “converts” were nothing of the sort. They were the Nga Puhi warrior chiefs, Waikato (left) and Hongi Hika (centre). Both are wearing kiwi feather cloaks and flax skirts, and, far from having become peace-loving Christians, they each hold a mere, a type of short, broad-bladed weapon, and Hongi is shown holding a taiaha, or spear. In 1820, the two chiefs were in Britain, hoping to buy muskets for their ongoing fight against colonialists and other Māori tribes. That was awkward enough, but it was the appearance of Thomas Kendall (albeit with a Bible prominently displayed on his knee) that embarrassed the leaders of the CMS the most. T.E. Donne offered to take the picture off

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If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere

If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere

I’m in New York City speaking at a conference on how to mobilize a movement of gospel ministry across the city. The audience is full of church planters, clergy, and denominational leaders, all trying to figure out what Christian mission could look like today. The challenges for the church here are significant. The conditions prevalent in New York City create an interesting crucible in which to do mission. I agree that Christians ought to be present and engaged in every type of context. But across the world people are flocking to cities at the rate of millions per year. So it makes sense that Christians should be moving to cities in the same proportions as the people they want to reach. More than that, the social conditions experienced by New Yorkers are really very similar to those present in other cities, only writ large. As cities grow, and the world become increasingly urbanized, looking to what the churches in cities like New York are doing becomes important for church leaders everywhere. As the song goes, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” So, what are those conditions?   Transience: New Yorkers are phenomenally transient. No one stays there very long. In fact, most churches can expect to lose a third of their members every year. One church

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Christians can really suck, but not always

Christians can really suck, but not always

Last weekend I spent a few days working with a network of churches called COS I Love You (COS is the airport code for Colorado Springs). It’s a partnership between around 35 churches from across the Springs (as the locals call it), and involves them mobilizing thousands of volunteers to work in community service projects over one weekend in October. Their goal is to help beautify, rebuild, and restore special places in Colorado Springs, including public schools, parks, local businesses, and non-profit organizations in an effort to meet the immediate needs of the city. Earlier in the week, church leaders had hosted a reception, at which the mayor of Colorado Springs, John Suthers, shared both his gratitude for the work they were doing, as well as his heart for how to make COS a truly great city. Then on the Friday night, I spoke at their citywide worship gathering, a beautiful, ecumenical service that brought me to tears at one point. An offering was collected with the aim of raising half-a-million dollars for the Springs Rescue Mission, a homeless shelter downtown (COS I Love You has previously raised $750,000 for the Mission). On Saturday I spent much of the day visiting projects, including seeing people: cleaning up trash from the hiking trails in the Garden of the Gods state park; helping

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The interlocking cogs of social justice and evangelism

The interlocking cogs of social justice and evangelism

I am all for a statement that provides a clear, biblical integration of both evangelism and social justice. For most of the 20th century these two aspects of the mission of God’s people were considered to be competing interests in the life of the church. Even still today, for some people, evangelism and social justice are seen as polar opposites, so they assume the more committed you are to one, the less interested you are in the other. So when I’d read there was a new major statement being issued about these two areas of Christian responsibility I had hoped we could at last put to bed the idea that commitment to one necessarily crushes interest in the other. Imagine my disappointment when I read that one of the original signatories of the recently drafted Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel, was evangelical church leader, John MacArthur, who recently wrote, “Evangelicalism’s newfound obsession with the notion of ‘social justice’ is a significant shift — and I’m convinced it’s a shift that is moving many people (including some key evangelical leaders) off message, and onto a trajectory that many other movements and denominations have taken before.” Firstly, evangelicalism does not have an obsession with social justice. I wish we did. Anyone who has ever tried to mobilise the evangelical church in

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If Your Church is Honestly Mediocre offering sharper ecclesial infotainment won’t turn it around

If Your Church is Honestly Mediocre offering sharper ecclesial infotainment won’t turn it around

Are your singers regularly off-key or flat? Do you have musicians who struggle to keep up with chord changes? What about poor sound, poor lighting and a mediocre team running it all? A lame website? A church sign that’s advertizing out of date events? Yep, you got it… YOUR CHURCH SUCKS!!!!   Well, at least that’s according to an increasingly infamous blog post doing the rounds at the moment. In his article, 7 Signs Your Church Is Honestly…Mediocre, Canadian pastor Carey Nieuwhof identified a series of key indicators of church averageness. It’s not quite 50 shades of grey. More like seven shades of suckiness. According to Niewhof, some of the fault for a church’s mediocrity is down to sloppy admin and IT and a talentless worship team, but most of it is down to your mediocre pastor. He/she is responsible for two of the seven reasons. Niewhof says that in mediocre churches the pastors are (a) resigned to mediocrity and (b) too afraid to change. (I know they sound like the same thing, but, hey, these listicles have to have seven points so we might as well give pastors a double serving of shame). And to think people regularly accuse missional thinkers like me of being too critical of the church!!   In fact, central to the missional vision is a

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Your fixed idea of church is turning you into a marketer, not a missionary

Your fixed idea of church is turning you into a marketer, not a missionary

Quite a few years ago, together with my co-author, Alan Hirsch, I proposed a simple formula for church planters that went like this: CHRISTOLOGY (what is the gospel?) shapes MISSIOLOGY (what is the purpose of God and his people?) which in turn shapes ECCLESIOLOGY (what is the form of the church in this particular context?)   It appears in our book The Shaping of Things to Come, considered by some a minor classic in the field of missional studies, something about which I should feel proud, but the idea of having written a “classic” just makes me feel old. What lay behind our proposal was our frustration with so many church leaders being far too beholden to their ecclesial traditions. We’d hear people would say they were planting a Baptist church in a particular neighborhood because the nearest Baptist church was too far away. Or they’d say that the existing churches in a particular town were too mainline or liberal and they wanted to launch a Reformed evangelical church there. In other words, the desires, hopes, fears or pathologies of a particular community had no bearing on their strategy. They were bringing a prefabricated Presbyterian/spirit-filled/evangelical/fill-in-the-blank style of church because there was a “hole” in the existing church market. To put it simply, they were reversing the formula I outlined above.

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Losing the Battle for Hearts and Minds

Losing the Battle for Hearts and Minds

It’s greatly concerning to learn that during the very period the church has most aggressively pursued a strategy that emphasizes growth in numbers, it has also seen continued and exponential decline in size. In a previous post, I compared this situation with the American policy of relying on body counts during the Vietnam War. As Ken Burns’ recent documentary series points out, while the body count made it look as though the US was winning the war, they were in fact heading toward certain defeat. That was in part because of the American inability to win the hearts and minds of the people of South Vietnam. Not that the USA didn’t know this at the time. They had instituted an operation called “Winning Hearts and Minds” (yep, the acronym is WHAM) to pacify the increasingly disillusioned South Vietnamese. After all, there was no point killing more North Vietnamese forces if the very people you’re fighting for – the South – despise you. As we now know, that was exactly the situation. American ignorance and arrogance put the South Vietnamese off-side from the beginning. So did their support for a corrupt and incompetent South Vietnamese government. But one of the greatest problems for Operation WHAM was the immorality of the American GIs. Saigon was turned into a cesspool of prostitution and

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Body Count Syndrome:  How both the Vietnam War and the Church Growth Movement failed

Body Count Syndrome: How both the Vietnam War and the Church Growth Movement failed

I’ve been watching Ken Burns’ new documentary series, The Vietnam War. It’s ten hours of unrelenting political/military folly and unadulterated human misery. But it’s fascinating. I was intrigued to discover in Episode 4 that one of the biggest challenges for US military leaders in Vietnam was figuring out how to assess their progress (or lack thereof). Vietnam was like no war before it. Those Americans who waged it were World War II veterans who were used to assessing the progress of a military campaign by how much ground had been taken from the enemy, by how many of their cities had been captured, and how many military and industrial installations had been destroyed. But none of that applied in Vietnam. The Viet Cong and the regular North Vietnamese army waged something more like a guerilla campaign. They would ambush American forces, attack them swiftly and then melt away into the jungle. If the Americans bombed their networks of trails and tunnels, the North simply built more nearby. There was no traditional “front”, so there was no way to measure whether the Americans were advancing. No one could tell if they were winning the war or not. Back in Washington, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and his coterie of whiz kid number-crunchers needed data desperately. With the anti-war movement building, they wanted to

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Midwife rides swan through floodwaters to deliver baby

Midwife rides swan through floodwaters to deliver baby

Yep, you can’t make up a headline like that. As the floodwaters unleashed by tropical storm Harvey inundated the suburbs of Houston, one local woman went into labor. As interstates and freeways disappeared under water, Andrea Haley began to experience contractions. She knew she was approaching active labor. Her baby was going to be born in the submerged city. But when she phoned her midwife, 63-year-old Cathy Rude, to come quickly, Andrea was told the floodwaters were too high. Cathy couldn’t get out. Her birthing supplies would become contaminated in the filthy waters if she tried to wade through it. Still able to drive the streets around their home, Andrea, her mother, and her husband Daniel climbed into their truck hoping they’d be able to get through the water to pick Cathy up, but they were stopped. Andrea’s midwife couldn’t be reached. The water was too high in her street. After a few frantic calls to friends with kayaks, none of whom could be reached, the Haleys were getting desperate. And Andrea’s labor was progressing. It was then they saw the strangest sight. One of Cathy’s neighbors was floating down her street in a huge inflatable white swan. Yes, I said a white swan. Andrea called from the window of the truck, “Hey, would you be willing to give my

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