Why Re-Engineering

Over the next several months, Soma is planning to Re-engineer.  It will be a hard but important process and to help Soma people keep up with what we are doing and for people who may be interested, I will be blogging about it as we go so you can see the process.

Why are we re-engineering?  Over the last couple of years we have lost our way a bit.  As a church we have been through some pretty rough times.  Some people have left because it has been too hard.  To be honest there are times I have wanted to follow them!  But Sydney is a big city and it needs different churches to reach different people.  Some of those people are going to walk into a church building and ask who Jesus is.  Most won’t.  As a church we want to reach those who won’t walk into a building and this means doing church differently.  But we have lost our way a little in seeking to do that.
This is not to say there are some things we are doing well.  We are.  But the point is that there are some core things we have lost the idea of WHY are we doing this as opposed to that.
Re-engineering involves stopping what we are doing and asking some fundamental questions about our DNA as an organisation.  It’s basically a stop and re-plant.
Here are some symptoms:
  • We have lost who we are trying to reach.
  • We have lost our sense of “every member ministry”.
  • We are looking a lot like other churches, (so why not pack up and leave it to them?).
So the plan is to look at
  1. Church Structure – what are we doing
  2. Church Culture – who are we when we are doing it?
  3. Church Marks – what is church?
But in the reverse order.  Most people think of church in the order I have listed.  But the priority of the New Testament seems to be the other way around.  We are obsessed with how the church should run and yet if you look at the book of Ephesians for example, the priority there is the culture of the church.
Why Church “marks” rather than defining a church?  Firstly, defining a church is actually harder than it looks.  There is always an exception somewhere.  So it is, in my opinion, easier to look for some key marks of the church. Secondly, I think this works better for what we want to do.  What is the not negotiables for what we shouldn’t change when it comes to church.  It is after God’s church, not ours.  More on this to come…

A Conversation that Established Churches and Church Plants need to have

My friend Mike Paget has written a series of blog posts: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 of a conversation that Church plants and Established churches need to have, of which I thought Part 3 was where he was just getting started and getting interesting.  Rather than deal with the details of the three posts I thought I would interact with some of the main themes, hence this is a conversation not a critique.  I should point out that I am writing from my experience as a church planter but more from my own church plant, Soma.  I should point out that Mike is not against church planting and I don’t have a problem with existing churches.  We both simply see a problem in how they are working together.

Obligation to Churches

One of the things that I think Mike and I are on the same page with is that there does seem to be a very loose loyalty that people feel towards churches.  People feel that it is OK to change churches if “it isn’t working for them”.  I agree with Mike, this has been an Achilles heel in our theology and practise.  Church is not a service like a mobile phone contract to change when something better comes along.

Our Protocols

At Soma we do have a formal membership, not for theological reasons, but for practical reasons.   The reason we have this is so we know who is actually a part of our church and who is not.  We formally welcome new people in (with the presentation of a t-shirt!), we say goodbye to people as we send them off.

Without looking at the numbers, about 2/3 of our people have come from other churches, the other 1/3 Soma is their first church.   The reason I know this is because when someone comes across from another church I let them know I am intending to call their minister or pastor, so I am counting the number of those conversations I have had.

That conversation is interesting!  Some pastors are angry at me for allowing ‘one of their people’ to come to my church (like I had a choice in that).  Some are confused, thinking that the person was a committed member of their church, at which point I tell them our process is on hold until they sit down and have a chat with the person about this (that is sometimes a surprise to me because I always suggest the person changing churches have a talk first).  This conversation sometimes means the person does not come across to us.  Some are glad, they think the person coming across, at least one case, was dead weight (not what we found).  By the end most appreciate the call.  I also ask if there are any pastoral issues I need to know about, again this helps me a lot.

The thing is that of the 50 or so people we have sent, only 2 ministers have done the same for me.  The point I am trying to make is we need to stop thinking that people don’t or won’t change churches and we need to have protocols for this.  Again church membership is something we as ministers need to take seriously.

New Stages of Church Partnerships

Let me offer my own fable.  In the old, wild west churches could plot their ground and set up their homestead like churches that offered a complete package.  They had to.  There was nothing else around.  But as more and more people filled into the area, the homesteads became connected into towns and some people stopped farming and started general stores, bars, etc.

My point is this: parochial ministry is good, but it is not enough to reach the whole city.  Of the many churches I have visited, most buildings could seat about 200-300 in a parish of around 12-15,000.  In order to reach 10%  of that parish, that building needs to be full at least 5 times a week.  And frankly I don’t think 10% is a good number to be aiming at[1].  I have always maintained and will again:  We need lots of different churches to reach different people in our city.  We need to be planting at least 12 new churches in our city a year. This means, I think, church plants and existing churches need to be working together in partnerships that may look like small towns rather than independent homesteads.

I currently have the keys to 3 church buildings on my keyring.  We don’t own a building and we aren’t planning on getting one.  I have three keys because we have partnerships with 3 different churches who want to work with us to make the Gospel known.  We have worked out how we can help each other reach people that we could not as individual churches.  This is much easier, I think for small churches to do than larger churches who don’t feel the need.



[1] Would we be content to know that firefighters went into a building aiming to save only 10% of the people who were in there?

Soma Parramatta

A couple of weeks a go a few people started to meet on Sunday nights at All Saints Parramatta.  We are praying, thinking (dreaming?) and looking at what we can do to make the Gospel known to the people of Parramatta.

Some of the new developments in Parramatta

Why Parramatta?

It has become apparent to us that our strategy, in Soma, may be better suited to an urban centre, so we wanted to spend 2014 testing that theory. It appears to us from our research that churches in the Parramatta region are either leaving the centre (Presbyterians and Baptists) or have their hands full doing great work (All Saints and St John’s Anglican churches).

In the 5 km radius around Parramatta there are 234,161 people. And that number is due to increase with the new high rise developments. 20% of those people are in the age between 25-35. 43% of people were born from a non-English speaking background, which means over 116,000 people are still from English speaking backgrounds. The top countries of origin include India, China, Korea and Sri Lanka.  This is one of the best mission field for reaching the nations!

All Saints, Parramatta have been willing to partner with us in this venture.  I think this is another great example of churches working together to make the Gospel to known to their city.

Why now?

This is a really good question and I often struggle if this is a good time to plant a church for Soma.  Afterall Soma Macquarie is still small and fragile.  But here are some of the reasons we have gone ahead:

  1. There is never a good time to plant churches.  There are never enough resources, never the right aligning of time, money and people. So waiting for the right time may be waiting for Godot [1].
  2. Coming fresh of a church plant gives us fresh ideas about what we did, what we got right and what we need to improve this time around.
  3. Risk is a part of Christian ministry.  You can never play it ‘safe’ and grow.  You have to be ready to make mistakes and try new things.  That being said we are working with a fairly close risk assessment of what go wrong and what we will do if the whole thing is a failure.

What do we need?

Your prayers, if you are a praying person.

Please pray we will have more people willing to join us (Luke 10:2).  I was struck by this when this week we had a woman turn up to our planning meeting with the request “Do you mind if I join you so I can find out more about Jesus and the Bible?”.  We haven’t started adverstising and reaching people and people are already walking in!

Please pray for wisdom and we see to reach people from cultures for whom church is going to be a strange thing.  We will need to be flexible, missional and wise to know how to do this.

Pray for paitience from Soma Macquarie as we allocate resources to Soma Parramatta and this will cost them.  But pray that will continue their faithful work in seeking to reach people as well.

Want to find out more of what we will be doing or how you can help, let us know….

[1] Waiting for Godot is a play by Samuel Beckett about two characters who spend the whole play waiting for a character called Godot who never turns up.


Did Jesus Plant a Church?

On the face of it this seems like a dumb question.  Of course Jesus planted a church, he planted the Church.  He is leader over all the church.  Any earthly church is ultimately planted by him.  But my question is, did Jesus plant a church in his earthly ministry?  If church planting is so important to churches, did Jesus himself do it?

Let me confess here and now, that I strongly dislike those talks/ books/ blogs that ask lots of questions and don’t answer them and even worse, ask those questions that are unanswerable like “what was going through Paul’s mind when he wrote 1 Timothy 2?”.  But yes, this is going to be one of those posts!!  As a church planter I am committed to church planting and I am praying that one day there will be as many churches as there are cafes in the city I live.  But I wanted to explore this as a thought experiment…
Did Jesus plant a church in his earthly ministry?  If so, where were the weekly Sunday meetings?  Did he appoint elders apart from himself?  Where are the small groups and youth groups?  Who ran the music ministry?  Why did he preach in the synagogues and outdoors rather than in his own church?  These are not meant to be facetious questions, but genuine, if Jesus did plant a church, why does ours look the way they do?
Let me give three possible answers, all of which I can learn something from:
1. Perhaps he didn’t
Maybe he didn’t plant a church.  That was not what his ministry was about.  This is all a false question and the assumption that Jesus didn’t do something (or did do something) is not reason enough alone to make these calls.  The description of his ministry is not prescriptive for us.  E.g. only he died for the sin of the world.  Already I can see critics of this piece gearing up to point out that one of the things wrong with this question is that I am ignoring the book of Acts and the rest of the New Testament.
If this is the case, it is still worth asking “does this mean church planting is not as a priority as are currently giving it?” (I think we are on the right track, but it is worth stopping and asking the question).  If it was not a priority for Jesus’ ministry, are there meant to be higher priorities for us?
2. Perhaps he did but it isn’t the form we are used to
Maybe he did plant a church.  But it was a highly mobile church (the disciples and not just the 12).  It was a mobile community of God’s people, living and teaching the Gospel in life.
This indeed is a different form of church, that I don’t think I have seen today (except maybe the Doulos).  But it does make you stop and think about form of church.  Why is preaching done outside the church?  Why the emphasis on discipleship inside?  Was there any sense of ‘worship’ as we would recognise it?
Such a form of church, again, does not have to be prescriptive.  It may well have been unique to the context, the leader and the salvation-historical context we are looking at.
Would such a model work today?  I have no idea, but I have my doubts.  Although the reasons for it not working would have probably been just as relevant in C1st Palestine.
3. Perhaps he did but his aim was what ours should be
Perhaps it is not form of church we should be looking at.  Perhaps it is the goal of church.  If Jesus did plant a church of disciples, then what did he do with them?  He made disciple making disciples (Matt 28:19).  He taught them, corrected them, gave them practical experience (Matt 10).  If this is the case what if our churches were to be communities of disciple making disciples.  Would that change the form of church?
I think it would, but not radically.   At the moment my definition of church is “God’s people, gathered around God’s word to praise His Name”.  What if it were meant to be…actually I have tried a few definitions (and deleted them) and they don’t seem to work but lets say there was something about “disciple making disciples” in there.  I don’t think the two definitions would be mutually contradictory, in fact I think the change would be quantum in the true meaning of the word. But it were true, then it would mean there would be some change….still working out what it would be though.
Lot’s of questions, few answers….

10 things Church Planters need to tell you…but won’t

Recently I did a talk on what I thought were the 10 things that church planting teams, especially launch or leadership teams, should know but the church planter may or may not tell them.  Here is a summary of the talk:

 1. It’s not a blank slate

When you start a church plant it is all very exciting because it feels like there is a blank slate to fill.   But the reality is that there is lots of filled slates in people’s heads already with ideas of what a church plant should look like.  These ideas can come from churches they have been at that, they liked and this is what the church should look like. Others will be a complete rejection of their previous experience, while others still will be based on church plants that they have seen.

The thing is that no-one really knows what a church plant will look like until it is up and running.  Many people in teams that start a church plant, will be disappointed in what they see and so will leave.  Most church planting teams turn over in the first couple of years and that is normal.  The point is, if you are a part of a launch team, you may not be there in the next couple of years (or you need to be flexible about your expectations) and at least many people you are currently serving with won’t be.

2. He is not Keller or Driscoll and this is not the U.S.

What has happened in churches like Mars Hill in Seattle and Redeemer in New York is very exciting, but it is not the norm of church plants.  Keller and Driscoll are exceptional people, they both had exceptional support and what has happened in their churches is great, but exceptional.  There are also some cultural differences between the US and Australia, especially when it comes to religious expectations, which makes church planting in Australia hard work.

The point is that your church plant is unlikely to take off like Mars Hill and Redeemer.  It is more likely, to be like the rest of us, very hard work before you see traction.  You need to be realistic about what you expect the church to do and how you expect it to grow.  In fact, there is no guarantee that the church will succeed as some church plants fail.  You need to have realistic expectations about what is going to happen.

 3. He can’t do everything

No-one is perfect at everything and there will be things that the planter can do better than others.  This will be frustrating.  This means he needs you!  There will be things that you can do better than he can, so do them.  Don’t think “if he needs help he will ask”.  He needs help, so give it.  If he is not good on details and you are, do it.  If he is not good at design stuff and you are, offer to help.  You get the idea.

 4. Let the Leader Lead

All of this being said, the one thing that the church planter can do is lead.  That is what God has put him there to do.  If God wanted you to lead, then he would have done things so you would be the leader of the church, but he didn’t.  Hebrews instructs us:

“Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account, so that they can do this with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.” (Hebrews 13:17).

Few Australian leaders like preaching on this passage, because it cuts against our culture or egalitarianism.  But it is what the Bible tells us.

What does it mean to submit to your leaders?  Let me start by saying what it is not.

It is not merely agreeing.  If you think the church should head in a particular direction (A) and then the leader says “We should do (A)” then you are not submitting, you are agreeing.  It’s not a bad thing, it’s just not what the passage is talking about.

It is not rebelling.  If you think the church should head in a particular direction (A) and then the leader says “We should do (B)”, you can be openly rebellious and just say “no” and get others to do the same.  If you have a problem publicly, be supportive and privately ask the question.

It is not passive rebellion, and I think this is often the most common response.  If you think the church should head in a particular direction (A) and then the leader says “We should do (B)”.  You can simply respond by “Well good luck with that, let me know how it goes”.  You are not openly rebelling but you are not supporting (read submitting) at this point either.

Submission to leaders means supporting them especially at those points where you don’t agree or where the leader might need more support.

What if he has it wrong?  Let me be very clear here: all Christian leaders are terrified of this.  I mean really terrified.  Sure we are scared of failure and not meeting budgets, etc.  But what really keeps us up at nights is “what if we make a decision that is wrong, what if it affects people’s salvation”.  We know that all things are in the hands of God, and yet it still scares us.

And we will get things wrong sometimes.  We know that, and you know that.  But most things can be retrievable.  Supporting your leader through that is one of the most important things you can do.  Which leads to the next point….

5. The most important person in a movement is you.

Derek Sivers did a short talk found in the TED website called “how to start a movement”.  He watches a guy dancing a music festival and then notes how people join in.  One of the important things to take away from this talk is that it is not the leader, the first person who starts; it is the second person, the first generation of people who shape the movement.  “The first follower transforms the lone nut into a leader”.  He is the one who defines what it means to follow.

The point here is that when people join a church, they will look at the culture to see how to fit in.  In a new church plant there is no culture, so they will look to you, as the first generation of followers, to see how to act in the church.  Did you get that?  They look not to the leader, but to you to see how to follow.  You will be the one who sets the tone of when is it OK not to turn up, how to  treat the leader, what does it mean to follow, what does it mean to submit to the leader, etc.  The leader actually can’t do that, only you can.

6. Yes, it is hard work (and turning up is a ministry)

Most people in a church planting team will go through the “I always feel like I am rostered on something every week” experience.  And that is what it takes, resources are limited, especially people resources.  It’s not just you, everyone in every church plant feels like that.

The best team members turn this around from instead of being a complaint to an expectation.  They turn up to church expecting to be on something: “so, what am I on today?”.  We have on guy in our church who is working on learning as many skills as possible because he knows sometimes people drop the ball.  His ministry is slotting into the gaps as quickly as possible.

Church plants are small and even just turning up is important.  If you have 20 people and 2 couples are away for one week then you have just lost 25% of your people.  It can be discouraging for the people who are there.  Sure, there might be an event that you don’t have anything to do at, you won’t get anything out of it, but turning up is a ministry in itself.

 7. Protect the wife

The wife of the planter or minister is often overlooked as the most vulnerable person in a church.  She is the only one who, if she doesn’t like the church, is not able to leave.  Volunteers can always leave a church they are not happy with.  The planter, if he is not happy about the church can find another church to work in.  The planter’s or minister’s wife, cannot.  If there is someone you want to attack, to take down the church the planter would be good, but taking down his wife is far more effective.  And she is often an easy target for people within and without the church.  You may not like her, or agree with her, but for the sake of the church you need to protect her.

She is the only one in the church, who has a unique ministry to the pastor, as his wife. She needs to support her husband and her husband needs that unique support.  She usually ends up doing the admin of the church, running the kids ministry, heading up the women’s ministry and doing a heap of hospitality.

Her primary job is to look after her husband, your church planter, and the rest of the stuff is stuff someone else (that’s you!) can do.  So look after her: take stuff off her plate, send a her a text, write her a letter (if it is appropriate), ask how she is going and don’t assume that because she is the planter’s wife its all good. She’s human too.

 8. Care for the family

Planting a church takes more than just the planter, it will mean pressure on the whole family.  One of the things that happens in a church plant is that the planter’s family ends up doing a lot of hospitality.  Why not ask them over to your place to be hospitable to them?  Why not invite the new family to church to your place instead of expecting the church planter’s family to do?  Why not offer to babysit?  Why not have their kids come to your place and hang out for a while?

 9. Growth will cause problems

As a church you will be aiming to grow, but you need to remember growth will cause problems.  As new people join the church they won’t ‘get it’ like you, who have been there from the start, do.  That will be frustrating.  It will mean that there will be more people but just as many resources meaning that resources will be stretched.  One of those resources will be the leader.  As you grow you won’t have as much access to him.  At this point you need to remember that the aim of growth is not for you to feel comfortable.

10.  It’s a privilege to serve with you

So, they might say this, but it is still true.  The experience will make us all stretch and grow.  There will be days that, as planters, we will want to give up.  One of the reasons we don’t is because you are with us.

So thanks!