Worship Defined

While reading a book on the doctrine of Church [1], I happened upon this definition of Christian worship:

True worship is the celebration of being in covenant fellowship with the sovereign and holy triune God, by means of:

  • the reverent adoration and spontaneous praise of God’s nature and works
  • the expressed commitment of trust and obedience to the covenant responsibilities, and
  • the memorial reenactment of entering into covenant through ritual acts,

all with the confident anticipation of the fulfillment of the covenant promises in glory. [2]

The reason I like it is because other definitions include one or another of the threefold definition above and I think they miss at least part of the idea of worship.

Those who emphasize the praise aspect of worship often end up making church a place where you need your spiritual fix for the week.  Those who emphasize the obedience part tend to make worship into a moral code.  And those who emphasize the rituals end up elevating the role of church above what it should be.  Only by holding all three together do we properly worship God.

But we need to ask some practical questions here:

  • Which of these do you neglect? Why?
  • Which of these do you emphasize?  Why?




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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?

What do I look for in a Church?

We have lot’s of Christians who pass through Soma looking for a church.  They are looking for….well something.  I am surprised at the number of people who cannot articulate what is is they are looking for in a church.

It’s true there are a lot of variables in a church.  But what are you looking for when you look for a church?  Good Bible teaching?  Something that just ‘feels’ right?  Opportunities to serve?  Somewhere convenient?  Some time convenient?  Fellowship?  Good parking?  Good kids or youth ministry?  Air conditioning?  Many of these are hard to pin down.  Some are more important than others.  How do you work this out?  I would suggest one question will make a lot of these things clear:

Would you feel comfortable inviting a non-Chrisitan friend to this church?

Why is this such an important question?  Here are 3 quick reasons why.

1. If the Gospel is central then it should be obvious.

If the church is focussed on the Gospel, and it should be, then it should be clear to anyone who walks in.  Because the church is focussed on the Gospel, it will want to make things accessible and understandable. People will be welcoming of new people.  But it should also be clear and unashamed that this is about Jesus and his message.  It is weird to think hear some people’s testimonies who have been good Bible teaching churches for years but had not heard the Gospel.  It cannot be taken for granted.

It may be that you are tempted to think “I want something deeper” but be wary if this.  Looking for something deeper can be a road to heresy.  What your Bible teacher should be helping you do is focus on the Gospel, how it impacts your life, how you understand it, how you can explain it better, etc.  The more you are exposed to the Gospel the more it will impact your life.  If you do want to push your understanding, do the hard work and pick up a book and read it.  What happens on Sunday will help keep you focused on the central truth as you do this.

2. If the Gospel is central on Sunday then it probably is for everything else as well.

To be honest church leaders can get distracted. It’s easy for us.  But if a church can get this right then it’s theology, systems and philosophy of ministry even budget will be driven by the Gospel. While this may make for an uncomfortable church, it will make for healthy one.  I am sure people will find exceptions, this is guideline and not a rule.

3. This question will put other issues in order.

Once you, as a church shopper, get this right then other things will be put into perspective.  Perhaps the music is not your thing, maybe the building is not the air-conditioned comfort you are accustomed to.  There are so many dimensions to church but asking this question will put this into perspective.  If you have answer this question in the affirmative then the other things will be bearable.

What do we learn from this?

If you are looking for a church, what is your criteria?  Really? Is it about you and what you can consume or is it about the gospel?  I think this question needs to be at least on the list, if not why not?

If you are leading a church, are you running a church that people would invite their friends to?  At this point it would be helpful not to assume and ask people about this.  What do you need to change to make it more Gospel focused?

If you are in a church but don’t feel you could invite someone, before you ditch the church, ask the question “why not?”  If it is because it is not cool enough, good luck with that.  No church is cool.  But if there is a legimate reason please take this up with your leader.  He is probably blind to it and there is nothing more encouraging that someone who is thinking of inviting people to church

Church Around Food

Over January we had a series on food.  The reason we did food was that I think it is a big theme throughout the Bible and it is also something that people in Sydney spend a lot of time enjoying, thinking about and cooking.

What we were aiming to do:

Have the teaching and what we were doing interact.  We didn’t just want to talk about food, but have the food in front of us.  We wanted people to experience what we were talking about directly.

What we did:

We changed our format dramatically.  We moved our time to a dinner schedule.  We had dinner together, we had a talk and then prayer at the table.  The whole thing was to be very informal.  Kids were to be involved and have an activity sheet during the talk.  At first I had planned to speak on the whole Bible’s view of food, but quickly realised it was going to be too large.  Tim Chester, A Meal with Jesus, helped me to focus on meals in Luke, but even then there was a lot of editing to be done.
On the whole, the thing looked very good on paper.

What worked:

We had a couple who were passionate about hospitality who arranged the food.  The food was great.  The meals were arranged around the talks – we had a picnic when we were talking about feeding the 5,000 and a passover when we were talking about the Lord’s Supper.  All of this gave us a ‘feel’ of what it would have been like to experience the meals we were talking about.  The new format only went for 3 weeks and any longer we would have lost too much momentum and it would have been hard to swap back.

What didn’t work:

Firstly, it became apparent that there was far too much material to deal with.  While there was a lot of editing done, there needed to be more.  The format didn’t really allow me to do a full 30 min talk.  It needed to be a sharp 20 min talk with one precise point.
Secondly, I think people had some trouble adjusting to the different format.  Number were down as we expected over January but I got the feeling that people felt they could be late or not turn up at all because ‘it wasn’t really church’.
Finally,  while we had some activities for the kids, I think we needed to work harder on this.  They quickly became bored and to some extent distracting.
The bottom line is that the series worked, but not as well as I had have hoped.

5 Lies Christians Believe about Church

It seems that everyone these days are making lists, so I thought I would make one of my own.   This is a list of lies I have heard people say about church.  
The most effective lies are not the straight out denial of the truth.  They are the half truths that have exceptions.  This list is no different, there will be exceptions to each of the lies that are based on truth.  The thing is that we often make the exception the rule and we lose the truth in the half lie.
So let me be up front these are meant to be provocative to get you to think if you have swallowed the lies about church, since what we believe is what we tell ourselves.  Before you dive for the exception, you need to ask if you have bought the lie.
  1. Everyone at church will be my friend. Community and love at church are important but fellowship is not the same as friendship. Fellowship (the Greek word is koinonia) has more a partnership aspect, in the case of church, serving together.  I may not be friends with everyone I play sport with if I am playing on a team, but there will be a companionship of working together.  If you are feeling like you aren’t connecting with people at church serve with them, don’t wait for them all to line up and want to be your friend.
  2. I can just sit in the pews. One day I would like to have someone explain how you get this from the Bible, since as far as I see the expectation of is that church operates as a body “with the proper working of each individual part” (Eph 4:11),  or that everyone comes with something to build the church (1 Cor 14:28).  Sure there may be seasons when this is not possible due to prolonged illness, new baby or burnout.  But these are the exceptions.  This does not mean that you need to be doing formal ministry (appointed by the church), but it could be as simple as “I will turn up to look for the new person or the person who needs prayer so I can pray for them or to do the thing that is being missed like washing up or cleaning up”.  It doesn’t have to be big but I don’t see how you can be a passenger in church.
  3. It doesn’t matter if I miss a week, I can always go next week.  I have had some problems writing this one, but then others have already written on this.  Kevin deYoung has written a really though provoking post on this asking the question that is the attitude behind this whether you are Christian or not.  This is true church will always be there and there is a danger of legalism.  But it is the attitude under it that is the question.  Does it matter to you if you miss a week?  What would you not have this attitude to?  Would you say about work – I won’t go to work, I can always go next week.  Or I can miss this appointment with my friend, because they will be there next week.  If you are not sure if this is you, Trevin Wax has written an interesting case study for people
  4. Church should be cool.  I think one of the reasons that we baulk at inviting our friends to church is that church is not cool.  Church should be a lot of things, but cool is not one of them.  Church certainly should be engaging and life changing and that is why we should be inviting people to hear and see God’s Word spoken and lived out in church.  But it will never be as entertaining as an X-Box or as exhilarating as a concert, its not meant to be.  Cool is what culture tells is is trending. Church will always be uncool because there will always be a point that church is against culture. 
  5. I can offend church without offending Jesus.  Church is not perfect and is not above criticism. And yet it is clear that the Bible sees that Jesus sees the church as his bride (e.g. Rev 19:9).  So there is a myth that we can “love Jesus and not the church” is indeed a myth since to love Jesus is to love what he loves.  It is easy to take pot shots of church, but consider how Jesus is going to respond to you as you do this.  I think the solution is not to not criticise the church.  And if there are issues you should take it up with your leaders.  But it is all about attitude and how you do this.  There is a difference between “You are not doing your job…” to “Hey, we both want to see Jesus’ bride looking the best she can be, can I raise something I think will help?”
I am sure there are more.  I am sure (and kind of hoping) I have got under your skin a little.  I am not asking you to agree with everything I have said, I am asking you to consider the lies you might have unconsciously swallowed. 

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….