Religious But Not Spiritual (RBNS)

It is amazing how many Christians I know fall into the category of being ‘Religious But Not Spiritual’ (RBNS). Perhaps this is not surprising. 21st Century Western Christians often admit to a dryness of faith: we come to church, tick all the religious boxes, but don’t feel spiritually nourished. We don’t feel connected to God. We don’t feel spiritually alive – at least not when we are doing Christian activities. As a result, like parched sheep in the desert, we go looking for the water elsewhere – like

This reality of the rise of RBNS should ring some alarm bells for us, considering the simultaneous rise in popularity outside the Church of ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’ (SBNR).

In the last three years the notion of SBNR has caught the attention of sociologists and religious writers. Seven percent of all Americans describe themselves as SBNR (a higher percentage than Atheists, Episcopalians or Jews) and this seems to be a growing trend. Some SBNRs go as far as to argue that religion is an obstacle to spirituality. [Link] In Australia the percentages of SPNR are much higher. In the 2011 Australian census, 64% ticked one of the Christian denominations as their religion.  However, McCrindle Research has demonstrated that one-third of the 64% refine their answer as: “spirituality more than religion.” [Link]

The New York Times and the Huffington Post have both run a series of articles on SBNR, and in most cases, critiqued the concept as lacking substance, being un-profound, and self-centered.

Chicago based Congregational minister Rev. Lillian Daniel wrote a popular essay in the Huffington Post called ‘Spiritual But Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me’ [Link] which sardonically cut to the bone of how cliched and un-insightful people are who describe themselves that way. The popularity of the essay caused her to expand it into a book: ‘When “Spiritual But Not Religious” Is Not Enough’ (Jericho 2013). Daniel “dreads” the predictable conversations she has with these people: they think they are so rebellious against the status quo, and unique in finding God in the sunset.

‘Spirituality,’ Daniels argues, fits too easily with individualism, hedonism and complacency. In an attempt to woo back the SBNRs, she makes the case for organised religion: “There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff or, heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.”

Daniel’s line of argument has many supporters. Jesuit writer Rev. James Martin S.J., for example, bemoans the fashionable status of ’spiritual’ and the unfashionable status of ‘religious.’ [Link] While he knows full well the reasons people might stay away from organised religion (bigotry and arcane rules) it is unfair to overlook the many positives – traditions of love, forgiveness, charity, and social change led by religious leaders such as Martin Luther King and William Wilberforce.

According to Martin, the great problem with SBNR is that it assumes that faith is just between you and God. There is no one else who can speak into your situation or to challenge you if you go off track: “Religion checks my tendency to think that I am the centre of the universe, that I have all the answers, that I know better than anyone about God, and that God speaks most clearly through me.” Religious community corrects our naive individualism: God communicates through the group as well as the individual. Isaac Hecker, founder of the Catholic order, the Paulist Fathers, sums it up by saying that religion enables one to “correct and connect.”

Of course, I do want to affirm that spirituality is good. Rabbi Scott Perlo writes, “Spirituality is an individual’s direct, personal connection to God … It is spontaneous, malleable, and paradoxical. It is self-reliant, charismatic, and brilliant. Spirituality makes us feel alive.” [Link]

But Perlo also points out that spirituality is me-focused, it ignores bonds between people, and it does not know that God’s voice can be heard when spread over community and time. Spirituality lets go of the past, it might be smart but it is not wise: “Though fiery and inspiring, spirituality is, in a word, thin.” Religion, on the other hand, is thick. Religion has generations of learning and it is wise. Perhaps, religion is a little too thick, such that it “smothers spontaneity and individuality” and “struggles to see people as different from one another.”

Thus Rabbi Perlo and Rev. Martin argues that we need to be spiritual and religious. Martin writes: “Religion without spirituality becomes a dry list of dogmatic statements divorced from the life of the spirit. This is what Jesus warned against. Spirituality without religion can become a self-centred complacency divorced from the wisdom of community.” Religion and spirituality are opposites on the same plane, and our goal should be to hold the two in tension.

Christian spirituality, therefore, cannot be fully understood unless one is connected to a Christian “religious” community which shares common beliefs and disciplines. Church community is hard, but it is in the friction of inter-personal tensions that growth occurs. Presbyterian writer Bruce Reyes-Chow points out that: “in community our spirituality and our religiosity converge.” [Link] You might even hate each other, but through the processing of that hate, spirituality deepens. The Apostle Paul calls the Church a Body, where there are many parts, and no part is more important than the other. Reyes-Chow argues that: “as a Christian, it is by living with both the beauty and the brokenness of humanity that we discover who we are and who we are becoming.”

Marlise Karlin, founder of the Simplicity of Stillness Method, challenges the case for ‘spiritual’ needing ‘religious’: “Being accountable to a community doesn’t necessarily mean they will teach you reverence for humanity. How often have groups of people stood together, with a false sense of morality on their side, purely by the numbers who gathered?” [Link]

Karlin believes ‘spiritual’ and ‘religious’ people have equal access to selflessness and grace as long as they have an experience of infinite love. She believes she can guide people into the state of peace using her Stillness Method, no matter what religious affiliation they may or may not have. Therefore, she challenges Rev. James Martin and the advocates for the cause of religion, to stop being divisive and to focus on the source of truth in our hearts where we will find peace and inclusivity.

The fundamental problem I have with Karlin is her basic premise that our spiritual goal should be inner peace and inter-personal peace. While those goals are noble, they are not everything. She sidesteps, for example, the need for a moral compass, or the pursuit of justice. Like most 21st Century Western advocates of SBNR, she fails to consider that true, life-transformative spirituality might involve suffering and self-sacrifice. And, the real irony is that she argues that religious teachers like James Martin should not promote division by encouraging inter-personal and inter-institutaional correction – which is itself a corrective suggestion.

Religion needs spirituality: the Christian faith needs to be spiritually alive. So if you are a person who rolls your eyes at the thought of those pathetic Postmodern Secular SBNRs, you might want to pull the plank out of your own eye for being RBNS. The risk is you might just give up the ‘Religion’ and settle with being SBNR yourself.

A challenge I want to put to my own church, Merri Creek Anglican, is to be a Church that “Nourishes Spiritual Seekers” – and that we begin with ourselves.


For more on this theme, listen to a recent sermon I gave on Colossians 2:16-19 which asks, “Does God care if I do Yoga?”.



The strangely new radical discipleship choice to attend church services most Sundays

For almost 2000 years, Christians have regularly met together at least once per week (usually Sundays) to read and teach the Bible, sing, pray, break the bread and drink wine to remember Jesus’ death (communion), and build community together. This was a natural continuation of the Jewish Temple meetings, affirmed by the writer of the Hebrews (Hebrews 10:23-25), with direction to be orderly by Paul (1 Corinthians 14), and modelled in the Acts of the Apostles.  At first: “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts” (Acts 2:46).  And eventually the Churches created their own Temple style meetings using the rooms in the larger houses of wealthier congregation members (Acts 20).

Due to legal complications concerning property ownership rights, services held in dedicated church buildings was uncommon until after Emperor Constantine in the Fourth Century.  Of the few church owned buildings before Constantine, the earliest known is Dura Europos on the Euphrates River (eastern Roman Syria). Archeologists believe it was a house, bought by Christians, and renovated to suit church purposes between 240-250.  After Constantine authorised the Roman Church, he commissioned Basilicas, and church services begun to occur, for better or worse, in architecturally dedicated worship spaces.

There is not space here to trace the history of Christians and their attendance at church services to the 20th century, albeit to say that the model of temple and house gatherings continued in different forms and with different emphasis right up until contemporary times.

The point of this article is to consider the retrograde step of Western Christians, in the past 15 years, to attend services far less regularly.

In my context of Melbourne, Australia, this shrinking commitment amongst some Christians to attend weekly services seems to reflect a shift in priorities: families fitting in extra school activities, weekend holidays, going out for brunch with friends, and seeing church services as “a religious product that is provided for me” rather than an expression of Christian unity and covenant: thus, we have consumer Christianity.  Some church attenders express a sense of boredom: a criticism that may or may not be fair.  Perhaps the services are dull and predictable.  But if the said Christian is beginning from a place of apathy and spiritual dryness, then the expectation that services should inject them with all that they need to be excited about their faith is unrealistic and misguided.  If the Christian’s faith is childish (rather than child-like), they may  be unfairly comparing their local service, its preaching and music, to large Christian conference gatherings, or podcasts of the flagship churches.  (Perhaps the online marketing of churches to Christians via sermon podcasts and groovy websites has had a bigger negative impact on the local context than we expect?)

Of course some blame does go to church leaders, who haven’t worked to adapt their ministry to a culture changing rapidly around them.  Just like the local corner hardware store, now a quaint relic, that once was the go-to place for hammers and nails, but whose owner didn’t make any changes to his business plan when the hardware megastore opened up around the corner.  Or like the publishers who led their newspapers into redundancy by pressing on exclusively with print media as the advertising dollar shifted online.  Church leaders who have dug their heels in and preserved a bygone church culture for the sake of sentimental comfort rather than seriously respond to the challenge of relevancy, have limited their audience to a narrow pool of churchy people.  Ironically, even the Pentecostal movement in Australia is now dangerously holding on to past cultural forms, rather than adapting for new cultures (a quality they once held high): notice the commitment to mid -2000s Hillsong ministry forms.

Also, many church leaders suffer from one or more the following problems:

  • laziness
  • lack of skill
  • apathy
  • boredom
  • cynicism
  • burn-out
  • anger and bitterness at their own lack of results or circumstance
  • turned on more by denominational politics and bureaucracy than their faith in Jesus
  • overworked
  • under-resourced
  • lack of vision
  • low emotional intelligence
  • unresolved personal sin

And the big one:

  • lost their commitment to The Gospel

Why would you want to regularly attend a church service with a leader bogged down in the mire of despondency?

Some writers on the mission of the church from the 2000s have tried to argue that less of an emphasis on the Sunday church service could be a good thing because, in their opinion, there has been too much effort to imitate the mega-attractional church. The missional finger has pointed for a while now at churches who sink all their cash into performance based ‘digital worship’ (with lots of screens etc…), slick music, and a middle-class-upwardlymobile-alpha-male-pastor (with a sexy wife and a minibus of kids).  These churches have supposedly forgotten their mission to the world.  The other point that needed to be made, but is now twisted as a cliche excuse, is “we don’t go to church – we are the Church!”

Whether it is a shift in priorities, a lack of leadership, or a well intentioned missional trend, attending services with one’s local church once every three or four weeks has not caused an increase in mission activity or passionate spirituality (as could be predicted).  Rather, it has led to churches with loosely committed apathetic members – many who pick and choose to attend the community gatherings around convenience or what “worship product” (preacher, topic, music etc) is on offer that particular Sunday.  Let’s face the reality that, except in churches with high mission accountability amongst its members, Christians are not substituting Sunday services to get out and be ‘incarnational’ or ‘present’ or whatever missional weasel word we might want to dribble.  Let’s also face up to the sad truth that for many churches there is little sense of covenantal community or extended spiritual family.

I want to advocate for the mission focused church to also believe in Temple gatherings.  The church that I lead, Merri Creek Anglican, is a mission focused church, and we also believe in the long term power and importance of the weekly church service gathering. Watch this video and see why it’s so important…

“The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good” – Part 1 of 2 – Church Leadership

For anyone who keeps half an eye on film and television journalism, you would have noticed the brouhaha over the conclusion of the television series Breaking Bad.  I don’t need to add any more veneration, but I do wish to discuss a comment I heard in an interview by the show’s team of script writers.  When asked about how they knew when to stop redrafting a script, they said they went with the adage “the perfect is the enemy of the good:” a phrase attributed to Voltaire in his poem La Bégueule (The Prude) about a woman who had a good life but nevertheless was discontent and so had an affair just to feel something exciting. Thus

Voltaire aged 70

Dans ses écrits, un sage Italien

In his writings, a wise Italian

Dit que le mieux est l’ennemi du bien.

says that the best is the enemy of the good.

In the same way that people can become depressed about the humdrum of a good but normal life, so too can artists be easily dissatisfied with their good work, holding out hope that they might be capable of something greater.  The pursuit of perfection, for example, can cripple the writer such that they never publish. Settling with the ‘good’ version of the manuscript would have meant something for the world to experience.  But for the unrealistic perfectionist, the draft remains in the top drawer, the film an unfinished edit, and the album a demo.  The Breaking Bad writers polished and polished but to a deadline, and then finally pressed [send] with attachment in time for production.  Pursuing perfection is important for any artist: Voltaire was not advocating mediocrity.  But the artist who never says, “this will do,” will only ever have unfulfilled potential.

What is true for life and art, is also true for leadership.  An important lesson I have learned as a church leader who has tried to be entrepreneurial is that while my new ideas might be ambitious and seem ‘perfect’ (in my own head), to make them a reality, I must aim for a ‘good’ rather than ‘perfect’ implementation.  Am I setting a low bar for myself? Au contraire, the bar is still high. I am simply ensuring that I actually make a jump for the bar – even if I mess it up.

My logic goes: I am limited in my leadership capacity; my team is limited; the strategy needs more refining; I don’t have all the capital or resources I need; and I usually run out of time.  Actually, limited time is as much self-imposed as it is forced on me.  My personality is such that unless there is a deadline, I won’t get it done.  With my music recording projects, we set the album launch date, then work backwards with the recording timeline.  It may not end up perfect, but at least we are not still sitting around waffling about the idea of recording an album.  Similarly in my doctoral research, my supervisor always pushed me to just submit something every month – even if it was unfinished and a bit of a mess – the act of forcing something on to the page was an important step in the process.

My motivation to operate this way is also theological.  Paul writes in Philippians 4, “Rejoice in the Lord always.  I will say it again: Rejoice…Do not be anxious about anything….I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty.  I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do all things through him who gives me strength.”  These words from Paul reveal his response as a devoted disciple of Christ to his unpredictable living conditions as a traveling missionary Apostle.  They also reveal a basic principle of Paul’s approach to leadership – I seek to be at peace with God no matter what happens in my life.  I don’t need to feel anxious.  I rejoice in the Lord because of what He has given me.  Even when I suffer or go without (or try something and it fails) I rejoice because I know that God loves me as his child.  If one should learn to be content in God in their personal life then so should they be in their ministry life.

In fact, the wisdom of Voltaire and Paul applies well to ministry leadership.  ‘The perfect is the enemy of the good’ should be a golden rule for those who have an unrealistically high expectation of their own ability, or a sense of entitlement or fantasy view of their own capacity.  Or, in the other extreme, it should become the mantra for those who carry a deep-seeded fear of failure.  Many pastors feel quietly ashamed at their lack of success: “why is my church not as big as his?”  This lack of contentment in the good that God has given them makes them insecure.  And thus, as they forever pursue a more idealistic outcome, they struggle to achieve anything at all.

Another way philosophers have described this phenomenon is as ‘The Nirvana Fallacy’ – the idea that you unfairly compare a realistic option with a perfect world fantasy, and then dismiss the realistic option on the grounds that it is not good enough.  The Nirvana Fallacy can be explained using this simple logic formula:

X is what I have got

Y is the Nirvana ideal

Therefore, X is not good enough

The Nirvana Fallacy creeps into church leadership all the time: trying to preach the ‘perfect’ sermon every week by spending three or four days preparing and still making edits minutes before the service which means you never get to do a read-through; not appointing a staff member because you won’t settle until you have a saint like Dietrich Bohoeffer or Mother Theresa; having Sagrada Familia as your standard for church architecture; closing a ministry because you don’t see thousands of conversions; or remaining unemployed because you haven’t found the dream position.

So how can a church leader respond and apply the proverb to their leadership?

  1. Make wise decisions
  2. Aim high but be wise enough to see the ‘good’ that God has given you
  3. Create deadlines for yourself and stick to them
  4. Try your ideas even if you are under-resourced
  5. Thank God for what he has done through you
  6. Always rejoice
  7. Don’t criticise other’s work for not being perfect

Fellow friend, minister and entrepreneur, Rev. Dr. Adam Lowe, adds some wise words in response to this post:

“…given our imperfection, the perfect of our own accord is most certainly not attainable. And then, if we were to afford some favourable evaluation of our own merit (thinking it were perfect), how quickly pride would become the focus instead of the perfection only found in Christ…”

And, here are some further thoughts from an English friend, hand surgeon, Dr. Tim Halsey,

“Voltaire’s quote is one that goes through my head daily in the operating theatre, having the wisdom to leave things alone that are good but not perfect, because often tweaking things can lead to making them worse and there’s no rewind / delete button in an operation!…  The other saying I was brought up with was that “a job worth doing is worth doing well”, it is one of my grandpa’s favourites. We were challenged about it by a Godly friend who pointed out that sometimes a job worth doing is worth doing, full stop, and that the drive for perfection hinted at by the “worth doing well” bit can stifle us from ever trying for fear of failing to do it well. If its worth doing, it’s worth doing.”

Part 2 will apply ‘the perfect is the enemy of the good’ to discipleship

Your Church is Not a Bike: The Perils of Church Strategy Reductionism

Church strategy reductionism is where simplistic ministry strategies are formed based on a mechanical understanding of church systems.

System theorists love to use the imagery of organisational ‘bikes’ and ‘frogs’.  A bike can easily be broken down into its individual parts and put back together again.  But when you take an individual part away from the bike it stops working.  A frog is a highly complex and comparatively robust system that cannot be taken apart and put back together again, but when you remove one of its limbs, the system is sophisticated such that it usually can adapt.  Frogs can grow substitute limb stumps surrounded by skin, or in some cases a fully regenerated limb.  Understanding and manipulating a complex frog like system requires a combination of smarts and informed intuition.  Most complex organisations, like churches, where human interaction and psychology play a major role in the system, are mostly frog but also include some functions and processes that are bike.

The frog systems in a church include functions and operations such as mission, discipleship, community, pastoral care, and worship.  Ministries, and the people that they include, interact and respond to each other in an organic way.  When you factor in the mysterious work of the Spirit who “blows where it pleases” (John 3:8), then the systematic complexity multiplies. If church leaders don’t grasp this complexity, simplistic and ineffective strategies follow.

For the sake of clarity, it is worth mentioning that a ‘simplistic’ strategy is not the same as a ‘simple’ strategy.  Simple strategies are ideal because they are easy to communicate and implement.  However, one must be aware that while they are simple, they exist within a complex frog system.  A simplistic strategy, on the other hand, is designed with the naive understanding that it is part of a mechanical bike system.


Strategy reductionism seems to be a particular danger for churches whose leaders are:

  1. …ideologically and myopically aligned to a particular model of church.  These are models which are not necessarily based on reductionistic logic, but through mis-application and selective overemphasis, reductionism follows: leaders latch on to features of their favorite model, and push them too far.
  2. …non-consultative, domineering, alpha-male/female, or arrogant.  These leaders, who are often proud and aggressive, push past any kind of process like a ‘bull in a china shop’ thinking that they’re being decisive.  While they do make decisions, they leave a trail of destruction behind them not having considered consequences.
  3. …poorly self-differentiated / low emotional intelligence.  These leaders might come up with ideas, but they are too insecure to open their strategic thinking up to consultation.  Also, they can find it difficult to be empathetic and consider how a strategy might work for people not like them.  Part of understanding the frog system is being able to calculate how different ages, genders and cultures will respond in a given situation.
  4. …quick decision makers who don’t take the time to think through consequence.  While some leaders are brilliant intuitive strategic thinkers who can just envision the plan out of the ether, most cannot do this and need time to experiment and consult as they understand the church frog system.
  5. …inexperienced.  Sometimes inexperienced leaders are savvy enough to see the frog, but usually this comes with time.
  6. …very experienced but assume church systems work the same way in every context.  The risk with older and experienced leaders is that if they have had some success in ministry in their earlier years, they can be convinced that the strategies that gave them that success still apply 20 or 30 years later.  While a bike might always be essentially a bike, frogs adapt over time to fit in with their changing ecosystem.

When you think about it, many churches have leaders who fall into one or more of these categories.  The great thing is that by the grace of God, their simplistic strategies are still used and bear some fruit.  However, if they were able to start to see their church as more of a frog, and develop some sophistication in their understanding then their ministry and church would run more efficiently, smoothly, and effectively.

Example – Evangelism

What does it look like when bike thinking is imposed on a frog system to create strategy?  By way of example, you might have heard arguments such as: “Attractional programs are so 1980s mega-church.  Attractional activities just pander to church shoppers. We should stop putting effort into programs to bring consumeristic Christians in and got out and be missional so that we can reach real non-Christians.”  Notice the ‘bike’ logic of cause and effect,

 attractional programs -> church shoppers ≠ new converts ∴ be exclusively missional

However, if you listen to people’s testimonies about coming to faith, you’ll discover that their stories are complex and unpredictable: rarely do their experiences conform to simple rules.  One individual might have interactions with twenty different Christians, and three different churches, and then respond to an alter call at a rally.  Another person living in a Muslim country might have a dream about Jesus, and then go seeking out a church.  While another person might experience miraculous healing from prayer and come to faith that way.  My point is, the ‘system’ whereby a person is evangelised, cannot be reduced to bike logic – it is far better to see the frog in the system that is evangelism.

Church strategy reductionism that dismisses all attractional evangelism fails to accept (what was the elephant in the room for the emerging church movement) that there are many attractional strategies that are effective.  In children’s ministry, for example,  playgroups, Mainly Music, and Messy Church are attractional strategies that – depending on their good implementation – have great success in bringing non-Christian people in contact with churches and on the journey towards faith in Christ.  In addition, there are great benefits to attractional evangelism: it can visibly communicate to the congregation a value of excellence, the idea that serving God is important, and that this church expects the Holy Spirit to be guiding people towards us because we are a “light to the nations” (missional activities can achieve all of this too but not as easily).

It’s not that the critique about attractional strategies is completely unfounded.  It is important for churches not to over-rely on being attractional lest they become a church that mainly “preaches to the choir.”  The problem is the simplistic strategy that followed.

A more informed and nuanced strategic thinking about evangelistic strategies, might look like a mind map, where the complexity of the frog system is taken into account:

 frog church system


The following are some examples of reductionistic ministry logic leading to simplistic strategies.  These are functions of the church which should be thought of as complex ‘frog’ systems, but are often given a mechanical ‘bike’ logic.  Remember that each reductionistic logic statement will have some truth to it and that the simplistic strategy might also have some merit.


Reductionistic logic: It’s the ‘priesthood of all believers’ so we should resist putting leaders on a pedestal.

Simplistic strategy: Let’s have no one main leader, but share the leadership.

Reductionistic logic: The church has become feminised which is why men don’t really want to come to church anymore

Simplistic strategy: Cultivate a macho persona in the leaders


Reductionistic logic: ‘Sermonettes’ create ‘Christianettes’

Simplistic strategy: 70 minute sermons

Reductionistic logic: The Bible is all about Jesus

Simplistic strategy: Land every sermon at the cross

Reductionistic logic: I want to preach Spirit empowered sermons

Simplistic strategy: Improvise your sermons – let go and let God


Reductionistic logic: Australians don’t like group singing

Simplistic strategy: No group singing in church as a way to be incarnational and relevant to outsiders

Reductionistic logic: Spiritual intensity in music is directly related to time.

Simplistic strategy: Songs that are repeated lots of times, and really long song brackets

Reductionistic logic: All contemporary worship music is theologically shallow and individualistic: Jesus is my boyfriend songs

Simplistic strategy: Only sing hymns or non-emotive and theologically dense ‘we‘ songs

Youth ministry

Reductionistic logic: We’re here to disciple the kids not baby-sit them

Simplistic strategy: Don’t run social events


Reductionistic logic:  People prefer worship that is from the heart and authentic rather than pre-planned and tightly controlled

Simplistic strategy: Never use pre-written prayers in public worship

Children’s ministry

Reductionistic logic: Church services should always engage children because it is wrong to think they are the future of the church – they are the church

Simplistic strategy: Sunday services must have a children’s talk or children’s song

Marriage Counseling

Reductionistic logic: All that Christians need in a marriage partner is that they are of the opposite sex, single, and Christian

Simplistic strategy: Encourage people to marry without regard for cultural difference or even if there is no physical or intellectual attraction

Strategies to improve on frog strategic thinking

  1. Pray and ask God for wisdom
  2. Be slow to speak and quick to listen
  3. If you are on a ministry hobby horse then get off it
  4. Read and associate with ministry people who are outside of your ministry tribe
  5. Consult and use teams to make strategy
  6. Learn to know your leadership limitations
  7. Don’t assume that because a strategy worked once it applies a second time
  8. Invite people who you often disagree with to critique your strategies
  9. Have a healthy trust in your gut instinct, which means being willing to let it be critiqued and changed
  10. Draw a mind map of how ministries strategies relate to each other
  11. Go to counseling and work on your emotional intelligence

Finally, watch out for people who say, “yeah but…”

Because churches are frogs, there can be a problem that decision making becomes stifled by those people who always see alternatives and risks or problems with your strategy.  You don’t want to never be able to make a decision.  You will know of people whose default mode is to confidently disagree with any idea anyone suggests.  Those are the people who will be reading this post right now, and saying to themselves, “yeah but…”  If this is you, then stop, take a breath, and work out how to make the idea work rather than being an unhelpful blocker of creative thinking.  You can still offer your thoughts but do it in a generous and encouraging way, and let others have their say.

Contemporary Christian Worship Music – New Academic Research

…as popular Christian worship music gains a larger audience, Ari Kelman, associate professor of education at Stanford, has uncovered a surprising paradox. The very musicians, songwriters and music producers who create the music are increasingly sensitive to the “precarious relationship between rock music and worship,” Kelman said. (From Stanford News, article by Ashley Walters)

Kelman’s new upcoming publication Shout to the Lord: Music and Worship in Evangelical America, looks to be asking some important questions about the role of music in contemporary evangelical churches.  His research is revealing the secularisation of this music, where musicians are focused less on their role as leaders of liturgy and more as musicians trying to produce a good sound:

Kelman underscored the powerful role musicians and music producers assume in faith practices. “If people sing their faith, then those who write, perform and produce this music” become central to worship performance and practice.

Worship songs, Kelman noted, seek to model a “heavenly version of prayer” derived from Christian scripture. They attempt to deliver

Martin Smith

theology while leading the audience through a performance by listening and singing along to a scriptural message.

Not all professional worship leaders and musicians attempt to address these issues. When Kelman was doing fieldwork at a school for worship leaders, he joined a class in which participants learned how to work with a worship band.

The rehearsal classes focused on instrumentation and arrangements, leaving “almost no room for questions about the religious purpose of their playing together.”

I’m looking forward to reading this musicological study.

Calling for a “Contemporary Worship Music” Revolution: Discussion in the Mainstream Media

Raising Hell for Jesus is a recent article in the Fairfax publication The Good Weekend.

I love the little window we get at the end of the article into how to write a contemporary worship song.  Ryan Smith is a relatively high profile worship pastor in a high profile pentecostal megachurch:

In a sound studio at the main c3 campus in Oxford Falls, I meet the church’s music director Ryan Smith and singer Dan Korocz, who give me a short lesson in constructing a contemporary worship song.

“That’s probably one of the hardest things in the world,” Smith says. “We might come up with a theme – ‘God’s unconditional love’ is a classic example. Then we start with a chorus.”

Smith strums his guitar in the key of F and sings in a soft voice: “Unconditional, unconditional, You have saved me, You have loved me.”

Korocz joins in: “Your love is relentless, Your love, uh, uh, uh, uuuhhhhh, love is relentless.” Then Smith: “Love is amaaaazing.”

Rhyming words always help, he says. “A lot of people are quite ‘Christian-ese’ about it, where you use words like ‘mercy’, ‘consecration’, ‘forgiveness’, ‘crucifixion’ .”

What rhymes with crucifixion, I ask? They think for a while.

“If it was crucifixion, you could rhyme it with ‘His love we’re in’ ,” Smith replies, finally.

“Or ‘salvation’,” Korocz adds.

Diskypleship and International Shark Mentoring

“Diskypleship”  as you might have guessed, is where discipling occurs over Skype.  Perhaps you have a mentor who lives a distance away, so you meet up online.  It works quite well.  What matters is finding the right person.  It can even work with audio only.  

I have been coached in missional leadership where my coach was in the UK and it was great.  I have also done international shark mentoring.  This is where you search out people whose advice you really want, but you only ask for one targeted and quick  “shark” meeting of 30min to an hour.  I’ve found most people respond well to this request.    Here’s my tips for the meeting:

  1. Aim high with who you target. Don’t think they won’t want to talk to you – they usually do.
  2. Know exactly what questions you want to ask
  3. Make yourself available even if it’s really inconvenient (at a crazy late hour).
  4. Ask for a referral and introduction to someone else who might have something more to offer

Last year I had a series of meetings with ministers in the US, none of whom I’d met before.  I got their details from friends that had connections, sent them an email showing that I wasn’t a total random, and they responded with interest.  This is a form of planned networking, and very beneficial.  Even if you’re an introvert, give it a go!

“Never mistake motion for action” – Ernest Hemingway

One of the most popular proverbs attributed to the author Ernest Hemingway is, “never mistake motion for action.”  When I first heard this I immediately thought about how it applied to church and ministry.  Ministers, churches and denominational administrators can easily become consumed by busy work and activity and not actually move towards a planned outcome.

A minister’s diary in a given week is commonly filled with several committee meetings,  sermon preparation time, visiting the sick, filling out forms for the diocese, and church services.  By the end of the week they are exhausted and they have their day off, and start it all over again.  They are moving at a frenetic pace, but to where?  Perhaps they believe the important thing is to exist in the mode of ministry?  In contrast, let’s not forget that breed of church worker who are more like some of the staff of Ricky Gervais’ The Office: professionals at shuffling around stationary and walking back and forth to the photocopier (with the occasional sneaky Facebook scan) projecting the illusion that they are working on an important task.

The Office – The boss loved to move without achieving anything

Similarly, a church that has a healthy sized membership, often finds that its calendar is filled with lots of programs, small group meetings, playgroups, youth group, fundraisers, camps, and church services for every occasion (not to mention all the planning meetings).  In these churches, hundreds of people cross paths each week, fulfilling their roles and responsibilities on the rosters.  Lay people in these churches can work a full week and then find themselves at church all weekend.  But after all those tasks are done, what has been achieved?  I’m not suggesting that it has all been a waste of time –  youth group has helped high-schoolers grow as disciples, the missionary supporters dinner raised some good money, and the church services were fine.  But can anyone stand up and name the ultimate purpose?  Surely it’s not to create a community of churds (church nerds)?  And no one would openly admit it’s simply a way to improve the church’s attractiveness to “sheep steal” Christians from churches who can’t offer the smorgasbord of programs?

If congregations can move without knowing why, imagine this amplified at the level of the denominational head office!  Sometimes it seems  denomination offices are like Jim Hacker’s Ministry of Administrative Affairs in Yes Minister.  One of my favourite episodes is called The Compassionate Society where it is revealed to Hacker that his department has set up St Edward’s Hospital, with 500 staff and no patients.

This is hilarious, but a tad embarrassing when one considers, as in the case of my Anglican denomination, some diocese, who have depressingly declining church attendance, and yet maintains a large and robust bureaucracy administrating over it.  Will we ever get to the stage of having 500 denominational administrators (funded by the proceeds from nineteenth century trusts) and no practicing Anglicans?

The solution for the minister, the congregation and the denomination is to work out what it’s trying to ultimately do.  I don’t simply mean to come up with a vision statement.  But to ask the question, “at the end of all of this, what do we want to see happen?”

high speed sausage machine

If we were trying to build a sausage machine, for example, our final desired outcome might be to produce the village’s tastiest and healthiest sausage?  Or it might be an even broader goal than that – it could be that we want to provide the most affordable and yet nourishing meat good for the village?  In the case of a sausage machine you might think it’s easy to work out your success matrix.  But it is possible for the sausage company to get distracted.  For example, they might find that they start attracting employees whose passion is high speed sausage machines, and they are committed to pumping out thousands of sausages per hour!  For them success is speed of throughput.  At the end of the year, the sausage company might have multiplied the number of sausages produced by ten, but to what cost?  The CEO of the sausage company, has to go back to the plans, and remind their team of what they are ultimately trying to do.  If they are off track, perhaps the high speed machine needs to go?  Perhaps the ingredients need changing?  Perhaps staff need to be cut or be given a new job description?  And so on….

Once a minister, church or denominational office can name their intended ‘throughput’ they can reverse engineer how they use their week, how they do staffing, how they budget and so on.  St Edward’s Hospital should have had a ‘throughput’ that was something like ‘a healed person’ – to achieve this they need sick people to heal, not just hospital staff.  Perhaps a church’s throughput could be ‘a faithful and obedient disciple of Jesus Christ’? (see below)  If this was the case, then they could reverse engineer their activities.  What do we need to do to make faithful and obedient disciples?  Let’s do that.  Then the minister can know their place in that disciple ‘sausage machine.’  Their role might be to coach leaders of discipleship group, or it could be to teach people how to be disciples, maybe they should model what it means to be a faithful disciple?  Or all of the above.  After this process of resetting the ministry machine, it will be less likely that the minister and the church will be simply expending energy for the wrong reason (or shuffling paper.)

Of course, the same can be applied at the denominational level.  Denominational leaders should be asking, at the end of all of this, what do we want to see?  A healthy and faithful Church?  If so, then the denominational head office should reverse engineer their processes, budgeting and staffing until they know how to move and actually have action.

A universal throughput for the Church?

The question begs of whether there is, in fact, a throughput that the Bible points to.  A good place to start is Revelation 2-3 where Jesus give his criteria for a “success” matrix.  Here Jesus goes through each of the seven churches in Asia Minor and gives them a score card for (1) faithfulness to the gospel (2) obedience to God.  You can think of their report card as like a truth table:

YES              NO

Faithfulness to the gospel         

Obedience to God                         

Some of the churches were faithful but not obedient, some were obedient but let the false teachers have influence, Laodicea failed at both but Sardis and Philadelphia seemed to succeeded at both albeit under great trials and persecution.  Perhaps, then all that a ministry or a church needs to aim for are disciples who are faithful to the gospel and obedient to God?

It might be that once the throughput is defined you still find yourself doing lots of activities, but hopefully you will have more purpose and drive, and will know the difference between simple motion and purposeful action.

Two good books that explore the concept of ministry throughput are:


Learning Homiletics From Non-preachers: Nancy Duarte

I think about the art of preaching like I do about being a musician.

  • It requires a lot of sweat and determination.
  • You often feel daunted.
  • You shouldn’t leave it to the last minute.
  • It feels divine when everyone loves what you deliver.
  • It feels sickly when you know people are so bored that they are playing with their iPhone during it.
  • You should never feel like you’ve arrived at perfection.
  • Some are way too confident about their own talent and really shouldn’t be. That’s just deluded and annoying.
  • You should always check to see if your fly is up before you walk on the platform.
  • Sometimes you do a dodgy job and people can still be really moved.

The other thing is that, as in the case of music, with preaching you do well to seek out advice from different sources – even if they are not strictly from your field.

This TED talk from Nancy Duarte is an example of me seeking advice from different non-preaching sources.

Duarte makes a really powerful observation about the art of public speaking: a communicator will inspire when they switch back and forth between the “what is” and the “what could be” – ending in the new bliss that is possible from now.

Nancy Duarte graph

It is my idea that according to Duarte’s logic, preachers would inspire congregations if they incorporated these polarities into their script.  I suspect, however, that it is a rare skill to be able to do this well.

Shall we give it a go?

If the passage was:

Jesus Calls His First Disciples Matthew 4:18-22

18 As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 19 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 20 At once they left their nets and followed him.

21 Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, 22 and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.

To determine the “what is” and the “what could be/new bliss” how do you get there?  I’m glad you asked!  Begin with the normal exegesis steps, determining the main point of the passage and the main application.  Let me do the work for you.

Possible main point: You don’t need to be a ‘perfect’ spiritual person to respond to Jesus’ call (even average fisherman can!).

Possible main application: Respond to Jesus invitation to follow him today and start a new life as a disciple.

Now determine the “what is” and the “what could be/new bliss.” For sake of example I’ve chosen to focus on the spiritual, social and psychological life of the person apart from Jesus (these are just examples, it would have to be nuanced for the context).

What is spiritually:  You pray sometimes but don’t really know who to.  You think of yourself as ‘spiritual’ but don’t know what that really means.  Death seems hopeless – you don’t really know what to think.  

What could be spiritually: You get to call God “Father”.  No more spiritual vagueness – you can be filled with the Holy Spirit who enables you to grow in wisdom and understanding of the Bible.  You can be sure of your eternal life.

What is socially: While you have one or two good friends, and they’re alright, you really want meaningful relationships. 

What could be socially: You enter the Jesus community and become brothers and sisters with other Christians.  In the church everyone is (supposed to be) trying to grow in Christ-likeness – trying to be other person centred and sacrificial.  This is a community that is seeking to be loving, generous and non-judgmental.  But the church is not a community of perfect people.  On the contrary, churches are filled with people as flawed as you are.  But God is at work amongst them.            

What is psychologically: You try and be a good person to be accepted in society, but you know you can never really make it.  You feel insecure in your purpose in life.  

What could be psychologically: You don’t have to try and be a good person anymore because Jesus has made you righteous by taking a way your sin and providing forgiveness and a new life.   

THE NEW BLISS: You could demonstrate the reality of this with a live testimony of a normal everyday person who responded to Jesus call and found new life.  

The challenge would be to bounce back and forth and get excited yourself.  Just as Steve Jobs did when he first launched the iPhone or when Martin Luther King Junior did when he spoke that famous day from the Lincoln Memorial, or when Jesus spoke in his sermon on the mount.

Matthew 5

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.

The Beatitudes

5:3–12pp—Lk 6:20–23

He said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn,

for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek,

for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,

for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful,

for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart,

for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers,

for they will be called children of God.

10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Gerard Kelly on Community and Church

Gerard Kelly from Bless on Vimeo.

I first met Gerard Kelly about ten years ago when he spoke at my church and we went out for beers and cigars afterwards.  While hipster city pastors who like to show off their expertise on single malts are now a cliche of the clergy, Kelly is no poser.  He’s too old for that, I think he just likes a smoke!   I remember thinking at the time that he was fascinating thinker about urban mission.  Also, my friends, Dave and Blythe Toll, went and worked with Gerard and Bless in Europe for eighteen months, so I feel like I am only two degrees of separation from him.

This video was recently forwarded to me, and I liked it so much I thought I’d comment on the six words.

Six words that Gerard Kelly believes describe the kind of churches people want to belong to:


Kelly rightly identifies the shift of meaning in this word from ‘what we do for the environment’  to ‘having a sustainable lifestyle,’  So it is natural that churches should think about sustainable models of church, community and mission in a sustainable way.  He is right when he suggests that what many churches are doing is unsustainable.  I love his hook here that the Holy Spirit is the ultimate renewable energy source.  The guys at St Thomas’ Sheffield and 3DM ministries make a big point about this and so work hard at balancing their community calendar.

I often speak  with people who are not living sustainable lifestyles: they might be married with young kids, both parents are working, and maybe even studying.  Even the kids in my church are over worked – trying to fit all the school activities in as well as studying so hard to get into the top University courses.  To the overworked Christian, church activities can feel stressful and a burden.  Sunday worship is attended out of loyalty rather than joy.  Often there is guilt around a lack of a personal devotional life, and the only formal ministries they can sign up to is to do the Bible reading once every few months.  In addition, many adult Christians finances are overstretched and unsustainable.  They have committed to a mammoth mortgage without first prioritising their budget ‘christianly.’

We’ve never been good at identifying our idols.

All of this points to the great opportunity we have as the Church to discover Christlike sustainability and then to share that with the world.  People want to be part of churches that help them to live sustainable lives.  A good question every pastor should ask is what programs can we slash and still have good community?  And what might happen if we all had a Sunday off from attending our church service?


This is not about social networking but about human commonality.  Kelly urges us to adopt the logic, “you’re not my friend because we vote the same or believe the same but because we are both human.”  We should learn to mix with people who don’t agree with us.  Often the community that the church offers is one dimensional and boring but it should be vibrant and countercultural. Christlike friendship is more important than faction:  “you are my friend even if you choose a different life to me.”  Christ-centred society is supposed to have friendship with meaning.  What does it mean to create churches that have relationships and friendships and mission like this?

One of the best things a church can do to be attractive is to be Christlike in its relationships.  Unfortunately this often isn’t the case.  Congregations often trash the pastor and vice versa.  [See Bonhoeffer’s “Life Together.”]  One of  the best things you can do as a pastor is (1) repent of all the times you’ve whinged about your congregation (2) forgive your congregation for when the whinged about you and ask them for forgiveness (3) preach against whinging and promote a culture of generosity (4) promote lay people to positions of leadership who are generous.  If your church can turn around and be generous and positive, you will be modelling one key aspect of Christ-cenetred community that will cause you to become very attractive.  If you can also promote love for the marginalised, and a culture of listening before speaking, then you’ll be one step closer to heaven!

With regards to the idea of learning to develop friendships with people who disagree with you, a great book that I’ve been reading lately that goes into some detail about how you pursue the tension between your submission to Jesus as Lord and your engagement with the world is Graham Cray’s book “Disciples and Citizens.”


Following on from the idea of “Social” is the idea of “Choral”.  Kelly is playing with the idea of difference and harmony.  When people sing different parts in harmony the effect is beautiful.  What we are called to in the church is sing our song in a million different voices – and enjoy the fact that when we do this something amazing happens.  We should not seek to become homogenous but be and celebrate difference.  Mix people together who don’t normally hang together – slaves and masters, jews and greeks, young adult hipsters and noisy toddlers.  This raises an interesting question about the validity of aged focused churches and congregations.  Kelly is suggesting  the best way forward is to offer diversity of culture rather than sameness.  Perhaps, now that we have learned that we need to engage with people cross culturally in church and not assume that everyone understands the medieval aesthetic that we have enjoyed for a 1000 years of European church, that now we can go back to having congregations with people from all ages and stages?  Christians should get over the idea that we need to find the perfect church which is one that is filled with lots of people just like them.  If our churches do reflect the diversity of the neighbourhood, then we will be one of the only contexts where those subcultures will meet together.  “Choral” is a glimpse of heaven.


Kelly believes that churches of the future need to become “conversational” as a way of seeking truth.  We are discovering that truth is about conversation – we should promote conversation.  Truth, Kelly argues, “is woven from a thread of a thousand stories.”  Don’t tell but dialogue and listen.  This is going to become especially important as thorny divisive issues such as sexuality continue to become more thorny and divisive.  Preaching in the 21st century church needs to become conversational and move away from simply being declaratory (not easy to get this right).  You can have a conversational culture and still believe in the truth of scripture.  But you have to remind yourself that while the Bible is inerrant, you’re capacity to interpret the Bible is not.  (Which is why we should read the Bible in community and not just solo.)


Kelly makes a zinger of a point about prioritising aesthetics in the 21st century church.  He reminds us that the younger generations are an aesthetically informed people.  And yet despite this, the evangelical and pentecostal movements are so aesthetically starved!  For the past 20 years or more we’ve produced churches that seek to meet in starchy warehouses and sing cheesy sentimental juvenile worship songs.  God is beautiful – God is not just true.  What’s the point of the gospel being true if it’s ugly?  Beauty always points towards God, says Kelly.  Therefore, believe in design and beauty.  Making, painting, and designing should be part of the church.  [Note to megachurch pastors: just because you have sexy marketing and lavish HD digital projections in worship does not mean that you do this well].

Pastors of the future should seek to be aesthetically intelligent people.  If they are not, they should find people to work with who are.


Like Al Hirsch, Kelly says the church of the future needs to promote its entrepreneurs.  The Church needs heroes who start things.  The church needs to do something, make something, be something new, and have an entrepreneurial spirit.  This is especially challenging for the denominational churches who are chained to the concept of propping up their heritage.  Anglicans and Baptists promote Pastors and Teachers to leadership but where are the Apostles? Answer: for the past few decades the Pentecostals have stollen them.  But that is beginning to change as Pentecostalism starts to join its Anglican and Baptist brethren into being a ‘denomination’ with a heritage to uphold.  Now the entrepreneurs are starting to rise up in their respective denominations.  In my Anglican tribe in Melbourne we have about six or seven church plants in development at the moment, whereas five years ago you were lucky to have one.  Exciting times.  Promote a culture of entrepreneurialism.  Promote the entrepreneurs!