Church Planting and the Slow Fix Solution: Part 2 – Rich and Thick

There was an advertising campaign for canned goods giant Ardmona a few years back entitled “Rich and Thick”.  Noted Australian intellectuals, (celebrities surely – Ed) were photographed with Ardmona products with the words Rich and Thick underneath.  The aforementioned celebrities were either so intelligent that they were pulling the wool over our eyes in a postmodern ironic way, or they were in fact, rich and thick.  Dear reader I leave you with exhibits A and B:

The “Poo” and his stud.

Business, Football and Political Identity John Elliott

Well, enough of the eye candy, my point is that the Slow Fix Solution in Church Planting requires an expression of church community that is both rich and thick.  In the face of a culture that has thinned out the depth of our relationships; rendered less plausible the framework of Christian belief; and changed its ethical frameworks at such a breath-taking pace, the church is struggling to respond in a meaningful manner. And all too often it has responded in precisely the wrong manner.  The pace of life, the huge number of relationships we have, the mobility of suburban life, and the requirement for information to be fed to us in increasingly smaller chunks should mean that in order for church to survive and thrive in such a context it should follow suit. Intuitively church should be packaged, pre-baked, slogan-oriented and, most of all, compressed.  It should be more like what food was depicted as in The Jetsons – in pill form, easily digestible, and done more or less on the move and unthinkingly.  In other words in a streamlined life, church needed to be more streamlined.

What I propose however, and what in fact what we are attempting at Providence Church Midland, is counter-intuitive.  Faced with the siren call for a bland and thin church expression to fit our busy western lives, we are attempting a rich and thick version.  So what do I mean by that? What are the characteristics of a church community that is rich and thick? Here are two components of what I think is needed in the Slow Fix Solution Church.

1. Rich Sundays. The one hour service is no more in Slow Fix Solution Church.  Faced with an increasing barrage of events on Sundays that were once primarily on Saturdays (school friends’ birthdays, family gatherings), we are asking people to give us their Sunday, or a large chunk of it at least. It used to be Sunday sports putting the pressure on.  Now everything else is too. We’re drawing a line in the sand. The culture is staring us down: we are not going to blink first. Making church kick into lunch or Missional Community groups is now normative on Sundays and adds a depth to our relationships that we would struggle to have if we ended our Sunday time together just as we were getting warmed up.  But don’t hear it as all simply a noble gesture.  We recognise that getting people together regularly is increasingly difficult, especially whole family groupings in the one place.  We’re not so keen on one parent going out to Bible Study group on Wednesday night, leaving the other with the kids and the bedtime/school lunch prep routine. We want families to spend time with each other, and families to spend time with singles young and old, and couples.

There is a natural rhythm to doing chunky church that allows people to spend significant time together and embed their life narratives into the life narratives of others.  And there is the opportunity to have what we call “the second conversation” – the application of the sermon (aka, the first conversation) whilst it is fresh in peoples’ minds. We don’t have Bible Studies per se in which we commence learning new material.  One lot of biblical material heard, discuss and applied corporately each week is our aim. Rich Sundays are also a chance to stare down the culture, insofar as it constantly attempts to atomise our communal life.  I am no sabbatarian, but we are noticing that as people give us their Sunday, something richer is brewing.

2. Thick Liturgies.  The seeker sensitive service said keep it light, bright and breezy.  We are saying keep it deep, thick and liturgical.  By that I mean we are running a longer service, replete with communion each week in response to the proclamation of the gospel in both preaching and three or four bible readings – including some actually from the Old Testament (surely not – Ed).  We have the dreaded “long prayer” (which has been great), plenty of singing, gospel stories, morning tea, and, oh, yes, catechism.  That last one has been been a bit of a shock to many of our non-conformist friends, but we’ve been using The New City Catechism each week (it has an app for Apple and Android for use during the week), explaining it, having the children and adults recite it, and then watching a short video explanation of it from a well known speaker.  We do have a kids’ ministry, which runs three weeks in four, whilst the fourth week the kids stay in for the whole service.

Why are we doing this?  Because we realise that our goal is to provide a counter-liturgy to the cultural liturgies that our people are subjected to the remainder of the week.  What do I mean by that?  Simply this:  Every message they receive from every other source has liturgical intent.  It is designed to shape and drive their behaviour and desires.  These liturgical practices do not let up.  They are becoming more invasive.  They are becoming more plausible.  We believe it is time for God’s church to offer thick liturgy as a counter to these; a equalising of the pressure so to speak.  In a world in which it is increasingly harder to make a case for belief, we are convinced that thick liturgical practices work.

In case you are not convinced, let’s not forget that the Bill Hybels himself admitted that, much to his dismay, the seeker sensitive approach to church did not produce the depth of discipleship that Willow Creek had intended.  Faced with the “light” Sunday option and the midweek “thicker” option, most Christians were still turning up on Sunday to a service that was big on easy to swallow introductory material and light on chunky food.

Is it working?  Yes, it appears to be.  It’s becoming almost impossible to push people out the door.  I am about to extend our rental time for the room by 45 minutes in order not to upset the local shire and cheat it of money.  For what it’s worth we have grown from a lounge room sized group to between 65-90 on a Sunday morning in a year and a half. No it’s not all about numbers, but some of it is!

Is it easy?  Well, yes and no.  Thick, rich church does not have to be complicated.  At most we have two musicians leading, often on one with a guitar and an extra singer.  We have a good roster system, but nothing onerous.  But it does require a commitment by the leadership to, er, lead!  To be people committed to modelling what it is like to give a Sunday; not simply to running a service, but to creating and being involved with a thick church experience that often kicks on for five or six hours. There’s no law that says you have to stay past the service (or indeed stay for all the service!), but faced with the choice of lunch together, Missional Community life, and then perhaps meeting to plan and pray, people are taking up those options.  As far as we are concerned when it comes to the Slow Fix Solution for Church,  rich and thick is here to stay.

(Exhibit C: Our new door-to-door evangelist)

 (Next Time: Slow Fix Solution Part 3: Snail-Pace Grace)

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