Wednesday, March 04, 2009

chopping down the Sunday tree

Updated: this post is receiving quite some attention, from here and here and here and here and here. Welcome and ta for the linking luv! Can I stress that this post emerged from a particular set of circumstances, a local church approaching us in terms of a mission partnership, and so being forced to think through this change process. So it’s not a generic recipe for all Sunday mornings, nor a longterm recipe, but simply a wondering about a way to focus a conversation on mission.

Say your church is dying. You have good buildings and some community ministry, but Sunday service is dwindling. It consumes a lot of your energy, both from your pastoral leader and your volunteers – to run sound and play music.

Change proposal: chopping down the Sunday tree.

Keep meeting at 10:30 am Sunday. Keep the doors open. Keep the coffee fresh. Keep the muffins warm. But stop the sermons and stop the singing. Take all that energy and reclaim the time for mission. Read a creed. Dwell in Luke 10:1-12. Initiate some listening experiments. Share stories. Foray into the community for simple acts of service. Return to share stories. Re-read a creed. Re-dwell in Luke 10:1-12. Initiate some more listening experiments. Share stories. Foray into the community for further acts of service.

You get the idea.

If it fails, you were dying anyway.

If visitors do come, they are not meeting a shut door, nor are they finding a stressed group of people. Instead they are finding a warm community who like coffee and muffins. Who knows, they might just be attracted by a group of people taking mission and church and leadership seriously. In the meantime, you are reclaiming an existing resource – your time and your pastoral time – and you’re investing that in mission. And you are redefining your stretched life around mission and community.

Do this for 3 months and see what shoots begin to emerge. Who knows. Some shoots will need another prune. But some might be worth persevering with. Some might even need a new name.

The mission tree.

Posted by steve at 04:21 PM


  1. When I first started coming to church (at opawa!) as a teenager one of the things that really helped me understand the Christian faith was the singing. The songs were theologically rich and were a large part of me deciding I wanted to follow Jesus. So singing can fill a mission purpose

    Comment by Aaron — March 4, 2009 @ 10:08 pm

  2. Thanks…. I’m going out for a run now (in cold Northern England!). I’m going to be running past my church building and turning this over and over again.

    Comment by Graham — March 5, 2009 @ 1:55 am

  3. Thanks Aaron,

    Three comments – First, everything they do on Sunday morning is useful – the singing, the sermoning, the prayer-ing – it’s all there because in the past it’s helped people “understand the faith.” This is not about saying that singing/sermoning or whatever is bad and it won’t every happen again. It’s simply that this church is still dying. They ain’t seeing people “understand the Christian faith [through] the singing.”

    Second – this is about resource. It’s about all the effort required to sustain what is, and in doing so, leaves precious little else. It’s not that what is done is not good and not worthwhile, its simply the need to do something concrete to free up resource.

    Third – what songs were you singing that formed you? The reason I ask is that one of the critiques of contemporary music is that it is theologically vacumous and that is focuses so much on the individual, on how a person feels about God, that it is actually simply teaching me-ism. So I’d be fascinated to hear about what you were singing and how it formed you.



    Comment by steve — March 5, 2009 @ 1:35 pm

  4. I’m in the position where I now struggle to chose songs for worship for the same reason. I find myself going back to childhood stuff…Wesley hymns that I would have imbibed from the cradle. Some of the language is now obscure but I find they hold together hope and fear, joy and pain etc better than some contemporary stuff. I am not opposed to contemporary stuff- there are some real gems there (a lot of Kendrick I have returned to again and again). I feel there is also a lot of dross. But I’m not a morning person- I can’t leap into bouncy worship every morning at 10.30 (and I mean every morning.

    Is is heretical to suggest that this holding together of joy and pain, hope and fear etc is something that both Weley and U2 (and others) do better than a lot of ‘contemporary worship’.

    nb: I am unhappy about the word ‘contemporary’ being hijacked by ‘contemporary worship TM’

    Comment by Graham — March 5, 2009 @ 9:42 pm

  5. I would say the songs we were singing ere a mixture of older hymns and scripture in song music. I certainly agree that a lot of modern music does not convey the same theology as this music did.
    Which is why (assuming it does have singing) a church needs both older and modern songs. A chance for people to sing about the nature and great acts of God and also a chance to let him know how they feel about him.

    Comment by Aaron — March 6, 2009 @ 1:09 am

  6. Aaron More. I miss you guys!

    Comment by Sharyn — March 6, 2009 @ 10:36 am

  7. Its an interesting reflection Steve and I imagine it would work with some but perhaps not with others. My intuition suggest that a dying church is often a selfish one and one that will adhere to its own forms of worship to the death knell – even if they are the cause of death!

    Now that I am back in a smaller church community who (say they ) want to be effective I am realising again how many unwritten conditions are placed on the ways in which we will be effective. Just a thought from an interesting 2 weeks of ‘being a pastor’ and trying to be a missionary at the same time 🙂

    Comment by Andrew Hamilton — March 6, 2009 @ 12:15 pm

  8. thanks andrew. part of this is actually about finding some ways to assess the unwritten rules of a group and wondering if putting something like this on the table actually helps “write” the “unwritten.” it was certainly my experience going from a church plant at graceway to an established church at opawa that key to change included my pre-entry negotations and the naming of agendas,


    Comment by steve — March 6, 2009 @ 2:28 pm

  9. thanks for the clarity aaron, i really like how you name a balance. hymns can also be bad theologically, and there are some I dislike as much as choruses, simply cos they are teaching bad theology,


    Comment by steve — March 6, 2009 @ 2:29 pm

  10. i *really* like this idea… hang on, does it just have to be an idea?… v tempting to put it into practice!

    Comment by LauraHD — March 7, 2009 @ 3:38 am

  11. I like your description of an alternative to the traditional Sunday. Is it just a whimsical day dream or something that you can make happen?

    Keep thinking outside the box! Someone needs to do it, even if it is hard at times. And you seem to be well suited for the task.

    Comment by Mandy — March 8, 2009 @ 9:13 pm

  12. hi mandy, the post was written with a particular situation in mind. so it’s not a dream, but neither is it yet a reality. some big things need to happen, and there’ll be blog updates no doubt if it does 🙂

    ta for the 2nd paragraph, appreciate the encouragement


    Comment by steve — March 9, 2009 @ 8:41 pm

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