All a Church Needs is a Table, a Kettle, and a Curtain
I’ve often compared church-planting today to opening a video store. People look at you as if to say “Why are you opening one of those? We don’t use VHS anymore!” As a parish priest in a small neighbourhood on the outskirts of Wellington City, I’ve found many are endeared to me as something of a curiosity. Why would someone under 40 give their life to something so antiquated and irrelevant?
And to be honest, on my worst days I feel the pressure to perform. I want to succeed at this and show people that I’m not wasting my time here. I’m reminded of Mike Cosper’s observation that there is a certain kind of ego to someone who thinks they can plant a church.1 He’s not wrong.
When I sometimes lose sight of the fact that this is God’s church and not mine, I am given to all sorts of desires to be successful and relevant. These are the kinds of motivations which will poison the authenticity of a new faith community, and lead us to make all sorts of choices which neglect who we are called to be at our core. On my good days, I remember that church planting doesn’t need much more than a table, a kettle, and a curtain.
I’m more and more convinced that the heart of any Christian gathering is reflecting on the scriptures and breaking bread together. It’s that simple. Music is good, but optional in the early days.
When I lead Blueprint, a young adults congregation in Central Wellington, we went on a month-long intentional journey of understanding what the Eucharist means. I had artisans from our community build a table. Their vision was to bond together hundreds of square pieces of cut timber into one seamless surface because “we who are many are one, for we all share the one bread.” At Blueprint that table sits in the midst of the people, in front of the music teams and the speakers. It is our centre.
Similarly, when we arrived in Brooklyn a local carpenter asked to rent our garage to make recycled furniture. We did a trade with him to create a table for our chapel. Alongside a filter machine, this was one of our first outlays. When you walk into our spaces, you will see a table with the bread and the wine set out. This says something about what, and who, sits at the centre of our worship.
Everywhere Jesus goes, he goes as a host. He came “to serve and not to be served”. Surely in the early days of any church plant our most crucial spiritual practices must be prayer and hospitality. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of cups of tea. Cups of tea with local business owners, community organisers, neighbours, landlords, librarians, pharmacists, and doctors.
In Anglican ecclesiology we understand ourselves firstly as a parish, not a congregation. This means our ministry is not defined by who professes to follow Christ, but by who lives in a geographical location. This means I am a Priest to my whole neighbourhood, not just to those of faith. This means I need a good kettle.
It is concerning today that many church plants are effectively branding exercises. They have a logo and a name before they have a presence in their neighbourhood. When we front with a logo rather than a kettle, we are engaging with people firstly as consumers.
I have talked to many pastors who have taken this market-driven approach, experienced rapid growth, and then subsequent frustration that they have a church full of consumers. But they got exactly what they asked for. They advertised a product, and they got customers. Ministry that puts the kettle on isn’t looking for adherents, it’s looking for brothers and sisters. It’s not looking for people to put to work on a project, it’s looking for kindred spirits to work alongside in the restoration of a neighbourhood.
When we began ‘services’ it was in our chapel with a maximum capacity of twelve. We then moved downstairs to our communities space with a capacity of twenty. We are now at Brooklyn Community Centre which has a capacity of 80-100, but we have hung a curtain halfway down the hall to drop that back to 45. Eventually, the curtain will come down.
This is something I learnt running punk gigs with teenagers back in the day: always get the smallest venue you can. Small spaces create intimacy, energy, a sense of momentum, and they force people to rub shoulders with each other. It’s harder for your regulars to form huddles that exclude newcomers, and it forces everyone to take responsibility for hospitality.
There is a gift in being little, and there is a way to be small while being full of life and vitality. There are little churches in decline which feel miserable, and there are other churches which are stagnant for lack of leadership, but then there are small churches with a future that are joyfully waiting for God’s next surprise for their community. They are tiny, but full of fire. And when you only have a few coals, it’s best to keep them as close together as possible!
Many church-planters feel the pressure to become a “real church” as soon as possible. They become structure-heavy, volunteer-heavy, and bloated by brand and buzzwords before they have truly learned to be family. Their leaders are exhausted within a year because they are maintaining something built for 100, while there are only 10 of them. On these days we need to remember that, at its inception, the Church was founded in homes and houses - little rooms with not much more than a kettle and a table.