by | June 27, 2023 | Espresso

It felt so strange and unfamiliar and apocalyptic. There I was in a friend’s house sitting at a dining room table in front of a camera and tripod, recording my sermon for a Sunday morning service. It was lockdown in northwest Brisbane in March 2020.

Suddenly everything had changed. COVID-19 was in Australia. Everyone was potentially contagious. We lived our lives behind masks, screens, and closed doors. The economy was crippled, businesses went bust, and mental health skyrocketed.

We invented language to help describe our new reality, as we adopted our new practices; social distancing, flatten the curve, quarantine, covidiot, life-saving PPE, virtual, online, self-isolate, elbow bump, snap lockdown, contact tracing, mask-wearing mandate, antiseptic wipes, handwashing routines, etc Then there was the vaccination debate and of course the angst about using the Check-in APP, creating an unnecessary division in the workplace and community.

VUCA World
It has been well documented we live in a VUCA World; volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. The COVID-19 pandemic seemed to expose and accelerate many of the issues lying dormant within organisations and churches. In Australia this is evidenced by 70 years of decline in religious affiliation and church attendance. As Mark Branson and Alan Roxburgh repeat in their excellent work ‘Leadership, God’s Agency and Disruptions’ (link book review here), we are ‘unravelling’.

Its our responses to the unravelling that matter. We are not shaped by crisis; it is our responses to the crisis that shapes us. Like many other churches, our response to the Covid pandemic changed the way we gathered and served together as a church community.

While many were hoping everything would ‘return to normal’, our leadership team realised nothing would ever be the same again. So, we embarked on a season of praying, listening, learning, and discerning what God was doing in these turbulent times, and how we were to respond. I unpack these ideas with leaders in the various colabs, cohorts, and CoPs.

Bono sang “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for” (I’m a U2 fan). I resonate with that song because I’m never satisfied. I’m restless, curious, and determined. I believe the greatest catalyst for change is dissatisfaction. If you are satisfied, you will never embrace change (and the inevitable pain that accompanies it). You will also never experience its transformative power. As Alan Hirsch reminds us, real lasting change, whether personal or organisational, is only possible through Metanoia.

Prior to the pandemic, Nikki and I were asking a new set of questions about church, mission, evangelism, and discipleship. We were dissatisfied with the status quo in the church; the transfer growth, the revolving door, selective commitment, the lack of passion for Christ and His Kingdom. We were trying to imagine a better way of discipling people with the limited resources we had at our disposal. We were also at a personal crossroad, considering what we wanted to do with the rest of our lives. For us, the questions went deeper than church, ministry, and leadership, to our core beliefs, calling, vocation, and legacy.

Reset the Church
When COVID hit, God spoke to Nikki and I clearly, “Reset the church, because I’m about to do a new thing during the next 3 years”. [GRAB text box?] It took months of social isolation to create the space we needed to work out what ‘reset’ meant for us. We reached out to friends around Australia and the world via zoom, and discovered God was indeed at work resetting and reframing his church globally.

As we emerged from months of lockdown in Brisbane (which wasn’t as long as Victoria, a point I’m reminded of continually by the Melbournites), we had a clearer sense of what God was asking us to do in the next season. God gave us a set of principles, priorities, and practices that were going to help us to adapt to the new post-covid environment, maximise our limited resource and time, utilise our God-given gifts, and help us to achieve the primary goal of making disciples.

I share these principles and practices in more detail in our colabs, cohorts and CoPs. These experiences are shared, not to convince you of a model or method, but merely to share some of the revelation, ideas, and practices that maybe helpful to your context. However, let me share one of the major shifts we made… meeting around tables.

Remove the Pews
God spoke to us very clearly during covid, “Remove the pews. Reset the church around tables. Release the Body. Create new Rituals and Rhythms”.

For us, the pews were symbols of an old wineskin. Please note, I’m not against churches with pews! We just wanted to obey what Jesus was saying to us in our locality! We were dissatisfied. We were disrupted. We had an appetite for risk. We were obsessed with obedience. We loved the people that were still with us (50% had left during the pandemic). We desperately wanted to make disciples, and we wanted everyone involved in His Kingdom.

We didn’t want transfer growth. We didn’t want an attractional spectator church. We didn’t want to focus on the exceptional few. We didn’t want to over-program and make everyone busy. We didn’t want to be heroes or become martyrs on the altar of ministry or denominational expectations.

We didn’t have a lot of details. We had a description, not a prescription. God was allowing us to fill in the blanks, to be creative and innovative. We knew what we didn’t want to do, and we had a sense of what God was asking us to do. So we stepped out and obeyed Him.

Fast forward from July 2020 to now, Rivercity Family Church has become a ‘hybrid church’; we have a mixed ecology. We are still experimenting. We are transitioning from a dominant (traditional) model church, to a decentralised network of churches. We are not where we want to be (i.e. Rivercity Family of Churches), but we are heading in the right direction. Our current practices are helping us become what God has designed us to be.

Table Church
As a local church we are hybrid; we are a mixture of attractional, evangelism, missional community, and microchurch. Currently on Sundays in our primary location (i.e. The Gap, Brisbane) we meet around tables, with constant coffee and snack food. The tables are round, there is no ‘head of the table’, and no one is appointed to lead. We believe in creating an environment for all the gifts to emerge, including leadership. People have ‘permission’ to participate.

At the table we practice microchurch principles. At the table is where people lean in, listen, and learn from one another. At the table is where we share our life, express our thoughts, ideas, and concerns. At the table is where we welcome visitors, strangers, and friends alike. At the table is where we eat, pray, and share communion, just like Jesus did at the last Supper with His disciples.

At the table is where we grapple with the sermon, the scripture, and the sayings of Christ. We worship together at the table and pray for each other in real and intimate ways. The gifts operate at the table. The mature help the less mature. The elderly helps the young and vice versa.

We ‘measure’ church (i.e. the Sunday morning gathering, as one thing we do as a hybrid church) by the above-mentioned activities. Most leaders need to measure (count) things so they can see they are succeeding; people, attendance, offerings, volunteers etc. However when you change the model, you change the measurements. Success is not defined by numbers.

The ‘table church’ format is helping us create both a discipleship and missional culture. All leaders need rituals and routines to shape a new culture. For us, meeting around tables is not a borrowed model, or a method to be copied; for us it’s a step of obedience. We also realise it maybe for a season and for a purpose. We still have a way to go. Having Table Church gatherings in homes, cafes and workplaces is the next step.

The complete set of RESET principles and practices are shared in more detail in our colabs, cohorts and CoPs. The principles and process are more important than the model it produces. Models are not always transferrable, but principles can be helpful in creating new practices into multiple contexts.

Gary Rucci has been serving in christian leadership since 1989. Together with his wife Nikki, also a credentialled minister, he has served in various portfolios in a few of Australia’s largest churches and alongside many influential pastors and not-for-profit leaders. Gary loves to network and collaborate with others across the Body of Christ. Gary and Nikki live in Brisbane and have three adult children.