The right DNA

Mark Sayers is one of the Team Leaders at South Melbourne Restoration Community (SMRC), a creative and innovative Australian church, and arguably, Australia’s first GenX church.

So Mark, how did you first get involved in SMRC?
I began working 3 years ago as part of the ministry team, specifically invited to bring a more post modern flavor to their worship.

What kind of church was SMRC when you go there?
Mainly young adults with a history of reaching out to different subcultures amongst young adults, alternative, gay, drug users and the like.

Even though it was reaching out to the kinds of people that the majority of churches would not consider their “target” group, was SRMC that different to most conventional churches?
In terms of accepting people, different. The culture was more GenX’y and postmodern. However, just a cooler version of an attractional church.

Can you elaborate on the term that you just used? ie: “attractional”?
By attractional, I mean we expected people to come to us instead of following Jesus’ mandate to go to people. We expected them to come to us. We were critical of the church growth model because of it’s consumerist focus, but really, we had fallen into the trap of creating a consumer church for another niche group. So even though the crowd who came to our church was allot edgier, we still were the classic “come to the Sunday service and come the small group” kind of church.

Now I understand that some significant changes have taken place and are continuing to take place. Can you firstly give us some background? What inspired you to change what on the surface, looked like a very successful GenX church?
Even though most churches around Australian are struggling to hold their young adults and to keep their people after youth group. Here, we had a church which was probably 80% young adults. However we realised that we were not truly impacting the communities in which we lived. We were not just about creating a successful church, but participating in God’s building of his kingdom. We’d stopped reaching out to edgier young adult subcultures, and instead had become a church that started attracting Christian young adults who were looking for an edgier form of worship.

So describe to me the changes, the process and the circumstances.
Firstly, we realised that even thought we saw ourselves as a neighborhood church, we really were a regional church. So we began meeting in smaller missional units in the areas that people lived.

Isn’t that just a groovier word for small groups?
No. Instead of making these groups an-add on to the main service, we made these groups the main life of these groups, or tribes as we call them. They are the main heartbeat of the tribe. The corporate meeting now only takes place once per month. For us, the smaller groups meant that people had to participate in the life of these smaller meetings rather than coming to a large worship service to consume.

How did that go over?
A tough transition for allot of us, but it meant that the resources and time that we ploughed into maintaining a weekly corporate worship service, we could redirect into building relationships with unchurched people and discipling our community. We encourage our tribes to meet non purpose built religious spaces. Groups began to meet in houses, cafe’s art galleries and the like. This encouraged people to see their world as a mission field. We didn’t start an evangelistic program like Contagious Christianity or Alpha, rather we encouraged people to take the gospel to the natural social groups they found themselves in. For some groups, started dinners amongst underprivileged kids in housing commission flats, some would do art exhibitions, music nights, and art and craft groups, sporting teams, where Christians and non Christians could relate and begin conversations on the non Christian’s turf.

So your people responded positively?
Yes. This move has energised our community and attracted many new members who were drawn to our missional emphases. We were able to attract both unchurched people as well as Christian young adults back to church.

One of the questions often asked with risky endeavor’s such as the one you have described, is one pertaining to control. How do people learn and grow? How do people worship? how do you keep people doctrinally in the ballpark?
We centre everything we do around our DNA.

TEMPT. TEMPT is an acronym. T is for “Together we follow”, E is for “Engagement with Scripture”, M is for “Mission”, P is for “Passion for Jesus”, and the T is for “Transformation”. TEMPT is our control. We find that it plays the same role as DNA does in the human body, it shapes our identity.

In practical terms?
For us it is the old wells and fences. Instead of building fences keeping people in, we try and build wells in which people will be drawn to gather around. Young adults are leaving the church in droves in Australia, so we find that people who come are drawn to our DNA. We don’t really have to try and control them. The great things is, because we focus on DNA rather than creating programs, is that the congregation will often shock you and start missional and discipleship ventures off their own bat, that we would never have had the imagination to develop ourselves. For example, I discovered that during Australian Idol, one of the groups were inviting their non Christian friends to mingle and chat over a BBQ whilst they watched Australian Idol together. This led to a whole host of evangelical opportunities. They knew the M is for missional. The funny thing is, we as leaders were the last to hear about it.

So they knew what the value was, but it was up to the group to develop their own practical response to the value?
Yes. We give them the DNA, they can build whatever body they want. But each body will have two arms, two legs, one head and all the necessary organs because of the right DNA.

So you control, by relinquishing control?
Yes, we create a broad field with a few simple rules, and we let people use their God given imagination. We stimulate rather than control.

This leads nicely into a question regarding leadership. You have given us a bit of an indication; can you tease out a little more, the nature of how leadership works in such a structure?
I think we are coaches rather than managers. We coach people that if we are really a biblical community, we should be caring for each other. We coach people to resist consumer culture and follow the path of Christian discipleship. We coach people, helping them see that we are in a mission field now, and that we have to think like missionaries. You see Jesus constantly doing this with his disciples in the gospels.

So essentially a story of a church, not unlike many others in this country, trying to engage people where they are at rather than encouraging them into a Sunday service?
Probably a church trying to fight consumer culture and consumer religion, and a church learning valuable lessons along the way. We’re not there yet, but the initial signs are exciting and encouraging.

Things you would suggest to leaders of congregations grappling with the issues of rediscovering a missional focus?
I’ve learned a few helpful lessons. I call them moves. Moving from chaplains of society, to Missionaries to Australia, from control to stimulation and inspiration, from attraction to sending, from consumer spirituality to costly discipleship, from positional power to relational influence.

Mark Sayers was interviewed by Stephen Said of Forge Mission Training Network