John Finkelde on Making Non-Sunday Connections with the Next Generation in Australia


john_finkelde_podcastWelcome back to the unSeminary Podcast. Today I’m super excited to be talking with John Finkelde again.

John is a church leader from Australia and runs an organization called Grow a Healthy Church. Australia is a very secular culture and less than 10% attend church regularly. Australians are a very independent culture probably because of their isolation as a country, and so church leaders have to work with that anti-authoritarianism that the people have developed.

  • Be authentic. // Australians love people who are authentic. A phony person or a ‘holier-than-thou’ attitude won’t gain the trust of the people of Australia. For an Australian church to make an impact in its community, there has to be a deep connection with demonstrating what it’s really like to be a Christian. Live out your faith, with your struggles and failures, in an authentic way and that will shift the way non-believers view you and the Christian faith.
  • Connect to non-Christians. // One of the things John has seen in growing churches is their pastors are making their own connections with non-Christians. It’s easy for a pastor to live a monastic lifestyle, working in the church office and surrounded with other believers. Pastors need to lead the way when it comes to relationship-building and connecting with people outside of the church, showing others who they are behind the pastoral title. They might do this in a variety of ways from joining a sports league or photography club to investing in community programs. When a relationship has been established, unchurched people may be more curious and willing to accept an invitation to church or another related event.
  • Use Non-Sunday Connection Moments. // Create events in your church to draw people in on non-Sundays. Start an afterschool music club for young people to teach them songs and let them play instruments. Offer childcare or playdates for families. Connect with local schools through counseling or breakfast and lunch programs. You may not be able to preach the gospel in school settings, but you can offer care and support to the students and connect with them in an impactful way.
  • Win people over when they’re young. // Don’t view kids’ ministry as just taking care of young people until they get older. Growing churches are extremely intentional about investing in the next generation. Children’s and youth ministries plant seeds and develop foundational faith in young people that will grow as they mature. While people can certainly come to Christ as adults, statistics have shown it’s easier to win people over before age twenty-five, when they’re locked into a lifestyle. “Get intentional, get focused, and you will bear fruit,” John says.

You can learn more about Grow a Healthy Church and John’s ministries at www.growahealthychurch.com.

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Episode Transcript

Rich – Well hey everybody, welcome to the podcast. I’m super excited to have John Finkelde back on the show. He actually was on a number of… you know, that was probably a year ago now. So glad to have you back on the show.

John is a church leader from Australia, he runs an organization called Grow a Healthy Church, has been leading in churches for a long time, I really appreciate his perspective on a lot of things. So John, welcome to the show today.

John – Hey Rich, great to be with you and with all the listeners today. Great to be back on the podcast.

Rich – So glad. John, why don’t you kind of tell us about Australia, give us the kind of spiritual climate, the makeup of your country?

John – Yeah look, Australia is a very secular country, so it doesn’t have a church going culture, it has had many decades ago, but the climate of the culture is that pretty well less than 10% of Australians would attend church on any given weekend.

Rich – Wow.

John – There has been a really long term decrease in affiliation to Christianity. Looking at our census from just over 100 years ago, 96% of people 100 years ago connected with being a Christian.

Rich – Wow.

John – Well, since as five years ago that was down to 61%. So it’s a massive fall away over a century.

Australian’s are generally a fairly anti-authoritarian culture anyway, but they’re especially suspicious and cynical of churches and believers. So you find that people are not that open to an invite to church. An Australian generally won’t get up on a Sunday and say, “Which church should I go to today?”

Rich – Right, they’re not thinking about that when they wake up on Sundays?

John – No.

Rich – What’s with the cynicism, what is that? I always take it as like, I feel like my Australian friends have this great biting sense of humor.

John – Yeah.

Rich – Which is great, what do you think has kind of made that culture?

John – I think it’s related probably a lot to our history and also probably our isolation as a nation. Australia is a fairly, you’d have to call it a fairly rural rugged lane in the sense of being pioneered. So people coming out here, I think they had to kind of strike out on their own, make it work for themselves. So quite an independent sort of heart and spirit within Australians.

I think Australians, I put it down to a bit of our Irish background, we’ve got quite a lot of Irish connection back in our 19th century history especially. I think they’re quite… really there’s a strong streak of anti-authoritarianism in Australia and I think it’s we’ve grown up and broken away from Mother England, as she used to be called in our nation. We’ve kind of been like the teenager that’s still yelling at our parents sort of thing and wanting to prove ourselves.

Rich – Yes.

John – So if anyone comes with a sense of authority like with the bible or with moralistic sort of teaching, people are very cynical and very suspicious of you. Even if you’re coming from the government with a degree of authority or in the workplace with a degree of authority. So I think it’s more than just church, I think it’s kind of inbred into the Australian psyche to kind of be cynical, sarcastic, we’re known for being cutting in our humor and then suspicious.

So when people are inviting others to church, they have to really climb over into that relational space before they start saying, “Come to church.”

Rich – Yeah there isn’t kind of, “Hey, this is something important for you,” it’s like this has got to work for you relationally for people to want to plug in.

John – Yeah.

Rich – One of the things I love about, again my non-sociologist thumbnail sketch of the half a dozen Australians… we used to have a couple of Australians on staff at Liquid.

John – Okay.

Rich – One of the things I love is there is like a kind of fun loving, you know, happy culture. I remember, I saw this video once of a prime minister, who I think was getting ready for a video interview and he didn’t realize he was on camera, that they were doing a set up and he was like changing his pants. So here’s the prime minister, leader of the country, you know with his pants down in this live shot.

So I thought that was funny and great, but even more so, the prime minister just kind of rolled with it, it was just like, “Well, there it is.” I think sometimes in other cultures, that kind of thing, there is like a referential kind of treatment of leaders and you would never, if that got caught, the PR people would clamp down on that, “You’ve got to delete this file, this is never going to happen, we can’t let our leader be seen like that,” but then I just loved it, it was like, “Whatever, this is kind of life.” So it was fun.

John – So Australians have that informality about them, again it’s a bit of a reaction to our Mother England formality class system, very egalitarian.

Rich – Right.

John – So an Australian leader that’s kind of caught short as it were in that situation would probably win, they’d be a few laughs, but generally Australians would be adhered to that leader, seeing the very human side of them.

So as a Christian, you cannot go to some sense of spirituality and a sense of, “I’m holier than you, I’m kind of closer to God than you,” you can’t go with that deal to an Australian, because of our egalitarianism as well, very strong in our culture.

Rich – That’s an interesting, this idea of the authority figure, I think that is true. I think there is generally in kind of North American culture, there’s this significant erosion of this idea that, “Just because that leader says so, I should do that,” you’re like, “What are you talking about?”

John – Yeah, yeah.

Rich – What’s God kind of using in your culture to see people get connected to churches and ultimately connected to Christ? One of the things I loved about your background is, you obviously have a passion for your country but you’ve really seen some amazing things happen. So what is it that you think God is using to see an impact in your community?

John – Yeah, I think there’s a number of things and I think it does come back to this. Australians love people who are authentic. So any phony or fake, and that’s why Australians will sometimes be sarcastic and almost put people down, just to see what’s in them, see what comes out and how real they are.

So for an Australian church to make an impact in their community there has to be a deep, deep connection with, “Hey, this is what it’s really like to be a Christian,” and that translates into then very pragmatic sort of exercises and so on.

One of the things I’m actually seeing and this is kind of fairly recent as well, when talking with pastors, in fact I was talking to a pastor in the Eastern States of Australia about two weeks ago and he was talking about the breakthrough he’d had in his church in seeing people come to Christ from all sorts of different backgrounds, was that he began to really see the Lord and really pray.

Just talking with another pastor recently, the same sort of deal going on in their heart as well, that I think, when the soil is hard, you really do need to have a sense of going to the Lord and getting spiritual breakthrough in your area, in your own heart and probably that, I think, precipitates that shift of attitude towards unbelievers, towards people who are far from Christ.

So I think pastors are beginning to kind of really go, “Do you know what, unless I get a breakthrough from the Lord, anything I’m going to try is not really going to work.”

Rich – That’s good.

John – I think pastors also… sorry?

Rich – No I was saying, that’s good, I love that kind of internal, “Let’s start with our own… this has got to connect inside of us, it’s got to change us.”

John – Yeah.

Rich – I know that’s like maybe an easy thing to roll pass, but I love that you’ve started there.

John – Yes.

Rich – You know, when we’re trying to reach out into cultures that are cynical, that are post-Christian, they’ve got to see transformed lives first, they’ve got to say, “Does it work for that guy? Does it seem to make any difference in his life?” I love that.

John – Yeah and I think pastors in Australia get a hold of this, sort of passion for Christ afresh, and then they get a passion for what Christ has a passion for, which is definitely people who are lost, people who are going to a lost eternity.

So I think then also pastors, where I see church growth going on in Australia, pastors are doing their own connection to non-Christians. You know what it’s like in a pastoral life you can live a fairly monastic lifestyle where you kind of work in a church, you’ve kind of got people around you who are Christians all the time, all of your friends are Christians.

So pastors I know who have growing churches are deliberately breaking out of this mold, of I’m locked down into my office, I’m locked down into my lifestyle. They’re getting out, they’re doing things like joining a sports club, a photography club, connecting with their neighbors maybe through their sports or school, communities, but they’re making endeavors to breakdown the connections… sorry, build up the connections between themselves and non-Christians, breakdown the walls that are there, so that when they come to their church to talk about, “Hey, we have this special event coming up in four weeks’ time in our church, it’s a plus one event, bring someone else, bring one other to the event that doesn’t know the Lord or is a Christian that’s away from the Lord at the moment.” The pastors are saying, “Hey, here’s the person I’m inviting,” and they’re modelling it and that always produces momentum with a church as well.

Rich – I think that’s so good. I think sometimes obviously a big part of the way we’re trying to make an impact in our community is by encouraging our people to invite their friends and I’ve said to so many pastors over the years, “Listen, you can’t get up and say, ‘Please invite someone,’ even if you don’t tell people, ‘This is the person I’m inviting,’ people can read that stuff pretty clearly, they know if they’re being sold the bill of goods,” and it changes, it changes your perception and also changes frankly, you’d be like, “None of my friends have come to this thing, so why am I trying to get other people to come to it?”

John – That’s right.

Rich – So as people are making those connections, they’re making those bridges to the community, what is that looking like from there, as they’ve kind of developed those relationships, what is that looking like in churches that are growing in your country?

John – Yeah, churches are doing a number of things, they’re doing what I call non-Sunday connections moments and there’s a lot of youth and children’s programs used that are fairly regularly children’s and kid’s programs through churches. So there’s a program called Mainly Music, which is about kids basically coming as fairly young children, coming to kind of explore music and sing and play a few instruments. That’s kind of a fun sort of even. But churches are holding that after schools within their building. They’re having post-school sort of sessions for kids who have other sort of programs, fun programs as well, playgroups, even child care centers. Then going actually out into schools, providing school breakfasts, lunchtime school programs.

So churches are aiming at that under 20 generation, the student and children generation to get a seed in there, early in the piece. So chaplaincy now in Australian schools is a massive thing, where Christian chaplains are in primary schools and in high schools, pretty well across Australia now, I would suggest probably 90% of high schools and this is government schools in Australia.

Rich – What does that like, tell me about that?

John – Yeah.

Rich – That seems like an opposite to an increasing secular culture to then say, “Well we also have this kind of strong chaplaincy.” Tell me about that.

John – Yeah, well it’s an interesting thing and probably started rolling about 20 years ago when churches realized we’re not reaching our schools. So churches began to strategize, “How can we get into the school?” The best way is to provide someone who is there full time during the week as a counselling aid, as a connection point for students, who’s not a teacher and involved in the authoritarian structure of the school, but is there as a comfort, care, counselling sort of mode coming alongside the students.

So as churches began to raise money and put chaplains into schools, what they found was that the greatest supporters of the chaplains were not the churches actually or the pastors, it was the school principals.

Rich – Really?

John – They thought, the ones who opened the doors said, “Okay, you’re coming as a Christian chaplain, you cannot preach the gospel, but come in here as a Christian chaplain, we know you’re connected to a church,” and they found they had such a positive impact on the kids, eventually word spread around and these principals were kind of saying, “I need one of those chaplains and by the way, don’t leave in a hurry, hang around here for a few years.”

Rich – Wow.

John – Then the government said, “Do you know what, this program is helping schools so much, we’ll actually put government money in to help funding these chaplains.” So Churches raise money for them, government puts money in as well and that then gives a tremendous footing for the church to go in with a lunchtime program or a program, because the reputation of the church is built massively.

Now, there are a number of kind of certain commentators in the media who are completely opposed to chaplains, because of the Christian feel of it, but if you talk to any school principal with a chaplain, they’ll say, “Get your hands off, you leave the chaplain here.”

Rich – Well I would imagine, at its core and its base level, the principals are like, “It’s one more person to help me with these kids.”

John – Yeah.

Rich – It’s like, with the government cutting so much spending, we’re down on so many staff from ten years ago, “Hey, here’s one more person,” even if it’s like picking up an occasional sports team or, “Hey, I’ll help with a kid who’s struggling,” and teachers know, principals know, there’s so many kids going through stuff at home, having an extra person to provide some emotional support, that’s amazing, that’s cool.

John – It’s been a revolution I think in the last 20 years in Australia and I think then, as churches have got a reputation of being credible, also being considerate of boundaries and so on, then they’ve been able to channel kids who are interested in faith towards church youth group programs in the area.

So I think the harvest is still young around the globe and definitely is in Australia where we’re seeing significant numbers of young people and children won to Christ through programs that are connected to chaplains as well.

Rich – Before we move on to some other stuff, I just want to kind of focus, I want to pull something out. There seems to be a common thread that prevailing churches invest time, resources and leadership into next generation ministries.

John – Yeah.

Rich – All the things you’ve just described, that does seem to be almost a universal, global reality that if you look at churches that are really, that are reaching people and are growing, they don’t look at their kid’s ministry as like, “Wow, that’s just like… let’s just take care of those people, let’s kind of warehouse them until they get old enough,” they see it as, “Hey, this is a strategic opportunity for the gospel,” and that’s what I hear is happening here in Australia as well.

John – Yeah, you’re right Rich and I think what happens is, as pastors… and if a pastor and a church is very low in people getting baptized, people coming to Christ getting baptized and disciple, where I generally start the pastor off is I start challenging them to be in preaching on evangelism, to have one or two series in a year to preach because I know if they’re authentic, when they preach they’ll have to be modelling it and therefore it will stir all sorts of things. And as soon as they start getting intentional about evangelism, they realize that winning people to Christ, before they’re 20, is a lot easier than winning them when they’re after 25, 30, 35 and locked into a lifestyle.

So they start to reap the fruit that they see in children’s ministry, youth ministry compared to adult ministry, not that people don’t get saved plus 25, but the numbers are fairly, I think solid, in terms of giving us good data on how many come to Christ, that pastors realize, “Oh okay, I’m putting a lot of work in here on different age groups and where I’m getting fruit is that high school student generation, university generation and children.” So then pastors that are switched on begin to pour resources and it’s the intentionality that I really try and work with pastors that are low in this area. Get intentional, get focused and you will bear fruit.

In a country like Australia, while it’s not a church going population, you can still win people to Christ but you have to be seriously intentional about it and keep it focused as the number one endeavor of your church. You’re not going to have just a dozen people wander into church on a Sunday because they’re looking for a church to go to, it doesn’t happen.

Rich – Now what about on the adult side, are there things that you’re seeing that do seem to be… I totally agree, there is this… in some ways it’s like we work to try and reach kids before say they’re 20 and then we spend the next 40, 50 years trying to reach all of the people we didn’t reach when they were kids and it takes a lot of time, effort and energy.

John – Yeah.

Rich – What are some of those things that are working on the adult side or you are seeing God use on the adult side?

John – Yeah. Listen there’s a great program called Messy Church which comes out of England which is basically a 45 minute service for the entire family and it’s particular aimed at unchurched families, where mum and dad come with their children and for 45 minutes have a mini church service, sing a couple of songs, do an offering, a bit of activity, a family activity that involves mum and dad and the children and then have a short sermon, then have coffee and connection and people have been won to Christ through Messy Church across Australia.

Rich – Cool.

John – It’s being moved more in Salvation Army or in Anglican circles where that concept has been used but definitely bearing some fruit. Recover type programs, there’s a wonderful couple here, Allan Meyer and his wife Helen, run a great program called Lifekeys, Careforce Lifekeys in Australia that has brilliant recovery time seminars and courses, fantastic courses that are outstanding for non-Christians. So you put it on for your church, then invite non-Christian folks along to it and reach out to them through that.

Similar to Alpha but a bit of a different feel to it because it’s broader in the number of programs they have, but Alpha is very strong in Australia. The program again is out of England. Alpha is very strong, a lot of churches use that for discipling new Christians as well as bringing people to Christ through the Alpha course, which has a lot of meals and connection discussion, a lot of relationship building.

Probably, another thing I’ve seen a friend of mine here in Perth doing and I’ve seen this in Sydney as well actually, Community Meals. So putting on meals in low socioeconomic areas once a week, bringing people in for a meal and then sharing the gospel through the meal.

I know a friend of mine with a church in Sydney has seen Muslims won to Christ through that program and my friend here in Perth has seen people won to Christ as well through that program. But it’s kind of a combination of that, if you like, I guess they’re kind of helping people, so the Community Meal Christmas Hamper program, right through to helping them with areas that they’re wrestling with in problematic areas in their life, right through to kind of like, come to Messy Church, it’s kind of like the church that you think you’d like to go to with your kids. There’s a whole range of programs that I think work in Australia, especially with adults.

Rich – Very cool, very cool. This has been amazing, this has been great so far, I really appreciate it. We’re going to pivot a little bit, I’m going to ask you… You know John, one of the things I appreciate about these interviews, I’m going to ask you to speak with a prophetic voice as a leader, you’re a global leader who’s had a lot of influence and you obviously know the American culture. In some ways I think leaders who are just outside of our culture, outside of what happens here in the States, in some ways maybe sees our culture a little clearer.

John – Yeah.

Rich – So I’d love for you to kind of speak to American church leaders, the vast majority of people who listen to our podcast are serving in the States, what would you say, as someone who is leading in a community where less than 10% attend church on a regular basis, I think in a lot of ways our culture is shifting to a really post-Christian culture as well, if it’s not there already, what would you say to church leaders, what should we be thinking about?

John – Yeah, so probably a few thoughts on that Rich. One would be lead from the front, be authentic, you can’t get away with, “I’m the pastor, just do what I say, ignore what I’m doing.”

Rich – Right.

John – You have to be real, it’s got to be real and relevant. You have to have your own stories of trying to lead someone to Christ, trying to invite a non-Christian, trying to build a non-Christian friendship. And also, don’t be afraid to put your failures up there.

I remember standing in my foyer of my church waiting for a friend of mine to turn up, they said they were coming and they didn’t turn up. I was like, “Oh no, okay this is what it feels like.” You’ve got to lead from the front.

I think also lead with prayer, seek the Lord, allow the Lord to break your own heart about the condition of lost people and lost people in the community and let that prayer, let that sense of encounter with God about people who don’t know Christ, let it bleed into your preaching, let it kind of weave its way into your preaching, that through your preaching there comes this kind of woven theme that is not always intentional but it’s coming out of your heart and spirit of the necessity of our church being an outward focused church, an outward looking church, reaching people for Christ.

Sure, we’ll shepherd and disciple everyone here, but our number one deal is to go and make disciples through our community.

And I think probably a third thing is really analyze your community and its needs and align your churches resources with the needs.

So even some things, I’ll say to pastors in Australia is, “Go down to your local café, your local coffee shop, have a look at the décor there or go down to a restaurant, a café that people really like being around and then go back to your own building and maybe change the paint color, maybe change some of the décor, maybe just align your building with favorite kind of places that people like to hang out in your community.

That may be harder in certain styles of buildings and styles of church, but I think if you’ve got the option to kind of change the décor, the colors, the seating, the feel of your foyer, the whole feel of your building, align it with where people like to go in your community, so you reduce the gap between your community and between your church. I think that’s one of the very simple pragmatic ways to analyze your community, what it wants and then grab your church’s resources and say, “Where can we meet a need? Where can we connect with our community?”

Actually, in Australia, part of the consulting I do is having a look at church buildings and saying, “Okay pastor, the walls are all beige, so obviously a committee decided on this color. Why don’t you go down to the local favorite café and look at the colors and put those colors on your wall.”

Rich – That’s a great tactic, I love that, that’s cool.

John – And don’t tell your church, your committee your color choice, just get a color consultant, tell them to tell you the colors, pick yourself up off the floor and then begin to paint. Give everyone a shock.

Rich – I love that, it’s a great way to… I love the real community orientated approach to that like, “Hey, let’s just figure out what the most popular place in town is, go there and let’s try and make our space look like that.” That’s a great idea, I love that, very cool.

John – Yeah because if you think of the café in your area you like to go to to get your coffee, it it’s too weird comparatively to your church or your church is strange compared to it, people are going to go, “Oh, okay this is different.”

Rich – Yes.

John – The church is weird enough without making stuff that we can change too different.

Rich – Very cool. Well John, I really appreciate this today. If people want to get in touch with you, or with Grow a Healthy Church, how can they do that?

John – Yeah, look our website, growahealthychurch.com, I blog there every week. We’ve got resources available there, free resources and training and all sorts of wonderful things there on our website, growahealthychurch.com. Find me there or look me up on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, I’m all over the place Rich, I try and get out there as much as I can.

Rich – No I appreciate that. I would strongly recommend if you’re listening to the podcast, you really should be following John as well, he does a great job, great resources. Whether you’re in Australia or anywhere else in the world, you really should plug into him. John thanks very much for being on the show today.

John – My pleasure Rich, thanks for having me.

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Rich Birch
Rich Birch is one of the early multi-site church pioneers in North America. He led the charge in helping The Meeting House in Toronto to become the leading multi-site church in Canada with over 5,000+ people in 18 locations. In addition, he served on the leadership team of Connexus Church in Ontario, a North Point Community Church Strategic Partner. He has also been a part of the lead team at Liquid Church - a 5 location multisite church serving the Manhattan facing suburbs of New Jersey. Liquid is known for it’s innovative approach to outreach and community impact. Rich is passionate about helping churches reach more people, more quickly through excellent execution.His latest book Church Growth Flywheel: 5 Practical Systems to Drive Growth at Your Church is an Amazon bestseller and is design to help your church reach more people in your community.