Shed Church

Phil Smith describes the growth of the Men's Shed movement in Australia.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics general social survey showed that only 20% of Aussie men are likely to affiliate with a religion. The Lifeways organisation estimates that more than 70% of the boys that are raised in church will abandon it in their teens and twenties.

In the last 10 years, the Men's Shed phenomenon has taken off in Australia in response to sky-rocketing rates of depression and suicide amongst young Australian men. Suicide is now the tenth highest cause amongst young Australian blokes; the rates are three times higher than for women.

In 'sheds' around the country, blokes have come looking for friendship, commitment, purpose and help. They can look like:

  • a barbecue behind a suburban truck shed where between 90 and 120 doctors, labourers, accountants, prison parolees and IT geeks get together to hear one another's stories;
  • a backyard workshop where older fellows share skills, mentoring younger men;
  • a tent at a music festival where blokes can let their guard down and talk about anything from being a dad to struggling with porn. It all looks a bit like Luke's Gospel view of missional church (Luke 10.1-9).

The evening barbecue version is called Shed Night and the liturgy is simple, blokes break bread rolls and share steak; friendships are formed as stories are shared. There is no alcohol for the sake of alcoholics who are present. A couple of volunteers are interviewed with no judgement. Most men know the topics; fatherhood, sex, failure, work stress, dreams, hopes; stuff men don't usually feel safe to discuss, a place of grace is established here and disability, mental or physical health, wealth or prestige, being cool – all count for nothing.

Shed Church

Australian men need friends; not colleagues, not competitors, not heroes or life coaches. The Christians behind Shed Night are trusted friends who need healing just as much as everyone else. In theological terms, it's incarnational, relational, evangelism.

Like the disciples sent by Jesus, the Shed men are prepared to do the journey together, co-dependent, mission-shaped. These men are experiencing the biblical injunction to walk alongside one another and with God.

It's not clear when or where the Men's Shed movement began. In Australia there have been formalised associations and networks, such as Men's Sheds Australia and The Australian Men's Shed Association; it may not be possible to unearth the points at which Christians around the country began exploring this connective culture. The organic movement was already building around ideals of welcome, trust and respect. The physical and mental health benefits were already evident when Anglicans, Baptists, the Uniting Church and Lutherans began engaging at the local church level to introduce spiritual health.

Some denominational churches have tried to reshape the idea but the spectacular organic growth has been outside organised, denominational church.

To go where Christ is not yet known, to find people of peace and accept their hospitality has required a 180 degree shift in language and understanding. In the past three years, a new iteration of Shed has begun at music festivals; for most who take leadership in this movement, there's been a reversal of the 'build it and they will come' philosophy in the style of church in the suburbs each Sunday morning. They are prepared to go to the 'Samaritan' borderlands where they have had to learn languages other than Christianese and, in this experience, the disciples' own lives are transformed as much as anyone with whom they might share Jesus's good news about the kingdom of God.

The 'McDonaldisation' of church and society, that 'cookie-cutter' effect of forming a church, doesn't seem to be the case in Shed where the context always forms a unique ministry.

Shed ChurchChristian Shed blokes sometimes find themselves challenged to accept the hospitality of others and learn from their experience or skill. The risk of discovering we have the same weaknesses and struggles creates a sense of vulnerability; I have seen very few clergy in any Shed Happens events – some men I know have reflected that's because pastors and priests don't have mates; they have accountability partners and only trust other priests and partners with their hearts.

On the other hand, the Stafford Baptists’ Men’s Shed is a large backyard workshop, a few doors from the church building. It’s a very big investment by the local church and the pastor is closely connected.

For many of these blokes, it's more about the journey – and leaving it to the Holy Spirit to 'worry' about the destination. I came across one Shed group that had a motto, 'Better than fine'. This was a group of blokes that were interested in belonging and being open to one another, 'fine' was an acronym – Fouled up, Insecure, Neurotic, Exhausted. If a brother asked how you were doing, you had to be 'better than fine'. This was a brother that wanted to go with you and do the journey, looking for justice, mercy, and healing.

The Shed movement flips the coin over for blokes who've been burnt by church culture that told them, 'behave yourself, then believe what we all believe, and then we might let you belong'. Shed offers the opportunity to belong amongst men who are just as screwed up as anyone else.

Is Shed church or could it be church in future? Luke's benchmark for church is followers gathered around Jesus and sent by him to express the kingdom of God. If a Shed is only men gathered round a barbecue or a workbench, it doesn't measure up as a fresh, stale, or any other expression of church. If, however, some of these blokes are parts of Christ's body, connecting with others, investing time and love to grow alongside them; if this is more about incarnation than recreation, then we'll see the transforming work of God – and that does look a lot like church.


Phil Smith is a lay pastor in a Queensland school and he is also helping to grow a faith community around a barbecue.

We are based on Australia's Sunshine Coast in a new real estate development where there is no church building. I work half time for the Uniting Church as one of two campus ministers at the Unity College ecumenical school in Caloundra.

In Bells Reach and Bell Vista, people are moving from the colder southern states to live the dream in Queensland but many find it's just another suburb – like the ones they left behind.

The estate surrounds the school, which is supported by Roman Catholic and Uniting Church parishes, and those involved in BELLS are people who live, work or go to school in that area. Using the College, BELLS has connected with 65 people in its first six months, meeting fortnightly on Sunday afternoons to hear one another's stories and ask where we see and hear God at work in our lives. We don't have a building or rows of pews; instead we get together either at Unity College or in the nearby park.

Our first big breakthrough came just before Christmas 2013 when the developer asked us, as the local church(!), to welcome people and provide a short chat and some worship songs at the open-air carols and movie evening. We introduced ourselves to 1,000 people, with the help of the Uniting Church, Churches of Christ, The Salvation Army and a local Christian radio station which provided cards and CDs to give away.

BELLS - music

BELLS (Belonging, Eating, Listening, Learning and Serving) is an acronym which describes what we stand for:

  • belonging together and within the community, a blessing we share;
  • eating, always part of our gathering, whether that's barbecue or breaking bread;
  • listening to one another's stories;
  • learning where Jesus' story intersects with ours;
  • serving and sending us out into the community.

BELLS originally grew from an occasional discussion group for senior high school students from Unity College in 2012. It became known as The God Stuff amongst eight or 10 regulars who said they couldn't cope with a traditional church service. Why? Their comments included, 'We don't know when to sit down and stand up' and 'We only usually sing when we're a bit drunk at karaoke nights'.

It was all very different with us because of it being story based. We would have coffee by the beach in late afternoon and explore how our experiences that week had been touched and shaped by what Jesus said. Christians in their mid-20s would come and tell their stories.

Then, at about the same time as Caloundra Uniting Church started praying about mission in the development around the school, a handful of 'non-church' staff, parents and students at Unity College also began asking about developing The God Stuff.

A group began to explore these issues on the understanding that there would be no plans for a church building (with a big cross at the front of it) or expectation that people would drive in from all over the place to sit in pews there.

BELLS - kitchen

Our questions and discussions centred on the nature of church, an understanding of Luke 10, and Jesus sending 'beginner disciples' into the villages where he had not yet been – to build relationship with people of peace, engage with them and accept their hospitality.

Rather than create something and ask people to come to a specific event, we put the word around that we were simply going to buy pizza one Sunday evening in June last year and see who turned up. We hoped for 15 but instead 37 people came to tell us what a gathering might be like and what it would achieve. Their main message was, 'don't call it church'.

Caloundra Uniting Church endorsed this organic development and sponsored us. Members donated some $5,000 to support what we were doing, and a handful of them come each fortnight to make the coffee, turn the sausages and pray for the group.

That same church is now seeking three years of funding to create a half-time pastor's position for me to grow BELLS as a faith community, a fresh expression of church.  This neighbourhood is set to grow dramatically over time with Caloundra South housing 50,000 people in the next 15 years.

Eating is a major part of what we do! People relax and talk when there's food and for Australians a BBQ is standard. Bringing food to a BBQ is an act of sharing; this may well be a ritual/liturgical aspect of BELLS, although one might not recognise it!

At the moment, we are focused on Luke's gospel for the messages to think about in our fortnightly meetings; considering how the Jesus story can be lived out in a culture that does not take it as 'given'. We prepare for that by putting out a trailer out on our YouTube channel a week before the meeting. The BELLS crew then begin to think of their own life experiences in relation to the message. We put up posters around the place and on the school noticeboard; it's also in the school newsletter and Community Association website.

BELLS - choppingOur meetings start with a 'sixty Seconds with…' slot when a volunteer is asked three questions in a minute. This not only acts as an ice-breaker but it provides an opportunity for an initial personal reflection on the message theme. The table groups then chat around those questions as we eat.

Two of our team sing for us and we now have some neighbourhood kids who are beginning to bring their guitars and jam along.

Someone will tell their story related to the message, perhaps on how they have experienced forgiveness – or something similar, then I talk about the scripture for five minutes. We pray simple thanks and requests in different ways, talk about our next opportunity for belonging or serving… and finish our dinner.

When we think about how we might grow the faith community, the school connection is certainly a 'foot in the door' and we have also had much encouragement from many other people of peace locally. The school principal offered the covered BBQ and canteen area for us; the real estate developer now views us as the local church; the publican and the Community Association advertise our gatherings and we actively engage with them in community events, such as park concerts and Christmas carols.

In seven months, four core households have emerged. Younger couples with kids have taken on the leadership in exploring opportunities for belonging, eating (looking at hospitality), listening – as in leading our worship times – and finding ways for us to serve.

As the pastor, my responsibility is the learning content. We also have three older, mature Christians – including two retired, ordained ministers – who pray for us and seek the big vision. They help give a framework of theological understanding to what we are exploring.

BELLSIn the light of Caloundra Uniting Church being our supportive 'mothership', I attend their church council meetings. Their insurance and finance people also look after our necessary bureaucracy.

At this stage I add all preparation for BELLS to my workload at school – hence our meetings being fortnightly. We very much want to become a weekly gathering and develop some discipleship/home groups. If funding becomes available in June 2014, I will be paid a stipend to spend half the week in the neighbourhood.

Our costs as this stage only involve the provision of food because our venue is free. Donations from individuals with a vision as to what we are doing here have amounted to about $7,000.

Long-term commitment is very important. A significant part of building relationships of trust with community groups, the local council, and so on, is the assurance that we will be here in 15 years' time. God knows what the neighbourhood, or our faith community, will look like then but we are here to grow with the neighbourhood from stage one.

I first heard of fresh expressions of church when researching new forms of church online and then followed up on that with a call to a couple of Uniting Church ministers in South Australia. It's exciting to see what God is doing in Caloundra as part of that fresh expressions movement worldwide. Our accountability is formally through the local Uniting Church but we are also blessed by encouragement and regular contact with other denominations with a heart for the new neighbourhood.

How might things develop from here? Well, after six months, and – it seems – the ongoing possibility of personnel and time resources, we have a few challenges and questions to consider.

  • More than 100 people have connected with us but the fortnightly gathering is always around 30. Half of that is core and constant. How will we go beyond that initial contact to build good daily friendships?
  • How will we offer discipleship/faith exploration programs and what will they be? (Our neighbourhood isn't asking the questions Alpha is answering, yet).
  • We are being deliberately engaged in the Community Association, events in the park and so on but there are new opportunities too. There are hoops to jump through but the developer's former sales office may be handed to Caloundra City Council to become a small community hub. Could we become the managing agents? If so, we could engage with many other community groups, have a highly visible venue for gatherings of different kinds.