Recommended reading (April 28)

readingFrom time to time I plan to link to some helpful articles and ideas that I’ve been reading, This is my first instalment…

Contentment (1) At a time like this by Jean Williams is the first in a 10 part series on Christian contentment. Jean writes will clarity and a deep understanding of the implications and joys found in trusting Jesus.

Five pieces of advice for young men by Con Campbell is sage advice for men of all ages who are seeking to grow in the likeness of Jesus.

Six myths of discipleship by Col Marshall helps us to see that discipleship is the essence of being Christian, rather than a particular process for a select few.

Seven Basics for Better Staff Meetings by Eric Geiger offers helpful tips for improving those meetings we all love to hate.

Growth Groups

Passing the Baton-text-S2Growth Groups by Col Marshall has been around now for a couple of decades. For many of us, it’s been the ‘go to’ book on small group ministry. As I’m currently reviewing how we support and equip our growth group leaders, I thought I should read over it again. My immediate thought was it could do with an aesthetic refresh. The number-dot-number section headings makes it look out of date and rather academic. However, the content is as relevant and helpful now as it was back in ’95. If you were to get one book on leading Christian small groups, this would probably be the one to get. It gets you into the Bible, but it also explores the other aspects relevant to leading groups – such as group dynamics, prayer, personal ministry, evangelism, training leaders, and the like.

The real strength of Growth Groups is how it places small group ministry within the wider context of gospel ministry in church. God’s agenda for transforming lives shapes the agenda for these groups. The training course at the back of the book involves studying Paul’s letter to the Colossians and this anchors the earlier material in God’s Word. Colossians takes us from the grand themes of Christ’s lordship and salvation to their practical outworking in the Christian life. For this reason the best way to read Growth Groups is in conjunction with the training course.

If you’re not able to participate in a training course, the book still provides an excellent resource for leaders. It’s full of biblical and experiential wisdom on ministry in small groups. The following chapter headings show the breadth of material covered:

  1. The strategy of growth groups
  2. Growth group basics
  3. Pitfalls of growth groups
  4. Preparing a Bible study
  5. Leading a Bible study
  6. Answers about questions
  7. The games people play
  8. Praying in growth groups
  9. Gospel growth through growth groups
  10. Leading for growth
  11. Growing the individuals
  12. The healthy growth group
  13. Starting a growth group
  14. Selecting, training and shepherding leaders
  15. Developing the growth group program

It’s most logical to work through the chapters in the order they appear, but you can dip back into them any way you like. I’ve found that over the years I’ve written all sorts of notes, supplementary ideas, questions and links to other resources in the margins of my copy. It’s covered in underlining and highlighting, with various scraps of paper lodged inside. In other words its a tool – a workbook that I keep coming back to on the job.

Having read this book again in close proximity to reading Spice It UpI can see the overlapping ideas between the two. The latter builds on the chapters about preparing and leading Bible studies and it helps us to engage well with the text and with the people in our groups. Col’s book presents the foundational issues very clearly, and I believe its an indispensable ‘Small Groups 101′ manual. It offers a philosophy of small groups ministry, that’s anchored in Scripture, and from which our practise should flow. The best example of this is the opening chapter that draws us deeply into Colossians and expounds on receiving Christ as Lord and living with Christ as Lord (Colossians 2:6-7).

Chapter 3, on the pitfalls of groups, offered some helpful warnings. With the ubiquity of small groups in churches today, and the variety of purposes they seem designed to fulfil, this book warns how they can easily lose their way. Community, experience, and mission can all become divorced from their biblical significance and growth groups can become much like many non-Christian groups in our world. We’re encouraged to keep God’s agenda front and centre. Sometimes groups can take on an independent life of their own, reacting against the church, the minister, or the preaching. Our purpose is not to create isolated, independent mini-churches, but rather to help the whole church to build itself in truth and love by meeting regularly in smaller gatherings.

Chapter 9, on gospel growth, reminds us not to let groups become introspective cliques. God’s agenda of bringing people into his family through the gospel is to shape the purpose of growth groups. This might not mean regularly inviting and welcoming non-believers into our groups (though some groups could have this purpose), but it will mean keeping the gospel on our agenda. Growth groups are an excellent context to support one another in reaching out to others and to pray for friends’ friends to become followers of Jesus.

Growth Groups is intentional in developing leaders – it’s a training book, after all! But it calls leaders to be committed to expanding the numbers of groups by raising up and training new leaders. Apprenticing leaders is the preferred model, to be supplemented with the material in this book. The course itself involves guided reading of this book, plus a 10 week practical Bible study and training program. Our church is following a similar strategy by encouraging our leaders to have core members in their groups whom they are mentoring into leadership. We will also be offering specific targeted training courses later in the year for these apprentices and others.

If you’re a leader and you haven’t come across Growth Groups, then I recommend you get hold of a copy, read it and scribble what you learn all over it! If you’re looking for a training program for leaders in your church then this is a great place to turn, especially as it’s so comprehensive. If you’re feeling rather stale in your leadership, and you want to up-skill a bit, then why not read a few of the chapters of this book with a friend and discuss them together? If you’ve been reading The Trellis and the Vine then you will find that these books are singing from the same song sheet. And that’s a good thing because it’s about churches, small groups and individual Christians being shaped by the gospel.

The trellis and the vine

Trellis and the VineFor some reason I’ve kept putting off reading The Trellis and the Vine by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne. It might be the familiarity breeds… thing. After all, I did a ministry apprenticeship with Col nearly 30 years ago, and I overlapped with Tony doing the same thing a year behind me. It could be that I thought I’d heard it all before. And I pretty much had! But it’s for this reason, and the passion and commitment of the authors, and the quality of the book, that I’m now keen to recommend it to others. I intend to provide an overview of the material, highlighting what I see as some key issues, share some ideas of how we are seeking to grapple with these things, and make some suggestions.

The two images of the trellis and the vine are used to describe two aspects of Christian ministry.

The basic work of any Christian ministry is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of God’s Spirit, and to see people converted, changed and grow to maturity in that gospel. That’s the work of planting, watering, fertilizing and tending the vine.

However, just as some sort of framework is needed to help the vine grow, so Christian ministries also need some structure and support. It might not be much, but at very least we need somewhere to meet, some Bibles to read from, and some basic structures of leadership within our group.  (p8)

The observation of the authors is that so often in our churches the trellis work takes over from the vine work. We get caught up in committees, structures, activities, fund raising, keeping the machinery ticking over, such that we lose site of the reason for the trellises – that is, to support the vine. Drawing on the great commission in Matthew 28, this book argues for vine-growing as disciple-making which should be the normal agenda and priority of every church and every Christian disciple (p13).

As churches move away from erecting and maintaining structures to growing disciple-making disciples, a radical mind-shift is required. These changes of outlook will include…

      1. Building people rather than running programs
      2. Training people rather than running events
      3. Growing people rather than using them
      4. Training new workers rather than filling gaps
      5. Helping people make progress rather than solving problems
      6. Developing teams rather than focusing all on ordained ministry
      7. Forging ministry partnerships rather than focusing on church polity
      8. Establishing local training rather than relying only on training institutions
      9. Looking at the long term picture rather than being constrained by immediate pressures
      10. Engaging in ministry with people rather than being consumed by management
      11. Prioritising gospel growth over specific church growth

Col and Tony ground their claim to the priority of the vine over the trellis in the Scriptures. They examine what God’s plan is for his world, what he has been doing, and what he is doing now after the finished work of Christ. God is saving souls through the Spirit-backed proclamation of the gospel and this has big implications. Our small ambitions need to be laid aside for the cause of Christ and his gospel. God is calling people to be born anew in Christ and to grow into maturity. And this growth happens by the power of God’s Spirit as he applies the word to people’s hearts. It’s evident that this has little to do with structures and organisations and much more to do with prayerful word ministry.

The Trellis and the Vine aims to show that every Christian is called to be a part of this vine work. Not everyone is gifted in the same way, but we are all called to the task of being and making disciples. The beauty of the body of Christ is we can support one another in this work. The common clergy-laity divide is broken down as leaders and congregations begin to work off the same game plan. Modelling and teaching from pastors, elders, teachers, group leaders and others is focused on God’s agenda of proclaiming Christ and calling people to follow him. We read, discuss, and prayerfully apply the Scriptures together at church, in groups, one-on-one, in formal and informal contexts, with the same aim of growing into maturity as followers of Jesus.

I especially appreciated the careful defining of ‘training’ in this book. They contrast our popular understanding of training as a focus on skills development and show from the New Testament that it should be more focused on Christian thinking and living.

Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness.  (1 Timothy 4:7)

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.  (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

Though training is not simply the imparting of information, the faithful passing on of sound teaching is essential.

And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.  (2 Timothy 2:2)

Training is also modelling a way of life. It is caught as well as taught and we are called to set one another an example. The ultimate example is that of Jesus Christ himself.

Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God —  even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.  Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.  (1 Corinthians 10:32-11:1)

Not that trainers will be perfect, but they are called to watch their lives and teaching carefully. They will impact others profoundly as their progress is seen.

Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.  (1 Timothy 4:15-16)

This understanding from the Bible has led the authors to summarise the nature and goal of training by three Cs.

Through personal relationship, prayer, teaching, modelling and practical instruction, we want to see people grow in:

  • conviction – their knowledge of God and understanding of the Bible
  • character – the godly character and life that accords with sound doctrine
  • competency – the ability to prayerfully speak God’s word to others in a variety of ways.  (p78)

Following the lead and language of the Book of Acts, the authors describe training as more concerned with gospel growth than particular church growth. This happens in the lives of people, not structures. It means we should be generous and willing to send off many whom we train for the sake of God’s church elsewhere. It requires us to see people as people, and not just cogs in the wheel for our own projects. As more and more people are trained in godliness and a good understanding of the truth, then we will find churches as they should be – growing in numbers and maturity, with people serving one another, encouraging and setting an example to each other. In other words, a long way from the ‘professional minister with all of his clients approach’, which does little more than stifle gospel growth.

For churches to adopt this radical mindset, it requires pastors and leaders to grasp the essential importance of training. It’s not sufficient to be the preacher, clergyman, CEO, or business manager. Leaders need to encourage their churches to become centres of training where disciple-making disciples are nurtured, equipped, and encouraged. In this way the opportunities for outreach, teaching, modelling, service and care are shared among the body of the church. Churches can grow in health as well as numbers and more and more people are mobilised. We would do well to conduct an honest audit of our congregational programs, structures and and activities and see how we measure up against this picture.

Recruiting co-workers is key to promoting gospel growth, but there are mistakes to be avoided. Here are a few:

  • Don’t compromise on core beliefs and values.
  • Don’t be impressed by enthusiasm over substance.
  • Don’t ignore their track record.
  • Don’t choose people who aren’t good at relating to people.
  • Don’t recruit in desperation.
  • Don’t select unteachable co-workers.
  • Don’t simply choose ‘yes’ people.
  • Don’t just advertise for volunteers.

The best way to recruit co-workers according to convictions, character, and competence is to train them. Keep on the look out for people who might be suitable to share the load with you. Always be thinking about whom you could be training. Consider if there are one, two or more people that you could especially invest in. Make it happen. Share in their lives, work through the Scriptures together, pray with one another, open your heart to them, delight in their progress, be honest and speak the truth in love, as you encourage them to grow as a disciple-making disciple.

A chapter is devoted in this book to the Ministry Training Strategy. This isn’t surprising given that Col was one of the founders of this ministry and Tony was one of the early trainees. They have shaped and refined this ministry over three decades, and commend it as an excellent strategy for preparing new Christian leaders. It’s basically a two-year apprenticeship that gives people real opportunity to grow in gospel ministry, by doing ministry under the supervision and guidance of a suitable trainer. It’s often a precursor to more formal theological training and has the benefit of enabling a good assessment of a person’s suitability for ministry leadership before investing everything in 3 or 4 years at college. A good outcome is a wise and godly decision at the end of the apprenticeship. I’m an advocate for this training experience before formal theological training. I benefitted greatly from receiving it myself and have subsequently led more than 60 apprentices through a similar program.

So what have I learned from this book?

The big thing has been the reminder to see training as part of the DNA of a healthy church. Not simply skills development, but the making of disciple-making disciples in response to the commission of Jesus. As churches grow it is easy to be consumed by organisation, structure, vision setting, strategic planning, and the like. We can lose sight of the people. It’s been a good reminder that God is seeking people with him for eternity, not clever programs!

The Trellis and Vine has also encouraged me to be more purposeful in training workers for ministry throughout our church. Training is not simply for the ‘professionals’. It’s about being transformed into the likeness of Jesus, and that’s for all. We need to audit our Sunday meetings, growth groups, children’s and youth ministries, and ask the hard questions. Are we occupied with a gospel work that will make a difference for eternity? Are people genuinely seeking to follow Jesus? Are we making disciples of one another, or are we sitting back assuming it will just happen automatically somehow?

My current pastoral focus is particularly on ministry training and leadership development. I’ve begun to assess how we are travelling with equipping and supporting our growth group leaders. A quick analysis shows there are a number who would really appreciate some training. This book is a helpful resource as I seek to encourage the leaders to make growing disciple-making disciple a priority in their groups.

A couple of suggestions

Given that this book is called The Trellis and the Vine there is very little about trellises. The author’s main point is to get us focused on vine growing and not distracted by erecting and maintaining trellises. However, I would appreciate more on how to create helpful trellises for vine growing. A lack of trellis or the wrong type of trellis can become a serious impediment to vine growth. Disorganised strategies and structures can certainly prevent gospel growth in our churches, but the inverse can also be true. It seems to me that we need to find the right trellis that enables the vine to grow. More could be said on this.

However, and I’m not sure if this point is made explicitly in the book, The Trellis and the Vine is itself a helpful trellis! Here is a strategy with organisational advice to increase the disciple-making outcome in our churches. Chaos is affirmed in the book as an expected outcome when the focus is on vine growing, but sometimes the chaos is an indicator that some trellis work needs to be done to keep the vine growing healthily.

I also had a concern in the section on ‘people worth watching’. The call is to become ‘talent scouts’, looking for people with extraordinary gifts in leadership, communication and management; people with vision, energy, intelligence and entrepreneurial spirit; people who are good with people, and who can understand and articulate ideas persuasively. If these are also godly servants of Christ who long for his kingdom, then why not headhunt them for a life of ‘recognised gospel ministry’? (p140) My concern here is the order and emphasis. It’s too easy look on the surface, see the gifts and talents, and fail to look deeply at the life and character of the person. In a book that has highlighted this issue, it would have been more helpful to illustrate the things that might give evidence of godly character.

A similar concern is the limited mention of ‘love’ as a defining characteristic of the disciple and his or her life and ministry. Interestingly, the first FAQ in the appendix illustrates what makes a great sales person. The answer is love for the product and care for the people. When it comes to the gospel and Jesus and other people, this is so important. I think it’s a point that could have been much stronger and more up front in the book. 1 Corinthians 12-14 would have been an excellent starting point for a chapter on the importance of love in building the church and making disciples. I worry sometimes that our catch-cry of looking for FAT people (faithful, available, teachable) people is not enough. I used to add an S (self-starting or sacrificial), to make FAST people! Maybe we should add an L (loving) to make FLAT people instead!

Overall

This is a very helpful book. I commend it to pastors, ministry leaders, small group leaders and any Christian who is keen to make their life count for eternity.

Leadership and followership

For the past 20 years I’ve been the leader: Director of the FOCUS ministry on campus; Senior Pastor of Crossroads Church; making the decisions; setting the vision; recruiting the staff; leading the team; critiquing, evaluating, shaping and encouraging. It’s been my responsibility.

Now things have changed. I’m entering new territory this year. The Senior Pastor has now become the Associate Pastor! Now I report to Marcus – the same Marcus whom I recruited, mentored and employed. To be honest, I like the idea. It’s exciting to be able to change positions. It’s a privilege to have the opportunity to serve in this way.

I don’t have the same authority or responsibility that I had in the past. And that’s probably a good thing. I’ll need to be more flexible, less time-constrained, and more careful about what I do and don’t do. Some days I might be highly productive and other days I might be stuck in bed. Things that need to happen every day, week, or month – without fail – probably won’t be the best fit for me. My prayer is that there will be less adrenaline, stress, late nights, and compromised days off in the new regime!

My new job description will take a while to bed down, but we’ve got the big things worked out. I’ll be focusing on ministry training and leadership development across the church, as well as contributing to the preaching program. I’m also planning to write. God-willing, I hope to produce some resources for ministry training, that can be used at Crossroads and more widely. There are also a couple of books I’m keen to have a crack at! But one step at a time!

I’ve begun to work on material and ideas for leadership development. Currently, I’m reading through Malphurs and Mancini’s book, Building Leaders. They remind us that in order to be good leaders, we must first be good followers. In fact, I would say if we can’t follow, then we must not lead. Good leadership is not about getting our own way or the wielding of power over others. It’s about service and giving our lives for the benefit of others.

In response to a power struggle among his followers, Jesus taught these things to them:

42 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  (Mark 10:42-45)

Christian leadership is primarily about influencing people to follow Jesus, and to do this in every area of their lives. Leaders should teach these things, but they also need to model them. This means that leaders must first be followers. It goes with the job description.

The challenge to me as I enter a new form of leadership this year, is to keep working on my ‘followership’. Firstly, as a follower of Jesus Christ, and secondly as a newly positioned member of the pastoral team following the leadership of my Senior Pastor.