Serving without sinking

serving_sinkingOver the past year or so, I’ve read and reread a great many books on Christian leadership and service. This new book is seriously one of the most important books I’ve read. It is deeply, simply, and accurately theological. This makes it rich indeed. It’s not about technique or skill. It’s not about looking after yourself, so you last the distance without burning out. Serving without Sinking by John Hindley is liberating and empowering because it points above all to God’s grace in Jesus. It honours Christ by focusing on him, rather than you and I. It’s a thoroughly Biblical mindset that critiques and reshapes our whole perspective on Christian service. Instead of beginning with our service of Christ, it reminds us of these important words in Mark 10:45 that Jesus came first to serve us:

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.

If we’re finding Christian service a burden, if we’re miserable and joyless, then Hindley suggests we examine our motives for service.

It could be we have a wrong view of God. If we’re serving Jesus so as to be good enough for him, or to get something from him, or to repay Jesus in some way, then we have forgotten the heart of the good news. Jesus came to serve us. This is his free gift to us. We don’t have to measure up, earn our way, or repay the debt. Relationship with God through Jesus is a free gift to be received joyfully.

We might also have a wrong view of people. Perhaps we’re serving to impress others, to receive their thanks or praise, or so that we feel like we are accepted and belong.

Joyless service could also stem from a wrong view of ourselves. Maybe we feel we are indispensable, that somehow Jesus needs us if he is going to be able to accomplish his purposes. Alternatively, we might be feeling like we don’t need Jesus. We’ve become activists who do things on our own, rather than praying for God to be at work in and through us.

Serving without Sinking shifts the attention away from us and puts it back on Jesus.

The counter-intuitive truth I’ve come to realise—the truth that prompted me to write this book—is that the only way to get our service of Jesus right is to realise that supremely, we don’t serve him. He serves us. (p45)

The truth that Jesus came to serve us, to give his life to ransom us for God, means we’ve been given free access to God. It doesn’t depend on our performance and because of this we are liberated to serve in joyful response.

The truth that we have been reconciled to Jesus leads us to serve him, not because we have to or need to, but because we are his friends. This is not about duty, or obligation, or simply obedience—it’s about relationship.

The truth that we have been united with Christ as his bride, draws us into the intimacy of relationship with him. He has sacrificed everything for us and is preparing us for eternity. Jesus is working through our service of him to get us ready for that great day when we will be fully joined with him.

The truth that we’ve been adopted into God’s family as sons, with full inheritance rights, to join in the family business, means we have the privilege of working with God. He doesn’t need us to help him, but he loves us doing so.

Grasping these truths refocuses our Christian service. It opens the door to rediscovering the joy and freedom that come through the gospel. It takes the heat off us. If the Christian life is reduced to our service of God then we will fail miserably. But if we take hold of God’s promises then we cannot fail. Jesus has done it all.

Moreover, Jesus continues to serve us. He intercedes for us today. Because Jesus prays for us, we don’t have to!

So prayer, like other ways of serving, is not something we need to do—it is something we are able to do; an opportunity to enjoy, not a chore to endure. (p84)

Jesus has also served us by sending us the Holy Spirit to enable us to serve him. This is the best gift he has to give, and he gives the Spirit to each one of his followers. Through the Spirit he equips us to serve by giving us gifts. Serving is not jobs that have to be done, but gifts to be unwrapped. These gifts are not for our sake, but gifts to be enjoyed by the church body.

The Spirit of God enables us to serve God with love. Loving God is not something I will do naturally, but something God’s Spirit grows in me. We can mistakenly think that if we simply obey God, then we will love him. However, it doesn’t work this way. Love will lead to service, but not the other way round. Love makes service joyful and free. If our service of Christ has become a burden, or stopped happening, we don’t need to try to obey more. We should ask your God to send his Spirit to work in our heart so that we are captured again by his love and service of us.

Serving without Sinking is a breath of fresh air. I pray that it will reignite our desire to love God leading to joyful service of God and others. If you’re feeling despondent, battle weary, or disillusioned in Christian service—take the time to read this book. If you’re worried that your brothers or sisters are becoming like this, then grab them a copy and talk about it together. If you’re a pastor, looking for ways to thank and encourage your leaders, then invest in multiple copies of this book.

One quick word to the author:

You’ve done a good job of helping women to see how they are included in the category of ‘sons’ of God. I think you need to do something similar to help men to appreciate how they can be part of the ‘bride’ of Christ. Maybe in the second edition!

Going the distance

goingthedistanceGoing the distance: How to stay fit for a lifetime of ministry by Peter Brain is an important book for people in pastoral ministry. We should probably read it more than once! I read it years ago, when it was first published. It inspired me to make significant changes to my life and ministry and to encourage others to do the same. I remember inviting Peter to visit Canberra and lead 50 or more local ministers through his. We all found this time very confronting and useful. However, I also need to confess that some things need to be learned over and over. I’ve read this book for a second time over the past couple of days and I’ve kept finding areas where I’ve dropped the ball. Repeated mistakes that I should have dealt with. And fresh ideas to share with others.

Interestingly, I’ve also noticed that much of the encouragement to self-care, aimed at me as a pastor, is equally relevant to self-care for me as a cancer patient! Keeping fit, getting enough sleep, not feeding the adrenaline-stress cycle, investing in my family and friendships, taking time out, working well and relaxing equally well, spending time in God’s word and prayer, recognising the factors that lead to depression, enjoying a healthy sexual relationship with my wife, making holidays count, being willing to say ‘no’ so that my ‘yes’ means more, relying on God’s strength. These things are relevant for all people, not simply for pastors. But the problems come when pastors, like myself, assume that we are larger than life! When we think we can function differently to every one else. When we ignore the warning signs, we will eventually crash.

This book is a helpful road map for guiding us to avoid the pitfalls and dangers and disasters that will come our way, especially (but not exclusively) in pastoral ministry. If our lives are especially busy and draining, and if they revolve around caring for people, then we need to take these warnings seriously. Especially if we think we’re indispensable, or worse still, if we function as though we’re the Messiah, that no one can do without, then we’re in serious danger. Overall, this is a very good road map. It’s worth consulting many times on the journey. It’s worth spending time with others, looking at it together, and planning what steps to take next.

This book draws heavily on the work of one of Peter Brain’s teachers, Dr Arch Hart from Fuller Theological Seminary in the US. Hart has written a number of influential books, including Adrenaline and Stress and Coping with Depression in the Ministry and other Helping Professions. I remember my mother sending me Hart’s book on stress very early in my ministry, but I was too busy to read it! (I’m only semi-joking.) I put it aside, along with so many other helpful resources, because I didn’t have any problems and there were too many pressing things to be done. And there’s the problem! Straight and simple. We too often put off what’s important and replace it with the urgent. Eventually we can’t cope with the urgent or the important and we’ve become casualties of burnout.

Various statistics relating to the burnout of pastors are quoted in this book. It doesn’t matter whose stats we read, they’re always alarmingly high. Too many casualties. Too many avoidable tragedies. I can testify to having felt burnt out a number of times throughout my ministry. On one occasion a few years back, numerous people were asking me to consider a different ministry role, but I couldn’t even consider it because I knew at that time I’d have nothing to offer. It was then that I realised some things badly needed to change, and we took long service leave to recharge and try to sort them out.

Peter argues that the signs of burnout can be either friend or foe. It all depends on what response we make to the signs. If we ignore them, we’re headed for serious trouble. If we see the symptoms, and recognise them for what they are, then there’s real hope ahead. We have the opportunity to realign, take some better paths, and push on. I believe this experience will probably happen many times throughout a pastor’s ministry. Each time we should embrace it early, as an opportunity for change and growth.

If you’re involved in pastoral ministry or a ‘people-focused helping-profession’ of some sort, then I recommend you read and keep referring to this book. If you’ve never read it and you suspect that you may be at risk of crashing, then please get hold of a copy and read it. But also speak with someone you trust about your situation and how you’re feeling. This is a good book to read with some friends or colleagues. You can share what you learn, talk it through practically, relate it to your own situations, and agree to support and pray for each other. It will be worth the encroachment into your busy life. I promise!

Time for some self-care. I’m off to bed. 🙂

Mentoring matters

mentoringmattersFor the last month or so I’ve been particularly focused on issues of leadership development. I’ve been considering the respective roles of mentoring, coaching, and training. These are hot topics these days in many areas and it’s been difficult to know what material to consider. My special interest has been to view distinctively Christian perspectives on these areas, and in particular to see how they can be a help to Christian ministry. I’m discovering there is much to be learned in these areas, but we need to carefully sift the helpful from the not so helpful. Mentoring Matters by Rick Lewis is full of practical wisdom and helpful advice that’s been tested by experience. However, I believe there’s a theology driving this book that is actually unhelpful.

Lewis offers this definition of mentoring:

Within intentional, empowering, unique relationships, Christian mentoring identifies and promotes the work of God’s Spirit in others’ lives, assisting them to access God’s resources for their growth and strength in spirituality, character and ministry.  (p20)

All parts of this definition are important to the author. Mentoring relationships should be tailored, focused on supporting and equipping the mentoree, for their good. The focus is on being, more than doing, and seeking to allow God’s agenda to shape the mentoree from the inside out. They’re more than a friendship because they’re grounded on an agreement between the two parties about the purpose and shape of the relationship.

Mentoring Matters shows mentoring to be an effective way of addressing many problems faced by today’s Christian leaders. The mentor can provide help in encouraging personal spiritual health; non-judgmental friendship and support; safe peer relationships in which to discuss vocational issues; accountability from a person outside the organisation with no positional power; help in integrating the theory and practice of ministry through reflection; and help in reaching specific goals for change.

Lewis argues that everyone in ministry would benefit from a mentor outside their particular church or organisation. Indeed, the advance of God’s kingdom can be helped by the focus on developing more leaders, more frequently, of a better quality, and who will last longer. He provides evidence that in Australia there are as many ex-ministers as there are current ministers and argues that good mentoring can change this sad equation.

A strength of Mentoring Matters lies in how it distils so many different factors in mentoring with clarity and simplicity. I plan to write up a number of checklists for myself based on the material in this book. A good example is this ‘rough guide’ to help new mentors quickly get their bearings on pages 111-118. This is also summarised on the Mentoring Matters website.

Build genuine relationship
Spiritual mentoring is more than an arrangement set in place for pragmatic purposes and cannot be conducted from an emotional distance. An environment of mutual positive regard, respect and heartfelt care is required.

Establish mentoree responsibility
Mentoring is effective only when the mentoree takes responsibility for his or her own spiritual growth and health. There is absolutely no domination or control in healthy mentoring.

Prioritise the inner life
While the whole person is of interest, development of the inner life is fundamental to spiritual mentoring. Our doing flows out of our being. The principal means of bringing about deep inner change is the power of the Holy Spirit in the life of the mentoree.

Put aside other agendas
Good mentors do not see mentorees as a means for achieving a preconceived agenda. The mentor’s concern is for the spiritual growth of the mentoree, beginning where the person is at, and working toward what God has designed them to be and do.

Discern God’s work
Mentoring involves a process through which two people together seek to understand what God is doing and saying. This does not need to be an obscure, mystical process. Thoughtful conversations linked with prayer comprise an effective process.

Facilitate reflection and goal-setting
Encouraging reflection and goal-setting in mentoring is aimed at achieving experience-based learning. Reflection turns experience into learning, on the basis of which mentorees can construct and commit to goals and to action steps.

Provide positive accountability
Mentorees set their own goals and action steps and give their mentor permission to hold them accountable for following through on those commitments. Accountability is an opportunity to prove progress rather then to expose failure.

Prepare thoroughly
Both mentors and mentorees will get the most out of mentoring sessions only if they are prepared to review points covered previously, complete any undertakings made, and prepare good questions for one another.

Pursue mentoring energetically
Be deliberately proactive about your mentoring relationship. If mentoring is not made a priority it will certainly be edged out by the huge number of competing demands on a leader’s time and energy.

Encourage mentorees to mentor others
Where a mentoree takes on the role of serving another future leader, the benefit they have received through being mentored is more firmly established in their own life.

Learn from Jesus
Spiritual mentoring is a Biblical process, modelled most perfectly by Jesus. He mentored his disciples by who he was, what he said and what he did. The gospels comprise a mentoring handbook useful to the most experienced mentor.

So what are my main concerns with this book? And how important are they?

mm2A key theme running through this book is the idea of discerning God’s particular will for the mentoree. Mentoring is seen as a specific journey of helping the mentoree to work out where they are, where God wants them to go, and how they can get there. This has to do with discovering what God’s Spirit is doing in their life. An earlier cover of the book describes the book as Identifying and promoting the work of God’s Spirit in the lives of Christian leaders. This has now changed to Building strong Christian leaders. Avoiding burnout. Reaching the finishing line. I’m not aware that the inside of the book has changed at all. My guess is that the new cover has been designed to appeal to a broader audience and to focus on the outcomes of mentoring.

Am I concerned with this emphasis on identifying and promoting the work of God’s Spirit? Am I one of those evangelical Christians ‘who don’t really believe in the work of the Spirit’, ‘who are all head and hands and no heart’?

Let me try to communicate clearly! The work of God’s Spirit must be central in the life of the mentor and mentoree. No equivocations. If we’re not on about God’s work in people, then we’re wasting our time. No amount of mentoring will be of any eternal benefit unless God’s Spirit is at work. Therefore, I believe it is critically important to identify and promote the work of God’s Spirit in the life of the Christian leader.

It’s what the author understands this to mean and his suggested methods for discovering and discerning the will of God that I take issue with. Lewis writes that Godly mentors are attuned to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Out of a deep desire to live a life pleasing to God, they are able to discern the ‘still, small voice’ and are in the habit of following that leading. (p125) While saying that tuning into the Spirit’s work doesn’t have to be a mystical experience, the overall message and vibe of this book is that it is. There is very little mention of the Bible as a source of discovering God’s will. In fact, there is very little Bible in this book at all. Its main appearance is in the chapter called an Ancient Art for a Post-Modern Context where various Bible passages provide part of the justification for mentoring today. Very helpful passages, by the way.

I worry that mentoring conducted along these lines could be unhelpful to the participants. It could lead to people believing they need to be looking for and responding to particular, personal, leadings of God’s Spirit, rather than concentrating on the given, revealed, sufficient, sword of the Spirit, the Bible. Over time the focus turns away from reading the Scriptures, that are able to make us thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:17), to reading circumstances, weighing up feelings, or looking for God to speak in other ways outside of the Bible.

My concerns about this book are not so much with mentoring per se, as they are with a perspective on guidance implicit throughout. I would love to see much more in Mentoring Matters about opening the Bible together, searching the Scriptures, seeing God’s revealed plans, to discover what this means for our lives, ministries, and the options before us. A great model of this approach is offered in Don Carson’s book on the topic of prayer, called A Call to Spiritual Reformation. He reveals how his mentor patiently and carefully helped him to pray according to the will of God as they delved deeply into the Bible together. If you’re keen to work through what the Bible teaches about guidance, let me recommend you work carefully through any of the following books:

Decision making and the will of God by Garry Friesen
Just do something by Kevin de Young
Guidance and the voice of God by Phillip Jensen and Tony Payne

If you’re serious about mentoring Christian leaders, then you will find much in Mentoring Matters that is helpful and practical. You will benefit from the emphasis on internal transformation, the priority on being before doing, and the focus on genuine relationships at the core of mentoring. But, let’s read with discernment, as we should with every book.

Do you feel called by God?

calledI think I need to take more plane trips. They’re a great way to set aside time for reading. Bit expensive though! This book was started on the trip back from Sydney and finished during chemo this morning. The chemo makes it even more expensive! Having now read Michael Bennett’s Do you feel called by God? Rethinking the call to ministry, I’m eager to share what I’ve discovered. This is a book that mirrors so much of my own experience, addresses so many of the same questions I’ve asked, and comes to the same conclusions. It’s easy to review a book that backs up your own opinions, but I can honestly say that it has also been a long and careful journey for me to be persuaded of these matters and I’ve never once had a conversation about them with Michael Bennett.

We’re told from the outset why Michael wrote this book and what conclusions he makes throughout. The book is spent substantiating these conclusions:

  1. The often-ward and almost universally accepted expression “I feel God is calling me” is totally foreign to the revealed content of both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. The continued use of this unscriptural pietistic language may be having negative consequences for churches, missionary societies and other Christian organisations in the choosing and training of leaders.
  2. Without denying in any way God’s ability to call people by overt and supernatural signs, it is argued here that this is not usually God’s method today. The motivation to serve the Lord, particularly in what is called full-time ministry, is a human desire to do so, and not a felt call. However, this human desire, which must spring from one’s love for Jesus and the gospel and genuine compassion for people, is not sufficient or valid in itself: it must be rightly motivated and rightly tested. (p6-7)

I suspect by revealing his conclusions at the outset, Michael will lose some readers. “That’s not right. It can’t be right. It’s not what happened to me… or others I know.” And they’ll put the book down. Or because they’ve read this far in my review, they wont even bother buying it! Oops, sorry! Let me say this would be a huge mistake. Please judge these conclusions on the strength of the arguments, not on whether they confirm or run contrary to your current thinking.

This book is very autobiographical and anecdotal. We get to know Michael Bennett, the rugby player, Christian, Bible college student, and author. We journey with him as his questions and struggles are explored and answered. However, this is not a this happened to me and therefore I am the paradigm for everyone else book. Michael seriously engages with the Scriptures to find the answers. We are able to weigh up his arguments on the lines of whether they faithfully expound the teaching of the Bible.

‘Call’ and ‘calling’ are explored in the Old and New Testaments. Michael examines the key people called by God to particular tasks and roles, and how this is specifically described. The observation is made that the word of God comes directly and personally to some people for particular purposes, but that this never resembles a concept of ‘feeling called’ that is commonly described today.

Close attention is given to examining every reference to ‘call’ and its cognates in the Greek New Testament. Only after the serious word studies completed and the contexts explored, are conclusions drawn. Seven different uses of the words are identified in the New Testament and the conclusion is reached, after looking at over 300 verses, that God calls all people in two specific ways:

  • First, we are called to be Christians – to be disciples of Jesus.
  • Second, we are called to be holy – to grow in Christ-likeness. (p60)

Some of the references that speak of a call to holiness are another way of describing the call to be Christian. Christians are the ‘called out’, ‘set apart’, or ‘sanctified ones’. They’re the saints – not those who gain post humous titles for miracles and deeds done – but those who, because of Christ’s work now, belong to God. In 1991, I completed exactly the same comprehensive word studies and came to the same conclusions that this is how the Bible speaks to Christians about the nature of being called by God.

Michael Bennett addressed the potential criticism of simply playing semantics by showing that the implications of using Biblical words and phrases in non-Biblical ways can be dangerous and debilitating. If candidate committees, ministers, theological colleges, and mission organizations are all asking for evidence of a ‘calling’, when the Bible doesn’t make this necessary, then where do people turn? Perhaps they end up deifying their desires to justify their position.

This book contains a very helpful and bold chapter of Hudson Taylor. It’s a pertinent case-study exploring what’s going on for this towering missionary as he speaks of his ‘call’. Taylor is quoted as saying:

I felt that I was entering into a covenant with the Almighty. I felt as though I wished to withdraw my promise but could not. Something seemed to say: “Your prayer is answered”. And from that time on the conviction has never left me that I was called to China. (quoted on p70)

The language of Hudson Taylor is important to observe. He uses expression such as, “I felt”, “Something seemed to say”, and “the conviction”. He doesn’t speak categorically of God’s specific or clear personal command. Michael respectfully seeks to diagnose what’s going on in Taylor’s experiences and the way he describes them. He argues that Taylor uses the normal language of pietism in his day (and for many in the church today) to tie together a number of influences and motivations for mission work. These areas include his family and background, his conversion to Christ as he understands grace, his grasp of the eternal consequences of the gospel, his deep compassion for people, his desire to take action, and his extraordinary suitability for the task.

After discussing some issues of how we should expect to receive guidance from God, Michael Bennett hones in on the question so who should go into ministry? The answer is biblical and profound: every Christian is called to ministry, that is, we are reborn into a new life of serving God. Ministry is not limited to some elite Christians, it’s for all! What then of those we call ‘ministers’, or pastors, or missionaries, or ‘full-time’ ministers? How do you work out if you should make the step from being a minister to being a Minister in some special sense? Again, we are directed to the text of Scripture. Some are set apart as overseers, pastors, or bishops – three overlapping terms to describe persons who lead, teach and equip the body of Christ to each minister to one another. Others are set apart for pioneer mission work or evangelising. How do you know if you should be one of these people?

Michael shows from the Bible the relevance of the same factors he describes for Hudson Taylor. He shows how the human desire to be involved in Christian leadership ministry is a desire for something very worthwhile. This desire should be tested and weighed by others also. We’re taken especially 1 Timothy 3:1-10 to explore the criteria for suitability:

Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. 2 Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. 4 He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. 5 (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) 6 He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. 7 He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.

8 In the same way, deacons are to be worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain. 9 They must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience. 10 They must first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons.

Do you feel called by God? is a breath of fresh clear air on the topic of guidance into Christian ministry. It’s a book I will recommend to many, but before I do, let me raise a couple of issues and suggestions. I believe a strength and a weakness of this book is that it covers a lot of ground and explores a lot of side streets on the way to its destination. We get to hear about Michael’s journey to faith, his pathway through theological training, high and low church differences, Catholic and Anglican confusions, dip into wider issues of guidance, and much more. This may frustrate the impatient person who simply wants the shortest distance between A and B. However, it makes the book highly suitable for one who is still grappling with many basic fundamentals of Christian life and ministry.

I also think there is a passage of the Bible, that warrants careful exegesis on this topic, that has been overlooked or simply omitted from this book. I’m referring to 1 Corinthians 7:17-24.

17 Nevertheless, each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches. 18 Was a man already circumcised when he was called? He should not become uncircumcised. Was a man uncircumcised when he was called? He should not be circumcised. 19 Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts. 20 Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.

21 Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so. 22 For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord’s freed person; similarly, the one who was free when called is Christ’s slave. 23 You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of human beings. 24 Brothers and sisters, each person, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation they were in when God called them. (NIV, my emphasis.)

I’ve spent much time helping people work through what this passage is saying about the nature of God’s call. A superficial reading has led many to speak of God calling people to particular careers, jobs, places, or ministries. This appears to be the meaning of verse 17. However, the verses that follow make it clear that Paul is speaking of the circumstances of life that people are in before and after they become Christians. The ‘call’ on view is the call to be Christian.

This is a book that should be read by many. It should be passed on to people who are exploring these issues for there lives. Last weekend I was asked by a young man at church if he should be heading into ministry. I plan to buy a copy of this book and give it to him and I’ll talk through the issues with him. It’s an excellent resource for people considering MTS (Ministry Training Strategy) apprenticeships, or exploring whether to head to Bible college, formal ministry, or the mission field.

I would make this book compulsory reading for church and denominational leaders who will be making decisions about whether to admit people into training or ministry positions. I’d would love all members of missionary candidates committees to take the time to work through this book. Bishops should read it. Theological and Bible college admissions departments should read it. Those endless committees deciding people’s futures should read this book. It’s such an important issue for many. Perhaps you should read it!

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.

Looking ahead… without fear

I’m starting to look ahead. What does 2013 hold? What work can I do? What ministries can I be involved in? I’m keen to be serving God, but I’m not keen to repeat much of the hyper-busyness of the past. The past couple of weeks I’ve enjoyed quite a bit of activity. I’ve been up and about, connected with a few friends, and taken on various tasks. I’ve caught up with a number of people for some serious discussions about personal and pastoral matters. I’ve enjoyed a Bible study with some blokes at the local pub and a time of honest discussion and prayer around a fire in our backyard.

Last weekend I spent a few hours teaching at a local theological college on the topics of church planting, preaching and sharing what we believe. It was so encouraging to be able to talk about these important things with a group of ministers and students in training. I followed this with an abbreviated program for our ministry trainees at church. On Friday I joined in a training workshop on strategic planning and team leadership and I attended a prayer meeting for teenagers with some other parents. Today I’ve been at a men’s convention looking at the nature of our identity as Christian men. During the week I attended our church staff meeting and began to discuss potential plans for getting more involved again with the team. I followed this by talking through possibilities with our lead pastor. We worked on some strategies for ministry, pastoral care, and future planning. It’s been invigorating! The cancer’s taken a back seat and it’s felt like I’ve been getting on with life again!

But… the past few days I’ve had increased pain in my chest. I find the pain difficult to interpret. Is it evidence of the chemo doing it’s job? Is it the cancer becoming more active? Or is it something else, such as bruising around the surgery sites, or an infection in the lungs, or something entirely in my head and I don’t need to worry about it? The one thing I do know is that it’s a timely reminder that all is not well. As I’ve begun thinking and planning for the future, I need to remember that important little phrase… deo volente or God willing.

In their hearts humans plan their course,
but the Lord establishes their steps.  (Proverbs 16:9)

Experiencing the symptoms of the cancer raises my levels of anxiety. I know that this won’t help and it could make things worse and it’s something I need to deal with. But I don’t deal with it alone. My loving and competent wife helps me to stay grounded and focused with her wise words and practical help…

“Let’s take your temperature. I’ll check your blood pressure. How about you let me listen to your chest. I suggest you relax a while and take a couple of panadols. You’ve got a scan next week and then we’ll have a better idea of what’s going on.”

Even more importantly God helps me in my weakness. As I walked home from the conference today, holding my chest, concerned about the pain, God spoke to me. Words from the Bible. Words that I’ve previously sung many times. Words that seemed apt for me this day. They were first spoken through the prophet Isaiah to the people of Israel, reminding them that God had acted to rescue them. How much more true are they for those who’ve been saved by Jesus Christ. I need not fear, for whatever happens to me, God has already redeemed me, and I’m secure in his protective custody.

“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
    I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters,
IMG_2782I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour  (Isaiah 43:1-3)