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Archive for February, 2010

When the history of the Sydney Diocese in the second half of the 20th century is written, there will be a chapter on the UNSW student ministry, St Matthias, CBS, MTS, Phillip Jensen and Col Marshall – if there isn’t, it would be a travesty. That ‘scene’ has changed the way we think about ministry, and particularly, the way we think about and do training for ministry.

The Trellis and the Vine (T&V) is really a distillation of the key principles that have been refined and applied over the remarkable 35 year period since Phillip was appointed Anglican Chaplain to UNSW in 1975. The thing I most appreciated about the book (I told you I’d be positive)  – and the ministry – is the intentionality about training. It is the relentless focus on training that really marks out their contribution. If we had 20 more training ministries like that, we would make massive leaps forward in reaching Sydney for Christ.

However, I suggest that as insightful as the book’s suggestions are about training, it is precisely the opposite in its implicit view of the Christian life and growth. This is the practical outworking – and damage – of the 2-sorts-of-Christians logic to the model, in my view.

And the problem is this. The T&V has a fundamentally passive view of Christian growth. How a Christian grows, according to the book, is to have the Bible read with them. This is the great driving emphasis of the model, and it brings with it a fundamentally passive approach to Christian growth. Growth is achieved by having something done to one – having the Bible read with. It is essentially passive, inactive. Someone might say – “No – the task of reading the Bible with someone naturally contributes to that person’s growth also!” And that’s right, of course, but since that’s all that is said, it is far too narrow. There is so much more to growing as a Christian than reading the Bible with other people!

Is this too picky? Is this just an overstatement by the book? Should I just chill out? Well, I think it really matters. The book purports to give guidance on how to structure a church’s ministry. It’s all about the ‘ministry mind shift that changes everything’. It asks to be taken seriously as a model for church life and ministry, and one that overcomes a significant problem – trellis-aholism! That is a real problem, but this is the wrong solution. What I’m suggesting is that if a church’s ministry really was structured this way, it will embed this fundamentally passive approach to Christian growth; at least, that is, until a person embraces vine work, and becomes a ‘ministry minded’ sort of Christian.

What’s the alternative? Embrace a fundamentally active view of Christian growth – that is that people are responsible for their growth in Christ; teach it regularly, including the various activities that promotes such growth; and structure the ministry of the church around providing those contexts in which those activities take place. In my view, there are 5 basic activities that God uses to grow his children – our corporate worship together, a rich personal devotional life, sharing in joyous fellowship with “one another”, serving with your gifts in ministry (whatever those gifts might be), and extending a gracious witness to unbelievers. Notice these are broad in range and active in mood. And the task of church life – and of the leadership of the church, its structures etc – is to provide the contexts in which each of these ‘means of grace’ takes place for everyone in the church, including regularly teaching regarding the way that Christians grow and the responsibility we have for our growth in Christ.

This is why T&V gets it precisely wrong – it mishandles the grain. Yes, all Christians are to love / serve / rebuke / teach / encourage / weep and rejoice with / forgive one another. This is the fine grain ‘life together’ of the church – and it is much too ‘coarse grain’ to reduce this to ‘reading the Bible with someone’. And yes, all Christians are called to ministry (that’s one of the ‘means of grace’, or ways in which Christians grow), but it is far too fine grain to say that what that will mean is that all Christians are called to be vine workers if vine-work is understood as T&V puts it, namely reading the Bible with someone. The whole range of people’s gifts – which will include “trellis work” counts here! And yes, all Christians need to have the Word of God dwell in them richly, but that is a completely different thing from saying, all Christians should be involved in doing that with others.

Bottom line: If the training model that is suggested in T&V could be integrated with an active view of Christian growth (it’s active precisely because there’s only one sort of Christian), that would be a church in the mercy and grace of God, that would fly! That’s what I’m working on.

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One of the points I made in the first post on the  Trellis and the Vine (T&V) related to the way that images and metaphors carry with them a logic or structure, and that logic is what makes the metaphor work. I suggested that the logic of the ‘trellis and vine’ metaphor was bi-partite on the surface, but actually tri-partite – trellis, vine and vine workers. Vine workers do vine work on the vine, or at least they should, but too much work gets done on the trellis. And the problem is that has the necessary drift into separating out 2 kinds of Christians, despite Col and Tony’s best efforts to mitigate against this conclusion. The mitigation efforts don’t really work, and that’s because of the logic of the metaphor.

Of course, Paul uses a metaphor when he want to talk about the issue T&V addresses – it’s the metaphor of the body. What’s so interesting and important about this metaphor is that it also has a logic and structure, but a very different one – its logic is of a unity, neither bi-nor tri-partite, with each part doing very different but equally important work (Rom 12.3-8, Eph 4.7-16 and 1 Cor 12.12-31). In fact, the use to which Paul puts the metaphor in 1 Cor 12 is precisely designed to subvert any possibility of a 2-kinds-of-Christians approach – in Corinth a spiritual / non-spiritual divide (as I am suggesting T&V brings with it a ministry minded / non-ministry minded divide). Hence he asks his rhetorical questions at the end of the chapter – “Do all speak in tongues?” and the answer is emphatically no! and likewise “Are all teachers?” And the answer is equally emphatic!

This relates then to the way that the metaphor of vine work is played out. Vine work is “a Christian bringing a truth from God’s word to someone else, praying that God would make that word bear fruit through the inward working of the Spirit … everything else is trellis”. Now, it turns out that this vine work is centered on a single activity – reading the Bible with someone. This comes through very powerfully throughout the book. Although other kinds of examples are sometimes offered, when vine work is given some quick content, it almost always turns out to be reading the Bible with someone.

My point is this: as the content of the mutual life of the church, let alone the content of Christian ministry, I suggest that it is neither deep enough nor broad enough. Of these 2, it’s the second that is more relevant.

It’s not deep enough because it shares a weakness that I am increasingly convinced is a huge gap for us generally. That is, it fails to engage deeply with the process of sanctification. That is, how do Christians become more and more conformed to the image of Christ? It seems to me that this is exactly the topic at hand, and more needed to be said, in particular, how reading the Bible with someone leads to sanctification. I think that their bold chapter “Why Sunday sermons are necessary but not sufficient” is reaching for this, but doesn’t quite get there, since it merely swaps one method (sermon to large group) for another method (reading the Bible 1-1) – the issue really is, ‘Why the Bible is not enough’?

Now don’t mishear me, please! Of course the ministry of the word is absolutely, fundamentally, non-negotiably, hill-to-die-on necessary. My life’s investment is about that. But the plain fact is that there is more to sanctification than reading the Bible (in a big group or 1-1) – university Biblical studies departments prove that. And it’s that ‘more’ that is crying out to be unpacked. And it’s not good enough to say ‘the Spirit’ either – of course it’s the Spirit, but the issue is what means the Spirit uses. I am convinced this is a massive issue for us; I am convinced that the answer lies in the doctrine of sanctification by faith; I think Tim Keller provides a stimulating model of how to apply that doctrine in sermons and 1-1 reading of the Bible; and I’ve ordered my copy of Berhower’s book of that title to get a handle on it. But, as I say, since this is a one of the bigger issues for us, it’s not really a criticism of T&V, since as far as I can tell, no one much is addressing this issue. But it was an opportunity.

The second issue is a bigger deal. The 1-1 model of reading the Bible is not broad enough. It’s interesting that T&V calls for a ministry mind-set, that does the vine work of 1 Christian bringing the Word of God to another Christian, particularly 1-1. That doesn’t seem to me to be Paul’s mind-set. He has a body mind-set that does the love work (1 Cor 13) of every Christian using whatever gift God has given her or him for the common good. Notice how different this ends up being – love is the dominant value, rather than ministry (of course, love issues in a servant heart, but love is a far less functional concept); the body is the dominant image and so holds together both unity (rather than 2 kinds of Christian) and huge diversity; and therefore the entire range of gifts is deployed for the building of the church, and this is how the church is built (1 Cor 14.5).

In other words, what I’m suggesting is that T&V identify a really important problem – a one sided focus on some aspects of church life (ie. trellis work) – but misfire in regards to the solution, because it equally proposes a one sided focus, this time 1-1 Bible reading. If seriously implemented, it would lead to the same problem! And what drives this is the logic of the metaphor. It’s Paul’s use of the body metaphor that prevents him from falling into the same trap.

And it’s structuring the life and work of a church in such a way that it genuinely releases the full spectrum of people’s gifts, to be exercised in context of the abiding excellence of love, precisely because we are one body in Christ, that is the real challenge of this issue.

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I’ve never been asked to write a blurb for the back of a book, but I guess the invitation comes with an unstated catch – say something nice!

Certainly, the guys on the back of Col Marshall and Tony Payne’s new book, The trellis and the vine, got the idea. “This the best book I’ve read on the nature of church ministry”, “profound little book” and “takes us right to the heart of authentic Christian ministry” are some of the comments, and there are 4 pages more inside! What’s more, the book itself isn’t exactly backward in coming forward – the sub-title is ‘the ministry mind-shift that changes everything’!

This week, I plan to review the book in detail, and I’m afraid that it will be a critical review. In my judgment, far from being the best book I’ve read on the nature of church ministry, I think it’s a book with a few good insights, but some serious wrong turns, some dead ends and ultimately a fundamentally flawed model which could do some real damage if implemented. If you’ve read the book, you’ll be the judge of whether my criticisms are on track; if not, then you may buy the book (nothing like controversy to bump sales!) But given the coaching program that goes with the book, I think there are some things that need to be said. And they will take longer than normal!

Two other things by way of intro – the first is, this is not personal. I like both Col and Tony, and respect their work and ministry. But that doesn’t mean strong response shouldn’t be made; these issues are too important. And second, there’s some positives, and they will come on Friday.

The starting point is the central image of the book – the trellis and the vine. The trellis is the infrastructure of church life – management, finances, infrastructure, governance. ‘Trellis work’ is work on maintaining and growing the trellis, and trellis workers are those office bearers and committee members who do those things. What’s more they are necessary and in their own way, good things. However, the basic problem to which the book proposes a solution is the possibility that “trellis work has taken over from vine work”. So what’s vine work? Vine work is “planting watering, fertilizing, tending the vine”, in other words, “Preaching 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” (p. 8). The push of the book is that we need to focus on vine work, not trellis work., and the book gives some examples of how that might pan out in practice.

Response? Well, the metaphor is appealing in its clarity and simplicity. But it is the metaphor that creates the fundamental problem. And the way to get this is to ask, ‘OK, so what’s the vine?’ Biblically, of course – and it’s the Bible’s image that gives the metaphor its power – the vine is the people of God / church in connection with its Lord (Isa 5, Jn 15, Rom 11?). And right there is the problem! You see, inherent in the metaphor is the distinction between 2 kinds of Christians – there are those Christians who are vine workers, and those Christians who are the vine; there are those Christians who do vine work, and those Christians to whom vine work is done.

Do you see the importance of this? It is a model of church life that is built foundationally on a very basic error. For there are not 2 kinds of Christians. There’s only one sort of Christian – a repentant child of God in whom God is working to fulfil his purpose. Ironically, the book makes the same error as the Charismatic second blessing theology, which also entails 2 kinds of Christians – those who have been baptised in the Spirit and those who haven’t. Now of course, Col and Tony are a million miles away from that actual theology; but ironically, the structure of the trellis / vine model turns out to have exactly the same effect. The book should have been called, The Trellis, the vine and vine workers – but that would never fly.

Now you might say, ‘Give me a break! It’s just a metaphor, and no metaphor can say everything. Chill out a little!’ And that would be fair enough, if there was good reason to relax. But as you read the book, you find the structure of the 2 sorts of Christians built into the fabric of the model. Every time it’s explained or expanded, in every example that’s used, there is an active vine worker, doing vine work, and a passive vine work-ee, receiving vine work. The distinction is built into the logic of the model, and can’t be escaped.

What’s more, I think Col and Tony feel this, and propose a solution – but unfortunately, the solution makes things worse, not better. The solution is that there should be only one sort of Christian – those doing vine work. Vine work is for everyone (ch 4); it is Christians joining God in what he is doing (ch 3). But the problem is, the metaphor necessarily involves vine workers and vine work-ees, so that now there are not only 2 sorts of Christians; one of them is now categorised as disobedient to the call to do vine work. In the same way you can see them struggling mightily to cope with the flaw in the model when they use the table to categorise where people mare up to in the stages of gospel growth (p. 87, 110). Aware of the feeling that this might all be a little rigid, they defend the model by saying that to fail to think of people individually (read ‘vine’) would be like a doctor thinking to himself, “I’ll get my patients together and give them the same medicine etc”. But do you see the structure of the metaphor – now, not merely vine and vine workers, rather doctor and patients, expert and client. It can’t be any other way; it’s how the logic of the model works. And it’s the problem. Because that is not how anyone in the body of Christ relates to anyone else.

The book goes on to unfold this logic – it proposes a highly specific character to vine work, and a highly passive character to Christian growth, and both of these are problems we will need to look at, starting in the next post. But the basic flaw is embedded in the logic of model. There’s only one sort of Christian, we walk alongside each other as sisters and brothers; there’s no line to be drawn between us vine workers and vine work-ees. And what’s needed is a model of church life and ministry that adequately embodies that reality. As we get into the detail of the book’s proposal, we’ll start to develop and explore exactly that.

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Cracking the code

This week we quietly formed a team to do what may turn out to be our best thing yet.

We formed a team to crack our cultural code.

From flickr by hevva75Like me, you may have read stories of missionaries cracking the code of a culture – Peace Child is the classic – that is, understanding the core assumptions and aspirations of the culture, and finding the points of purchase for the gospel in relation to that. Whilst inspiring, I have never really been able to see how to apply it, since the cultures in question have often been traditional.

Recently I have been digging into Tim Keller’s work. It seems to me that he has done exactly the same time, but this time in relation to a culture that is much closer to our own – New York city. His take on NY culture deeply impacts on how he articulates the gospel.

The thing is, NY is close, but is definitely not Inner West Sydney – for one thing, we are far less altruistic, and equally less ambitious. I know we aren’t NY, but what are we?

And that’s why we formed the team. With some members who are trained in media and communications, their task is to understand the Inner West cultural code, and to crack it wide open, understanding its fault lines and how to gospel speaks into those.

As far as I can tell, no one has got this done yet. And I am sure we will need help, which is why I’m inviting anyone who wants to digitally contribute to give it a go.

From time to time, I’ll be posting on where we’re up to, and we’ll see if can can get some traction on this issue together. As far as bring Christ to the Inner West, there are few more pressing tasks!

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A friend mentioned to me recently that he had heard some advice given to Christian young people about dating – namely, that you should only date someone you have the intention to marry, or at least are specifically open to marriage.

By Sbrimbillina from flickr

It struck me that the most likely outcome of this is an increase in sexual immorality.

Why? Because bringing marriage into the equation of a dating relationship, especially for high school kids, can only have the effect of making the relationship more emotionally intense. Going out becomes a pseudo marriage. But that greater intensity will inevitably evoke the desire to be sexually expressed. As it should – the emotional intensity of marriage is designed to be expressed and strengthened by sex. Of course, that would be immoral, since although going out (on these terms) has morphed into a pseudo marriage, there is no such thing as pseudo sex!

Now, kids will be encouraged to be self controlled, but this advice about being open to marry the one you’re going out with (especially if it is dressed up as the teaching of the Bible) will have made the problem far worse.

Far better to say to high school kids especially, ‘Don’t even think about marriage when you’re going out with someone! Just treat each other well, have fun, be pure and learn how to be a good boyfriend / girlfriend.’ Less intensity is a much more likely path to sexual purity.

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Cinema in the cemetary

We had the biggest event at St John’s Ashfield for decades last Friday night – we’ve called it ‘Cinema in the Cemetery’, and over 4 weeks we had 800 people onto the property, including 400-500 last Friday night.

From flickr by ka ka (not quite St John's!)

Four things stood out about it

  1. The entire project was totally member initiated and executed. Some great gospel hearted people called an open meeting of our evening congregation to talk about how to connect with local community members. They came up with a few terrific ideas (I was overseas at the time!) and Cinema in the Cemetery was one of them. A few agreed to drive the project, and we made use of our project structure (see here for a description of how it works). It was a beautiful moment of the body of Christ being the body of Christ.
  2. As we thought about it why do this thing, we realised that it was possible to run an event that was a combination both of blessing the community in some (even small) way, and at the same time making a connection – it didn’t have to be an either / or. The other thing is that we are here for the long haul – it’s OK to build links and connections with people slowly, that possibly bear ministry fruit in months or years. That’s not the only events we want to run, but it’s OK to some events with that in mind.
  3. We got media coverage, which was great. The media snowball works like this (as far as I understand): the papers run a story, the radio stations pick it up that morning / afternoon, and the TV channels report on it that evening. We had a perfect storm like this. The Telegraph ran a story on Friday morning, I did 3 radio interviews on Friday afternoon, and the Network 10 program ‘The 7pm Project’ covered it on Friday night (or at least they would have if their technology had worked. What i learnt was: don’t be afraid of media. They seem to more or less hate us, but that ain’t always true. Figure out what you want to say and make sure what you say both responds to them and is on message. I had a cute line about the difference between a graveyard (a place for people to rot) and a cemetery (a Christian word, a place for people to sleep – and then wake up!)
  4. It not often in church life that things work out better than hoped for! We’ve had lots of people say, ‘when’s the next one?’, and a facebook group of 100 people. We had planned to stop this week, but are rethinking – if there’s momentum there, absolutely best to go with it!

It was a great start to the year, and we’re praying for God to keep using it and other things we do!

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