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I read recently that John Piper has taken an 8 month leave of absence, do do battle with the sins of his heart, by the sound of it, particularly pride – see here for the report.

Three things struck me about this:

  1. What an interesting thing for him to do. As you read the article, you get the impression that both him, and those amongst whom he holds himself accountable, talk about this sort of thing in an open and regular way. I don’t know of anyone who does that.
  2. What a generous thing by the church – they insisted on paying him during the time, and he’ll think about how much of it to give back. It’s a big church, so I guess they will all handle it – and in a solo or small staff team church it would be a very different story – but still, impressive.
  3. Third, what stands out is just how much they all – Piper, his friends, the church – think it matters: enough to do something like this.

So the question that struck me was – do we really think church – and holiness –  matters like this, and what would constitute a demonstration of that?

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I have spent the first 5 days of March at an Arrow Australia leadership conference.

It’s a fascinating – and refreshing – experience. 40 people, from across the states, church and para-church, across the denominations, and across the evangelical spectrum – super conservative, conservative, charismatic, pentecostal, etc.

And what I’ve been struck by and challenged about is this – it is a fantastically positive, encouraging, believe-in-other-people, hopeful-about-people context.

In one sense, that’s not too hard – it’s a temporary community, so you only have to engage with others for a week at a time (3 conferences over the 2 year program); very little is at stake, since we all just go our separate ways, and no one has much influence over anyone else; and it’s a deliberately up-beat environment.

That said, it is incredibly different, and incredibly powerful. The language is simply different – overwhelmingly positive, constantly looking for the upside, expecting really good things from people, articulating the gifts / potential / opportunities / successes of people, highly pro-active about people. And I wonder too whether the heart is also different – that it’s not just a language thing, but a heart thing. It’s a very attractive picture of Eph 4.25-32 lived out.

It seems to me that in the tribe in which I hang out, we have a long way to go in precisely this matter. I know that there’s all sorts of reasons why we are more guarded, but the more I reflect on it, the more I think those reasons don’t need to mean we sacrifice thie language and this heart.

It’s led me to a new month’s resolution (which will hopefully last beyond March!) – to very deliberately work on being far, far, far more proactively positive – both in the way I speak, and in my heart. The danger is naivete; but it strikes me as a danger well worth it.

P.S. I’m aware that I spent last week’s blog critiquing the Trellis and the Vine. Was that a blatant violation of this new month’s resolution? Maybe; I’ll mull more about it. I guess the challenge is this – since I thought the issues I raised were important, is it possible to ‘critique positively’? Three markers would be that you play the ball, not the man; that the positives are highlighted as much as the negatives; that you are completely aware that you are just a player like anyone else, not an expert, and are therefore thoroughly open to the same kind of critique, and have never spoken the last word, or thought the last thought, and need to keep learning.

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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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Sometimes, things make intuitive sense. The Proverbs are full of this kind of sense – work hard: do well, etc.

 

from flickr by *galaad*

However, quite often, the way things work out is counter-intuitive. The paradox of structured freedom is like that.

 

The paradox centers around the challenge of maximising the involvement of church members in the life, ministry and mission of the church. The National Church Life Survey says that this is the single most significant weakness in Anglican churches.

Intuitively, you might think that the best way to do that is to reduce structure to a minimum, to simply get out of people’s way and encourage them to take initiative.

But I don’t think it works like that. The paradox of structured freedom is that for people to have maximum freedom to use their gifts in the mission of the church, there needs to be a degree of structure. Too little structure, and the pathway into – and support of – member ministry is too elusive. Too much structure and it becomes bogged down in red tape.

The way we are trying to address this at CCIW goes like this.

  • ministry comes in 2 sorts – programs (ongoing) and projects (time limited). There are 2 sorts of projects – ministry projects (carols by candlelight etc)  and infrastructure projects (paint the hall). There are also tasks, which are smaller in scale than programs and projects and which can be done by individuals. Programs and projects should be run by teams.
  • we are fairly used to programs being run by teams with a leader, and fairly good at recruiting for those teams/leadership roles. My observation is that we are not so good on the project side. And yet, heaps of church life comes in the form of projects, and it can be a great way for people to inject their gifts into the mix.
  • so, we make sure we have a quarterly off-site staff meeting, which plans ministry projects 1 quarter (ideally 2 or more quarters – we’re working on it – in advance). The parallel for infrastructure projects is at Parish Council.
  • every project has 2 structural elements. First, a link person into the ‘place of power’; that is, the place of final decision making authority, the place from whom the delegation has come in the first instance.  For ministry projects, that is the staff team, for infrastructure projects, that is the Parish Council. If there’s no link person, then the project will often be underpowered and frustrating to those involved, or possibly go ‘rogue’. The link person doesn’t run the project, but rather, provides links to other members who do run the project – the more links, the more member-run projects. Not having links – say for example, wardens always being the ones who run infrastructure projects – is a key reason both why we get less done than we might, and there are fewer people involved than there might be. So, the product of the off-site is a list of projects in one column, with staff link people in another column next to it, and then a a member who is the project leader in the 3rd column. It;’s the third column that counts!
  • The second structural element is a project brief. This is a statement of the goals, budget, timeframe and other parameters of the project. The brief is an essential tool for ensuring that the project team has as clear as possible sense of the actual task at hand, and the boundaries on it. Having a brief is profoundly empowering. Getting good at writing briefs is a crucial skill for maximising member involvement.
  • the staff meeting and the wardens / Parish Council meeting then spend a fair proportion of time resourcing the different projects through the various link people.

We’re still working it out, but I’m hopeful that we will find our way through the paradox of structured freedom.

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I’ve been thinking further about the basis on which ministers should be paid.

It seems to me that there are only 3 approaches:

  1. the ‘cost to live’ principle – that is, pay what is needed to free them up for ministry
  2. the ‘responsibility’ principle – that is, pay them in some manner comensurate with the responsibility bourne
  3. the ‘free market’ principle – pay them whatever it takes to get them to come to the church and keep them there.

The truth is that none of them work perfectly.

The free market principle leads to perversions in the nature of the ministry done – never to be a ‘pretext for greed’.

The cost of living principle simply breaks down when you ask, ‘cost of whose living?’ Every minister’s situation, and therefore cost of living will be different – a family with 7 kids has a greater cost of living than a couple without children where the wife works, and yet the large family may have a $10M bank balance, and the childless couple may be financially caring for 4 aged parents; one minster may have bought a holiday house, which is then part of his cost of living, yet hardly seems to warrant an increased salary etc. Unless we want to go down the track of stipulating scales for every personal circumstance, and then investigating them (which seems silly), it strikes me that behind the simple statement ‘free them up for ministry’ is a pandora’s box of problems.

Which leaves the responsibility principle. I think this is the least problematic. It has the significant advantage of being based in justice – the same pay for the same job, different pay for different job. It also enacts what used to be called ‘the charitable assumption’; namely, that if a minister has more than he needs, it’s his responsibility (which he is trusted to do) to be generous with it through his giving, not the church’s job to not give it to him in the first place.

One way to do this is to find an award for a comparable responsibility (say department head in a school), and peg the minister’s stipend to that. Of course, account will need to be taken of ministry fringe benefits, such as the house etc.

The more I’ve thought about this, the clearer it has become to me that the least bad option is the best that will be available.

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Somewhere along the line, I stopped.

I think it had something to do with the immediate and pressing challenges of being a Rector. The natural resource for those challenges was ‘how to’ material – church growth, leadership, ministry structures.

And lots of it is great, and frankly, essential for a Rector. On the whole, my suspicion is that we are under-prepared in this department.

But it can’t replace theology – good, hard, deep, integrated thinking about God, and his ways towards us (and the whole created order) in Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Rob Forsyth once said that if you haven’t done non-sermon reading by Thursday, you’ll never get to it. Actually, for me, if I don’t do it by Monday, it won’t happen. And so I have decided to set aside 3 hours each Monday to read. And to make sure I am digesting a little, to post about it.

Here’s something from Bruce McCormack’s essay “The Actuality of God: Karl Barth in conversation with Open Theism”, in the book he edited, Engaging the Doctrine of God.

… the primary object of election is God himself. The content of God’s ‘primal decision’ was his determination to be God in the covenant of grace and to be God in no other way. What makes this decision truly ‘primal’ is that there is not other being of God standing in back of it, hidden in the shadows, so to speak … the eternal event in which God chose to be ‘God for us’ is, at the same time, the eternal event in which God gave (and continues to give) to himself his own being – and vice versa. So there are not two eternal events, one in which God gives being to himself and a second (following ‘after’ the first) in which he enters into a relationship with the human race; these are, in fact, one and the same event. Thus divine election stands at the root of God’s being or ‘essence’ …

Traditional metaphysics held that it is not possible to speak of God without first speaking of something else. All talk of God begins as talk about something else – as talk about the cosmos, perhaps, or as talk about what it means to be a ‘person’ on the human plane. And the hope was that through a series of negations (removing from divine being the imperfections proper to creaturely being) and a series of analogies (making God to be like us in that he ‘has’ certain qualities or attributes that we also have but has them perfectly), one could eventually arrive at talk about God that really was talk about God and not just an endless chain of self-referential statements. Barth held that on the basis of metaphysical reasoning, such a hope was bound to end in disappointment; one can never truly talk about God by speaking first of himself or herself, or his or her experiences. Talk that begins with the creaturely must also end with it. If talk of God is really to be possible, then it must begin and end with the event in which God gives himself his own being – as Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit … human language and divine being must inevitably fall apart where the event in which God gives himself being and the event in which our language finds its ground are conceived of as two distinct events. Where on the other hand,  the event in which God gives himself being is the event which founds our knowledge of him, there divine reality and human language do not fall apart … How does one talk about God without talking about something else? By resolving never to speak about God on any other basis than that of the incarnation.

I’ve never really got Barth’s thing about election. Here, in 2 pages, McCormack lays it out in plain view. And he offers it as a way of reframing the whole classic vs open theism debate, suggesting that both positions fall into the trap which he has mentioned above.

Stretching stuff! And worthy reading for a Rector.

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