Where’s your ministry ‘AT’?

Christians and soldiers have a lot in common, or at least they should (2 Tim 2:3-4). Firstly they both know that submission equals survival. The wise infantry man always awaits the order to advance—especially when the machine gunner next to him is laying down cover fire.

Secondly, both Christians and soldiers know that suffering is par for the course (2 Tim 3:12). Members of the Australian Defense Force (ADF), on exercises in the outback, don’t get up in the morning, stretch and declare, “Man … I really miss my flannel jammies”.

There is a third attribute of soldiers that, when found in Christians, makes them very effective. It is ‘ambiguity tolerance’ (AT). Soldiers who can tolerate ambiguity are lethal. AT is one of the key attributes military psychologists look for when recruiting soldiers. High AT is what differentiates the special force soldiers (eg. Australian SAS + USA Date Force) from the regular army recruit.

Let me explain what I mean.

In the regular army, you don’t really need high “AT.” Why? Because your roles and responsibilities are clearly defined. The Lieutenant barks a command to the Sergeant, he barks it to the Corporal, who then barks it down the line to the Private. The front-line soldier has no confusion about what he must do.

But in the special forces, it is different. When eight Australian SAS soldiers are dropped behind enemy lines during a war, they do have a plan, but they’re always ready for the inevitable ‘stuff ups’. Let’s say they get inserted 4 km east of their designated DZ (drop zone) under cover of darkness. They don’t panic! They stay focused on the mission. They revert to plan B or C … or even D. They can tolerate ambiguity. Not everything has to be ‘spelled out’.

AT can make a good soldier great.

Growth in AT can also increase the effectiveness of a congregation, a Christian and a pastor. AT is all about your answer to these questions: “How do you respond to a sudden change in circumstances?” “What’s your emotional response to situations that turn out differently to what you expected?”

As I observe life in Australia, it appears me that people (especially those under 40 years old) love change. They like ambiguous situations. A big part of life’s thrill is waiting to see, or anticipating, what’s going to change next. I think that’s why most believers love the ‘post-Bible talk question time’. People are fascinated by what questions might crop up. Have you ever noticed this? During the songs, prayers, sermon, etc., the congregation looks like Obelix after he’s eaten two wild boars (i.e. drowsy, to say the least), but when question time starts, the body language changes: people are sitting forward, they’re attentive, and you can see them thinking, processing, frowning, interacting, objecting, laughing, enquiring, etc. It’s quite exciting.

So if a pastor can increase his AT, it helps the congregation. If the congregation can increase their “AT:”, then it can help the elect and the lost.

Here’re some examples of high AT ministry and the fruit God has grown as a result:

  • MOLDI dinners: In the late 1990s, the Sydney University Christian group realized that it was difficult to get ‘not-yet believers’ to come to outreach events. So they decided to go to them. They organized dinners in King Street, Newtown, which were designed for the express purpose of discussing the meaning of life. Dinner and discussion took place in a neutral territory: a restaurant. A campus in Melbourne adopted this idea, and gave them the name ‘MOLDI dinners’. M.O.L.D.I stands for ‘meaning of life discussed intelligently’. In 2007, this campus ran nine dinners which were attended by 45 ‘not-yet believing’ Uni students.
  • Venue relocations: Sometimes meeting in another building binds the brethren. World (Catholic) Youth Day in Sydney forced many school building-based churches to relocate for two weeks. Several I know enjoyed the change. So why not deliberately meet in another location? Just SMS everyone the night before (bulk SMSs are easy with sites like one2many.com), and tell people you’re going to meet in the Botanic Gardens and ‘do church 200 AD-style’.
  • Family devotions: Our daughter Isabella is seven years old, Edmund is four and Samuel is two. In the past, Bella used to enjoy Bible reading aimed at Edmund. She doesn’t anymore. We’ve had to change the evening routine. I read to the boys, and Emma reads something ‘meatier’ to Isabella. Things change. Roll with it. AT.
  • Congregational question time: Give it a go! Are they scary for the speaker? Yep. Are they a great catalyst to edifying the saints? Yep! Give it a crack! (NB: remember it is a skill that takes time to get good at).

AT isn’t anything new. AT is just another way of saying “be all things to all people” (1 Cor 9:22) or “consider it pure joy when you suffer trials of many kinds” (Jas 1:2-3). By God’s Spirit, we can grow in AT over time.

A greater AT will help you be more ministries-minded, and it will help you focus more on your people, rather than your programmes.

11 thoughts on “Where’s your ministry ‘AT’?

  1. Ben,
    As someone who spent 13 years in the ADF your metaphor has given me a bout of post-traumatic stress syndrome related to memories of being stuck in the middle of nowhere for days on end (K94 to be exact)! Otherwise, good post!

  2. <i>MOLDI dinners: In the late 1990s, the Sydney University Christian group realized that it was difficult to get ‘not-yet believers’ to come to outreach events. </i>

    I have really happy memories of these MOLDI dinners, not that I ever went to one but I remember talking to one of the senior staffworkers with the Christian group when they were plotting and planning these. Some great stories of talking about really serious matters to do with Jesus and salvation. (For a slightly tangential one, see here).

    You can almost never go wrong where food is involved, can you? I was thinking this the other night at an evangelistic event run at our church, actually a dinner in a local restaurant. Plenty of non-church friends, a good talk explaining that being Christian was about being forgiven, really good food, and friendly, relaxed conversation. Loved it—and I’m still thanking God for the opportunities that came up.

  3. I’m pretty sure the U.S. Date Force is what keeps them perpetually 17 hours behind Australia…  That’s a 1,020 minute _delta_ for those playing along at home. smile

    And w.r.t question time post-service, Ben, how do you counter those who might say that they fear misleading the congregation with a poorly-thought-through response?

  4. Ben!

    It is good to have you back on the ‘Panel. It has been more than a month since your last post – a bunch of us are still waiting for your response here


  5. Hey Birdy,
    Sorry about the onset of PTSD. Thanks for your encouragement.

    G’Day Gordo,
    I liked your comment. I think food has a few good side effects (i) slows us down and relaxes everyone (ii) puts all of us on a level playing field i.e. reminds us of what we have in common and that we all die if we don’t eat and (iii) it’s enjoyable, a pleasure.

    Howdy Benny Bathgate,
    Thanks for exposing me mate! There’s probably some ex-Delta force soldier watching me now (from a hidden observation post) covered in black shoe polish waiting for the signal to take the shot to avenge the slander that was my blog.

    Greetings Wild Wally,
    Mmmm. If a person feels like they’ll do more damage than good during question time then they probably need to think twice about doing one. (I find it excruciatingly difficult myself). But it is a skill that can be learnt, just like preaching. It just takes practice.  I’d counsel someone to try and learn the skill. After all, any basic evangeslism is a “question time” of sorts. the reason we feel ready to do the 1 Peter 3:15 thing is because we’ve pratcticed. A Christian leader (with the help of friends) can guess the 10 questions most likely to be asked after any given sermon. You can prepare for most bullets that get fired.
    Having said that, if someone still struggles, then there’s no shame in doing the “write questions on a card to be answered next week” thing.

    Hi Adsy,
    Thanks for commenting and welcoming me back to solapanel cyberspace. When I read your comment I had a flashback to 1978. A picture of Mr Dunlop, my 3rd Grade teacher jumped into my brain . . . he was always saying, “Pfahlert you’re late!”. Sorry I’ve been MIA brother. I’ve been working on the “MTS Strategic Plan 2009 – 2011” and it took all my spare energy.
    I did finally answer your question from a month ago.

    God’s speed.


  6. Ben said

    <i>Hey Birdy…

    G’Day Gordo…

    Howdy Benny Bathgate…

    Greetings Wild Wally…

    You can prepare for most bullets that get fired…

    Hi Adsy…

    Sorry I’ve been MIA brother..


    I say we instigate a contest for the person who writes a comment that sounds most like Benny without actually being Benny.

    Prize involves bullets, beer, God, gospel, guts, and glory.


  7. A question about question times after a Bible talk.  I wonder whether they undermine the great power of preaching being a declared Word from God that demands obedience rather than discussion.
    Having called a congregation to respond to the Word of God isn’t it an abrupt change of gears to then say…  lets have a discussion.
    I’m writing this of course as a question time scaredy cat!

  8. You’re right Paul, sometimes it feels like a totally inappropriate thing to do.
    I guess that is where good MC training will hit pay dirt. The Master of Ceremonies (or whatever your Christain clan calls it) needs to be wise enough and mature enough to know when to cancel and when to continue. Not easy!

  9. Ben said:

    <i>You’re right Paul, sometimes it feels like a totally inappropriate thing to do. </i>

    And that kind of proves your main point doesn’t it, Ben? No-one’s barking orders at the minister “Question time must happen after the sermon!” The preacher assesses the situation, and responds accordingly, either by buttoning up or continuing to shoot from the lip.

  10. <i>In the late 1990s, the Sydney University Christian group… <i>

    ahemm…that’s “Evangelical Union” thank you, not “Christian Group”.
    As a former student of the SUEU constitution, I can tell you it’s an important distinction.

    Great post.

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