What the guru learned

It’s amazing how easily one becomes a guru these days. Just do the following: a) get together with an old friend and write down a few basic and hardly earth-shattering thoughts about the nature of church life and ministry; b) publish these ideas as a book and wait for it to become a surprise international bestseller; c) travel around the US, running workshops for pastors and astounding people with your insight and wisdom (as you talk further about aforesaid non-earth-shattering ideas).

That’s pretty much how it worked for me. On the back of the amazing success of The Trellis and the Vine, Col Marshall and I went over to the States late last year to run a series of workshops for pastors and leaders in Phoenix, Chicago, Washington and Minneapolis. It was, I have to say, enormous fun being a guru, at least for the first 30 minutes of each workshop. After that, people quickly realized we weren’t gurus, not only because of our manifest incompetence with PowerPoint, but because we assured them (and showed them) that we were two very ordinary Christian ministers, struggling to work out and apply these principles ourselves.

The really enjoyable aspect of the workshops was the conversations with pastors and leaders about how to build ministry around people rather than programs. We talked and probed and shared ideas, and asked and answered questions. The whole experience was immensely encouraging and stimulating, and helped me clarify what I thought about a whole range of ‘trellis and vine’ issues.

Here is a somewhat random list of seven things I now see much more clearly.

1. There are two kinds of trellis

There is a certain power in the simplicity of the ‘trellis and vine’ metaphor. The vine is the growing organism of church life—the people of God, who grow in Christ through the ministry of the word and Spirit. The trellis is the necessary though secondary support structure that helps the vine grow. The message of The Trellis and the Vine is fairly simple: don’t pour all your time into ministry structures and infrastructure (the trellis), and thus fail to work with individual people to see them grow and flourish in Christ (and so themselves become vine-workers who labour to help others grow in Christ).

However, Col has now taught me that there are two distinct types of trellis: management trellises and ministry trellises. Management trellises are the administrative structures and facilities that help to facilitate ministry; things like the church finance committee, the building/s we meet in, the parish council or deacons meeting, the denominational rules and costs, and so on.

Ministry trellises are events, programs or activities that are designed as occasions for ‘vine work’. Examples of ministry trellises might be the Sunday service, a mid-week Bible study group, a women’s outreach event, a Saturday morning training seminar, a one-to-one meeting, and so on.

Both sorts of trellis are important, but they facilitate vine work in different ways, and they get in the way of vine work in different ways. Management trellises can inhibit vine work when they simply take up more time, energy and resources than necessary. Ministry trellises typically get in the way of vine work when they take on a life of their own, and no longer serve the (often good) purpose for which they were set up—the classic church program that continues to run year after year without any longer being a successful vehicle for word ministry. And then maintaining and organizing and trouble-shooting the ailing trellis takes up more of everyone’s time.

In general, you want the minimum number of trellises necessary to foster and support the growth of the vine. One of the exercises we tried in our workshops was to see if everything in our congregational ministries could be hung upon three simple ministry trellises:

  1. the main Sunday gathering
  2. the pastor’s training team (where co-workers and leaders are trained)
  3. small groups.

Is there any fruitful ministry you are currently doing, or would like to do, that could be implemented via one of these simple trellises?

2. What is a small group?

Small home groups or cell groups are a type of ministry trellis that has become very widespread in the past 40 years or so. But that’s all small groups are—just a simple structure within which some vine work can take place. You don’t have to have small groups—they are not divinely mandated. But neither are they inherently suspect or dangerous, as some seem to think these days. They are just a structure that can be fruitful and useful, or useless and dangerous, depending on how they’re done.

As we talked about small groups in the workshops—and we did so quite a bit—it occurred to me that the small group trellis is not defined by its size, its location, its frequency, or any of the other details of its structure. These are incidental, and variable. Small groups are primarily a span of pastoral care and growth. The rationale of the small group is for its members to be trained and nurtured as vine-workers, who seek each other’s growth through the Bible and prayer, and the conversion and growth of others outside the group by the same means.

This is why small group leaders are so important. They are mini-pastors—small ‘p’ pastors—whose job is to teach and train a band of brothers and sisters under their care. They do this in the same way that all vine work proceeds: by prayerfully teaching the Bible (in this case by leading Bible discussions), and individually working with each person to see them grow.

As we talked about small groups, it became apparent that the way your church ‘does’ small groups says a great deal about your ministry philosophy; that is, whether you treat groups simply as a structure to park people in, or as a theatre for disciple-making and training—which leads to the next point.

3. Hardly anybody trains and supports small group leaders well

The almost universal message from our interaction with pastors in the US was that small group leadership training in most churches is vastly inadequate, and we shared with them that this was very common in our experience in Australia as well.

Col shared his vision of what small group leadership training could and should look like—working closely with a group of potential leaders over some months; having them in your home; teaching them the Bible, and training them in the practical skills of leading a Bible discussion; getting to know them personally, and praying for their growth in godly character and conviction. And, after they start leading a group, continuing to meet with your leaders monthly in your lounge room to keep on training them in the Bible, to hear how their groups are going, to troubleshoot, and to pray together.

This is slow, intensive work, but it is indispensable if we are going to entrust eight or ten people to the care of a group leader, and expect that the result will be fruitful vine work.

4. Top down and bottom up

It occurred to me several times during the workshops in different cities that part of what was fresh and invigorating for our American friends was the idea that ministry should be both ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’. That is, many pastors we spoke to ministered in congregations where the ‘top down’ ministry was godly, biblical and effective. The preaching was good; the elders were godly; the church meetings ran well; and there were lots of effective staff-run structures and programs for people to be involved in.

But in terms of grass roots disciple-making among the people and by the people—whether one-to-one ministry or training people in follow-up or evangelism—very little was happening. Many churches reported being quite pastor-centric or staff-centric. The staff put things on, and the people participated, and that’s the way things ran.

Now critiques of this sort of ‘top down’, structured church are very common today, especially in the States. The ‘emergent church’ style of critique is that leadership, organization, authority and structure = bad; whereas grassroots, home-based, organic, unstructured = good.

Our workshop participants were relieved and excited to hear that this was not our critique. They were gripped by the idea that ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’ were both necessary, and that it was possible to do both in an integrated, coherent way. Public and private ministry should work together, and reinforce each other.  Both are occasions for disciple-making.

5. Small and large

Following on from the previous point, the conversations we had in the workshops helped me to see more clearly that the ‘trellis and vine’ vision is not a prescription for a small church. We aren’t forced to make a choice between a small church that focuses on people, and a large church that is all ‘trellis’. All churches, both small and large, need a ‘top down’ structure and organization appropriate to their size, as well as a focus on each individual person and their growth.

Developing and maintaining that focus on the growth of each person as a disciple-making disciple is really hard work—regardless of the size of your church. If you are small, then there are fewer people to handle the trellis work that needs doing, and ‘people work’ is often squeezed out for lack of time and resources. If you are larger, there are more people and resources available, but also a greater need for good systems and management. As the system grows in size and complexity (and it must), it takes great discipline to retain a focus on people, on individuals, and on training each one in godliness and ministry.

But it is possible.

No, scratch that. It is imperative.

6. Hardly anyone follows up newcomers personally

One of the diagnostic questions we asked in the workshops was: What happens to your newcomers after they turn up on Sunday?

The answers were revealing. Many churches had well-organized welcome desks and information packets for their newcomers. Many sent a letter within the first week after the visit, inviting the newcomer to some form of newcomer event. Some made a phone call. A very small minority visited newcomers in their homes.

However, no-one in any of our workshops admitted to having a culture of intentionally following up each newcomer personally through ongoing visits and phone calls—either by a member of staff or a trained lay person. We raised the possibility of a church culture in which each newcomer was ‘gold’; where newcomers were followed up personally so they had every opportunity to hear the gospel, to read the Bible with someone, to become part of the congregation.

When we shared that this was our standard practice at St Matthias during the 80s and 90s, the question that came back was: “How on earth did you have the time to do that as pastors?” The answer was twofold: this is what it means to focus on people rather than programs—we not only had to run fewer staff-driven programs (so that we could do this people work), but we had train other godly congregation members to do it alongside us so that we could together minister personally to as many as possible.

7. Each person is precious

I was reminded during our workshops of the preciousness of each person before God—every single person in our congregations; every single visitor or newcomer; every single neighbour or friend or colleague.

Every single one is a precious creation of God. And every single one is at a different point in his or her relationship with God. Some are a long way away. Some are close to entering the kingdom. Others are new to the faith. Others are struggling in their faith in a multitude of different ways. Others are at different stages of growth and maturity.

In one sense, each of these individuals needs the same thing—the word of God, prayerfully spoken. But each one is at a different point, and will have different issues and problems, different obstacles and sins, different life challenges, different abilities, different ministry opportunities.

If we are going to love each precious person, then we have to find ways of discipling each one personally and individually—getting close to them, finding out what is really going on in their lives, where they are up to in their relationship with God, what word they need to hear next, what training they need next, what ministries they could take up next.

This applies every bit as much to our pagan friend as to the established believer in his mid-fifties who is beginning to stagnate and fall in love with the world again. It applies equally to our members and to our newcomers and visitors.

The challenge is to love each one of these valuable individuals with the kind of love Paul had for the Thessalonians, being gentle with them like a mother taking care of her children, exhorting and encouraging each one like a father with his children (1 Thess 2:7, 11-12).

How are we ever going to make this possible? We need to do (at least) two things. We need to pray that God would enlarge our hearts with love for people, and that the growth in Christ of each one would mean more to us than any other success. And we need to train and mobilize an army of personal ministers or disciple-makers.

Or as we gurus like to call them: vinegrowers.

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