A course is a course, of course

There are two ways to change a culture, as Tony Payne said in last December’s Briefing. You can run as many people as possible through your programs and courses and hope for the best. Or, you can work individually and with small pockets of people to change the culture. The latter is slow and sometimes inefficient, but it tends to be the surest way to see a lasting difference in attitudes and direction.

So, do you want to change the culture of your congregation or small group (or your own!)? Rather than creating sheer ministry consumers, do you want a group of people with their hearts and minds turned towards personal encouragement? Do you want more people reading the Bible with each other? Do you want more people really welcoming that newcomer?

The answer is simple. Run a course. After all, these transformations are some of the key objectives of the Six Steps to Encouragement course.

“Wait a minute!” I hear you say. “Aren’t you the guys who published The Trellis and the Vine? Didn’t you spend most of that book convincing me that church is not about courses and programs? Didn’t I hear at one of those workshops that the key is not to put people through more stuff? In fact, it’s written right here on page 18.”

“Ah, but you’ve forgotten about page 163. It says to run some training courses.”

Now, prooftexting from The Trellis and the Vine is not a wise way to build an argument. Instead, let me explain the difference between running Six Steps to Encouragement and training with Six Steps to Encouragement. Or, to put it another way, the difference between a trellis way of running a course and a vine way of running a course.

Perhaps a personal story will illustrate. I was young and in full-time ministry, ready to take on the world and excited to change my church’s culture. As an avid supporter of Matthias Media, I could not wait until the brand new Six Steps to Encouragement showed up at the church. After all, the course had components of Bible study and practical training, just the things to get our people changed. (Mind you, it took three weeks to get it from Sydney to America, as I hadn’t yet started Matthias Media in the US.)

Fast forward six weeks, and the course was finished. I had to cut a few corners to fit it into the time available, and to allow for a larger class. I also didn’t really push the participants hard on the homework—getting people to read the Bible together. In fact, I didn’t follow through on my own homework. But I ran the course and they were trained. They now had great biblical and practical insight to flesh out the course motto—God’s word changes us; through us, it can change others too. I was then off to teach Romans.

A year later, as I evaluated where our church was at, I realized we were still the same as before, and that our culture hadn’t changed. Our people still needed growth in the same areas. “It must have been the course,” I thought. I then was off to find the next big thing in ministry resources.

That, my friends, is a trellis way to run a course: a six-week whirlwind of lessons, then on to the next thing.

A few years later, I ran the course again. By this time, I had been pushed to rethink ministry by Phillip Jensen (his talks on ministry), Colin Marshall (Growth Groups), Tony Payne (Preparing Just for Starters) and Peter Bolt (Mission Minded). I had a completely different outlook on what I was trying to do.

Firstly, I realized it is just a course—mind you, an excellent one. The course itself cannot and will never train up people and change a culture. What is required is a leader who understands that the point of the group is the people and their maturity as Christians.

Secondly, with this group, I really pushed hard on the homework, the one-to-one Bible reading. If God’s word changes us, then we need to be in God’s word more than just during class. I even volunteered to meet with some of the people to be their homework mate. By the end of the course, I had read or was reading the Bible with most of the participants. (This required me to keep the group’s size to a minimum.)

Thirdly, we took the long view approach. Yes, we took longer than the six weeks to finish up the course—pausing and discussing important issues, raising other ones, practicing our welcoming, etc. But it was more than just taking extra time on the course. We set goals for the whole year. We promised to read the Bible with someone else after the class was finished. We really put our minds to acting on the ideas and suggestions. So, even when the course was finished, it still fuelled our conversations. We even revisited a few lessons later that year.

The vine way to run Six Steps to Encouragement is, in a way, simple. It is to focus on the people while running the course. Knowing where they are up to, where the roadblocks are and, most importantly, keeping them in God’s word.

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