The dreaded ‘T’ word: training

This article is an edited transcript of a talk given by Phil Colgan at the 2014 Nexus conference in Sydney, written up and edited by Sam Freney. Personal references throughout are therefore applicable to Phil, not Sam.


In my part of the world, many in our churches have been part of university Christian groups, and have experienced the model of ministry training taking place there.

Although it varies from campus to campus, this generally involves large public meetings, evangelistic events, training in personal evangelism, reading the Bible one-to-one, and quite possibly some sort of trajectory towards a ministry apprenticeship—certainly conversations about the possibility of full-time vocational ministry. This style of ministry training has produced a reaction I hear time and time again from those ministering in local churches: that it’s great for university ministry, or if you’ve got a big evening congregation full of university students, but it simply doesn’t work in the local church. Often people say something along the lines of, “Yes, I believe all that stuff about our ministry DNA in The Trellis and the Vine.1 but we need something else because it hasn’t worked in the parish”.

The implication is that the model may be fine for someone in a large university ministry where there are lots of people with available time, at a malleable stage of life, who can be gathered easily without distractions, slotted into the training structures (Bible talks, small groups, etc.), invited along to training courses and one-to-one ministry along with what seems like thousands of ministry trainees… but it’s different out there in the local church. People are time-poor, especially in morning congregations (typically people above the age of 35). They’re set in their ways, already formed; it’s difficult enough getting them to church two weeks out of four, let alone into a small group and then running training for them.

Perhaps you resonate with this assessment—that what we learned in university ministry where we focused on one-to-one discipleship and running Two Ways to Live courses was great, and it still is for that type of ministry, but we need something different for church ministry.

I don’t agree

I agree with the problem, but I don’t agree that the model doesn’t work.

I have two brief responses to make. Foundational to the rest of what I’m about to say is Peter Orr’s argument in Briefing #313 in his article on ‘The work of the Lord’: that because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, every Christian is to devote themselves to work that has specific Christ-centred content, with the aim of advancing the gospel and building Christians up in the Lord. It’s an extremely important argument to make, but here I’m just going to presume you agree with it.

Firstly, what do ‘it works’ and ‘it doesn’t work’ mean? By way of an answer, I have just one passage to point you to: 1 Corinthians 3. Some of us plant, others water, but it’s God who brings the growth. We work hard in the Lord’s field, but any success comes from him, not us. I’ve seen a shift happen over the last ten or fifteen years, and I wonder if many of us are, often, effectively Arminians. We don’t intend to be, and we preach to others that it’s the Lord who brings the growth, that we’re called to be faithful. We preach it to despondent missionaries. We say to our parishioners, “You’re striving in your workplace to witness to Christ, and you’re not seeing much fruit, but you might just be the one who’s planted the seed…” To ourselves, on the other hand, we say, “I’m working hard, but I’m not seeing much fruit. I must be doing something wrong.”

It’s right to question and critique ourselves. But we need to do it in the context of 1 Corinthians 3. It might be that you’re being the faithful servant that God intends you to be, but God does not choose to bless that work at this particular time. Not seeing fruit may be an indicator of unfaithfulness, but it also may simply be that God is choosing to do otherwise than your intentions.

Secondly, ‘training’ doesn’t work if we just transplant directly from one context into another—which is exactly what my peers and I have often tried to do.

The key is really believing that training is for a life of godliness and service, not skill development. Training is equipping people for serving God and the church, and for godliness in everything. If we see training as something we add to pastoral care, teaching, or anything else we do as a church, we’ve missed the point. Training is not an optional extra.

Ends, means and tools

If training is about a whole life and not just a program transplant, how do we think about achieving this in our churches? I should point out at this point that I’m no expert—just someone convinced that this is the biblical model of ministry and trying to put it into practice.

We and our leaders need to have a clear understanding of our goal in ministry (we often don’t). We need to distinguish between the means, the ends and the tools.

We often confuse the means and the ends. That is, we think that having people in small groups is an end, in and of itself. We think that running a training course or having people meet one-to-one are ends. They’re not: they’re means to an end, and they’re negotiable, not required. We need to remind others and ourselves constantly that we do not exist in order to run groups. We do not exist to run training courses. We exist to grow disciples. We exist to see people presented perfect in Christ (Col 1:28). Whenever we talk with our leaders, we need to give clarity about the ends we’re aiming for. That’s where Peter Orr’s article is so helpful, because this is the focus: doing the work of the Lord to advance the gospel of Jesus and build believers up in him.

I drum three passages constantly into the leadership of our church: Colossians 1:28, Ephesians 4 and Matthew 28.  We need to be clear, and our leaders need to be clear, that our main goal is making disciples and presenting them as perfect, mature and holy before our Lord Jesus Christ. What we’re after is seeing people stand there with Jesus Christ on the last day, declaring that he is their Lord and Saviour, and that that they are found in him.

That is the ‘end’ of our ministry. Everything else is a means to that end, and is therefore negotiable.

The tools are the means of grace: the Word of God, prayer and fellowship. There’s nothing new about this; they don’t change, they don’t get added to. The context in which they come, however, is totally free to change.

Instilling a culture

How do we make this our church’s culture? This is how we have tried. Again, we’re not perfect, and we haven’t done this perfectly, but I hope it will be instructive all the same.

The air war

The first thing is what I call the ‘air war’. This is setting the culture—which is far more important than setting the program. For what we often do is say, “We want evangelism to happen”, so we get 100 people (or ten people) and we run an evangelistic course with them. What happens? Not a single one of them uses it. Why? Because all we’ve done is give them a means, without helping them understand the end.

Communicating our key goal to all is essential. This will impact our preaching: if our preaching has the end goal of helping someone become a better accountant or school teacher, we will not achieve this aim. ‘Six points on being a better person in the workplace’ preaching won’t do this.

What we need is preaching that gives people a gospel-shaped and gospel-sized vision for the world, and therefore for their life. I don’t care whether they end up in full-time ministry or work as a plumber, because when people are captured by the gospel and that incredible vision for the world—of Christ coming and ruling all of creation at the end of time because he has given his life for it, redeemed it, and risen from the dead—this leads them to desire training for a lifetime of service and godliness. Running the course doesn’t lead to a change of heart: Christ-shaped and Christ-sized preaching of the gospel does.

We need proclamation of God’s word that teaches people the end that God desires for them. It’s not that they be a faithful accountant. The end that God desires for them is that they would glorify Christ by doing the work of the Lord in the setting in which he has placed them. Part of that is being a godly accountant (if you’re an accountant; it’s not if you’re a school teacher).

When we have preaching like that, that we will see people wanting to be trained and equipped. It’s normal for Christians to be trained and equipped in godliness. It’s not an ‘extra’. There aren’t Christians and trained Christians. There are just Christians, who are trained and equipped to speak the word of truth in love so they can build the body of Christ, edify the saints, and proclaim Jesus to a world that is in desperate need of him.

That’s the air war.

The ground war

Then there’s the ‘ground war’, which is providing the means through which people can be equipped and trained. The problem we often have is that we assume many of our means are non-negotiable. Instead of starting with the means—or ‘structures’, if you want another word for it—we’ve got to begin with the people in front of us. There’s no use acting like you’re running a large university ministry if you’re not. One of the members of my staff team runs a small church with about 45 adults and what feels like 3,000 children. There’s no use this man planting a university ministry structure down on top of those people. He’s got to look at the people he’s serving and where they’re at. Then he can consider the means he can use to move his people forward. That’s then the time for creating structures to do that—or, more commonly, to redeem non-functioning structures to achieve that end.

We say, “We need more training”. What do we often do? Well, bigger churches get another staff member and give him the ‘training’ portfolio. In smaller churches, we add one or two training courses to our existing programs, and the keen beans come along. We act like it’s in addition to our other activities. I think both of these strategies misunderstand training as something that gets added to the Christian life.

Instead, we need to seek an integrated culture in our churches where everything we do moves people along. If we imagine a continuum of training and equipping in godliness and service, from non-Christian to new believer through to mature and fully equipped Christian, then we want to help people along that continuum for a lifetime, whether their context is a bakery, professional firm, school or church.

The worst thing about our churches

This brings me to the vexing issue of small groups.

I have come to the view that in many churches our small groups are actually the greatest hindrance to training people for godliness and service. They are the worst thing about our churches.

(I tend to speak in hyperbole.)

I’ll tell you why. In most of our churches we tend to park people in small groups to keep them Christian. We absolve ourselves of our pastoral responsibility, and ensure that they have no time to be trained. Yes, people get Bible, prayer and fellowship, and that’s never a bad thing—that’s where I’m exaggerating about small groups being the worst thing—and yes, it connects them to church for good reasons. But there is no intentionality about these groups.

I wonder if, for our time-poor family congregations in particular, small groups are the greatest hindrance to really growing disciples and growing a disciple-making culture. But I also wonder if we can redeem them, because they have the potential to be the true training engines of our churches.

Here’s the process we’re working through in the congregations at my church. We want to give the vision to small group leaders in our church that their role is not to run a good Bible study. Their role is to fulfil Colossians 1:28 with the group of people under their care: “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ”.

Their goal is not to run a good group or good Bible study, because those are just means to an end; their goal is to help each individual mature. That is, their goal is to train every group member to be further along that lifetime-of-training line than when they first started in the group.

We need to help our leaders see that they are not first and foremost the leader of a small group. That’s not what I am—I am a pastor-teacher. I am responsible for a group of individuals whom I want to see, individually and collectively, presented perfect in Christ. That’s what they are too.

If a leader thinks that way, they stop worrying so much about how they run a Bible study where everyone feels better at the end of a Wednesday night, and they start prayerfully considering each member of the group, wondering where they need to grow. Notice how different that is to “What program should I impose on this group of individuals?” It leads to a whole collection of related questions:

Do they need to grow in personal Bible reading and prayer? Do they need someone to help them with it?

  • Do they need instruction in doctrine?
  • Do they need help in godliness in the workplace?
  • Where do they need correction, admonishment?

Given the group of individuals under their care, and the answers to these questions, leaders can then work out how to adjust the teaching time and the group program to achieve this.

My job as a leader is not to run Bible studies on Romans—although that is generally the tool I’ll use. My job is to work out how to run the group to help participants mature—and, often more importantly, to work out what needs to happen outside the group time with each person. When leaders are clear on what the ends are, they’re free to shape the means to the specific people under their care. They have the same tools, for they never change—the Word, prayer and fellowship—but they are applied intentionally to growing and training and equipping individuals.

It hasn’t led to a massive revolution, but our groups are making some changes to serve the needs of their people better. For example, some groups use a different Bible reading technique every week for Bible study, such as the Swedish method. They then suggest that group members go and use that method in their own Bible reading times, then talk about how it’s going. This means that not only are the group members studying Romans; they’re also learning how to read the Bible for themselves. Other groups, who are in the midst of family life, have decided that everyone has to choose something they’ve learned in the group to share with their son, daughter or wife.

What we’ve learned is that small group leadership is a much bigger job than just running a study and praying for people, which is how we thought in the past. You can’t just ask your small group leaders to do it: you need to train them. And you have to make it possible. We realized we needed to make groups smaller, because it’s not realistic to mature twelve people. We needed to work at having teams of leaders, and working with them. We’ve found very helpful for investing in our leaders: we can send people a link to, for example, the Daily Reading Bible notes and so give them a resource for training someone else in reading their Bible.

This process of changing the model of what it means to be a small group leader has been enormously helpful for us. We haven’t done it perfectly, but we’ve been working to change the culture towards being intentional in training. But hear me correctly: I’m not saying go and do just that with your church. I’m saying apply the principles to the people you have. It might be that you think that your church ought to drop small groups altogether, and each person should meet with one other Christian one-to-one. That might be the best thing to do with your congregation of 40 people.

Whatever the case, we need to do more than simply take a known structure of training, thinking it’s an addition to the other programs we run, and plonk it down on our existing church. To build the church up to be mature and unswayed by falsehood we need to work with the people God has given us, and equip them in the best way we can for a lifetime of service and godliness.

  1. C Marshall and T Payne, The Trellis and the Vine, Matthias Media, Sydney, 2009.

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