After introducing this miniseries, in my last post I talked about some of the factors which the Lord used to awaken me to the reality that God never intended the sermon to carry the weight of the entire work of pastoral ministry. I thoroughly believe that Sunday sermons are wonderful and essential and life-giving and edifying, but in themselves they are insufficient to nourish a healthy local church. In today’s post I’d like to conclude this miniseries by narrowing in on one factor which was particularly powerful in helping me embrace this ministry mind-shift: being connected with Col Marshall, one of the authors of The Trellis and the Vine. I reiterate that the hope of this miniseries is to inspire and motivate you to consider such mind-shift yourself, if you haven’t done so already.
It was a couple years ago that I sent out a little email to every pastor and guy in ministry I knew. I include an excerpt of it here because it communicates well what I was thinking and feeling after about six years of a “sermon is everything” approach to pastoral ministry. And to be honest, this email probably sounds somewhat less desperate than I actually was. But I said:
The reason for this email is to see if any of you could help me… It's becoming increasingly obvious that I cannot continue to pastor our church in the same way I did when I first arrived. I feel sort of like that proverbial guy at the circus who is trying to keep too many plates spinning on tall sticks—after a while something has to change or the plates will begin crashing to the ground…Being that this is my first pastorate, I'm sort of trying to figure this all out as I go and any advice would be greatly appreciated.
Grace and peace.”
Well, one of the guys to whom I sent this email was Marty Sweeney, Grand Poobah of Matthias Ministry USA. I had met Marty at a T4G conference a few years earlier and we had somehow struck up a relationship. Marty emailed me back and said, “There’s this guy named Col Marshall; he runs this pastoral coaching ministry known as Vine Growers . You should contact him and see if he can help.”
Well, looking for anyone who had the time and willingness to help, I sent Col—who was a complete stranger living on the far side of the world—this email explaining my pitiful situation. He quickly wrote back, one thing led to another, and before I knew it, I was an official disciple of one of the authors of The Trellis and the Vine. We’d Skype about once a month, have me complete some situation-specific and rather detailed homework in between meetings, and then we’d discuss my progress at the next month’s meeting.
I suppose what most struck me about my early relationship with Col is how different it turned out to be from what I had expected. Maybe this is an American thing, but I assumed what I most needed at that time were better managerial skills and methods; sort of Stephen Covey stuff: keep a more detailed to-do list, prioritize the important over the urgent, say “no” even if it hurts, etc. Instead Col had me talking about people and disciple-making. “What people in your congregation are already disciple-making disciples? What people could you foresee as potential disciple-makers? Who and how could you give a slight bump toward greater Christlikeness? And so on”. Truth be told, early on I was wondering if Col knew what he was doing and I was wondering what on earth I had gotten myself into.
Well, fast forward nearly two years—two years of sometimes grainy Skype calls at odd hours, occasionally being completely bewildered since Australian English isn’t identical to Yankee, me having to redo certain homework assignments since I’m a sometimes lummox, Col’s occasional gentle rebukes, struggling to move two steps forward but then falling one step back—and today I look at pastoral ministry very differently. It sounds so simple, but for so long I just didn’t get it. But Christian ministry really is all about God’s Word and people. It’s all about speaking God’s Word in love to people, and then equipping those people to speak that same Word in love to others.
How am I fleshing out this different ministry philosophy today? That would require a miniseries of blog posts in itself. But suffice it to say, I’m spending far more time training people to be disciple-making disciples. I meet regularly with a few men for lunch to read the Bible one-to-one and to pray together. I try to open God’s Word whenever I visit someone, say, in the hospital or in their homes. I’m consciously thinking more about how I can train those in my Bible classes to read and understand their Bibles accurately on their own and then share it with others, as opposed to simply dumping out systematic theology content. And perhaps most exciting, I’m training a disciple-making team of 8 individuals, with whom I meet regularly for Bible reading, prayer, and to discuss practical ministry skills, with the goal that in a year or two they’ll be equipped and motivated to go and do likewise. This entire aspect of my ministry has brought a new life and vitality to being a pastor, and frankly, is among the most enjoyable stuff I do.
In conclusion, here are a few questions I’d encourage my brother-pastors to ask themselves. First, how much time do you spend with people compared to in your study? Is it possible that that’s because deep down you’re actually somewhat afraid of living people and feel safer engaging with books? Second, when you look at the New Testament, the examples of Jesus, Peter, Paul, Timothy, so forth, do you see people who were primarily cloistered in their studies or people primarily pouring their lives into others, equipping them to go and do likewise? Third, and this is especially for my American readers, does The Trellis and the Vine vision seem radically different from the status quo of most local church ministry? Does it sound like “just add a few more small groups”? If so, I’d venture to bet that you don’t yet get The Trellis and the Vine. And lastly, is it time for you, brother-pastor, to take the plunge and to make the change from “the sermon is everything” model of ministry to “the sermon is essential but insufficient” model? It might be costly, it will be difficult, it might require you to decrease your time in the study, it will certainly entangle you in some messy relationships, but trust me, it will be worth it. And twenty years from now, I’ll bet you’ll be very glad you made the change.