Thoughts on life in a church without students

Chris Green has helpfully written about what it means to lead churches in non-student settings. He notes that many church leaders became Christians at University or were  discipled there and the risk then is that we can end up trying to replicate student/graduate church models into other churches. He lists a whole set of reasons why this doesn’t work and the challenges of this.

I thought I’d jot down a couple of thoughts here from my own experience.[1]  As always of course just a particular perspective, I’m not claiming we’ve got everything anywhere sorted.

  1. It’s fascinating that we almost think of this as the norm. That’s partly because there has been a lot of positive Gospel growth among churches in student areas and that quite a few of those churches are generous, kingdom minded churches who have a concern to see new churches planted and struggling churches revitalised. We need to keep celebrating this. It is a genuine positive. However, we can end up thinking as though that is the norm. Yet, churches and most of the places where we need to plant churches are not going to be in student areas. We need to remember that student churches are not the normal church experience.
  2. I am maybe a little different from some of the people Chris is talking to.  I became a Christian as a child and then worked in industry for ten years after University. This means that the majority of my experience of Christian discipleship was outside of the University context.  Here goes…. I think that a related challenge is that we too often think purely in terms of equipping and multiply Gospel workers. So we end up just looking out for those people who we think are going to be preachers, pastors, missionaries and women’s workers. There are a few dangers with that. First of all, University can be a very artificial context.  So leaping in to make prophecies about someone’s future life in that context is risky -especially when you know so little about their longer term history.  Secondly, it risks creating a distorted message to those that we don’t think of as potential pastors, missionaries or women’s workers and also for those who don’t see their own life going that way.  Linked to that is for those of us in non-student areas, we can still have a narrow view on life and send out the message that going away to University is the only truly acceptable pathway through life. What if we kept thinking in terms of our responsibility to see every member of the body equipped to be fruitful in all of life?[2]
  3. There is something to be said for life experience. I’m glad that I had 10 years in industry and also 10 years where I was treated as a member of the church, like every other member. I was being encouraged to discover and use my gifts, I was being encouraged to grow in Christ. I am inclined in most cases to encourage students and graduates who are thinking about future pastoral ministry to do that. Go get a job, become a member of a church near where you live. Grow as part of the body there.  I’m just not convinced that “Student-Apprentice-Theological Training-Assistantship-Pastor is the best way to prepare.
  4. We should be spotting potential deacons, elders, missionaries, preachers, pastors from all walks of life not just those who have been or will go through a University education. This also means that we may need to think carefully about how we then train people (a little hobby horse of mine, I know). I find it ironic that when I worked in an Engineering environment, apprenticeships were a way of working, training and gaining relevant qualifications as an alternative but equally demanding and valued option to academic campus based learning not a stepping stone towards it.  One of my greatest joys in that workplace was working with apprentices. One of my greatest joys here has been working with and training our Nueva Vida church planter who has never been to University but has clear gifts in evangelism and teaching God’s word.
  5. Chris raises the challenge about preaching to a wide variety of people with different levels of literacy etc.  Here’s a couple of quick thoughts. First of all, never underestimate the capacity of people to engage deeply with Scripture. Some people may have even been persuaded by the unkind words of others and their own frustrations that they cannot. Yet God’s Spirit and God’s Word are powerful – we don’t need to dumb down. Secondly, what we might need to do is to trim out some of the unnecessary clutter. Hearers as well as preachers need to be ready for this. What I mean by this is that too often we want to be entertained and to entertain with learning. I might want to show off my knowledge of Greek and Hebrew language, ancient history etc. and some people may tell me that they like finding out this type of information. However, if it isn’t necessary to the congregations understanding of God’s Word nor to the application then I need a very good reason to leave it in.
  6. When we give examples, do we name check and talk about scenarios that are primarily study or office based? Or do we name check a whole variety of work and life contexts, use examples and make applications relevant to them?
  7. I too often think of gifts and service in terms of positions on the rota to fill. I can then become very frustrated, especially because the most difficult positions to fill are mid-week day time ministries. When that happens, I can become frustrated, critical and cynical. So I’m learning increasingly to start not from “this position needs to be filled” but rather from to see what gifts people have and how they can be encouraged to use them for God’s glory. Often when we have that perspective we discover that there’s a lot more “every-member ministry” happening than we assumed.
  8. Chris rightly picks up on the point that we are working with people who want to grow in their faith but are now busy with work life and so time is at a premium.  Here are some ways that we are trying to encourage, support and equip people.

–          This site faithroots.net was set up as an online teaching and training hub that people could dip into. We then have started offering “faithroots” live sessions to start training leaders and potential planters.  I work on the basis that we plan when we meet around when people are available.  We do have a few people who are currently not working during the day for various reasons and so a Monday afternoon has worked for them. I’m currently looking at running 3 or 4 Saturday sessions throughout the year.

–          We don’t have any formal “apprentices” with us at the moment though internships are offered.  However, we do take time to train people in preaching, teaching and pastoral care. A lot of this is through 1-1 coaching.

–          We are currently re-thinking how we portray Home Groups.  If you arrive home from a long working day and your mindset is “another meeting to go to” then that isn’t very attractive. We are encouraging people to think of these groups not as meetings but as about being linked with others for encouragement, prayer, accountability etc.

–          From next month, we are trying something new. We now have 3 or 4 men who are self-employed. They do not have a straight forward 9-5 routine.  Last week, we simply looked at our diaries together and said “were all free in a couple of weeks time on Friday. Let’s meet in the morning to encourage each other and pray together.” We’ll look at our diaries again when we meet.

  1. When it does come to training leaders and pastors, there’s an additional factor for independent churches. The finance isn’t always there to pay for additional staff, especially when you are not in money rich communities. Groupings like the FIEC are getting much better at pooling training budgets. This might be something that other Independent church groupings can learn from.

I hope some of this is helpful to others. Go and have a look at Chris’ article if you haven’t yet for a lot more helpful ideas.

[1] These are not necessarily in a logical order.

[2] NB Chris Green is someone who has majored on this point.

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