Stepping down from The Vision 100 Network chairman role: reflecting back on twenty years

I have told The Vision 100 Network, Tasmanian church planting network, of my intention to step down as chairman and committee member at the end of this year, having served as chairman for eight years, and being a founding member and continuous member of the committee for almost twenty years, since 2001. This was partly about making space for me personally, but also allowing for some ‘refreshing of the board’, including the chairman position.

This is a significant moment for me personally. The story of The Vision 100 Network has spanned most of my adult life, Christian life and Christian ministry. It’s been a point of continuity through all of that and so it’s huge for me. I wanted to take some time to reflect on this experience. This is not intended as a general history of The Vision 100 Network, so much as personal reflections on my involvement and what it has meant to me.

In a sense, The Vision 100 Network has been about preserving the legacy and ensuring the impact of an extraordinary work of God in Hobart in the late 1990s, when dozens and dozens of people came to faith in Christ through the vigorous gospel preaching of David Jones and Pete Woodcock, through the patient evangelistic Bible studies led by Jo Kelder and through methodical Bible studies organised and led by Phil Dowe. The wonderful thing is that this explosion of new spiritual life wasn’t scattered, but was preserved and propagated through planting new churches and renewing existing churches and the appointment of new leaders. As a result, the Tasmanian church scene, especially among Presbyterian and Reformed churches, was dramatically renewed and energised to serve God and reach the lost in the early twenty-first century.

The Vision 100 Network as a fellowship and an organisation highlighted and championed and celebrated and resourced evangelism, church planting, preaching, deep theology, contextualisation, entrepreneurialism and inter-church fellowship (both across the State as well as across the country). This network helped facilitate the influence of MTS, Geneva, theological colleges, AFES and City Bible Forum in the State and gave birth to the New Front Door church IT ministry. By God’s grace, leaders have been raised up, not just for Tasmania but also some significant leaders for churches, parachurches and missionary societies in South Australia, Victoria, the Northern Territory and beyond.

We dreamed and prayed for one hundred new churches in Tasmania and the establishment of a church planting centre to resource and support this. Instead, the network has grown from three churches to around twenty churches, of which nine churches are new church plants. It has been a lot slower than we dreamed and a lot harder than we thought. There were a lot of failures, false starts and struggles. We faced the frustrating reality that the thriving, church-planting church was an exception and not the rule. Likewise, we realised that the MTS training process does not guarantee that every future leader will necessarily be an entrepreneurial church-planting leader. We have had to adjust expectations of what normal looks like, and then work towards that wisely and steadily and patiently. We have experienced, as every denomination and network does, conflict, incompetence, apostasy, neglect, false teaching, resistance to change and burnout.

However, the work that has taken place has been good work and enduring work, too. There is a stable, healthy network of churches and parachurches working together in Tasmania. As I said above, The Vision 100 Network as a fellowship and an organisation highlights and champions and celebrates and resources evangelism, church planting, preaching, deep theology, contextualisation, entrepreneurialism and inter-church fellowship (both across the State as well as across the country).

Nikki and I have been a point of continuity for this work across that whole stretch of the last twenty years. And especially as our peers began to go off to theological college in Sydney, we deliberately stayed behind as a point of continuity for the local work. That was an especially hard and lonely time. It was a time where some necessary reflection and establishing was needed, especially for the ministries around Crossroads Presbyterian Church, to help a young and volatile and flawed movement mature and stabilise. This itself was difficult and emotionally challenging. But we were also working through this as the momentum of those early years began to slow down. So yeah, it was a tough season for us. Really tough. But through that season we built structures and began to learn how to lead an organisation and a network.

In the last ten years, the ‘theological college exiles’ have returned to Tassie and found their feet again as long-term leaders of churches and parachurches—as well as contributors to their denominations. This was also a time when significant founding leaders and mentors—Brian Vaatstra and then David Jones—left the State. During this time we went through the process of seeking to learn the lessons of a decade of church planting efforts. There was need for shutting things down, refreshing things and rebuilding some of the mother churches. Again, this was hard and slow. And when a network learns lessons, that never happens in an instant, but we were still repeating some of the early mistakes, even as we slowly moving to a better approach. Cultural change has a long tail.

This last ten years has also been the time when we built up the Event Manager position first with Rachel Johnstone and then Lyndal Jolly, Jake Tuit and now Jess Prins filling that position. This role is crucial to the strength of The Vision 100 Network in the necessary events, communication and administration. Also in the last ten years, Nikki and I were involved in the founding of the national Geneva Push church planting ministry, which was such a wonderful blessing in providing for us and other networks around the country the kind of assessment, coaching and support we could never effectively provide as a small local network.

All of this has been huge and hard and slow. There has been lots of moments of pain, disappointment, frustration. There have also been heaps of encouragements, successes and delights. It has all largely been attempted while been significantly under-resourced, scrambling to make things happen on pocket change after some initial start-up money from the early 2000s dried up. It has been hard and slow work on top of family life and my ministry, first at Crossroads and then with AFES. So many conversations, meetings, emails, articles, workshops and sermons! But it has also been totally worth it, in helping establish a healthy, inter-denominational, state-wide fellowship of Christian leadership working together for the cause of the gospel mission.

There’s plenty more to do and I am still part of it, just not in the same role. It’s in good hands. And there’s new generations of leaders coming into the State and being raised up within the network. It’s awesome that it doesn’t all rest on me or any other single personality. That in itself is a sign of success, isn’t it? And although we are nowhere near one hundred new churches yet—Lord, make it so!—it is so fantastic that there are nine more churches in Tasmania and countless more converts and leaders. And God-willing there will be more to look forward to in the coming years.

The Son of Man in the gospels and in the Book of Ezekiel

David Mitchell is a friend and colleague from AFES, who leads the AFES staff team at Curtin Uni in WA. His Masters’ thesis has been published in the Australian College of Theology Monograph Series: The Son of Man in Mark’s Gospel: exploring its possible connections with the Book of Ezekiel.

I got a copy at his Facebook LIVE book launch a few months ago and just got around to reading it. It’s well written, despite its technical nature as a New Testament studies thesis with lots of untranslated Greek and Hebrew and an interest in a range of minor and complicated specifics.

It’s a good stretching read if you want a bit of a theology/exegesis workout. I like giving things like this as reading assignments  to students, trainees and staff who might not be so sharp on this kind of stuff… or who prefer how-to stuff or apologetics stuff (I normally use the silver New Studies in Biblical Theology series books). But doing this is a bit like pouring a bucket of cold water over someone, so it’s always best to find something that is well written. I’m not going to inflict Mark Seifrid or William Dumbrell on them. And David Mitchell does indeed write well, so there’s that!

The thing I most enjoyed about this was the stuff on Ezekiel, towards the end of the book. It was exciting to be shown the obvious: just how much Ezekiel is a vehicle for the LORD by his Spirit to communicate his message to the people. There’s something a bit robo-prophet about Ezekiel, that as this ‘Son of Man’ he is completely constrained by the LORD’s will and word. Through this ‘Son of Man’ the LORD brings his message of judgment and salvation to his people. In  fact, in the prophetic vision  of chapter 37, the ‘Son of Man’ is even an agent of the resurrection of Israel through his prophetic words. The final nine chapters of the Book of Ezekiel are also describing the nature of the end-times temple, drastically different than the Levitical temple, and in this, Ezekiel ‘the Son of Man’ is like a new Moses, laying out the plans.

This got my mind whirring: in the weird, apocalyptic world of exilic prophecy, with cosmic visions that surpass the normal world of land, Davidic king, purified Levitical temple and new exodus… there is also this different, elevated ‘Son of Man’ prophetic role. Also tantalising is the human-like figure in the theophany of the LORD by the Kebar River in Ezekiel chapter 1, and the heavenly Son of Man in Daniel 7 (and Daniel arguably builds on Ezekiel’s prophecy). What does this all mean and how does it fit together? Yeah I dunno exactly… but both the heavenly visions and the fully-possessed-and-directed Son of Man prophet seem to prepare the way for the incarnation, don’t they?

A finally, cool little thought from David is how he suggests that the reason that Son of Man only appears in the Gospels on Jesus’ lips, and doesn’t appear as a title in the rest of the New Testament: he raises the historically plausible suggestion that perhaps it was so idiosyncratically associated with Jesus’ earthly speech that it just didn’t ‘feel right’ or ‘come naturally’ for his followers to use it for themselves. Could be…

Catchy evangelistic advertising slogans aren’t necessarily worth the effort…

Catchy advertising slogans don’t sell rollerblades to an indifferent world. Spending too much time on catchy Christian slogans and special event talk titles is likewise not worth it. No one goes to your conference this year because of the theme… Like ‘Behold! Your God’ or ‘God’s Mission; God’s World’. Yeah. Not a major persuasion point.

Many things that show the beauty of the rollerblading vision of human flourishing slowly do their work, like a mustard seed slowly growing, for example.

There are a bunch of similar things we Christians can do as well, that contribute towards the work of getting a hearing for the gospel. These pre-evangelistic things prepare the way for gospel conversation and proclamation.

Book review: Great book especially for equipping gifted friendship evangelists

I was on Sam Chan’s list of people to read/review/promote his latest book and so Zondervan sent me a copy. It’s great little book, and especially useful for equipping/encouraging/inspiring those who are gifted in or eager to grow in the area of friendship evangelism. It’d also be very useful for ministry leaders wanting to think through what kinds of things they would need to promote and support if they were wanting to foster a culture of evangelism.

Brief and accessible

One of its strengths is its impressive brevity and accessibility: it is 140 pages and filled with Sam’s characteristic humour (me and my fifteen-year-old son laughed out loud at his outline of every sports movie ever :-D). The reason this is impressive is that there is no shortage of deep and complex missiological content in here. Sam introduces, explains, illustrates and applies big ideas—often taken from his 280-page textbook Evangelism in a Skeptical World—without getting overly technical or frustratingly brief.

This makes it great for reading through as a part of a team meeting, 1:1 meeting or easy to just give to another person and recommend that they read it.

I just looked up the price though, and astonishingly, it’s $25+ in Australia (!!). Gosh. That’s a bit rough for 140 pages :-/

And there IS an audiobook version too, which is great… but depressingly, it’s not read by the author, which is an enormous loss. Listening to some robot narrator guy read Sam’s content is almost comically weird!

 

This stuff is what we need to be thinking about in evangelism

Sam is right in arguing that the kinds of things he talks about in this book are especially important for Christians as we seek to be faithful to the great commission in a post-Christian world. Dare I say that these things are MORE important for a ministry like AFES to train uni students in than hours of memorising Two Ways To Live (of which I am a big fan, by the way) and doing walk-up evangelism?

A lot of it is a fresh take on friendship evangelism that in one sense is nothing new… although Sam brings his own new ways of thinking about it and approaching it, that is exciting and refreshing.

But in addition to this, he also brings more awareness of our cultural context and the sociological forces impacting on us all, which make us more savvy and alert friendship evangelists than we otherwise might be. This is what makes it a more missiologically sophisticated book on friendship evangelism than equivalent books from the late twentieth century. There are heaps of juicy insights, that might spark further thoughts and ideas in the reader, like:

  • the difference between how Asian Australian and white Australian non-Christians think about the gospel,
  • the way the primary school has in some ways replaced the church as the ‘village hub’,
  • the different phases of life and the number of friends we have in each phase and
  • the causes for modern urban loneliness.

Being aware of the people we are interacting with and the social context we find ourselves in helps us patiently and carefully and yet confidently go about the work of connecting with people and looking for opportunities to share the gospel.

Of course, it remains the case, once we’ve done all that, the work will still often be as slow as ever. It’s not as if you implement all the insights from this book and suddenly you’ll kickstart a post-Christian revival. Nope. Mission in the post-Christian Western world is still often slow and hard. But this stuff helps you focus your energy in the best way.

 

Frustratingly muted place for the cross

There was something that I found so frustrating that I was almost yelling at the book, the way you yell at the TV screen when the heroine in the movie drops the knife and runs away from the bad guy, before being 100% sure he’s dead: the strangely muted place the atonement plays in the book. The most striking example is the ‘jargon-free gospel message’ Sam provides on pages 73–74:

… There’s a God who loves us, made us, and saved us. And now we get to be part of his story. Every day is a day when I live for Jesus because he lives for me. Every day is a day when I can journey with Jesus and bring his love, mercy, and justice to this planet.

If this is true, then we are set free from our empty and self-absorbed lives. We are set free to admit that everything is not okay right now…. I’m not the person I pretend to be. But that’s okay. Because Jesus is perfect, so I don’t have to pretend to be perfect anymore. Jesus’ Spirit lives in me right now, and he loves me just the way I am.

But Jesus loves me too much to leave me the way I am. Every day is a day when he makes me more and more into the person he wants me to do be. Every day is a day when I can become my fully potential—not through my plan for myself, but through God’s plan for me. Every day is a day when I can be everything God has made me to be.

Wow. You see, if I were going to present a model ‘jargon-free gospel message’ I would celebrate more of what God has done for us in the atonement than simply saying ‘God saved us’ (ironically a jargon word). There is clearly some difference of emphasis going on here, because it was noticeable throughout this book and throughout the much larger Skeptical World book too.

Now, I’m not a highly strung ‘discernment-reader’, playing shibboleth-bingo, just looking for every author to use my key theological buzz words of ‘propitiation’ or ‘penal substitution’ or ‘justification by faith alone’. And I understand and fully agree that there are many aspects of the saving work of Christ and many ways that this can be expressed and that you don’t have to talk about everything in every gospel presentation. I get all that. That’s not my problem.

My problem is I feel like, in order to make these points, Sam relativises and de-centres the work of the atonement as one thing among many. But you can highlight diversity of ways ‘in’ to the gospel, while still preserving the central, unifying importance of the reality of God reconciling us to himself through solving the problem of his just anger against our sin. Just as much as I’d stress ‘tell stories about Jesus’ (ie tell stories from the gospels), I’d want some banner heading about ‘show the wonders of the atonement’ or something. I don’t think that comes across clearly in Sam’s two books on evangelism. Maybe it’s a failure of communication—at least in communicating effectively to this reader. But I wonder if it’s a slightly different of theological emphasis too? After all, Sam is a very thoughtful guy.

 

Can’t put my finger on it… but something about the place of the church?

This is a vaguer thing, but there’s something, and I can’t quite put my finger on it, that seems missing in this book (and Skeptical World) about the place of the church and its leaders and programs. It’s not that the church is absent from Sam’s writing and illustrations and examples. And it’s not that he’s championing independent solo-evangelists, or church-less cohorts of evangelists.

And yet… maybe someone else can help me out here? It’s like the church, its leaders and its programs are the furniture in the background. They’re there. They’re assumed. They’re seen as positive. But they’re not alive and active in Sam’s overall or vision, somehow?

I think John Dickson’s Promoting the Gospel (aka The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission) is a helpful supplement, because John provides a vision for how the church functions in the mission—as a community, an institution and a group of individuals.

And it’s this absence, whatever it is exactly, that stops me from saying: ‘thinking through the stuff Sam presents is all an individual (or ministry leadership) needs to really get thinking about how to do mission effectively in a post-Christian world’. I would want to add something that helps us think through much more how the church needs to organise and structure itself.

 

Pitches itself as a book for ‘everybody’ but primarily is for the gifted

A final quibble. Sam pitches the book as as a book for your ordinary everyday Christian, for those who are not the ‘professional evangelist’. I think he thinks that the values and practices commended in this can be easily absorbed and implemented by all Christians everywhere.

Obviously this opens up the whole ‘is every Christian an evangelist?’ can of worms, to which my answer is ‘yes and no’. That is, I do think every Christian shares together a concern for and responsibility for the cause of world mission. And every Christian should be eager to share the gospel when they have opportunity, and see how they can adjust how they live and speak to facilitate this. So yes, in that sense How to talk about Jesus will be a great help for every Christian in thinking through how they might do that.

And yet I recognise the great diversity among Christians of our gifts, passions and circumstances. There are some of us who are uniquely eager and able to be engaged in the explicit activities of evangelism. Some of us who are set apart professionally or find ourselves in a context where there are more opportunities for evangelism.

And this is as true for those who are professional evangelists set aside for the work of public proclamation as it is for those who develop meaningful relationships with non-Christians and look for opportunities for conversation and invitation among those relationships.

From reading this book, Sam is clearly as remarkable gifted as a friendship evangelist as he is a public evangelist. I don’t read this and think ‘Oh gosh, he’s an ordinary every day guy just like me, I can do what he does’. I think ‘Whoah! he and his family are impressive in their capacity to organise themselves for the purposes of friendship evangelism… as well as all the OTHER things Sam does!’

If this book were to be for everyone, it’d be helpful to have more thinking through what these things look like for those who are not able, for whatever reason, to take on the full package of ‘being the unofficial chaplain’ and having people over for barbecues all the time. What’s the bronze medal version for the more socially awkward person, perhaps with lower social and workload capacity, or with other limiting circumstantial factors in their lives?

But it’s ok. We can all take up bits of ideas and practices and hints and tips that we can use in our context. And many who do have some degree of the gifts and opportunity will take heaps of inspiration from these pages. But I would commend this book with that caveat: this is how to fan into flames the gifts of the friendship evangelist. Not all of us can keep up with this standard, and we don’t need to.

Again, this is where the insights of John Dickson’s Promoting the Gospel are a helpful supplement, in giving a vision for the various other ways that Christians help support both the ‘professional evangelists’ and the gifted ‘friendship evangelists’ in the overall work of mission.

 

Conclusion: well worth it

I have some hesitations. But man, don’t mis-hear me: this is a very valuable and useful resource. Sam’s doing the work in helping evangelicals in the post-Christian world think through this stuff and he’s doing an admirable job, in a way that is gloriously easy to read. Even if he’s not doing it exactly how I’d do it, I’m thankful for the work he is doing for us and so think we need to benefit from all his wisdom and insight.

Is this a good one to read in your ministry teams, parish councils, elderships, AFES student committees, staff meetings, 1:1 meetings in 2021? Yeah for sure.

Some thoughts about why Christian Unions shouldn’t necessarily duplicate everything online

These thoughts are wet cement (aren’t everyone’s thoughts?!)… but here are some things I hope to bring to our University Fellowship of Christians (AFES Christian Union) staff meeting today to consider as UTAS moves towards online learning and Australian society moves increasingly towards social distancing strategies to flatten the curve of the coronavirus.

Many of my colleagues in other Christian Union groups around the country are coming up with impressive and substantial plans to move their ministry online. Praise God for the amazing technological tools we have to facilitate this. But here are some minority report thoughts on CUs, coronavirus and online options:

1) People will get screen fatigue: if they are online for classes and church… at some point they’ll get sick of going online.

 

2) Engagement in online content delivery (as opposed to interactive community) is drastically limited. Don’t put too much emphasis on content delivery.

 

3) Christian Unions are not necessary the way churches are. If all unis were always online, would AFES have been created in the first place? Would it look anything like what our programs (and our new online versions) be what we’d create. We need to think like pioneer missionaries, not mere online program duplicators.

 

4) Those theological colleges who have done a great job already at setting up online learning are better equipped to deliver a powerful online learning experience than we are: perhaps we should push students eager for more training to Ridley or Moore or St Mark’s or wherever…?

 

5) Now is the time to capitalise on our emphasis on every-member-ministry and disciple-making disciples. We don’t need to focus on completely duplicating the influence and role of staff and public meetings

 

6) Beyond our fundamental purpose, we do have a short-term role to love our neighbours in practical, social, emotional and spiritual ways… so we need to ask how we need to evolve short-term to facilitate these good deeds, while not mutating in such a way that we can’t re-focus on our core mission when (God-willing) the health crisis subsides.

 

7) The economy is taking a hit. We need to be thinking support raising now… and Plan Bs if support raising takes a hit.

Mikey Lynch is one of the directors of Geneva Push and regularly sharing his thoughts here on this Christian Reflections blog.

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