July 27, 2020

A few wrong ‘uns from Stuart MacGill (response #2 to the Sydney Senior Minister Shortage)


The second innings of the Sydney Anglican Senior Minister drought began on The Pastor’s Heart last week with two Sydney rectors. And they pretty much played a straight bat.

After all, if you’re facing a first innings deficit (I thought in my response to Phillip Jensen’s first outing, I put on a handy lead), you need to play the ones you need to play, and leave the ones you need to leave. No sense in a top order collapse second time around.  The match could be all over by lunch on the second day.

To that end, Sydney Anglican rectors Phil Colgan and Simon Flinders acquitted themselves better in the second innings than Phillip Jensen did in the first.

I liked their tone. They expressed their joy at being called into the task. And they weren’t casting around blame. There were still some gaps in their play, which I reckon a few Stuey MacGill wrong ‘uns might get through.  So here’s a couple of my own hand grenades down the pitch to start the week (with more to come).

1. Anglicanism may no longer be the best boat to fish from

In all the conversation I didn’t hear too  much about The Geneva Push church planting network. Let’s be honest, the first port of call for evangelistically minded young men today may no longer be the local Anglican parish. The gospel zeal might still be among those being trained at the front end of the pipeline, but the pipe is being diverted somewhere in the middle.

The more attractive gospel boat these days may be a green fields suburb where the ground is fallow, but the harvest looks plentiful among those who don’t have as much, or as much access, to a traditional conservative evangelical church.

The Geneva Push has done a great job of pitching an evangelism strategy that is nimble and risky, yet well supported. Perhaps Sydney has trained its future ministers too well.  They’re still looking for a great boat to fish from, except Anglicanism ain’t it! And let’s not forget, theology takes you to theological college, but philosophy of ministry becomes far more important after that, and for many young blokes that philosophy of ministry may no longer be found in Sydney Anglicanism.

I often heard from evangelical Anglicans that while the denomination had its issues, “It was a great boat to fish from”, meaning it was good for evangelism.  Maybe that’s just not how people who are mission minded, and are going into ministry, think any longer.

And that raises the question, if you put all of your eggs in the “boat to fish from” basket, then you are saying that the main point of the local church is to evangelise people. The main point. Even at this stage in the hard secular frame in which people are not bringing their friends to be evangelised at church.

That is not happening at anything like the rate it was either supposed to happen, or at anything like the rate that the Anglican church ministry strategy has historically planned for. Times have changed.

Which of course raises a second matter, but which I think is the primary matter: What is the role of the local church? Surely the local church is primarily for the strengthening and equipping of the saints to do the works of ministry – which includes live their lives well and with meaning in the rest of the week.

Don’t get me wrong, I think church IS God’s mission to the world, as an entity in and of itself, but I don’t think a confessional or conservative version of seeker sensitive church is the way to go.

Which brings us to the topic of work.

2. What if the secular workplace is now a harder calling?

The sense I got from both episodes of The Pastor’s Heart was that the call to ministry work was the tough call. Tougher than the law job (seeing that the mythical bloke who doesn’t go into ministry has that option).  I don’t think that the ministry role is the tough role today. I think the law job is. The accounting firm is.  The hard secularism that people in the workplace experience is absolutely scorching.

And I have more than anecdotal evidence. We have a young female staff worker at our church who had to be persuaded that full time ministry was for her. She was highly trained in an Allied Health role, and good at that role too.  She wanted to do ministry and is, in my view, one of the most gifted ministry young people I have worked alongside.  Yet her primary worry was that she was taking the easy path by doing ministry, as if it some sort of sheltered workshop away from the cold winds of the cultural coalface.  And that’s in a church with no building, no office, and a couple of part time staff who use all their own laptops, paper and office equipment.

We’ve pitched ministry as hard – and the tough choice – to so many people, but the reality is no one is looking at the ministry roles we occupy and necessarily thinking that. Now it may be hard in ministry, and we may be keeping it to ourselves that it is, but many people in congregations are silently resentful of the narrative that ministry is the noble, self sacrificial task, while their role at work is somehow that much easier. Is that always said? No, but it’s felt.

One of the reasons is what isn’t said about the everyday work world. There’s a certain brand of evangelicalism that appears to have no positive theology of secular work other than the tacit concessive acknowledgement that it matters at some level (which level we are rarely if ever told), and has some meaning (how much meaning we aren’t told either), but beyond that, no real positive vision of work.

Tim Keller appeared to be the bogey man as far as Phillip Jensen was concerned, but he waved away that whole theology with a line about concert pianists and street sweepers.  And I say this as someone who does feel the call to preach the gospel and do so in  full time ministry capacity.

This tendency to dismiss work with a wave of the hand or a “it goes without saying” comment, breeds resentment among people in the pews.  How do I know this? Because when I write about how Christians in secular work feel about the lack of interest many ministry people have in their jobs (beyond evangelism, and giving) I get flooded with (private) support from people in evangelical churches with the caveat “Don’t tell my minister I said that“, as if I have some hotline to their church and would grass them up!

Now let me conflate these two matters, evangelism and work.  For many a church their evangelism strategy has been for workers to get their work colleagues along to their church to hear the gospel.  That may not be the first port of call, but it is definitely the end product of many evangelism strategies in evangelical churches, and I suspect Anglican churches in Sydney have been at the forefront of this strategy.

Well, if the guest service is the evangelism river mouth – the place where the church strategy and the gospel task of those who attend that church – meet, then guest services should be replete with workers from those law and accounting firms etc, where church members work.  Yet the river mouth is dry. And if that is the case, then the problem is upstream.

What is it actually like in the modern city workplace for the average Sydney Anglican parishioner?  Here’s what it’s like, – or is going to be like very soon – and I take for my example, an email from a theologically and missionally minded public servant here in Perth who serves in an integral capacity in an evangelistically-oriented church in our city.

He emailed me the following after listening to a podcast I had conducted for Third Space with my colleague David Robertson on the topic: “Evangelism in Wartime”.

Organisations as an entity are making it far more difficult for anyone with a competing value set to exist peacefully in their organisations.

It’s worth mentioning that organisations are now starting to view any activity where 2 or more persons from work attend as a work function, where the employers code of conduct can apply.

Essentially if I was to attend the same church as a colleague, we could both be caught up in a values fire fight (that we’d lose) if work thought something at church was against their values. This also makes the prospect of inviting someone from work to church more fraught, particularly if they were to react negatively to something.

On the other side, people are becoming more open to discussing faith as the current offerings of secular life seem largely devoid of actual substance.

The dichotomy of such a tightening of workplaces and the opening of people’s hearts is very difficult to navigate, as it’s almost impossible for me to start a meaningful discussion of any part of Christianity or Jesus unless they make the first move.

To be honest pointing out the gaping in the corporate values gets me in enough trouble as it is, and that’s without me mentioning religion, or even a specific religion.

Or as David Robertson and I would put it, it’s never been more hostile, yet never more open. That’s the world of work for many people, and I suspect many Sydney Anglican people who occupy those types of work roles at a larger percentage than many other churches could claim around Australia.

This is what people are contending with in the secular workplace. The values battle is being played out in the workplace. It’s an alternate gospel vision. Yet it seems odd to me that the one denomination that has consistently spoken out – and done so bravely at many points – about the huge cultural push against the gospel in the public square, should keep insisting that our “brightest and best” go into full time ministry.

I think that’s true of some of our brightest and best, but not all of them. And brightest and best at what? Without an adequate theology of secular calling, forged by thinking Christians in the workplace, then even if those thirty empty Sydney parish pulpits are filled again in the next ten years by the grace of God, the disconnect between church life and the rest of life is simply going to increase.

We need deep thinking Christian academics, CEOs, HR department staff. Churches should be equipping such people with gospel vision and gospel boldness (and a good eschatology as both Phil Coglan and Simon Flinders pointed out).

BTW – I’ve been on The Pastor’s Heart in the past, and loved it.  Happy to have a Zoom conversation anytime to continue this discussion in some sort of panel form.  Over to you Dominic Steele!

Next time:  A few more Stuey MacGill wrong ‘uns, including what ministry means for a family, and the issue of how the gospel needs to challenge unhealthy work practices and work cultures within the church, as much as outside it.







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