Tuesday, February 9, 2010

God of these paddocks

I was thankful someone else asked the question. It was the exact same one as was in my mind but all things being as they are I'm often less than forthcoming when it comes to raising my hand in a crowd. I should clarify that I'm glad someone else made the mistake of asking the question. The answerer on this occasion was Phillip Jensen; the situation - an elective at Mid Year Conference on full-time ministry. It came, "Should I go into ministry in a country area?" Okay phew, now I don't have to ask my question, because it's already up there on the board ready to be answered.

Phillip has a way of running the full-time paid ministry elective that is probably as unique as Phillip himself. We go around the room and say our name, which church we attend and what we are studying. The occasional light-hearted joke is made at the expense of a few people, there's a little bit of back and forth with Phillip about do you know such and such. After introductions the group is asked to list the questions we have come with, which are then listed on the board. After 5 minutes or so scribing questions and grouping them together, Phillip sits back down and talks. And talks. And talks. Without reference to the questions Phillip talks until 5 minutes before the allocated time has expired. The final minutes are used going through the questions a second time, on this occasion crossing off everything that Phillip covered in his monologue. Inevitably he's answered the majority of questions with only a few remaining, including "Ministry in the country", to which the answer is simple;

God cares for people more than sheep. So we need to send gospel workers where there's more people than sheep.
Alright then. Guess I won't be leaving the city. And New Zealand is definitely out of the question. On further explanation I understood Phillip's point. He was just using the line as an introduction to his reflections on strategic thinking. He went on to inform us if we drew an imaginary triangle between three Western Sydney suburbs (I forget which ones), there's more people contained within than in the entire state of South Australia - so we theoretically need at least as many workers in that triangle as in South Australia. Phillip wasn't against country ministry, but highlighted the increased importance of regional centres rather than establishing a formal church in every tiny community.

In hindsight the entire situation isn't as comical as when my cousin went to an elective a few years earlier specifically on ministry in country areas. The guy running the elective never showed up, so at the last minute Phillip ran it instead and spent the entire "Country ministry" elective telling the group they shouldn't go into country ministry. Cities are where the action is.


Maybe it's because I'm the benefactor of faithful ministry in a country town that I'm especially touchy when it comes to people perhaps overplaying the metropolitan card. Consequently I'm not overly taken by the song made famous by Chris Tomlin and spreading through Sydney churches; God of this City.


Due to the personal nature of music, it is notoriously difficult to criticise. When it comes to congregational church music the general difficulty of criticism remains. Long time readers of the blog will know however this
hasn't stopped me in the past.

Now from
what I've heard, the song God of this City doesn't necessarily come from a city- centric view of ministry, but I've no doubt that this is the new life the song has taken on by many of the people singing it. In fact Tomlin chose it for its relevance to the tour of world cities through the Passion conferences.

Apart from the general vagueness of what God is about to do in the City (capitalised for some reason), I just don't like the general vibe of "this is the place that God is bringing it". Whatever it is, of course. I'm trying to be vague as well. Perhaps 'it' could be fixing the public transport or maybe something to do with the desalination plant, but assuming the 'it' that God is doing in the City has something to do with proclaiming the gospel of forgiveness of sin through the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, why is he going to be at work particularly here? What if it's a word of judgment that he's bringing on this city.

You're the God of this city/You're the King of these people/You're the Lord of this nation/You are
You're the Light in this darkness/You're the Hope to the hopeless/You're the Peace to the restless/You are
There is no one like our God/There is no one like our God
For greater things have yet to come/And greater things are still to be done in this City
(Repeat ad nauseum)
It reminds me of the classic line "God bless America... and no place else" or the Christian conference site Merroo which has a big painting of Australia in the dining area with the banner "The Great South Land of the Holy Spirit" - another veiled dig at New Zealand, perhaps? The potential for self-centredness looms large.

I love country ministry. It's rare to hear a country person if prompted say "I can't think of any non-Christian friends." It's a place where people talk to each other and you know your neighbours, and people share their lives. When I first moved to Sydney I was the guy who all the spruikers and pamphleters got to take their stuff because I actually made eye contact with people rather than staring blankly straight ahead. God does great work through his people in the country.


Perhaps we could have a non-city version of the song;

You're the God of the farmers/You're the King of the country*/The place you go on vacation/ You are
*With apologies to John Williamson

17 comments:

  1. The first half of this post infuriates me. Not the way you've written it, or your stance - but what you report.

    Argh.

    Just how many gospel workers does Sydney need before the rest of Australia becomes strategically important?

    It's a seven-eleven strategy. The SydAng model seems to want an evangelical church on every corner before even thinking about encouraging people to move outside Sydney's borders. Sure. Sydney is big. Bigger than anywhere else in Australia - but . This makes my blood boil.

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  2. I can sense more ranting posts coming on from you Nathan...

    I hope I havn't misrepresented Phillip's view here. In the end I think I agree with him. Where there's more people we need more gospel workers. But apart from the opening line, it was clear that he wasn't against leaving Sydney. Quite the opposite in fact. He was really rallying against the model from 100 years ago which is the reason that every tiny town you drive through you can recognise usually 2-3 church's. Generally they are either abandoned or have been sold and renovated into a house. The high nominalism of a former time meant that each town could afford a minister.

    Phillips point (backed up by population figures) shows that small towns are generally dying, but the regional centres around these towns are growing fairly significantly. So strategically seeing there isn't enough people for each town, nor can they afford it, the best way is to focus on the regional centres and use those as a basis for reaching out to the smaller towns.

    I hope a similar model will work in Queensland. And I'm sure you can see change afoot as the college and the work in Brisbane is strengthened. If God continues to work in that way there will come a point where Brisbane city can be sending out individuals and teams to start new or continue to strengthen exisiting ministry in strategic regional centres.

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  3. So is it going to be Izaac of the city??

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  4. I have a friend who is the one of only a few Christians aged 20-55 in a town of 1000 people. So there's need for gospel workers in many places. An average though I'd say the country is more reached than the city, and the outer suburbs generally have more Christians than the inner areas.

    It is a good principle to compare ministry resources in relation to population. When we realised in that possibly the ten biggest baptist churches in Adelaide were all in the eastern half, that was a significant finding. (and that kicked me into continued study of church distribution).

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  5. @Dave - We'll just have to wait to and see.

    @Geomiss
    Thanks for the comments.
    "On average the country is more reached than the city"
    This I'm sure is true for some places, others not. Perhaps it's a product of the country being a decade or so (in philosophical movements) to the larger city centres and so it's the last thrust of nominalism. Perhaps it's a result of the relational tendencies of country folk over city folk - more people talking to each other means more people likely to hear about Jesus. Either way, it is God choosing to work the way he is working. The strategy comes in that we want to make sure everyone hears the call to repent and believe in Jesus - so we need to look to where that is and is not happening.

    Part of me likes to think in the category of access. Though churches need to operate evangelistically as individuals that "go out" with the gospel, it is also true that churches can have an attractional quality whereby people "come in" to hear the gospel. So there is a certain reality to a smaller town with a church gathering where the gospel is proclaimed, is doing a similar thing to having one good church per suburb in the city; namely providing an opportunity for those keen to hear about Jesus the chance to do so.

    Not sure if these are helpful categories to think of ministry in, but that's what's going through my head.

    "and that kicked me into continued study of church distribution"
    Then check this out...
    http://thatgreatcity.wordpress.com/2009/05/25/anglican-churches-in-the-northern-region-of-sydney/

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  6. Let me just take this opportunity to say again: I really dislike that 'God of this city' song.

    It says nothing in such a rousing way. Nasty thing.

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  7. Nathan says: 'The SydAng model seems to want an evangelical church on every corner before even thinking about encouraging people to move outside Sydney's borders.'

    So why are soooo many Moore grads going interstate or overseas? Not fair.

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  8. @ Mikey
    Amen.

    @ Michael
    I've responded to Nathan in a new post (http://izaacta.blogspot.com/2010/02/thank-god-im-country-boy.html)

    Also for my own sanity occasionally I just have another read of Nathan's disclaimer (http://st-eutychus.com/disclaimer/).

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  9. Michael,

    Why are so many ministry minded people being told that God loves people more than sheep and that it's essentially strategically wrong to go to the country?

    The State Government thinks country children are important enough to force graduating teachers to serve in rural schools.

    Woolworths thinks country families are important enough to build stores all over the country.

    One of Australia's (if not the world's) leading strategical thinkers thinks that God loves people more than sheep so we should stick to the cities.

    I realise that there are denominational limits at play and there may not be opportunities for Anglican candidates to serve in hostile diocese - but these comments are indefensible.

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  10. Nathan, you wrote:

    One of Australia's (if not the world's) leading strategical thinkers thinks that God loves people more than sheep so we should stick to the cities.

    I realise that there are denominational limits at play and there may not be opportunities for Anglican candidates to serve in hostile diocese - but these comments are indefensible.


    I reckon if you feel that strongly about it, you should contact Phillip and discuss it with him, rather than getting so angry about a re-telling of an elective for a particular group of people, at a set time, in a context you were not part of?

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  11. "He went on to inform us if we drew an imaginary triangle between three Western Sydney suburbs (I forget which ones), there's more people contained within than in the entire state of South Australia - so we theoretically need at least as many workers in that triangle as in South Australia."

    Completely wrong. I also think the suggestion (made in the comments section) that Australia's small towns are dying is also wrong. A lot of them are thriving. I've been through a lot of them and they're not big, and they might not be growing, but they're happily cruising along with their own industries - sometimes agricultural, sometimes tourism, etc - and they aren't about to die anytime soon.

    The people in that western Sydney triangle can travel the extra ten kilometres to find a church. The people in rural SA, NT, WA or QLD cannot travel the extra 400km to find one.

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  12. Ruth, I think Nathan's perfectly within his rights to rant about it here. Izaac put the story up in the public arena for comment, and so Nathan's commenting.

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  13. Leah - sure. I have little problem with Nathan 'ranting' about it

    I just think if he wants to use words like 'indefensible', then he should at least go to the source and find out what exactly was said.

    If he thinks that strongly that what Phillip said is wrong, why not ask Phillip if that is exactly what was said, and express that he thinks it's wrong? Maybe it will mean that it stops being said in the future... or perhaps it is a little more 'defensible' than Nathan realises?

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  14. Ruth - fair call. Here's the email I sent to Phillip via the "contact us" form on Phillipjensen.com:

    Phillip,

    Thank you for your ministry and the way in which you have made so many valuable resources available via your website.

    I recently read a post on a friend's blog where he quotes a couple of occasions where you appear to have placed low strategic value on mission to regional and rural Australia.

    Here are the comments in full - if this is a misquote then I am possibly guilty of some form of improper slander for which I apologise.

    "The final minutes are used going through the questions a second time, on this occasion crossing off everything that Phillip covered in his monologue. Inevitably he's answered the majority of questions with only a few remaining, including "Ministry in the country", to which the answer is simple;

    God cares for people more than sheep. So we need to send gospel workers where there's more people than sheep.

    Alright then. Guess I won't be leaving the city. And New Zealand is definitely out of the question. On further explanation I understood Phillip's point. He was just using the line as an introduction to his reflections on strategic thinking. He went on to inform us if we drew an imaginary triangle between three Western Sydney suburbs (I forget which ones), there's more people contained within than in the entire state of South Australia - so we theoretically need at least as many workers in that triangle as in South Australia. Phillip wasn't against country ministry, but highlighted the increased importance of regional centres rather than establishing a formal church in every tiny community.

    In hindsight the entire situation isn't as comical as when my cousin went to an elective a few years earlier specifically on ministry in country areas. The guy running the elective never showed up, so at the last minute Phillip ran it instead and spent the entire "Country ministry" elective telling the group they shouldn't go into country ministry. Cities are where the action is."

    If this is truly representative of your position on country ministry could you let me know so that I can continue to advocate on behalf of the roughly 16 million Australians who don't live in Sydney and the 1/3rd of the population who don't live in a city.

    Yours in Christ,

    Nathan Campbell

    PS - I am particularly grateful for your ministry because I would not exist were it not for St Matthias where my parents met and were married.

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  15. Nathan,
    I have never felt more misrepresented by a direct quote in my life.

    I can only imagine that perhaps you are doing to me what perhaps I unfortunately did to Phillip - incorrectly balance an argument away from its intended meaning.

    The veracity with which you continue to flog this dead horse based upon my original comments which I have attempted to clarify through the comments has turned out to be the action that I find indefensible.

    I believe you've ignored the second half of my tongue in cheek jibe.
    "Alright then. Guess I won't be leaving the city. And New Zealand is definitely out of the question. On further explanation I understood Phillip's point. He was just using the line as an introduction to his reflections on strategic thinking."

    I have no problem with the discussion taking place based upon comments that I made publicly. However I do take issue with this email that fails to take into account the ensuing conversation which clarified some of the points that had been interpreted incorrectly from the original post.

    This is what I said in my first comment response to you;
    "I hope I havn't misrepresented Phillip's view here. In the end I think I agree with him. Where there's more people we need more gospel workers. But apart from the opening line, it was clear that he wasn't against leaving Sydney."

    or again

    "Phillip is right, you know. I hope I havn't misrepresented the bulk of what he said. The sheep line remains true. God does care for people more than sheep and yes where there's lots of people we need lots of people. Where there's less people we still need people - just not as many. And thus comes the strategy - in the current environment strong regional centres are the best means of reaching to smaller areas."

    or again

    "3. I love that you've latched onto my quote of PDJ so thoroughly however I hope I've made clear through the comments that the strategic vision in regards to rural ministry was not "a gospel worker for every town" but rather "regional centres are growing - invest there first and as a priority." That's paraphrased from Phillip, but isn't as funny as the sheep line."

    I regret that you quoted me in this email and feel it reflects poorly on myself and the value that I personally place both on Phillip's ministry and the particular elective on ministry that I attended, which actually caused me to think hard about what kind of ministry outside of Sydney would be most beneficial.

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  16. I'm not misquoting you - I am quoting the quotes you've attributed to Phillip in their original context.

    I'm not suggesting they are your views - I did not name you - I questioned what Phillip may have meant in relation to these comments and reports about his actions.

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  17. Also, I don't see this as a dead horse. I see this as a vitally important element of the development of the evangelical church in Australia.

    You might disagree - but I suggest you talk to people in regional centres (larger ones - Maclean is not a regional centre it's a country town) about how hard it is to hire workers for fledgling gospel ministries (the ones where there haven't been enough people brought through the ministry to be self producing) and ask them what they think of the lines of argument you have reproduced.

    This is not a situation where my disclaimer applies.

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