The Katoomba Christian Convention is a great multi-denomination Christian ministry. KCC is the home of, 'Big: preaching. Big: Crowd. Big: Mountains. Big:Changes.' Two weekends ago, Sarah and I were volunteers at one of their six annual conventions, on this occasion it was the first weekend of the Engage Conference for young workers.
The concept behind Engage is brilliant. In many ways its very existence is as a result of KCC's own success. The thousands of teenagers that formerly frequented the Katoomba Youth Convention (KYC) - which has since folded and been re-launched with an extra 'K' as KYCK - these same teens are now the young workers who are consistently selling out 1-2 weeks of the Engage conference. That's about 3000 people a year. But more than coming from the success of KYC, Engage arose from perceiving a need and then filling it. The transition from uni to the workforce is where a lot of individuals are losing contact with our churches. Thus the challenge is to get young workers to engage with Jesus, engage with their churches and, well, get them to Engage.
This year speaking was Tim Blencowe (a local Baptist dude) and Steve Timmis (The other half of Crowded House with Neil Finn). Both are godly and gifted men who served us well.
Some reflections from the weekend.
1. The motto for Engage is, 'Late starts and coffee carts'. This is a weekend for workers, so each day starts late, there are free newspapers available when you arrive Saturday morning for the 10:30 session, and there is a constant stream of coffee coming from the coffee carts. The whole thing was built ground up for workers. Having a clear, specific focus enables the details to simply fall into place. And its the details which make this weekend loved by workers, many of whom expect excellence Monday to Friday and appreciate it in all things.
2. Steve Timmis is from the Crowded House gospel community network, along with perhaps the more well known Tim Chester. The emphasis of these gospel communities is about trying to helpfully recapture the organic nature of church. Make it less about the event and more about sharing life. The irony police have scared me off using the word ironic, but surely this qualifies: Steve Timmis having to cut off half his talk due to time constraints on the meeting. So much for organic church life - there's nothing organic about the clock!
3. Apart from learning that I'll never be cool enough to be a Baptist preacher, the general teaching of the weekend was far removed from my cultural heritage of straight exegesis. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Tim especially used a fascinating way of unpacking Titus, which Ali sums up well. He started with a proposition: Because of the reformation, evangelicals are scared of talking about good works, but Christians are made in order to walk in them. He then spent two talks unpacking this proposition. It was good. I learnt a bunch about Titus and especially how good works is mentioned throughout the letter. There was plenty of personal challenge for me too.
4. Structurally, Tim's talk was thematic. But unfortunately, due to the time constraints, what Steve cut out of his talks was the exegesis. He started down that line, but then in both talks pretty much went straight to his conclusions (with a few tangents). So pretty much there was very little straight reading and analysis of the Bible in any of the talks. Personally I think with two speakers I'm a fan of the old AFES NTE method where one speaker was charged with the task of exegeting a book, the other with some form of systematics. That way, the basics don't get missed.
5. I must have missed the memo, but at some point, every KCC speaker must have got together and decided that the church is fundamentally ignorant in our application of our creation theology. The kind of 'redeeming creation' vibe. This weekend, it was about redeeming the good in our work, making sure we work for excellence, ensuring we do good. I'm hearing this more and more and more, which is all good. It's probably prophetic to some degree. But I'm concerned when redeeming creation is starting to get equal billing with the gospel. The balance hasn't tipped yet, but it ain't too far away. At the moment its simply good critiquing of the church.
6. There was lots of talk about 'good works' from both speakers. The logic as far as I understood it was, these are workers, therefore lets talk about good works. Get it? I didn't see the profound connection. Its there somewhere, but I saw no clarity in this matter.
7. Its clear from the choice of Steve Timmis as a conference speaker that Engage were emphasising every member ministry. This is great. One of the interviewers during the weekend also mentioned how this conference was set-up "For those who have decided that vocational ministry is not for them, and that they will be serving God by remaining in the workforce." All good. And yet, that wasn't who I was seeing at the conference. I saw a handful of keen uni students attracted by the speakers, I was seeing a bunch of generally well-educated uni graduates many of whom were the leaders amongst their various university ministries or churches. I think the emphasis of the conference against vocational ministry was sadly misdirected. Vocational ministry got mentioned positively once, during a throwaway line near the end of one of the talks, and negatively probably five times. More than that, one of the interviewees was a guy who probably had the worst of worst MTS apprenticeship experiences. He called it something like, 'The worst two years of my life'. But thankfully now he was doing something he loved in performing arts. Fair enough, it happens. And the young bloke spoke honestly and well. The emphasis in the interview wasn't on hating ministry but ethically navigating performing arts. But seriously, what's with the anti-ministry vibe of the weekend? The call for all should be the call to the gospel, with the emphasis that this will mean some of us need to reconsider what we're currently doing.
In the name of full disclosure, I'm reading my personal experience into my critique. Through my years involved with uni students, I've spent a lot of time trying to convince young health professionals to give up the job they love to do vocational ministry. These are Christians who love their work, love helping people (they are health professionals) and love using the skills they laboured through uni to attain. But when I continue to get bombarded with the many shortages of full-time paid gospel workers across Australia and the world, I am compelled to try to encourage those who are leaders, and are teachable, and are godly, and have a firm trust in Jesus, to give up their jobs that they love, in order to give an extra fifty hours a week to serving Jesus. These people have everything going for them except the desire. That is, the desire to be in 'ministry'. And my personal read is that many of these people who rightly love their jobs, need to hear the call of the gospel again with the gentle (not overt) encouragement to consider if they should leave said job. These people don't need further motivation to stay safe in their professions. We don't need to stoke that fire. I'm not saying Engage must be another MTS Challenge conference, but I am certain there is a way of preaching the gospel which both encourages those who will stay in the workforce to be gospel-minded, yet also lighting a fuse under those who should go. Even those who thought they'd already decided not to go.
The temptation here is, in creating a conference for young workers, we simply find a way to justify what we're already doing without the call to consider a change in direction based on gospel priorities. I don't see too many 'Big: changes' coming from what I heard on the weekend I was there. There was more the vibe of 'whatever you're doing now, its the right thing to be doing'. That kind of level of comfort doesn't sit well with me.
Let me finish with a word of personal testimony. I was once a radiographer. That hurts me to say. I loved radiography. I loved going to work, I loved the people I worked with. I loved talking to the patients. I loved being paid a lot to do very little. I loved the way you could finish a day and have achieved measurable outcomes. And you know what? I mourn no longer being a radiographer. Sarah would testify about the times I lie awake at night thinking of going back. I try and work out ways I can keep a foot in the profession (usually involving taking my 'day off'). But I'm slowly realising that that is no longer me. I need to let it go, and cast aside that which is holding me back. I helped one of the students from uni get my old job, and Sarah and I got an email from her just last week saying how much she was enjoying the work. And all the old emotions came back again. Surely I can keep doing it, somehow? It takes the grace of God encouraging me through others to not go back to that which I loved. And yet the encouragement of my peers has me continuing on, floundering, exhausted, oftentimes incompetant at this little thing called serving God's people. The secular workforce pulls strong at my heartstrings. This is what is driving my own hurt at the unquestioned justification of remaining in secular work from Engage.
Some of you might be thinking I'm trying to justify my new position as a 'minister'. But that's not how I see it. Had I never left radiography, I would be of no more value to God. In many ways my life would be simpler. But, as others and myself feel God has given me certain abilities, if I stayed I would be of no less value to God, but I would be of less value to God's people.
There are many struggles that I have and continue to have in ministry. If its not the lies of Satan telling me that I'm just not made of the right stuff for this gospel work thingy, its usually the complete opposite - the pride or wrong motivations of being in a public role. And yet I'm haunted. I'm haunted by the ghost of about ten conversations I've had since I first made the choice to start an apprenticeship about three years ago. I was bombarded by men, and sometimes their wives. Older men in the faith, some from my home church. These men have served God mightily through their secular work. They have worked hard, given generously, served excessively. They are the backbone of their church. And yet these men who have done so much are ravaged with regret. For though they have done a great thing in God's sight by working hard for him, each of these guys thought about vocational ministry, and for one reason or another, decided against it. In hindsight, they know the cost of that decision, and despite what they have done, they know it gives just a taste of what more they might have done. If only.
I love Engage. It's a great initiative and a great ministry. I'm certain most delegates would have been strengthened in their faith in Jesus and resolve to serve him at work, through the weekends of the conference. But I hope many of those same delegates are continuing to be restless in their jobs. To always be desiring to be able to be even more effective servants of Christ. And I pray that many of them through the encouragement of Christians and the call of the gospel will lay aside their careers, to take those extra fifty hours a week to serve Jesus even more. And Engage will still be there, helping those who stay to be most effective, and continuing to agitate those who have that little thought in the back of their mind about paid ministry.