At our Planting for Christ conference last Wednesday I gave some input into a seminar on church planting resources. In the process of preparing for that I came across some old notes. This was something I wrote a while ago.
Apprentice has become quite a flexible term covering all manner of church based ministry experience. So let me define my terms.
When I say apprentice I’m usually talking about a man in his mid to late twenties with some secular work experience who has a proven track record of showing godly initiative in ministry in the local church. He needs to be of such an age and stage of Christian maturity that he can preach to an adult congregation and run an adult small group Bible study and Christianity Explored Course. He may well be married and ideally he has a working wife who can afford to support him financially. I recognise that sets the bar pretty high. And I recognise that this view is shaped by our urban context.
Of course, we can seek to train children’s worker apprentices, women’s apprentices and so on. And we have. But principally I want us to think about training a young man in church leadership and church planting.
Apprenticeships are modelled on the Apostle Paul’s relationship with his ministry trainee, Timothy. We’re talking about a mentoring relationship in which ministry is both taught and caught. It’s practical ministry experience that’s then assessed, evaluated and critiqued in the context of a deepening relationship.
Let me give you six reasons I could think of to train apprentices.
1. Apprenticeships prepare people for gospel ministry
Apprentices know what to expect ahead of the game. It means that they can go into ministry with their eyes open. The mystery of what’s involved in ministry life has been removed. And so they can be realistic about the stresses and strains, the joys and the disappointments and so on. As Col Marshall says,
‘Apprentices are not thrown into the deep end alone; they are thrown into the deep end with a trainer! That is, right beside them is someone who has already had significant experience in word ministry. Their job is to help the apprentice to swim and not sink’ [Passing the Baton, p29].
Since the Christian life is a life of ministry, taking two years to do an apprenticeship is never wasted time. We’ve had people who’ve returned to the secular workplace after an apprenticeship because they realised that full time paid gospel ministry wasn’t for them. But they returned strengthened and better prepared for serving Christ and others than they otherwise would have been.
2. Apprenticeships confront people with their strengths and weaknesses
It’s good to know what we can and can’t do before we plough headlong into theological study. Before spending upwards of £20K a year on a theological college student let’s work out whether they’ve got what it takes to run a church. Ministry brings us face to face with our limitations. That’s pretty humbling. But that’s no bad thing! If it’s true that lots of people leave theological college thinking that their graduation is the hinge around which the decline in Christianity in this country will turn then they’re likely to be face intense discouragement! Best to let them savour that before they build themselves up too much. But there’s wisdom in identifying and seeking to correct weaknesses whilst people are still being trained for leadership. Of course, the flip side is that we can identify, encourage and build on their ministry strengths.
3. Apprenticeships create an appetite for theological study
On the whole those who’ve done apprenticeships aren’t predisposed to the idolatry of qualifications. They know that it makes very little difference what grades you got in First Year Hebrew. What matters more is being able to provide biblical comfort a widow whose husband dies unexpectedly from cancer. Being engaged in gospel ministry makes us realise what’s important to know. It confronts us with how little we know and how little time we have to study! And so apprentices tend go to college appreciating the opportunities that they have and making sensible decisions about the subjects to study. For example, I advise our guys to do every doctrinal course on offer but to neglect their biblical studies. They’re all excited about studying Romans and Genesis, which is terrific; it’s just that they’ll be expounding the bible for years. What they won’t be doing is formulating a biblical worldview on personal care, apologetics and so on. They’ll also realise that you can’t learn church planting in a class room and so I advise them to give those courses a miss!
4. Apprenticeships help people to learn ministry skills
Apprentices usually learn by being immersed into a ministry context and then taking on feedback from their trainers. What they learn will often be more than whether they rightly expounded the passage they were given. The variety of skills needed for ministry is huge. They need to learn to lead, organise, administer, work with children, adults, different cultures and so on. One of the key things that apprentices need to learn is people skills. They need to learn to be personal. Potential apprentices will often say how much they love teaching the Bible. That’s not good enough. I don’t want people on my staff team who love teaching the Bible. I want people who love people and who love teaching the Bible to people.
5. Apprenticeships equip people to start new ministries
Church planters need something of the pioneering, self legislating entrepreneur about them. I think some of that can be overplayed but that some of it can also be learnt. Apprenticeships provide an opportunity to do that on a much smaller scale than a church plant. We can ask people to try and form a small Bible study group for enquirers from the friends they’re meeting at their adult education class. For example, I was asked to launch a church plant in the Wimbledon YMCA in the second year of my apprenticeship. It didn’t really take off, which was disappointing. But I learnt so much from that failure. So by the time I was approached to launch CCB it was exciting not frightening. We need to allow people to fail. We need to put them in situations that stretch them and ask questions, where they’ll be taught to pray because they’re taken out of their comfort zone.
6. Apprenticeships provide pre theological training
In my denomination. Anglican. At the moment at least. There’s an unseemly scramble for the few decent training curacies that come up every year. Those of us who’d done apprenticeships weren’t too fussed. It’s not that we thought we didn’t need any more training. It’s just that we thought we’d had enough to break new ground after college and try something like church planting.