Jul 31 • 39M

Growing the Vine in Canfield

Seeing the transformative work of the Word

 
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Appears in this episode

Tony Payne
Marty Sweeney
Gospel thinking for today, with Tony Payne and Phillip Jensen.

Hello again everyone

We received so much positive feedback about my conversation with Marty Sweeney (a few episodes ago) that I thought we should talk again. 

This time around I wanted to talk to Marty about a subject that we have discussed often over the past decade, especially during the ‘Trellis and Vine’ workshops we often run in across the States. The question is simple enough: if we want to have a church with ‘disciple-making’ as its heartbeat—and we’re aware that our current church culture isn’t really like that—where do we start? 

In this episode (as he has done many times in our workshops) Marty tells the simple but very encouraging story of how he went about this task at his church in Canfield, Ohio. 

I hope you enjoy hearing the story for the first time. I still enjoyed discussing it for the umpteenth time! 

Your brother 

Tony


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Growing the Vine in Canfield, Ohio

TP: Marty, I want to talk about ‘Trellis-and-Vine’ principles that we both hold dear, and in particular how those principles came into effect and brought significant change to your own church at Old North in Canfield.

MS: Well, first, I don't want to be a rude guest. But let me interrupt and impose my own agenda, if you don't mind for a minute. We received into our warehouse here at Matthias Media your new book, The Christian Gospel. I've been excited about this book for a long time now because despite Matthias Media’s good resources on evangelism, I've felt we haven't had a go-to, center of the road, evangelistic book to give away, which I think yours is. So could you just help us out and tell us a little bit about what it is and why you wrote it?

TP: Well, it's hard to resist that kind of interruption. And this book has been a while coming. As you say, it's something that we probably should have done 20 or 25 years ago, but it's great that in God's providence it has finally happened. A simple, straightforward, fairly short evangelistic giveaway book that just explains the gospel, using the Two Ways to Live framework in a conversational, approachable fashion for someone who is not a Christian. I am really pleased that it's finally out and it looks good. And I'm really hopeful that it will be a valuable resource for sharing the gospel with people. 

I also want to thank a number of listeners and readers of The Payneful Truth and Two Ways News who provided really helpful feedback and encouragement along the way in the production of this book. I know a number of you have been waiting for it to be available to use in ministry. So it's available now!

Now back onto what we really want to talk about today. Marty, when you arrived at Old North Church, it was 2011. The pastoral staff there had read The Trellis and the Vine, and they said, “Look, we want you to come and work here with us and bring some of that stuff here.” What were they wanting you to bring? 

MS: Yeah, that's a good question. It's so hard to put yourself back in your mind 12 years ago; I was in my mid 30s and didn't know what I didn't know. But if I were to summarize it now, I think the central idea was to train up all Christians to be ‘vine growers’, or to raise up disciple-making disciples, to make disciple-making the centerpiece of all that the church is.

TP: And I guess the next question is, well, in what sense was that not what Old North was like back then? Because while every church should be like that, our experience in talking with pastors over many years has been that very often the church culture is not that way. 

MS: Old North was probably your typical medium to large-ish church in the US, about 1000 adults attending on a Sunday morning with maybe 300-400 kids under 18 on top of that. And as typical, we ran a lot of programs. It had grown in the last 20 years before I got there, from a church of around 200 to a church of 1000 plus. And so I think it was trying to say, “How can we still be a small church even though we're big now?”

It is also a Baptist church. And so it had some good old-time Baptists, people who want the Bible open, who want people to get evangelizing and down the aisle and into the baptismal. And so there was that, but on the other side, it was trying, in one sense, to follow the typical trends, coming off the seeker-sensitive movement of that era of the late 1990s-2000s. And trying to engage a culture that was slowly not coming to church and figuring out how we can get people to come to church. So in one sense, that's the broad identity.

But tucked underneath the surface, it was a church that had a very mixed identity. It was the kind of place where people might have the John MacArthur Study Bible in the left hand, and a copy of Joel Osteen in the right hand. There was a sense that we were Bible people, but there was also a sense that maybe Jesus was there to be a good life coach, a moral guide, and someone to inspire you to be the better father, the better worker, the better version of who you are. And church was there to give you the encouragement, the slap on the back and the community to drive towards that end.

TP: Would it be fair to say that there weren't a lot of people who were actually seeking to minister to other people, to reach out to their neighbors, and also to encourage or read the Bible with other Christians? 

MS: Well, not exactly. I think we did have some really good brothers and sisters doing good people work. They loved people. They welcomed people into their homes and into their family. But what wasn't there was word-centered people work. To bring in another blast from the past, it was a bit like John Eldridge Wild at Heart type of Christianity—let's have really good experiences together as good, solid people, and this is what Christian life is about. And so what happened was kind of like a mentoring program; “Come and do life like me”. But it wasn't the kind of radical call to put away all your ambitions, put away all your desires for this life, and lay them at the cross and live for Christ with his radical new agenda for the world.

TP: So you came on board as a part-time discipleship pastor?

MS: Yep. And I think that shows you a little bit what one of the issues was—that ‘discipleship’ was sectioned off into its own thing. “This is what one pastor did through various programs in the church.” That shows you a lot right there.

TP: So you weren't the senior pastor, but you were brought on specifically to try to address some of these issues. How did you go about it?

MS: I didn't know what I was doing. But the first thing I wanted to do was try to convince people of the ideas we've been talking about. Quite simply, I don't think they even had an idea that there was something bigger going on from Scripture; that they could be living for and casting their eyes to a higher horizon, beyond their own life and their own ambitions. So the first thing was to find a group of people who would be quite simply willing to listen. And so I don't think I thought about this intentionally, but I just used plain old sociology. I found people who are about three to five years younger than me, because they're more likely to listen, yet they're close enough in age to know that I'm still, you know, relevant to them. And in God's kindness, one of them came to me and said, “You know, we've been through all the curriculum good stuff—John Piper, RC Sproul. But we kind of just churn through them in our small group. We need a spark. We need something different. Would you come in and lead our group?”

In God's providence, the resource you wrote, Tony, called The Course of your Life had just been released at the time. And I said, “Listen, I was just helping my friend Tony in Australia to work through his new book. I would love to try this out in our group.” Because what The Course of your Life does is to cast the vision beyond just “How can I live a better life as a Christian?” It asks me to think about what God's agenda is for the world, and how I fit into that agenda. So it was very providential that a number of things came together. I found some people, I opened the Word of God with them, I invested time with them. And I used the Word to press in on the specific things in their lives. “You want to have a good career and a great family life—but is that all? And is that really what God wants for you?”

TP: So this was a Bible study of 15 people out of a church of 1000. That seems like a drop in the ocean. What was their response? And what did you do from there?

MS: Yes, so most of them were couples, and a few of the couples really got switched on right away. God had been tilling the soil, and they were good soil. We dropped the seeds through the Word and the specific applications of the Word we just mentioned. And they took to it. One guy actually turned down a promotion because he knew it would take him away even more, from his family, from his church life, from pursuing God's agenda. 

Some were willing to listen and keep going. And so I ran the course again and invited those couples back in to say, “Listen, I know we had to go at this. And I know that sounds weird, but would you be willing to come back in?” And I invited about 10 other couples, and we did the same thing again. We opened God's Word, we pressed in on God's agenda for the world and pushed against the careerism and ambitions that people have.

Once again, similar to what happened in Acts 17, some of them were like, “What is this babbler trying to say?” And others said, “We would like to hear more about this.” And yet others actually said, “Yeah, we get this, man. You're right. The Bible's right. God is right. And we want it, but we don't know what to do with it.” 

So I tried to work with the people who said, “You're right, let's go with it.” And help them figure out what's next. I gathered together some of the men and we started a kind of reading group, reading through books like A Gospel and Kingdom by Graeme Goldsworthy (which revolutionized our understanding of Scripture) and also a short book by Don Carson called The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, to help them understand how to read Scripture better. 

Concurrently, I took the other people and kept pushing them back to go through The Course of your Life again. And I think there were some couples that took it for three straight years. I’m grateful for their patience and their willingness to go along. So that group kept multiplying. Now as we went through The Course of your Life again and again and again over the years, there were small subcultures starting to build, that understood God's agenda. They were vine growers, through word and prayer. Change was happening through them, not just through the pastors of the church. And we kept trying to connect their hands with the hands of other people in the church to read the Bible, to read good theology books, etc.

TP: So how many times or how many people would you have taken through that framework with the word of God, changing the way people thought about themselves and about discipling, and so on?

MS: We kept it intentionally small (invite only), for a number of years. It wasn't until year seven or eight that we tried to open it up to the bigger church. But before then, we took probably 250 people through it in total (200 if we exclude the repeats). 

So the main thing I was doing was trying to repurpose a trellis—a program we would call adult Sunday school and Wednesday night Bible class. (Our kids and youth come on Wednesday nights to our building. And we run a class for the parents during that time.) So we kind of rebuilt the trellis from within; we didn't wave our hand in front of the church and say, “Hey, we're going to redo everything.” It was a subtle re-inculturation that was more Word-focused, driven by God's agenda in really pushing people to say that the response to the gospel is to give up their lives for the sake of helping others give up their lives.

TP: That's incredibly encouraging to hear. Because you lived out the ‘vine growing’ principles in the whole way you tried to grow other ‘vine growers’—you worked with people, applying the word to their hearts, with prayer over time. That kind of heart-change happens slowly and in relationship—not just in one sermon, or by giving them one book. The heart changes, and you come to see and love a different thing; I don't love my life and all the things that I want. I love God and what he's done for me, and I love his agenda and his plans for the world and what the Lord Jesus is doing. And I want to throw myself into that. 

And you started to see that in people’s lives and hearts and attitudes. I guess you had some proportion of those 200 people who were now starting to think and love and live differently. What did you do with that? How did you direct and help those people to put that into practice?

MS: One of the big signs of change was that people started coming back to me or other pastors and saying, “I’ve got a guy”— that is, I have someone in my life who needs to know the Lord or grow in the Lord. What should I do? Help me. 

The other thing we tried to encourage people to do was to have more ‘God talk’ in their lives, specifically after church on Sundays. And it was neat to see over the years, people would stay longer and longer after church, instead of running out to be home in time for the football game. And when they stayed, they weren't just talking about the football game or whatever either. We started seeing people with their heads down, with their hands on each other's shoulders, praying for one another. 

We encouraged this by giving specific ideas for conversation after the formal church time on Sunday mornings, such as two main goals: ask someone what you can you pray for them, and/or talk to them about something you learned from the sermon.

TP: So the culture was starting to shift as people looked outside themselves to others and tried to minister to others. What was going on for the church staff during all this? 

MS: Yes, so because we were fashioned after the traditional medium-big church, we had “silos”. That is, the youth person did his youth work, the music person did his music work, the women's person did her women's work. And so there was a sense that we all just kept doing what we were called to do. But our executive pastor Chris really got it. He pushed in and stuck his neck out and started to encourage our staff as a whole to look for people they could invest in, and to spread this vision of what God’s agenda is, and so on. There was some resistance to that early on, and we made some mistakes trying to implement it. But there were some who really got it. And we're really grateful for how united we are now in that vision, some 12 years later. 

TP: Certainly as I keep coming back to Old North Church each year (which I’ve done most years over the past decade), it’s been encouraging to see some of these cultural changes become obvious, and also how the staffing has changed. 

MS: One key change was when Beth came on staff at the church. She had been working for us at Matthias Media, but the opportunity arose for her to come on staff at Old North to lead the women. That was hugely influential in seeing the women’s ministry take on a very similar change: being centered on the Bible and on reaching other women with the Word of God. So that was huge. And alongside that, Chris, the executive pastor, also led music at the time and very much tried to showcase how our singing could be Word-centered and how we could teach and encourage each other in the substance of the music. Chris started to infuse that language in our Sunday morning services. 

And then in God's kindness, he brought us a senior pastor about eight years ago who really ‘got it’. Nick had been a longtime Matthias Media and Trellis and Vine fan before he got to Old North. And he started preaching Scripture to us in the same way we’d been teaching it and going through it in our groups for those many years before. 

So God was kind that the little pockets of bottom-up culture change from within, met with some of these top-down changes—in the music, the expository preaching and teaching, and also a church-wide vision that used the very same language we were spreading through our Course of your Life groups and beyond. 

TP: It's really interesting that what ended up happening at Old North is kind of the reverse of what many of us think would happen. We tend to think that top-down leadership starts and drives everything. And of course that is necessary at some point. But in your case, it started more from the bottom-up, with you working one or two days a week, and just patiently working with people over a period of 5-6 years. And then as the leadership and structures changed, the top-down thing happened as well. And the result was a lovely synergy that saw a great deal more happen.

And I think there's a lesson there: I think we often feel like the key thing is to change the trellises and the values and the vision and the mission and all the stuff that we do as ministry leaders from the top-down. And that's important and crucial. But we sometimes neglect the bottom-up, which is where it happened to start with you. But whether you start there or not, it has to happen very early on—working with people and seeing people change their heart and mindset about who they are and what their role is in Christ.

Thanks for talking with us today, Marty. I know you also made plenty of mistakes along the way, and that you don’t want to promote yourself, because who are we anyway but servants who plant and water? But it’s wonderful to see that God's Word and Spirit do produce fruit, and that as we apply the word to people's lives, it does bring real change, as we should expect it to. 


PS. 

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