This week we welcome back Marty Sweeney to the podcast to talk about an old topic and that needs talking about afresh: ministry apprenticeship.
It’s fascinating—Marty and I have been running ‘Trellis and Vine’ workshops around the US for the past 15 years, talking to pastors and church leaders about the various ministry principles and practical issues that arise from The Trellis and the Vine. But in all that time, I could count on one hand the number of people who have wanted to know more about the subject that takes up the entire last third of the book: ministry apprenticeship.
For Col Marshall and I, it was a natural way to round off the book, as the logical endpoint to an emphasis on training every Christian as a disciple-maker. But it doesn’t seem like it works that way for many churches, judging by the relative lack of interest over the past 15 years. Why is that? And where do ministry apprenticeships (or traineeships) fit into a biblical philosophy of ministry?
That’s our topic in this week’s Two Ways News.
Tony Payne: Marty, I want to talk to you about what ministry apprenticeship is and why it is important. Now, many people here in Australia and around the world are very familiar with the idea of ministry apprenticeship, but particularly for you in your US context, what is meant by ‘apprenticeship’? How is it different to the kind of internship which happens in a lot of US churches?
Marty Sweeney: Yeah, that's a really good question. Interestingly, I think it actually relates to chapter two of Trellis and Vine where it’s talking about mind shifts, one of which is shifting the mindset from filling gaps to training people. I think when most people think of internships, it's “Let's get some younger people who are maybe still in college or in theological college. They're going to be young, eager, and cheap, and they can help fill the gap of, say, youth ministry or some organizational stuff.” We call them a ‘pastoral assistant’ or ‘summer intern’ or something like that.
But The Trellis and Vine is asking us to think differently and say, “No, we're not just trying to get someone to be an intern to fill the holes we need or to be low-cost labor; we're trying to raise up, build and train new gospel workers to maybe reach areas of gospel ministry that we're not currently reaching. And so an apprenticeship is someone who's there to learn a trade, to learn the craft of ministry, and we approach it with the eye that they will take it on themselves and go forward in full time ministry.
TP: It often happens before formal theological training. And that's certainly the case here in Australia. It is a taste of what the full time ministry life and way of living is like. And it also helps them work out, “What am I good at? What am I not good at? Is this for me?” It's a practical introduction to full time gospel ministry, and that's why it often covers a more extended period of time. For example, here in Australia most apprenticeships are two-year programs.
MS: Yeah, and the other thing is the internship is often seen as doing pre theological training—let's read a really good, deep book on systematic theology or let's write some papers and why don't you attend all the meetings I attend. None of that is bad or wrong, but it's very much limited. The difference between teaching and training is: teaching is imparting knowledge, while training is imparting skill. And I feel like the way many people do internships is imparting knowledge. But what we actually want to do is imparting the skill of ministry, of helping people move towards maturity in Christ through word and prayer, and through personal or group relationships through the proclamation of the word. And so that would be a big difference because it is not just the structural idea of it, such as filling gaps, but actually the method of it. An apprenticeship is more like, “Come alongside me, let's do ministry together and I'll help you so that I can deploy you to be a gospel minister on your own.”
TP: Yeah, that's really helpful, Marty. It's interesting that those two things—teaching and training—are so closely linked, aren't they? A gospel teaching that doesn't play out in action to practice and learn to be a different kind of person and do a different kind of life, is not very good teaching. And training that isn't built on and flowing out of a biblical, theological understanding of the task and how we do it is very poor training. So it's not as if an apprenticeship or traineeship is a theology-free zone where you just go out and do practical stuff. But it does seek to tie those two things very strongly together and recognize there's going to come a time when you need to dig really deeply into your theological foundations, when you need to learn Greek, when you need to read lots of big books, and that time is coming when you're at theological college. But right now, with a theology in mind, and constantly thinking theologically about ministry, let's get in and do some stuff together, and reflect together on why we're doing it and what we're doing. And in that sense, it's a little bit more like the daily round and practice of what ministry is or should be like—that is, actually ministering the gospel in multiple ways, and constantly thinking about what we’re doing theologically.
MS: You had talked about this in the book, The Vine Project, that we are to be apprentices to the Scripture, and I've always found that helpful, because it echoes Matthew 28, “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded.” And so I'm an apprentice to Christ through his words. I'm learning not just the knowledge and his teachings but also learning to live like him through that knowledge. And I think that's always been a helpful thing that stuck with me as I read Scripture now. And it’s similar in a ministry apprenticeship, for example saying, “Let's read a systematic theology book together and talk about it. And then I want you to go to that high schooler and explain the concept of sovereignty and tell me how it went.”
TP: Exactly. So it's tying together learning and growing and living and doing—both in your character, and also in your practice and your ministry to other people. You're obviously really excited about this idea, Marty. You've been running the apprenticeship program there at Old North Church for how long now?
MS: Six years.
TP: Wow, is it six years? It just seems like the other day that you were getting it underway. What have you found that's been exciting and valuable about it so far?
MS: I think what's exciting about it is that it tries to be the overflow of who we already are, or what we try to be as a congregation. We're not just a bunch of people that learn about Jesus and try to behave morally; we're a bunch of people who want to be apprenticed by Jesus through his Word and go and apprentice others. And so in one sense, the apprenticeship is a denser version of what we're already doing in our groups and classes and the like. We're trying to not just instruct but to apprentice people to be followers of Jesus, obeying him in everything they do, and to pass on the good deposit of faith to others. And so I get excited because I see it's just the natural, logical conclusion of being a training church or having a training church culture. And so that's exciting.
And why I'm also excited is because it's taken a good while but we're seeing the fruit of constantly telling people and showing people that you can be and do the same thing, even if you're not in the apprenticeship. We’re all being ministered to by the gospel, and we’re all ministering the gospel, whether we are part of the formal apprenticeship program or not. So that's exciting because people are starting to get that.
But I would say very specifically it’s exciting because—as you know, Tony, working with the CBS students and trainees—there is something unique about being in your early 20s. Often, it's an influential time of your life. It's an opportunity to invest this portion of your time that you will never have again, and you don't have some of the obstacles that I have now with four children and lots of other responsibilities. So it's exciting to watch the next generation—or now two generations down from me—start to be excited about the reality of living for Jesus on their own as adults and passing on that ministry to them. And interestingly, as much as we try to tie together the iterative process of the apprenticeship, we also want to tell the congregation, “Hey, look at the apprenticeship. It's part of what we do. It's not just extra, it's part of who we are.” And as they look at the apprentices, the congregation also gets excited about ministry themselves. So it's just this neat circle that feeds itself.
TP: You were just saying a moment ago that it's kind of like the logical, natural next step of being a training church, of having a training culture in your church. What do you mean by being a training church or having a training culture?
MS: Yeah. So your book Trellis and Vine gave us the words to understand more clearly what I was already convinced of beforehand—and that is if we believe that Jesus Christ is the Lord of all, and if we believe that the gospel is spread by the teaching and preaching of that message, then we must spend our entire lives as Christians dedicated to that cause. And so if that is the most important thing and the goal of my life, it sets the course of my life and it makes sense then that some people should spend as much time as possible on it because of their gifts, circumstances and abilities.
The biblical vision we use in our apprenticeship is Matthew 9:37-38 “The harvest is plentiful, the laborers are few, therefore pray earnestly for laborers for the harvest.” But interestingly enough in chapter 10, Jesus sends those very same disciples and commissions them to go be laborers for the harvest. They are the fulfilment of their own prayers. And so it's a big vision of God, of the importance of the gospel for the world, and of who we are as Christians. And you put that all together and say, “We need more workers for the harvest. We want to deploy more people to preach the gospel for as much time as they can dedicate to it. And so because of those things, we’ve got to train people to do that.”
TP: It’s interesting that as you set that big, biblical vision of Jesus and his kingdom, all of us begin to work together to make apprentices who in turn make other apprentices of Jesus. That's what the word ‘disciple’ means—to be a learner or apprentice of Jesus. That's who we all are. And that means that church life involves teaching and training and building and edifying one another in our own way, through how we relate to each other but also through the way we structure things, such as training opportunities for people to learn how to share the word with others or how you set up your small groups. And as you do all this teaching and training of everyone, people will bubble up to the surface, people who do have those gifts and circumstances and potential to be able to do this work with all of their lives. So the apprenticeship is really that natural extension of seeing certain people who bubbled to the surface and formally training them. However in all of this, the main goal of the training culture and structure is not to find those people who bubble up, but rather because we have that shared big vision that we want to see everybody raised up in that training culture and mindset, regardless of whether it is in a vocational or non-vocational capacity.
MS: I remember, Tony, when you were here in the US last there was a group of campus workers at our house in Ohio that asked you the classic American Christian question, “Tell me about your call in the ministry.”
And I remember your answer was striking in its simplicity: “My call in ministry first relates to my general call as a Christian to be a minister of the gospel.” And then you went on to talk about your specific circumstances and the way that all worked out, specifically how the shape of your ministry has been different than maybe normal, pastoral ministry. And yet you're still a pastor, in many respects of the words. I find that similar, Tony, that the role of an apprenticeship relates to the church only as well as we relate it to the general role that we place on all Christians to train them for gospel work. And so if we're going to think about an apprenticeship as this kind of side thing, it's not really getting at the heart of it.
And can I just add one more thing to the biblical vision because I can't help that my nose has been in the recently released book Share the Gospel in which you make a very compelling case from 2 Corinthians 5-6:2 which I really love: “This is the time of the Lord's favor. It's the day of salvation. Anybody who calls on help for the Lord, He will respond. And if we hear it, we don't want to receive the grace of God in vain. This is the day of God's favor. This is the day of salvation. And that's the ambassador offering up reconciliation to God.” It was just very well done. And I can't help but gush over that idea and want to hear everybody get that vision. And I want to train our apprentices specifically on how to train everyone else to get that vision.
TP: It's almost like the vision of reaching the world with the gospel of reconciliation. God is the driver that's pulling and exciting everybody about that call of God in their lives to participate in his great mission. And as we do that, it's also what inspires and fires up young people with the vision that I want to spend my life doing this. I'm going to give up my small ambitions of being a lawyer or a doctor or a successful middle class person. That your life is no longer lived for yourself but for the one who died for you and rose again, as 2 Corinthians 5 says, “My whole life is now lived in His service.” And so the next decision to, say, not be a dentist, but to spend more of my time administering the gospel, is quite a small decision by comparison.
MS: Absolutely. And now that I'm officially old, you know, I crank and lament about the world. But as much as I am pessimistic, that passage reminds me that this is a time of the Lord's favour. How can I not be excited about waking up tomorrow knowing I'm living in the time of favour? So Tony, why would a church not do an apprenticeship, then? What are some of the reasons you've heard?
TP: I think one of the most common responses is: we just don't have anyone who's interested. We don't have a lot of young people at our church, or we don't see those sorts of people. So I like the idea in principle, but I just can't see who it is that I'd recruit in our current circumstance. So that would be the number one thing that I hear people say, and that in one sense, it's good to acknowledge that that can be the case depending on where you are and the kind of congregation you're in. The number of people who might be at a stage of life or a time of life when they do want to stop and really get trained will affect it.
However, it's good not to be too limited by that. For example there's a number of people who are approaching the middle part of their lives, where their kids are getting older, they've been working, they’re in their late 40s or early 50s time of their life, and they're thinking about what's next. And in the way our world is, what's next could be the next 30 years of really productive work, when we still have the energy and ability to do all sorts of great things. And the idea of stopping at the age of 50 to do an apprenticeship and to rethink what I'm doing with my life and to start again and to pursue a ministry, that's going to involve the huge lump of baby boomer people who are forming such a large part of our culture, and that's a great opportunity. So on one level, the age profile is not a definitive question.
I think the most significant reason that people can't quite think yet about having an apprenticeship is that they haven't yet got to the point of really building a training culture in their church. It's kind of the first step. And so the idea that I'd be raising up people and people would be bubbling to the surface who really want to do this full time just seems a long way down the track. But what about you, Marty? What are your impressions?
MS: Yeah, I think a lot of the obstacles you mentioned are trellis obstacles, right? But if we take our cues from The Trellis and Vine idea of building ministry around people, maybe you don't necessarily need to start with a full fledged formal apprenticeship. You can start building local mini apprenticeships around the people in your midst. For example, train three people how to read Colossians with someone else and walk with them as they go through Colossians with you, then hold their hand and as they go through Colossians with someone else. And if prayer and effort keep going, who knows? The Lord may give you the opportunity to have a full fledged apprenticeship. But I think we just get restrained by thinking too much of “I have to have this certain way” to the point that we don't make a start. So I try to encourage everybody wherever they're at that you can have a start with the idea that apprenticeship can and should be something you work towards wherever you're at now.
TP: I think the other obstacle is related to the big vision of the gospel of Jesus, that our vision can be too small and can easily become focused on just “Here's our church looking after the people I have, surviving and getting through the stress of being in ministry and working things out in my local church.” And we can lose that larger vision that what we're doing is part of the big work of the gospel in the world. And so we don't have, in that sense, not just a training culture, but a sending culture—the idea that we're wanting to send people out from our midst into the world. And that's a huge part of the idea that training and recruiting and apprenticing ends up in sending our best people out to share the gospel with others.
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