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Evangelical Futures: BWWs – the ‘Blokes Worth Watching’ conveyor belt...

In their 2009 book, The Trellis and the Vine, Colin Marshall and Tony Payne gave us the evocative image of supporting structures (the trellis) surrounding the organic growth of God’s people (the vine).

Glen Scrivener

Figure Image
‘Blokes Worth Watching’ – the evangelical conveyor belt in action? | photo: Austin Distel on Unsplash

Their argument was: both are needed. Here my brief is to write about evangelical churches in Britain. And as I consider this movement of churches that I love, I can’t help thinking we have a wonderful vine and, at points, a wonky trellis. That trellis – our systems and the assumptions behind them – needs urgent scrutiny.

‘Every system is perfectly designed to deliver the results it gets.’ This aphorism, attributed to numerous thinkers, is vital to grasp, especially when we dislike the results we’re witnessing. It prevents us from shrugging our shoulders, it awakens us to the systems we are ordinarily oblivious to, and it confronts us with the ways we have designed the problems we’re seeing.

Waking up to the systems of conservative evangelicalism has been a slow process for me. I’ve spent four decades in the movement, two decades ‘on the payroll’ in both Australia and the UK, but rarely has the system been apparent to me. Mostly I’ve been focused on the vine – Christ and His people. I’ve met Jesus in these churches. I’ve introduced others to Him too. I’ve encountered vibrant, loving communities of Christ’s people. I’m very happy to be in these circles and to raise my children in them too. But at times you see the system. And at points it is horribly warped.

I think of the student touring me around the Bible College Of Choice for Sound Anglicans when he asked: ‘Are you considering studying at any other colleges?’ He tried to sound conversational but this was about as loaded a question as it gets in our tribe. ‘Yeah, I have friends going to Another College, so it might be nice to go there.’ We had been walking through a corridor. We stopped. ‘You don’t want to go there,’ he said. ‘At Another College they get to the end of the lecture and tell you ‘It could be this, it could be this or it could be this’. You don’t want that,’ he assured me, ‘You want The Answer.’ I asked, ‘What happens here if you disagree with The Answer a lecturer gives?’ ‘Oh they’d shoot you down,’ he said, before hastily adding, ‘In love. I mean, they’re very thought-through.’ ‘Sure,’ I said, ‘But what if you come with Bible verses, how do they handle disagreement?’ I could almost hear the siren go off in his head. ‘What do you want to disagree about?’ he asked. ‘I don’t know yet,’ I said, ‘I just want to know if I can.’ I was assured once more that the lecturers were very thought-through and that I needn’t worry.

We came into the dining room and there, written in large letters across the wall, was the motto: BE RIGHT AND PERSIST. I discovered only recently that this was not the motto of the college but of a prominent family which helped found the college. Nevertheless it was proudly on show throughout my college years. Yes, I ended up studying there. Thinking back, perhaps BE RIGHT was subliminally attracting me. I’ve always been drawn to ‘Rightness’. An old girlfriend of mine would regularly withdraw from arguments with an exasperated, ‘Oh, Glen, you’re always so… Right!’ Perhaps you’ve heard the classic question meant to resolve all couples’ squabbles: ‘Would you rather be right or happy?’ I’ve always instinctively thought: ‘How can I be happy if I’m not right??’ Such was my addiction to self-righteousness that I once wound up in a counsellor’s office with depression and he, through some skillful diagnosis of my idols, helped me identify my deepest desire: ‘I need people to read the Bible the same way I do.’ I need to be right, and to persist in my rightness. So off I went to The Right Bible College. It was all so… inevitable. ‘Every system is perfectly designed to deliver the results it gets.’

At one point in my course, a prominent architect of the system came to the college to articulate its inner workings. Essentially it consists of church ministers looking out for Blokes Worth Watching – the ‘BWWs’ (I’m not making this up, this is what he taught) and persuading them away from entering a trade, business, commerce, academia, or the arts, and placing them on a conveyor belt to ministry apprenticeship, then Bible college and on into full-time ministry (of course, ‘ministry’ here means pastoral ministry on the staff of a church). And thus the BWWs become seekers after the next generation of BWWs. The lecture was a real ‘through the curtain’ moment for me. Apparently ministry is, in large part, blokes… watching blokes… who are worth watching. And if they are worth watching then they should be recruited into the same self-sustaining, self-limiting scheme. It’s a system designed to draw in the best of the best – the blokes of all blokes. And the recruitment scheme starts early.

Camps have been a key aspect of the trellis in our part of the vine. For generations, elite boys have been groomed for greatness, but first made to serve. The system had been tailored to the 14-year-old boy with the world at his feet. He was told to get off the throne of his life and be a soldier for Christ instead. The message was: ‘You are a sinner; God will judge you; Christ died for sins; you must turn from sin and serve Him.’ Each point is true, yet when setting them in this frame – and it’s always set in this frame – we’re left with the picture of a dead Christ and a living resolve. Now that Christ has done His bit on the cross, it’s over to us. The sinner is called to a soldierly, will-driven slog towards heaven. And, as we now know, some of the preachers of this gospel accompanied their message with brutal beatings. The uniquely sadistic evil of such abuse should not be ascribed to the system as a whole. But the system as a whole did in fact serve as a hiding place for such evil. That must prompt the most serious soul searching.

And as we widen our attention to the broader evangelical scene, it’s not just an Anglican problem. As a friend from an independent church said to me: ‘Anglican circles feel like a rugby locker room, Independent circles feel like a football locker room, but they’re still just locker rooms, full of blokes.’ There are recognisable dynamics at work across the conservative evangelical spectrum. There is the blokeyness, the pragmatism, the militarism, the strong sense of unimpeachable rightness, the tribalistic them-and-us mentality and the inner rings.

But this is all very negative. So far we have looked largely at what’s wrong with the trellis. Let’s now explore what’s right with the vine. We’ll turn there now by highlighting three wonderful aspects of our churches: the focus on the Bible; on evangelism; and on ministry philosophy.

Conservative evangelicals want to know the Bible, handle the Bible, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the Bible. We want our churches to be ‘Bible-shaped’. We want our sermons to be ‘Bible talks’ that ‘explain a passage’. We believe that God’s word does God’s work – and that is true and good and life-giving.

Conservative evangelicals believe in evangelism and follow through on that belief. We regard personal evangelism highly and seek to inspire and equip our people in it. We invest in evangelism through mission events, weeks and courses. We believe that the world is lost, that it desperately needs Christ, and that the local church is commissioned by Christ to reach its locality.

Conservative evangelicals have a ministry philosophy that really facilitates partnership in mission. We put the Bible front-and-centre and strip back everything else – sacraments, liturgy, gifts of the Spirit, personalities, glitzy worship, talk of money, social action. When I’m invited to do mission in a conservative evangelical church I know they want me to open up the Scriptures and share the gospel with as few distractions as possible. And I love that.

But as we point to what’s wonderful, we also need to point out some shadow sides.

Our Bible emphasis can easily fall foul of Christ’s warning in John 5: that we diligently study the Scriptures but miss coming to Christ to have life. Our preaching can tilt towards the explanation of a passage rather than the proclamation of a Saviour. It can be more like a drill sergeant’s pep talk than a herald’s announcement of victory.

Our evangelism emphasis is excellent but it can also crowd out other concerns, like worship or a richer account of discipleship in all of life. We make Sunday all about ‘accessibility’ to the outsider and we make Monday–Friday all about having ‘conversations at the watercooler’. Worship and discipleship are far deeper than that, but sometimes our brand of evangelism can keep us shallow.

Our ministry philosophy is wonderfully word-centred and mission-focused. But I fear that it lies much too close to the centre of our vision for church life. We have our systems for Blokes Worth Watching, we have our structures for how such leaders are equipped (mainly by giving them ‘Bible handling skills’), we have our patterns of midweek life (unchanged since 1952), we have our gospel presentations memorised by heart, we have our predictable sermon outlines delivered in predictable fashion, and we have a deadly sense that keeping these familiar wheels turning is the name of the game. It’s ministry philosophy that keeps us going. Our focus is far too much on the trellis and far too little on the vine.

We have little place for theology (beyond our simple gospel outline). We have little place for worship (beyond our simple and ‘accessible’) services. We have little place for prayer (beyond the midweek gatherings, run like the camp meeting – the boys being told to keep their prayers Audible, Brief and Clear). We have little place for deep transformation of character (beyond the admonition: ‘just be godly, not long till heaven now’). Are we more trellis than vine – more system than Saviour?

The question is uncomfortable. But in facing it, there is tremendous hope. Because what we desperately need, we already have: Jesus. He says: ‘I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit.’ Parts of the trellis have let us down – at times, dreadfully. Yet Jesus never will. In this moment of crisis it is the perfect opportunity to think on Him, sing to Him, call on Him, abide in Him – to discover, perhaps for the first time, what true theology, worship, prayer and discipleship means. Life is not found in the trellis. But life is abundant in the vine. Let us remain in Him.

 

Glen is director and evangelist with ‘Speak Life’ in Eastbourne, which trains Christians in personal evangelism, in person, in podcasts and videos.