I’ve just returned from a week in St Andrew’s, at the Transforming Leaders conference which was hosted by the Chalmers Institute. The Chalmers Institute is led by Mark and Jenny Stirling, and the conference was based in their home. This conference is, by far, one of the best, if not the best ministry experience I’ve ever encountered as a Christian, or as a Christian leader. Scottish Churches as a whole, and leaders in particular, could benefit greatly from this ministry. The combination of emphasis on leadership, discipleship, mission and theology is exemplary and is richly enhanced by the learning environment (community) and the example of the leaders at Chalmers Institute. I personally arrived at the conference somewhat tired and a little jaded, and left renewed and invigorated.
Learning environment –
- Home environment
- Shared meals
- Shared duties
- Free Time to reflect/discuss with others
- Interaction with speaker during talks
- Small groups
- Case Studies
- Theologically robust
The Chalmers Conference reflects its current social context –many of the attendees were:
- current/former students of St Andrews
- current/former members of Cornerstone
- Current/Former staff members of Student Ministries like Navigators and UCCF
The attendees brought a richness and a vibrancy to the conference. It demonstrated the effectiveness of the Chalmers Institute/Cornerstone Church’s ministry. However, it was a somewhat narrow demographic.
- Church leaders
For me, the demographic raised the following questions:
How can this very excellent model of discipleship-leadership training be made more accessible to:
- leaders who do not have a theological/philosophical education
- ‘Working-class’ church leaders
- Lay-leaders in general
- Christians/leaders who perhaps have not had a university education?
Further, how can this model of ministry, and the rich subject-content, be made accessible to Christians and congregations that are not set in a university town, and that are not made up of high-end professionals and academics? How would this be translated, made accessible and implemented so that it can delivered to Congregations and Christians based in:
- Housing Schemes
- Crofting Communities/rural areas
- Highlands and Islands
- Working-Class families?
Reformed ministry/leadership contexts can be strong on preaching and doctrine but weak on:
- Christian community/authentic relationships
- Character development
This conference has been a real wake up call for me.
As much as I love Reformed Presbyterianism for its emphasis on doctrine and preaching the gospel – I do think there are some essential gaps in some reformed circles and the training of Reformed ministers.
I think the Chalmers Institute could help reformed churches (and the wider church) in a number of essential ways –
To transition from being
- a “church going culture” to being a discipleship community
- Not simply raising up preachers/teachers but pastors/leaders
- Impersonal ministry style to a more inter-personal ministry style (The Stirlings’ and their team demonstrate the following verse “so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well.” 1 Thess 2:8)
- Individualistic to community orientated
- To embed their theology within a solid missiology
- To contextualise their theology
The Chalmers Institute is good at enabling
- Healthy self-examination
- A desire for cultural engagement that is rooted in Biblical and Contextualised missiology
- Vulnerability and confession of sin in a communal context
- Christians, in various spheres of life (and professions) to live for Christ in their context.
The main speaker at the conference this year was Hans Bayer. He brought a wonderful teaching on the biblical motifs of Garden, Temple, and City. There was a tremendous emphasis on personal discipleship and the mission of God.
There were a number of parts of Hans’ teaching that impacted me this week, but one in particular was the following phrase which he said several times.
“Discipleship is not baptising our agenda with pious prayers.”
This resonated with me deeply because it is a theme that has surfaced in my own preaching over the last year as I’ve taken the church through the book of Acts. It also resonated deeply with me because I’m deeply convinced that many of the most active Christians in church life have fallen into this trap. In other words, we are ploughing through life on our own steam. We think because we are Christians, and because our desire is to serve God, that all the areas of service we are involved in are good. But this is not essentially the case. It could actually be the case that our activity is a hindrance to God’s work in our lives. God wants to break us and mould us into conformity to Christ, our agendas and actions can often be short-cuts.
I came away with a few books too. I purchased Hans’ book, ‘A theology of Mark: the dynamic between Christology and authentic discipleship’ and two books by Christopher Wright: ‘The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative’ and ‘The mission of God’s People: a Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission’. God-willing, over the next few months I really want to spend some time in these books, and to draw from the material for my ministry at Dunblane Free Church.
The Chalmers Institute is cutting edge stuff. I hope to be able attend another Chalmers Conference in the future.