Something Grimmo said: “On MTS, failure is success. And success is failure.” Keep this in mind: it’ll be important later.
There was this exciting moment when we went to New Zealand on holidays last summer: I filled out my little cardboard arrival card—in particular, the small box that reads ‘Occupation’.
It’s similar tonight when I lead church. “My name’s Guan”, I announce, “and I’m on MTS … staff … thingy with Unichurch”. It comes out a bit awkwardly, but it’s still there: there’s nothing like stating a truth out loud to make it seem more real. (Maybe that has something to do with evangelism as well—why walk-up evangelism can often be more encouraging for the evangelist than for the evangelized.)
I wouldn’t say that speaking in front of people is one of my strengths. I don’t think anybody else would say it’s one of my strengths either. But by God’s grace, I am slowly getting a bit better at it, and the night goes relatively smoothly.
Our church is called Unichurch because it’s held at the Uni in one of the lecture theatres. This is an oddness that I’ve grown used to over seven years. Because of the location, the large majority of the congregation are students; the average age of its members would be 21 or 22. Recently we’ve been encouraging more graduates to stick around, but as with most churches, change is a slow process.
Another result of having university students is that over summer, most of them travel out of Sydney and even go overseas to visit family, so the congregation is about a fifth of the size it usually is. This lends summer church a casual friendliness that’s quite refreshing.
Tonight the talk is on 1 John 3, and Daniel, a fellow trainee who is beginning his second year on MTS, is preaching. Daniel is married to Kate, who is also doing MTS full-time this year. Daniel has a dry, rewarding sense of humour, and their vague plans (at this stage, all our plans are vague) are to go overseas after graduating from Bible college. It’s easy to see why they work well as a couple—how it would work well if they were to go overseas—how it would work well no matter where they were.
Daniel does a great job: the structure is as smooth as the descent of a wrecking ball, and the impact, about the same. The illustrations he picks are apt and winsome: “Sin is like McDonald’s …” (in that it’s everywhere, it looks enticing and it comes with a free aftertaste of regret).
The passage is big on ‘practice’—the practice of sinning, the practice of lawlessness, the practice of righteousness. It comes home to me again that the Christian life is not often won in one desperate, last-minute play; usually it’s won by persevering in choosing, daily and hourly, to be godly. How different would we be if righteousness was the thing we practised—if we practised it the way we practise piano scales, movie quotes or video games? What if it was the thing we did in the quiet so that we would be ready for the rest of time?
The next week is Campus Bible Study (CBS) staff conference—the staff being the MTS-ers and long-term pastors (or LTPs) working in the university ministry, and the conference being a week of planning, Bible-reading, prayer, strategizing and even team-building.
It is frantic and relaxed and stressful and fun. For example, Kat says, “I like MTS because there’s time to eat a nectarine”.2 The girls wear colourful things, the boys wear dour T-shirts, and on Thursday, everybody wears shorts because of the heat. In a noteworthy piece of people following autonomous gender stereotyping, the boys play a giant version of Jenga and the girls play Set—a game about spotting the relationships between things. At lunch, we throw around a frisbee.
Leading us is Paul (or ‘Grimmo’), our faithful leader. He’s young for the job (30-something), and he is almost unrelentingly personable and funny, yet at the same time, wise and humble. It doesn’t take long before you realize why he’s been entrusted with this massive responsibility—and how well he has carried it out. In person, he’s animated and often hilarious,3 with lively eyes and hair that is slightly greying into the brown.
The details of the job start to bear in and weigh down, but it’s better than being in the fog where you’re not sure exactly what you’re to do. In a fog, everything could be bigger than it is—or at least that’s how it appears.
Here’s a summary of the advice given to us MTS workers:
- Work hard. The ministry is important.
- But it’s God’s work, so rest. (The wrestling match between this point and the first is one you’ll watch all year.)
- Calls, calls, calls, calls: the phone is your friend and also (like some friends you end up spending too much time with) your enemy.
- Paper warfare: to quote an LTP, “We used to say, ‘MTS is about stacking chairs and folding paper’. Thankfully, we’ve moved on from that; now it’s about stacking chairs and sending emails.”
- “Ministry is sexy. That is, you are people in positions of some power, and you are dealing and talking about the deep things of the world—things of real importance.” Thereafter: how not to get involved in icky situations with the opposite sex. The general rule of thumb is that guys minister to guys, and the ladies to the ladies. If there’s something that has to be dealt with in a cross-gender relationship (because of timeliness or prior history), then do that in a public place where nobody could suspect you of anything other than talking. This might seem weird, but it’s not some codified, uppity version of ‘girls have cootie germs’; it’s just a recognition that sex, and the widespread implications thereof, have brought down a whole lot of ministries.4
- We discuss strategies and how important it is not to strategize. (Have I mentioned yet that so many things in Christianity are a paradox?5) Without a strategy, you kind of wander aimlessly. Strategy is a baseline to aim against. But in the face of God’s decision-making and because the ministry is about relationships, when strategy gets in the way of relationships, it must be the first thing to go.
- We look at timetables, how to do administration and how to organize the paper armies. I could tell you more about this, but that would be a bit like ‘A Guide to Great Shipbuilding, brought to you by the guys who did the Titanic’.
The final word for the day: “If we are to be known for one thing, let it be for our humility as a staff team—humility both before the word of God and before one another”.
And then in two short weeks, it’s O-Week or Orientation Week—the week when most of the 10,000 or so first-year students enrolling in the Uni come on campus for the first time to get shown around, enticed into various clubs and societies, see bands, play on a jumping castle, and major on the free food and drinks that are given out by marketing companies—10,000 smart teenagers who are here to be hit with the marketing spin that University is Fun.
And us? We’re here to tell them about Jesus.
It’s one of the crucial periods for us as a group at the Uni because it’s the best time to let first-year students know who we are and what we’re on about. Unfortunately, every other group on campus also wants to recruit these students, so the space gets crowded pretty easily. We’re an especial pain in the neck for the Uni, because a) there are a lot of us (we’re the biggest student group on campus); b) in an economic sense, we don’t contribute very much to the Uni by being there; and c) we’re preaching the name of Jesus.
Because of this, the only place we’re allowed to ‘actively’ recruit students is on the main walkway—a five-metre wide path that extends about half the way through the campus. It’s near the entrance where a lot of buses stop—where most people will walk in for the first time. Most of the time, it’s quite peaceful, with grass lining both sides of the path. This week, it’s crazy, and the grass and pavement are taken up by almost a hundred different stalls—each for a different university group or student group. The keener groups have their people spruiking or stopping people, or doing demonstrations—baton twirling and juggling, breakdancing and tribal drumming.
Someone with a sense of humour (possibly God) has put the Campus Bible Study stall about halfway up this stretch—right between the Liberal Party stall and the Socialist Students.
We assemble in the morning at 8 am for prayer and a quick briefing. People are sent out in vague teams. For example, one team each day is responsible for the barbeque we run, giving out free serves of that particular local delicacy known as sausage-on-bread. As people queue up for the free food, Christian students can line up alongside people and chat to them as they wait. As I help flip sausages in the heat, one of the most encouraging points of the day is listening to CBS students start up conversations with complete strangers. I marvel at the way God has given them different personalities, backgrounds and gifts, and yet, at the same time, the same yearning to tell others his gospel.
It’s a dizzying couple of days. The sun is hot, it’s tiring to be on your feet all day, and it’s emotionally draining to keep on trying to engage people in conversations, and sustaining yourself through hundreds of refusals. The free food helps; we pillage the stand that gives out cups of brand name iced tea and lament that, this year, nobody’s giving out free chocolate. We give out 4,000 of our flyers in one day.
And we pray and we pray and we pray.
And so it all starts, and in my head I think, “Wait, shouldn’t there be an official Starting MTS Induction Ceremony or something?” And nobody responds, so excuse the cliché, but I can’t quite believe this is happening.
What is MTS? Here’s my working answer: it’s figuring out what you do when it’s just you, God, his word and giving that word to his people. There’s no restriction on what you can do, except who God has made you to be—no limit as to how you might fail, except the limit of sinfulness. Then there’s training, where you fall down and make mistakes, only to get up again and try and do it better.
And this last one is something you end up practising a lot.
- Hereafter, she is mostly referred to as M, if only to bring the universe of James Bond ever so slightly closer to my own. ↩
- Kat is a former lawyer (which explains the quote). But against the usual lawyer clichés, you’d have to go considerably out of your way to dislike her and that all-inclusive smile she has. She is something of a pedant though—something I point out in a distinctly log-eyed way. ↩
- There’s a point where his synonym for ‘bad’ becomes ‘not hilarious’, which helps you picture for a second the kind of binary worldview that splits everything up into ‘hilarious’ and ‘not hilarious’. Paul is nowhere near this simplistic, but it is a little insight into his personality. ↩
- There is also, as with any works-based rule of thumb, the possibility of going too far—for example, refusing to ever minister to someone of the opposite sex in any way by not praying with them or not waving in too suggestive a fashion. All of this will vary according to conscience, leading and prior relationships—in particular, your relationship with your spouse and whether or not they have a spouse. ↩
- And not a paradox at the same time. ↩