Q&A with Marty
A chat about new books, the place of reading in ministry, and how to build a 'disciple-making' culture over time in your church.
For those of who are new to The Payneful Truth, every month or so I have a Q&A style conversation with a friend. It’s usually one of the partner-only posts, but this month I thought I’d made it a freebie for everyone on the list. This month it’s with my good friend Marty Sweeney, director of Matthias Media in the USA, and a pastor at Old North Church in Canfield, Ohio. We talk about some new books in the pipeline from Matthias Media, about an extraordinary new book not published by Matthias Media, about whether reading is relevant anymore anyway, and about what Marty has learned about building a ‘discipling’ culture at his church over the last ten years.
The text below is a shorter, edited transcript of our conversation. The attached audio version is considerably longer, with plenty of extra diversions and discussions.
Tony: Let me start with a simple one: what are you reading at the moment?
Marty: Well, my fun bedside book is the letters between two American founding fathers (as we call them): Thomas Jefferson, and our second president John Adams. They corresponded over the last 14 years of their life, and wrote these exquisite letters back and forth. Their dialogue is just amazing, and one of their big topics was analyzing what true Christianity is and where it’s been corrupted. Of course, they would say we’ve corrupted it! But anyway, that’s been a fun read.
On the more overtly Christian side, one of my jobs at Matthias Media is to read a lot of manuscripts for publication. And I’ve recently been reading one by Peter Jensen. We don’t know what we’re going to call the book (perhaps The Life of Faith), but it is basically a systematic theology. And I just was really encouraged by it. Unlike many of you over there, I never had the opportunity to sit under Peter’s teaching, lecturing or sermons. Just to sit for a week and be saturated in the way he threads together doctrine—boy, that was really good. Lord willing, Peter’s book will be out sometime in 2022.
I also just finished another manuscript—this one by our mutual friend, Ian Carmichael—on the topic of busyness. It’s based on some talks he did at his local church, and it’s a really helpful look at what busyness really is and how we should think about it in our lives.
Today I started on a new book by Craig Hamilton that has just been released by Matthias Media (one of the few I haven’t read). It’s a follow-up to his really, really helpful book, Wisdom in Leadership. This one’s called Wisdom in Leadership Development. I’m only three chapters in, but finding it very stimulating so far.
But Tony, let me turn it back on you on the subject of reading. I’m working with a young man at our church. He’s a lovely man of God, striving hard to grow, and he’s got a normal job that keeps him busy. He’s just had his first child.
But he recently said to me: “I’m not a reader. I hardly ever read. And I do most of my learning through podcasts or documentaries.”
So I’m curious: How much do we allow for that as we teach and train people? How much do we allow for the new technology, and the new way of people’s lives? Or should we insist on reading?
Tony: I think my first reaction would be that the new technologies and possibilities are enriching and are a bonus, but that they can’t replace what happens and how you learn when you engage in long-form reading. And that’s because of the way reading works, the way it unfolds an argument. It can unfold an argument at a length and depth that a podcast or a video just can’t do (or a sermon for that matter!).
They are complementary. Because if you think about it, that’s the way learning and growth works in our Christian lives.
We hear the word coming to us on the lips of other people—in sermons, in Bible studies, in discussion. But then there’s the time when you sit, and read, and reflect, and chew over the word of the Biblein a way that you can’t do in a conversation, or by listening to a sermon or a podcast or YouTube clip.
And so certainly with the guys and girls that we’re training at Campus Bible Study, we’re trying to help them learn to be readers and to learn by reading. I’m not a purist who thinks, “We’ve got to get back to books, and get rid of these ridiculous modern technologies”. It’s nothing like that. But to exclude reading, or to think that it can all be achieved without it, scrubs out a massive and irreplaceable medium for learning and growth.
Marty: You wrote a resource a couple of years ago, a kind of book-course hybrid called The Generosity Project. It has a book with the content in it, but also videos you can play in your small group (which mirror the content of the book). And I tried a little experiment. I would read through a section in the book and highlight and note the key points. And then I would watch the video—and it was interesting how different things stuck out to me in the video. So yes, I think there’s something really healthy about using both forms of communication, and getting the best out of both.
Tony: I think there’s a lot of potential in that kind of format. In fact (as you know!) we’re thinking that this sort of multi-faceted resource will become a regular thing. We’re thinking of calling them ‘learn together’books: a book or resource that is not so much for reading on your own but for helping you learn with others in a small group, using a blend of different inputs and activities. There’s the conversational, interactive, inductive process of working on the Bible together and talking about what it means for us; then there’s the video-based input that provides summaries, teaching and illustrative examples; and then there’s also slabs of text to read and reflect on (whether during the group time or afterwards). All part of ‘learning together’, and all in the one book (with the videos available free online).
So far, the feedback on The Generosity Project—which was kind of the prototype—has been very encouraging. We’re going to do a similar sort of thing with the new Two Ways to Live training resources that will be coming out next year.
Marty: I have a fun question to ask: what is the book you wish you’d written? I’ve heard authors say that that’s how they endorse a book: “This is the book I wish I’d written”. I’m curious what you would say.
Tony: Actually, I have a golf book here on my desk called The Elements of Scoring: a master’s guide to the art of scoring your best when you’re not playing your best by Raymond Floyd. I really wished I’d written that because that would mean I’d be as good a golfer as Raymond Floyd!
But the other book that’s on my desk at the moment that I’m really enjoying and learning from is David Seccombe’s book, The Gospel of the Kingdom: Jesus’ revolutionary message. I guess it’s not so much that I wish I’d written it, but that I’m really glad that David has!
There’s been a lot of debate recently about the gospel. In fact, in The Payneful Truth we’ve had a bunch of posts about that subject and where apologetics also fits in. And of course, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how to summarize and convey the gospel (as part the new editions of the Two Ways to Live material).
I’m convinced more than ever about the need to integrate the atoning death of Christ, by which we are forgiven and justified, with the glorious resurrection of Christ as the Lord and King and Judge of all, who now offers forgiveness, to whom we now joyfully submit, and who will return in glory.
For many people, it seems like it has to be one or the other. A gospel of forgiveness of sins through the cross, or a ‘gospel of the kingdom’ that focuses on the resurrection and the hope of a new creation. The ‘gospel of the kingdom’ people often criticize traditional evangelicalism for being too individualistic and making it just about the salvation of souls. “It’s really about a whole new kingdom, and a new creation, and the restoration of all things, etc. etc.” And before you know it, the gospel is all about the renewal of the creation—and the idea that Jesus died as a substitute on the cross for your sins has become a footnote on page 27.
David has succeeded in showing how in the New Testament itself, these two aspects are not ‘competitors’ but part of the same gospel proclamation. It’s brilliantly done, and really important for thinking about evangelism here and now.
Marty: I just read it with the apprentices at our church. I would say it’s as paradigm-changing for me as reading Goldsworthy’s Gospel and Kingdom about 20 years ago. It’s a fantastic book.
Tony: Marty, can I swing it back to you? One of the things that’s encouraged me in working with you over many years is the work that you’re doing at Old North Church in Canfield, in Ohio—as a kind of laboratory of the ‘trellis and vine’ discipleship ministry we’ve been talking about for so long. You’ve been at Old North now for…?
Marty: Ten years next week.
Tony: As you look back, what have been the key things that you’ve learned about trying to actually implement this kind of ministry philosophy in a church?
Marty: God has been very kind. As I reflect back, I am grateful to have gained a little bit of wisdom. I remember hearing Don Carson once say (as a teacher): “Until people get tired of hearing you say the same thing and roll their eyes, you haven’t said it enough”. I think I’ve learned this over the years. You have to keep saying it again and again. So I’ve taught The Course of Your Life many times, and I keep being surprised (although I shouldn’t be) how much I need to keep saying it all again and again and again. I shouldn’t be surprised—God keeps having to say the same things to me again and again.
So one lesson has been: to spread a new culture of discipling, you have to keep saying the same thing—maybe in the same ways, sometimes in different ways—again and again. And this has meant that, over time, we’ve come to have a new shared language at Old North. This has been more important than I ever would have thought ten years ago.
The other thing I would say is that I’ve learned the value of breaking down the distinction between what we might call ‘personal Christian ethics’ and ‘training in ministry’. What we once might have said is, “You teach people to be godly Christians, to live ethically, and then later on you might train them to be involved in a ministry”.
But that’s separating two things that belong together. The ethical response to being a Christian is to make disciples. And (to go back to my first point), I’ve been saying that again and again and again.
And perhaps one last thing. I’ve learned about the need to be patient, to hold people’s hands a little more, to help and encourage them over time to implement or execute or whatever you want to say it. I have tended to think, “If I get the message right, and the shared language right, and we teach that repeatedly—then people will go and do it”. But that’s not often the case, even for the best of us. And I put myself in that camp! We need encouragement and help and support to put it into practice.
So someone who really ‘gets’ it still needs help. They still need someone to remind them, “Hey, Beau—why don’t you go over there? There’s a newcomer. Would you mind following him up?” Something as simple as that. “Could you meet up with this person who’s really struggling during this season of life, and read the Bible with them?”
Things like that. I think I have underestimated how much we need to do that.
Tony: That’s really helpful, Marty. It’s funny, isn’t it? We’ve heard it 47 times and know what we should do. And yet strangely, we don’t do it. We still need each other to keep reminding and encouraging and exhorting each other to love other people in the gospel.
And that’s what you’ve done for me (and hopefully our readers and listeners) over the past few minutes. Thank you.
Hope you enjoyed that little chat. Next week (God willing) it’s back to finish the series on faith, love and hope as the essence of the Christian life. If you’d like to catch up on that series (and read its exciting conclusion!), you can become a partner/subscriber very easily (and very freely for the first 60 days) by clicking this button and signing up for the free trial: