Training Indigenous Church Leaders

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Tony Merida: Welcome to “Churches Planting Churches,” a podcast on the theology and practice of church planting. I’m your host, Tony Merida. God commissions his people to be global disciple-makers. It’s our great privilege to bring the good news that Christ saves sinners to the nations. We go, we send, we baptize, and we teach others to obey God’s word. We primarily do this through church planting, but some places are harder to plant in than others.

Church in Hard Places is a resource sharing collaborative that trains and supports indigenous church leaders in poor communities. Many poor communities like gospel-preaching churches and many churches in poor communities lack access to affordable and relatable teaching. The Church in Hard Places Collaborative is a global initiative of Acts 29, which seeks to see churches planted in the world’s poorest communities.

One way this collaborative trains indigenous church leaders is through church planting apprenticeships. Participants receive two years of theologically robust and culturally relevant instruction to equip them to serve in their context and are brought into a larger network of like-minded churches.

Joining us on the podcast today is Matthew Spandler-Davidson. Matthew serves as the Operations Manager for Church in Hard Places, he’s also the Executive Director of 20schemes and is the pastor of Redeemer Fellowship in Bardstown, Kentucky. MSD, welcome to the podcast, man.

Matthew Davison: Hey, thank you. Great to be with you.

Tony: It is so good to be with this brother, one of the sharpest guys I know. We just spent a couple of days actually in Dallas and we’re going to be in Paris next week. So, it’s like, I’m getting a lot of MSD in my life. I’m excited about that. That’s not a drug by the way. That’s the initials of Matthew Spandler-Davidson who is Scottish, right?

Matthew: Yeah. I mean, so, I was born in Norway. So, born in Stavanger, Norway, my dad’s from Dublin, Ireland, mum was from England but grew up in Scotland. So, I’m pretty much the United Nations. And so, now living in Bardstown, Kentucky, married to a girl from Gulf Shores, Alabama.

Tony: Wow. So, you’re from the UK. Would that would be appropriate to say?

Matthew: Yup. Yup. Yup.

Tony: But now you cheer for UK, like University of Kentucky.

Matthew: So, it’s a funny story. When I first moved here back in 2004, 2003, I saw these UK flags up and I honestly thought, “Man, these people love us.” Like, it was during, like, the Gulf War, the Iraq War, and Britain was like the only people standing with America. And I was like, “Man, they really love us over here.” And then finally, I figured out what the UK flag meant.

Tony: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I say that with great affection because I am a University of Kentucky fan. I can not get it out of my blood. But anyway, you told me you have not contextualized it all. You don’t give a rip about Kentucky basketball or any other sport, right?

Matthew: That’s probably true. Yeah. I’ve tried to. I’ve tried to try to figure out the… I mean, I love Kentucky. I appreciate Kentucky. I appreciate the town I’m in, and the community I’m in, and the heritage, and the bourbon

Tony: Now, I think really what’s happened is you got fed up with the scotch and you’ve headed for the hills, man. You wanted bourbon.

Matthew: No, no, no, not so much. I got fed up with the weather. It’s a better climate here than what I’m used to growing up in cold wet, damp, rainy Scotland, but yeah. [inaudible 00:04:01] Love it there.

Tony: How did a guy like you end up in Bardstown, Kentucky and how did you meet a girl in Gulf shores, Alabama?

Matthew: Yup. Yup. So, I, yeah, so, I didn’t grow up in a Christian home. My parents were not believers. I went to a high school of 1,000 students just near Aberdeen, Scotland. Didn’t know any Christians in the school, but my mum became good friends with a Christian lady, and she started going to a smaller Baptist church, church about 15 people then the coast of Scotland. I’d go along with her and probably when I was about 16 was when I heard the gospel pretty clearly during communion at this little Baptist church. They practice close communion. And since I was the only non-Christian in the room, they were closing the table to me and put… That act is what really woke me up to the gospel that I’m an outsider, I’m looking in, I need to take this seriously. I met with the pastor and came to faith when I was about 17. Then that church had, it was a… The guy who was pastor that church is a Ph.D. student in Aberdeen Uni, but he was from Mobile, Alabama. So, he was Jason Lee. I think you know him. So, he was pastoring at that church. So, there was a mission team that came over from Mobile, and my soon-to-be wife at the time, Tracy, was on that team. In Scotland, if you’re young Christian guy, all the single Christian ladies were in their 70s and 80s. And so, when the mission teams of Americans come in, then you know that there is opportunity there to potentially find a girl, find a wife. And so, we stayed in touch about three years and got married. And so, I had full-on Scottish wedding with kilts, bagpipess, and everything in Mobile, Alabama. That’s quite the event.

Tony: Did you like the food and Mobile? You like all the seafood and stuff?

Matthew: Yeah. I love the seafood. I couldn’t get all the grits, and biscuits, and gravy, and casseroles, and all that stuff. I’ve grown to appreciate that more over time, but when I first went there, like, “What is this? Why are you basically blending all your food together and putting cheese on top and calling it a casserole? I don’t understand what this is. I’m sorry.” I’ve definitely got greater appreciation of it now. Yeah.

Tony: Oh man. So, you went to Southern Seminary, right? And you said you moved to Bardstown that because you found cheaper housing and you discovered there was no church there. Did I get that right?

Matthew: Yeah. So, I moved to… I initially went to the States to do an internship by Capitol Hill Baptist Church with Mark Davis. So, Mark was the one that got me to the States. And at the end of that internship, I really didn’t know what seminary do you go to. Before I went into the internship, I was active in politics. I worked for the Scottish Parliament. There, I got a degree in politics from Aberdeen Uni. And so, I really wasn’t thinking ministry until the internship with Mark and encouraged me to go to Southern Seminary, had no idea what Southern Seminary was, but he was a trustee at Southern. So, did what I was told, went to Southern and just loved it, had a great time there. But while I was at Southern was looking to buy a house. I sold my house in Scotland. I was looking to purchase a house. And there was realtor Bardstown, Kentucky there in my church history course. So, I came to Bardstown, fell in love with this little town, moved here, but there was no gospel church, very Catholic townk predominantly, about 80% Roman Catholic. And so, there is a liberal Baptist church or a, kind of, very hyper seeker-sensitive church, but no healthy gospel church. And so, quite accidentally, unintentionally, planted a church in our basement and did that about 15 years ago. And that’s the church I still pastor to this day.

Tony: How did you get involved with Church in Hard Places and what do you do? What’s your role there?

Matthew: So, I am the Operations Manager of Church in Hard Places, which essentially means I run the activities of Church in Hard Places. So, the events, the training, the resources that we produce, run the staff of Church in Hard Places. Now, Church in Hard Places is an initiative of Acts 29. So, if you like, we’re a department within 89 that’s specifically focused on what does it look like to assess, train, resource support church planters from poor communities around the world. And so, we recognize as 89 that we’re a global network, but we’re not a particularly diverse network. So, most of the churches that we’re seeing planted tend to be middle-class suburban, highly educated. So, as it comes to diversity, we had a lot of work to do. So, the initiatives really help to think through the diversity question. So, Mez McConnell has been friend of mine. So, Mez and I started a ministry called 20schemes about seven years ago, which is a church planting ministry amongst the poor in Scotland. So, he and I co-founded that, co-directors of that ministry in Scotland. And really, Church in Hard Places, the work that we do globally is of taking a lot of the resources, the work that we’ve learned, and we’ve developed in Scotland through 20schemes. Doug Logan, co-director with Mez has done similar work here in the U. S. And so, what Mez and I do tends to be the global side of it, and then Doug through Grimke and cultivating other resources in the U.S. And so. I just, kinda, help manage those two wonderful glorious men and all that they produce.

Tony: Yeah. That’s quite a job, man. I mean, you three together, it’s like… I told my wife after coming back from Dallas, we’re like a bunch of cartoon characters, you know.

Matthew: Yeah. It’s a good way of putting it. It’s a comedy show, car crash, one of those two things going on at the same time.

Tony: So, how do you do all this MSD, because I just told Brittany here in the studio that if there’s one guy that travels more than me, I know there are millions of people that travel more than me, but I’m speaking from my own confession of weariness from travel, I know it is MSD. You are everywhere in the world. I mean, it is remarkable. How do you pastor, do family, do life, and still have your hair looking that good in the middle of all of this?

Matthew: Hopefully, I’m not gonna catch up with you on that part of it, but yeah. So, it’s a challenge, but it’s one thing in ministry and you know this that you can’t do this, kinda, ministry well, kinda, pioneer ministry well without being on the ground, being with people, developing relationships, and growing trust. And so, that’s just the reality of ministry is face time. So, you can do so much on Zoom, you can do so much on email, but unless you’re in the room, unless you’re developing relationships and friendships, you can’t do that. And so, we have an unusual ability, in our day and age, to be able to cross the world that 34 years ago would have been impossible. But we have a pretty extraordinary ability that last week I was in Australia, next week I’ll be in Paris. You know, that’s, you know, 30 years ago that would have been impossible. And so, we have that opportunity now. It’s exhausting, it’s wearing, it’s not something that I would encourage people to do. It’s, you know, it’s not something you should aspire to this kind of… I don’t even know how long I can do it, but for right now, I’ve got the ability to do it.

For me, each week looks different. I pastor a church. That’s my day job. I love my church. I love to preach, teach, shepherd, lead my elders. And so, each week, I’m typically preaching in my own congregation, meeting with the elders, shepherding the people. But I lead good teams and I think that’s the only way this can work is I’ve got a great team through 20schemes, a great team at my church or by vocational at the church and a fantastic team at Church in Hard Places. And as long as you’ve got good teams that are, kinda, keeping the things running, kinda, moving on the conversation, then you can manage it well. So, it’s really about managing teams, managing relationships, and then keeping a good rhythm. So, each week is different. So, I don’t think of, you know, Monday I do this, a few my months or year through rhythms. So, I’m in a rest rhythm, or I’m in a travel rhythm, or I’m in a, kinda, heavy, busy, kinda, preaching mode rhythm. And so, I kinda, look at the rhythms of my life and make sure that I’m keeping good boundaries around that.

Tony: Can you teach us how to say 20schemes? 20, 20.

Matthew: 20, 20schemes.

Tony: I love it, man. Now, these church planting apprentices, talk to us about these apprenticeships. How many are there, how many guys are in each, what’s that process like?

Matthew: So, Church in Hard Places is the main thing that we really offer, particularly those in developing countries, poor communities, is the Church in Hard Places apprenticeship. And the apprenticeship is really hands-on learning. So, if you grew up in a community where you’ve not had access to formal training, maybe even struggle with literacy, then you learn better through doing, and you’ll learn better through just, kinda, peer-to-peer mentoring and relationships. So, it’s essentially what an apprenticeship is. So, you know, if you look at, I mean, that’s true in the U.S. So, you’ve got the trade sector. Most people in the trade sector would learn through apprenticeship model through doing, and then you’ve got also through the vocational sector. Then you’ve got the, kinda, the intellectual sector where we learn by reading, and writing, and going to classes, and getting a degree. And it doesn’t assume that those in the vocational sector are not capable of learning. They just learn differently. And so, we view the apprenticeship model as a way of learning and a way of training that is much more hands-on and relational. So, we have about 130 guys in the Church in Hard Places apprenticeship. We form them into regional cohorts, typically 10 to 12 men will be in a cohort. Those cohorts will meet monthly. We’ll assign a reading assignment, a writing assignment, and then a discussion group, but it’s around a practical issue or a theological issue. And then each year, we bring our regional cohort together for an intensive where we do preaching, practical theology questions, ecclesiology. We do that in an intensive training setting. And so, if you’re in Kampala in Uganda, or if you’re in Nairobi, then you’ll be in our East Africa cohort is by far our biggest right now. We’ve got two cohorts there in East Africa. And they’ll meet monthly with each other, they’ll read, they’ll discuss the reading, and then we’ll have our intensive. So, I’ll be there in a couple of weeks for our intensive in that region.

Tony: It’s been great to partner with Church in Hard Places as a guy on the emerging region’s team, going over there, and doing work, and handing these guys to MSD to work through the apprenticeships and the assessments. And it’s just exciting to hear what’s going on in the part of the world.

Matthew: It’s even the way we assess. You think about Acts 29 has a great way of assessing church planters. So, it’s really our bread and butter. We assess church planters, and then, once our guys are assessed, we seek to provide ongoing coaching and training. But the assessment up to this point has really excluded those who’ve had no formal training. And so, we’ve asked the question, “What do we do with these?” So, I think historically, we just haven’t been able to answer that question well. So, that’s why Acts 29 is predominantly made up of educated intellectual guys who are pastoring churches in that same context. And so, what does assessment look like? We don’t wanna dumb down theology. We don’t wanna dumb down the distinctives. We don’t wanna dumb down the character convictions that we have. We just wanna assess differently and so we assess through the apprenticeship.

Tony: I love it, man. And then last year at the global gathering, there was this large event of the Church in Hard Places guys and it brought such an exciting dynamic to Acts 29. And you just sit there with a big smile, right? You just love seeing these guys there.

Matthew: Yeah, just seeing them there because it’s such a culture shock for them even to be in that room and just to navigate and just hearing them. So, I just get to hang out with these guys all the time and just hearing their experience of something that to us feels so normal. Even like being in a Marriott hotel in Orlando, Florida. I mean, that to us felt so normal, but to our guys, it was such a culture shock and just to walk with them through that and for them to be both excited, but also at moments to be appalled by some of the things that they saw and to walk them through that to feel their worth, but also to feel confused. And, yeah. It’s just great to have them come and be a part of that and have our guys be part of their networks in the region they’re in. And that’s really the biggest challenge I think Acts 29 is gonna have. We can assess these guys, and they can end up joining. But what are they joining? And are we ready to really to ask those questions? If we wanna be a truly diverse family of churches, then that that’s the real culture shock that will take place. You know, I said this a few years ago, it’s easy to global. That doesn’t take a lot of work to become a global family. It takes a lot of work to become truly diverse. And I think those are the questions that we’re seeking to really think about and answer.

Tony: That’s a good word right there.

Matthew: If you have these 120 guys, they’re coming, you know, they’re coming in. So, what are they coming into? And I think that’s gonna be some pressure points in every layer of Acts 29 that we’ve gotta be thinking about.

Tony: And diversity that you’re talking about is not just a racial diversity, right? We’re talking about the class issue, right?

Matthew: Yup. So, you can have racial diversity, but still all, you know, but still not truly be diverse. And so, we think about social-economic diversity. And so, that’s both racial, that’s ethnic, that’s linguistic, but it’s certainly also social-economic. And I think that’s the hardest culture divide in many ways is a social-economic culture divide.

Tony: Absolutely.

Matthew: And so, it’s been able to bridge that divide and so, allow our guys to feel at home, and at ease. So, you think about church planting conferences, or church planting resources, even seminaries, they are writing to and equipping themselves for a certain demographic and historically been able to get away with that. And so last year I was in Nairobi and I’m walking through the slums in Nairobi and these communities, they don’t lack churches. There are plenty of churches in these communities. They’re very spiritual places, but what they lack is the gospel because the only people really paying any attention to these communities are the prosperity gospel, the health and wealth, and really we’ve abandoned the poor to theological wolves who are preying in poor communities all around the world. And so, when we hear a guy from the slum preach, we make immediate assumptions about him because he’s preaching a false gospel and we write them off. And what I wanna say is like, they’re preaching what they know because we’re not telling them anything different. And so, let’s go in there, be prepared to get messy, get dirty, and get alongside these guys who are teachable, who are humble and, let’s teach them the gospel, and how to preach, and how to shepherd their people well. And so, that’s what the apprenticeship is doing.”

Tony: Yeah. Yeah. I love that line, man. And what a statement, “We’ve abandoned the poor to theological wolves.”

Matthew: Yeah. I see all over the world. You see it in this country. Wherever you go, you see it.

Tony: Yeah. Yeah. When I’ve been in a Nairobi training on emerging regions, it’s amazing the teachability. And like you say, a lot of these guys have shoddy theology, but it’s only because that’s what’s present

Matthew: It’s all they know. It’s all they know. And it’s got the appearance of success or blessing because it grows. And so, whereas now, we’re trying to do, it takes work, and it takes study, and it takes time, but these, I mean, the guys that we’re working with, they love Jesus. There’s no doubt. They love Jesus, they love the Bible, but no one’s ever really invested in them giving them solid theology. And, you know, even the apprenticeship model, it’s a lot of ministries will go in and do an event, or will do a conference, or give a book, and we think that’s enough, but that’s not enough. What’s gonna keep these guys from then going to the next conference that comes into town the next week that’s teaching something completely opposite? What’s really gonna keep them grounded is the relationship that develops in these cohorts. That’s where accountability comes in is the relational accountability that’s developed through these cohorts as they grow together, as they, kinda, hold each other accountable, and as they remain in relationship together as part of a network of a family of churches in that region.

Tony: You touched on this some, but what are some of the misconceptions that people have of these aspiring church leaders in hard places? What would you want us to know?

Matthew: I think an immediate misconception about people in poor communities is just because they don’t have an education, you make the assumption that they’re stupid, that they have the inability to learn. This is not true. I think the opposite is true and often, they’re incredibly gifted. So, we make a lot of assumptions about people based on idea of credentialing or intellectuality or education. And so, our guys, they love to learn, they’re eager to learn. We make an assumption that all they want is our money. That’s not true either. They don’t want money, they need this, they got real needs, and they don’t wanna belittle that, but I think what they value more than anything is people pouring into them relationally as mentorship, as coaching, as friendship. I think we’re making a lot of assumptions, as well, that comes from a resource or a cultural paternalistic attitude that we have all the answers and they’ve got nothing to teach us. But the reverse is true as well. I want to not just see these guys flourish in their context. I want to see these guys be in a position, in a place so we can learn from them as well when they’ve got a great deal to teach us about ministry, about pastoring, about preaching, and teaching. So, it’s, yeah. I think we make assumptions about learning style, about how to do church, particularly in poor communities. So, poor communities, the issues tend to be the same whether in a reservation in North America, or you’re in a slum in East Africa, or the schemes of Scotland, you got a high level of mental health issues, high level of addiction issues, low level of literacy often, low level of education attainment. Often people are dealing with issues around abuse, abuse of whether it’s domestic abuse, sexual abuse, kind of, a low view of just life in general. So, it is almost like a disposable view of life. Often it’s true in poor communities can be quite matriarchal, often a lot of strong dominant women. Men tend to be absent.

So, these are true. These are true, whether I’m in Appalachia, or whether I’m in Rio de Janeiro, these tend to be true common factors in poor communities around the world. So, what does discipleship look like in that context? So, it’s easy to make the assumption that somebody from a suburban middle-class Western church can teach somebody how to do discipleship well in that context. That’s just not true because discipleship does look different, preaching does look different, evangelism does look different. The church look the same. You know, we still preach, we sing, we worship the same way, but the way we do church looks different. So, if your discipleship model is based on the small group, “Let’s kinda get together on a Wednesday night,” that’s just not gonna work in our communities because people live in a state of constant flux, and chaos, and crises. And so, yeah. There’s a lot of assumptions that we make about what we can bring to them rather than what we can learn from them.

Tony: That’s good, man. I’m just curious about what you would say to the preaching question since you’ve mentioned it in passing there. What… excuse me. What would be the differences in our preaching there?

Matthew: I mean, often, it’s much more about language that we use, not so much about style. I mean, style I think is gonna be different. It depends on where you’re at, not depends on, I don’t think it’s necessarily a class thing. But it’s, I think, expository preaching works wherever you are. So, expository preaching works in a poor context as it does in a suburban context. But I do think it’s the way you communicate, it’s the assumptions you make, it’s the word you use. You just gotta make sure that you’re speaking in a way that people are gonna understand and hear what you’re saying. Even the illustrations you use, the applications you use, most preaching books, most commentaries are using illustrations and applications that are so middle-class and that are so rooted in a middle-class worldview that is doesn’t land in our context. And so, it’s less about content in terms of the theology of the message. It’s much more about how you illustrate and apply that message.

Tony: Yeah. Conceptualization.

Matthew: Yep.

Tony: Not everybody’s reading CS Lewis and “Chronicles of Narnia” and “Lord of the Rings,” right?

Matthew: Yup. Who you quote, how you quote, and the movies you watch, it’s all different. And then also often, there tends to be more feedback that comes. So, sometimes when you’re preaching in a poor context, there does tend to be a little bit more feedback, so more of a two-way street. Sometimes, I love that. I love that when I’m in a church in one of our communities that there’s this constant feedback going on during the service.

Tony: Yeah. Yeah. Talk to us about how can we support Church In Hard Places? Listeners out there intrigued by the work going on around the world. What would you tell them how can they get behind you guys?

Matthew: There’s so many ways. So, find out more about who we are and pray about… We’d love ultimately to have churches and perhaps individual, churches, and networks to adopt a cohort. When I say adopt a cohort on this, I mean, kinda, financially gift to them, but I mean get to know them, pray for them, get to know their story. So, connect to the Church In Hard Places. I had conversation with the church yesterday about doing just this. Find out what we’re doing. If you’re doing work in a particular region of the world and you’ve got a particular heart for the Latin America, or Southern Africa, or Asia, we’ve probably got a cohort there. Reach out to us and I’d love to connect you with a guy who is gospel-centered, who is seeking to build a gospel-centered healthy church in that region and get to know that our cohort guys. Pray for them, support them, and partner with them.

Tony: Excellent. MSD, a fount of wisdom. Always a pleasure my brother.

Matthew: Love it. Always enjoy it.

Tony: Yeah. See you soon, mate.

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