Book review: Church Planting is for Wimps, by Mike McKinley

I love this book’s subtitle: “How God uses messed-up people to plant ordinary churches that do extraordinary things”. It’s the literary equivalent of click-bait, because well I’m a bit messed up, and I’d like to do extraordinary things, so of course I want to read this!

The reality – rather assuringly – is that Mike McKinley isn’t particularly messed up and the church that God builds through his work isn’t particularly extraordinary. Of course, then the subtitle would be “how God uses average people to plant ordinary churches that do ordinary things”. And the reality for most of us is this is exactly who and where we are, and therefore this is a super read. It’s also a quick read – I got through most of it in 90 minutes in a coffee shop, and to be honest I’m using this review to capture the main points so that they last longer in my mind than the flat white I was drinking at the time.

Mike Mckinley joined Capitol Hill Baptist church as a young punk (the UK variety), and yet found a home with people who were culturally at another end of another spectrum. After some years working and in seminary, the senior minister, Mark Dever, asked him to go and plant another church as part of CHBC’s newly formed planting strategy. This was driven simply by the practical constraints of their building. Too many people for their building and nothing more spirutual than that.

The story is simply that of a young minister going through all the anguish, decision making and work that pretty much any church planter/invigorator must go through. He went to help an old and knackered church called Guilford Baptist rediscover the gospel and life itself.  Many questions arise, and McKinley uses his biography as his answer. Will it work? Am I the right man? What about the stroppy existing members of the church? How will it affect the family and marriage? How do we grow? What about evangelism?

Mike’s ordinariness, and his American take on self-deprecating jolliness is charming. Some of the book is laugh our loud funny – I love the image Mike paints of Mark Dever being in the Reformed Mafia, along with his “boundary issues”. Of course there are questions that McKinley never answers, but it was a helpful read – two or three of these testimonies are worth as much as any accomplished manual on church planting and revitalisation.

Three things strike me.

(1) The act of church planting and revitalisation is invigorating for Christians.  It makes us excited about faith in Jesus and so we talk about it- and ideally Him – to others.  That’s evangelism.

(2) As with pretty much any significant church growth, a good chunk of it comes from an unexpected angle; the work amongst the Spanish speakers was not something that was carefully envisaged in the early days.

(3) Most of all it reminded me that the truths for church plants/revitalisation are the same as for any churches – our job is the great commission: as we go, we are to make disciples of all nations, baptising them and teaching them to obey and follow Jesus. That’s it.


The Gospel According to Blade Runner 2049 (A Film Review)

We film lovers enjoy a period of cinema history where many films are prequels, sequels, or even part of a cinematic universe. In the last year or two, we’ve had Star Wars, Justice League, Marvel, Lego and even Trainspotting. And now we have the sequel of a film made 35 years ago. 35 years!

The original Blade Runner falls into that marmite category, although few would argue against it being some kind of classic. It happens to be a favourite of mine, but it’s telling that it took several different edits (and 25 years) to get it right. Had the Final Cut been the original, some of the debate around the main character – Deckard – might not have taken place. Nonetheless it was one of those films that changed the direction of subsequent films in its genre.

Its sequel, Blade Runner 2049, has plenty to be getting on with.

There are some superb elements: it is a visual phenomenon, particularly on a huge screen. The film does well to immerse you in its world, and in many ways LA 2049 is the most richly described character in the film. Others disagree, but thought that the music is as apt as the Vangelis score was for the 1982 original.

This is a different kind of film to the original, however. It’s almost art-house-existential in nature, and that feeling is enhanced by the sheer length and scenes with long edits and slow movement. The original was a futuristic version of a 40s sleuth film, with a twist at the end. This isn’t that, although there is a hunt to solve a mystery. No, this film is primarily about a search for meaning.

There’s some frustration with plot and flow. The link between the first replicant character, Sapper Morton, and the rest of the film is implicit where it could do with being a little more explicit. Few of the characters make me feel for them. There are some awkward step changes in continuity. There are apparently meaningful clues (a yellow flower, something called the Galatians Syndrome) yet they end up being mere passing scenes. And this leads to a related, larger issue. I’m all for a slow film, but this borders on the ponderous. As an example, the scene where Deckard and K first met seems to go on for far too long. I get that Deckard is keen to protect himself from intruders, but even so, the scene -and the whole film could have done with some tightening, while maintaining an unhurried pace.

I wonder too whether it suffers from the same issue as Star Wars VII. The Force Awakens had to reference heavily the original 1977 film, and while it was good, Rogue One was better for being free of those constraints, while it remained in the same kind of universe.

Blade Runner 2049 is a thought-provoking film, though. There are several biblical references, (read this review for more, but note the spoilers) and the nature of created beings is at the heart of this film, much more so than in the original. Existence, humanity, free will – ultimately some kind of theology of self sits right at the heart of this film. It raises those questions in a good way, and then leads us to ponder the answers rather than fully trying to resolve them itself.   I’d recommend it for Christians (although there are scenes which are definitely not for the faint-hearted) not least because we have to seek God’s answer on these very same questions.

It’s taken a night and a morning to dwell on it; for me. it’s a good film, but not a masterful film. The original Blade Runner was a detective thriller with an existential undercurrent. This film is the opposite, and therein lies its strength, and probably its weakness.

Amazon strategy for churches?

That’s a somewhat goading title.  I don’t believe in strategy in any case (more on that in a future missive).  This letter is worth a read; it’s from Jeff Bezos – CEO of Amazon – to his shareholders.  In it he explains one of the core values at the heart of Amazon – his notion of ‘Day 1’.  He explains how that looks in four chief ideas: True Customer Obsession; Resist Proxies; Embrace External Trends, and High-Velocity Decision Making. Here’s five observations:

  1.  Bezos uses implicitly biblical language.  I did a quick family survey, and when I mentioned his ‘Day 1’ idea, we all immediately thought of Genesis 1.  For Bezos, the Day 1 ethic is one of creation – of care and innovation of worrying about the outcomes rather than the processes, and curiously, of ‘high velocity decision making’.   God has form in this arena.  When we read “And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.” (Genesis 1:3 NIV), that’s about as high-velocity that any decision gets.
  2. More practically, there are some things that are helpful for a church to consider, and critique biblically.  It’s clear that as churches we should not jump on every latest fad – we shouldn’t Embrace External Trends (see 2 Corinthians 1:12 for instance).  But perhaps it would be at least wise to note them and their effect.
  3. In the same way that Amazon lives and breathes with a focus – or true obsession on customers,  as church we too are called to have a rapier-like focus.  That’s summed up in the great Commission of Matthew 28. (I’m open to listening to hear of we should focus on anything else ahead of this, but I’ve yet to hear anything that surpasses this).
  4. As Church too, it’s all to easy to focus on what Bezos calls proxies, rather than resisting them: Amazon should resist focus on the process and instead focus on the product.  Surely that’s the case for us too – Jesus’ highest criticism was reserved for the Pharisees whose focus on worship process blinded most of them to the Messiah stood right in front of them. It’s all to easy for us to ‘worship the worship’, rather than Christ himself.
  5. I’m struck by how as Anglicans we value the primacy of consensus, at global, synodical and even parish level.  I’m not quite sure why that holds such sway, but Bezos’s notion of ‘disagree and commit’ as a principle might help us overcome the turgid nature of much church discussion, while actually – and properly – committing to the majority agreed outcome.

Just what is the Gospel?

As Christians we often talk about the gospel, but I’m increasingly aware that this is shorthand for some fuzzy notion of a collection of ideas.  It’s something involving Jesus, being saved from an otherwise horrible future, the cross and eternal life.  That fuzziness isn’t very helpful, though.  What I’ve done below, therefore is work through this question – briefly – and come up with a concise statement that I can remember when I need it.  It’s helped me bring clarity for my own sake.   Even so, I think it’s probably better to have a handful of Biblical definitions up your sleeve.

Why don’t you have a go at answering this question?

Let’s start with the meaning of the word gospel: it is simply “good news”. Why? Three reasons.

  1. Every instance of the words translated as gospel or good news in the NT has at its root the stem εὐαγγελι-. There is no exception at all.
  2. In English Bibles, the verb tends to be translated as good news and the noun as gospel. Whatever, good news and gospel are interchangeable, so gospel simply means good news.
  3. The good news is a message, therefore, not an act or a movement or anything else. The Good News is not Christians being nice, those who bring social action, or being available for pastoral care. Those are good things, and they may be the means by which we share the gospel, but they are not the Gospel. The Gospel is Good News and remains just that – a good message.

Let’s go back to the question, then: what is the gospel itself? Why is the news good? There is no singular answer because the Bible tells us the gospel in many ways. Here are two great examples:

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.” (Matthew 13:44 NIV11)

“But when the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:4–7 NIV11)

For me, with the constant grating and awareness of my own moral failings, these two bits of scripture speak to my heart about the joy of true treasure – Jesus, and the cleansing power of Jesus’ life, poured out to death, so that I can be made righteous before God. There are others, of course. Mark’s gospel is a gospel: that’s the title Mark uses for his biography of Jesus. Freedom from poverty and slavery are good news, because in Luke 4, quoting Isaiah 61, Jesus proclaims that he brings this. Isaiah 53 is the gospel, because Philip explained how this pointed to the good news of Jesus to the Ethopian eunuch (Acts 8). The eunuch, in turn believed and was baptised.

It’s worth spending time survey what the Bible says is the gospel -the good news.  What I found was that although the Bible tells the gospel in different ways, it seems that there are five essentials.  I take it these are as follows.

  • The gospel focuses precisely on Jesus Christ, rather than the church or love or God generally.
  • The gospel is about the astonishing and much-needed human restoration that only God is able to bring to deal with the effects of our sin. In my first two examples see how much change comes through the good news: total handover of the old life for the treasured new one; and rebirth and renewal leading to a new eternal life.
  • The gospel is cross-centred. In all four gospels, as Jesus moved through his ministry, there was clearly a sense of his coming hour. That was undeniably the glory of Christ’s death on the cross, and his resurrection from it.
  • The gospel is God’s declaration, in which we trust or don’t trust. Our lives follow, but our minds must first grasp this declaration – this proposition- and be renewed.
  • Because of those, the gospel can only be held by faith and trust, and not gained by good works. Good news comes from God, following God’s actions alone and cannot be earned; the gospel always comes to us.

The gospel is often much more than this, but never less than this.  And when we share the gospel, this is the basis of the good message that we are to share. If  it’s not this, it’s not the gospel.    So having done some workings, here’s my Gospel summary.

Humans have no right to any eternal life with God our creator, because it is our nature to ignore him and his goodness. Either we do that on purpose or – more often – because we’re just not bothered. In turn he has every right to respond in the same way. In fact he cannot ignore this otherwise there would be no eternal justice. That’s the bad news for us.

However, the divine Son of God, Jesus, became one of us and died painfully on the cross as one of us. He took the blame for our wilful ignorance of God. God did more than that, too. Jesus rose from the dead and promised that if we trust him, we have new eternal life, starting now. That’s the very good news of Jesus, in which and whom we are asked to trust.

Film Review: The Emoji Movie

I’m a big fan of Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo’s film podcast (here) and Flixster/Rotten Tomatoes. Both help me choose films to go and see; I don’t go as often as I ought, so I don’t want to blow the best part of £20  (ticket, travels and other bits and bobs) and limited chances for a trip to the cinema on some film that’s got a ‘pants’ rating.

Imagine my glee, then when my two younger daughters agreed – and asked me with them – to go and see The Emoji Movie.  At the time my daughters selected it, it had a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 6%, up from 0% a fortnight before.   They could have chosen Cars 3 (68%),  Despicable Me 3 (61%) or better still Captain Underpants (86%); but nope – the Emoji movie it was.

The rather super thing about having Low Expectations is that at worst, the film is just as expected.  So to my surprise the Emoji movie was better than I’d hoped from ‘6% cinema’.   It had a – broadly – coherent story.  Characters were all one dimensional (but then we are talking emojis) and had generally consistent personas.  And the story was resolved to some satisfaction in the end.   There were two or three good gags at the beginning (the ’emoticon’s colon’ was the best one of the film) and the pace was – on the whole – OK.  So I came out of the film thinking ‘well, that could have been worse’.

There were two problems however.  The first was a cod-philosophy which peppered the movie; the subtitle gives it away: “discovering who you are”.  It feels like the writers have given about two minutes thought to the question: “so what’s the take-home point of the movie?” and then randomly inserted that philosophy in a rather clunky way.  So the (spoiler here) princess-who-is-actually-someone-else-because-she-is-in-the-process-of-discovering-who-she-is character was the least believable of them all – her backstory was spelled out in about two sentences, and then we were meant to have some kind of empathy.

That leads me to the second and bigger problem – craftsmanship. Much has been made on the internet about it’s derivative-ness (see here and here as examples).   I think they are right to make that comparison, even though it is an entirely functional summer movie.  As a result, though it feels like a film made to fit balance sheet (‘OK guys, we need a kids film for Summer 2017!  Roll some Lego Movie/Inside Out/Wreck-It Ralph with some very comtemporanous iPhone idea and get it out quick!’).  The problem is that all those comparable films – as modern as they are – are well-crafted, which is why they get decent reviews, and this one doesn’t.  Craftsmanship is hard not to admire – indeed I think we’re hardwired by God to appreciate it; I could watch the Incredibles or Toy Story time and time again and enjoy something new about them each time.   And although the Emoji Movie was OK – and therefore fine to spend a wet summer morning with your daughters – a good thing to do anyway – it’s not something I expect to delight in time and time again.

Three pictures of non-interaction

I wrote this article a couple of years ago, but it seems truer now than ever before.

Three little interactions gave me a rare insight into life this morning.  I say interactions, but what I really mean is non-interactions.  On the way back from dropping the car off for it’s not-quite-annual-service, I walked past Poundland in Palmers Green.  Four men were sitting on chairs waiting for either some kit, some supplies or at least instruction: none of them were talking to each other and instead were intently focused on their iPhones/Galaxies or whatever they had in their hands.   On the way to the bus stop I popped into W H Smith to buy a newspaper.  Inside, the sole member of staff was standing near the door rather than at the till.  So I picked up the paper, ran it through the self-service till and left.  One very brief hello, one ‘bye and that was it.

Oyster cards have transformed London buses, but there was almost no interaction between me and the driver as I headed home.  Just flash the card at the sensor and sit down.  No destination, no price given no please and thank you.

Technology has been good.  Things are more efficient now – Oyster cards in particular are a brilliant innovation.  But this lack of interaction is not God’s intention for his created people.  Acts 2:46 says “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.”  Of course there are countless other passages about the interaction of people with each other: Christianity is primarily a faith of relationships: God within himself, God with us, us with each other.  John 17 picks this up so well.  It grieves me, therefore that our natural inclination is to remove human interaction from each other.  Of course, that is just one of the things that Jesus came to restore.

So I think there’s a role for us being ‘light to the world’ in this matter.

15 years ago, the shop-fitters would have been enjoying some morning banter, there would have been polite exchange at the till in W H Smith, and the bus driver would have known where I was heading and I would have known how much it cost.  Through God’s common grace, technology can be a benefit to society,  but surely not at the cost of relationships, however brief they might be.  May it not be so for us as Christians; note to self, therefore: don’t let technology ride over the God-given grace of interaction, and may I serve as a reminder of the contentment of even fleeting human relationships.




Seven things that ‘Everyday Church’ is, and one that it isn’t!

A review of Everyday Church by Tim Chester and Steve Timmis.

I don’t read every non-fiction book from cover to cover. Normally a book’s chief idea is presented about a third of the way in, and all the stuff beforehand is useful introduction, and ideas set out afterward tend to be helpful application. So I find most books run out of steam about two thirds of the way through and I often think “could have been a long essay instead”. Not so with Everyday Church. It’s an easy read and worth reading right to the end – the practical stuff is dotted throughout.

The title is a misnomer though – it’s really a number of things, but not particularly ecclesiology! There’s not so much about communion or the word, for instance. I suspect that the title is there mostly to link with Total Church, one of their previous books.

This is what it is though:
1. A really practical exposition of 1 Peter – that is it’s primary job, and the authors do that really well.
2. A helpful dose of cultural analysis – how ‘the’ church fits within currently society. Their analysis of the post-Christendom era is particularly helpful.
3. Practical guidance about how we can live well as a marginal minority in post-Christendom circumstances.
4. Thought provoking stuff about why old school evangelism probably won’t continue to work in the future.
5. A confidence booster, to help us avoid being subsumed into the surrounding culture or surround ourselves with wagons and shoot anyone coming near.
6. A great encouragement for developing and being part of seven-day-a-week Christian communities.
7. Really practical advice about how a small ordinary Jesus-focused community can be inherently evangelistic.
It’s a great read. Buy it here.