StartUp Podcast on Church Planting — Part 1: There’s lots to like

I was amazed to discover that a podcast I’d followed since its inception — StartUp Podcast — was going to be doing its latest season on church planting! And focussing on an Acts 29 church plant in Philadelphia, no less! The trailer itself is intriguing, hearing church planting talked about seriously by a secular narrative journalism source.

It turns out the reporter himself, Eric Mennel used to be an active Christian, involved in church plants, although its unclear exactly how he’d describe his religious beliefs now. There’s a bit more about this in the final episode of the season, where he ponders why he stopped going to church a year ago… about how he still would call himself a Christian but he struggles to ‘surrender’ himself to God.

He had actually featured in an earlier season of the podcast, talking about how the secular podcast company could be strangely intolerant of evangelical Christianity. That’s worth listening to… or even reading the transcript (I LOVE transcripts!) — here’s a short excerpt:

ERIC: I was sitting outside the studio listening, as is my job for these things. And you guys started talking about religious diversity in the workplace, which was fine and interesting, but you started talking about basically writing off populations essentially because we just have to decide like who are we gonna, what we value as a company and who are we gonna target as our audience member and what are we going to develop contents around and that..that worried me, a little bit when you guys started talking about that. You know Alex, you said you don’t think we have any Evangelicals on staff..I grew up going to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, and I am still a practicing Christian, and I go to church every Sunday, I have like a life group that meets in the middle of the week and half of us are StartUp listeners, a lot of StartUp fans….

ERIC: But I think I don’t know that you want to cater to people who have the same beliefs as Rush Limbaugh, you don’t wanna to cater to radical beliefs in any sense like that’s not what we are trying to do, but like the thing like 71 percent of Americans identifies as Christians and  there’s a large variety of Christian out there.

ALEX: How many people in the office know that you go to church every Sunday do you think?

ERIC: Probably a handful.

ALEX: Do you ever feel strange telling people?

ERIC: No less than 3 times did I stand outside with my headphones on listening and think about knocking on the door and then, like, no no no I’ll sit back down. When you said we don’t have any Evangelicals on staff or anybody who could..I almost like walked around almost to the window here so you can see me. Thought about waving but like, no no no, not right, not right. There’s always a tinge of discomfort like there’s always a little bit of discomfort when it comes up.

ALEX: What is that discomfort, are you worried about like incurring judgement on somewhere or is that something that you are worried about?

ERIC: I guess there is a fear about not being taken seriously to some extent. Because you believe in something that like some very smart people discount as complete hokum, you know? That you are therefore associated with that. As a Christian for me there is a feeling of responsibility to be open about your faith and to not cower when it’s easier to coward. Because it’s much much easier to deny Christ, you know, it’s much more comfortable.

There’s so much to like in this podcast… the same high production quality and skill at narrative journalism and hipster quirkiness that marks most Gimlet stuff, but also an amazing honesty and reality in the kinds of issues that the church planter and his wife (AJ and Leah Smith) talk about. They do a whole episode on the struggle between faithfulness and fruitfulness, God’s sovereignty and our responsibility that is really close to home!

Given that Eric Mennel himself used to be a very active evangelical Christian, it’s not surprising that he is very generous in his manner of reporting, really letting Christians speak for themselves on their own terms. Gosh, it’s refreshing! And it’s a great example of how helpful it is to be represented by your own community. Outsiders, no matter how well researched they all will just get things wrong in millions of little ways. So much of this StartUp season, by contrast, gets things right.

Mirrors 11th August 2018

  1. The secular podcast company Gimlet Media has devoted its most recent season of the StartUp Podcast to Church Planting — following an Acts 29 church planter.
  2. Why churches don’t reach uni students by PaulWorcester
  3. Very helpful article about the Willow Creek scandal
  4. I’ve been really appreciating the Quick to Listen podcast lately. This is a good conversation with Collin Hansen about Charles Taylor
  5. More gold from the Quick To Listen podcast. This time about the pros and cons of Jordan Peterson.
  6. Insightful and sobering discussion about the different motivations for pastoral sexual misconduct: burnout/spiritual ill health, predatory sin and celebrity allure.
  7. “Para-church leaders frequently try to bring together church leaders. Although the response is often gratifying from the vantage point of apparent Church unity, there are not lacking those who inwardly resent being herded by some self-appointed ruler.” The Lausanne paper on church and parachurch.

What makes apocalyptic literature, polemics and propaganda good art?

There’s something apocalyptic in the air. Donald Trump has come to figure as something of a secular antichrist figure in the popular imagination, and has provoked artistic response, as is pretty understandable. Two examples that prompted this post for me as The Handmaid’s Tale TV series and The Shape Of Water film, both of which I have seen described as parables for Trump’s America, or something similar. I have also noticed some clumsy, jarring ‘preachy’ episodes in Season 4 of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Season 2 of Anne With an E.

Art is a way of communicating warnings, protests and competing ideals as well as simply purging and processing fears. So it makes sense that concerning political trajectories spark new waves of artistic expression.

Some people criticise political art as ‘bad art’: merely a vehicle for a simplistic message than genuinely good art for its own sake. A term for this that arose out of Soviet Union propaganda is ‘agit-prop’: art whose simple, primary and obvious purpose is the communicate a political message. ‘Agit-prop’ is normally used pejoratively. This can be said of political protest art, simplistic moralising fables or religious art.

But having a strong message doesn’t make art ‘bad art’ necessarily. Nor does presenting a fairly simplistic, black and white world. The Bible itself uses apocalyptic literature — in Daniel and Revelation for example, a kind of literature that characterised by its overblown portrayal of a cosmic battle between good and evil. There’s little room for shades of grey in apocalyptic literature. Does this make it bad art?

It’s never easy to define what makes makes good art, there’s a lot of factors that feed into it, including a great deal of personal taste. In the case of the two secular examples mentioned above, I personally find The Handmaid’s Tale to be good art, but The Shape of Water bad art, although both have been critically applauded.

Can apocalyptic literature and propaganda and modern political fairy tales other things like that be ‘good art’? A few factors:

  • If the images and stories they tell are beautiful or terrifying. Rather than working on subtle narrative arcs and sophisticated character development, these forms are more like a series of striking impressions, splash pages, posters.
  • If the symbolic events/people/images are satisfying and convincing portrayals. They may be simplistic, even a little cartoonish, but if they still capture Something about the way the world really is and the way people really are, then they can still work.
  • If there are moments of genuine human depth. Apocalyptic and polemic art can have moments of depth, sophistication and humanity that carry us into the story.
  • There are wild ‘fringes’ to the stories, where the simplicity of the story’s own world breaks down. A tame and thin fairy tale is safe and reassuring, a satisfying fairy tale may have a simple message, but also has strange, unpredictable and unexpected elements.

Part of what these things do which make things ‘good art’ is that the work of art is able to have impact beyond its intended message. It can be read in different ways, or even admired with a step of remove from its message entirely.

‘Good art’ succeeds in keeping you engaged, as well. Either you are not fully aware of being ‘taught’ by the artist, or you are aware, but engaged in the lesson, you are carried along. In bad art, you are painfully aware of the artist seeking to teach, but not necessarily engaged by them.

Is the biblical apocalyptic and polemical literature ‘good art’? Of course it doesn’t really matter. Does God intend to do ‘good art’ by some standard? On the other hand, God speaks with purpose, to teach and persuade and even stir our affections. In this sense, the apocalyptic and polemical literature in the Bible is at the very least not ‘bad art’!



Mirrors 6th July 2018

  1. It’s received wisdom “Whitfield didn’t start a denomination, Wesley did”. I have just learned that’s not 100% true. Would love to learn more about this quain little denomination-ish network
  2. Group work sucks. One of reasons I’m relieved to have left institutional education behind
  3. Haha! @podcaststartup is now doing a season on church planters?! @genevapush 😀
  4. Remembered this helpful article as I was thinking about evangelical networks and ecumenicalism for my new book project
  5. Talking with @Sanders_Scott and Derek Hannah on the @genevapush podcast about the importance of being clear on Christian freedom in church planting leadership
  6. An appreciative critique of The Bible Project
  7. I’ve written critically about the thoughtless uses of the ‘family’ metaphor in Christian circles. Here’s an atheist linguistic professor writing about the use of family metaphors in sports communities. “Saying that I’m your “brother” doesn’t mean that we’re close. It means that you’re unwilling to think carefully about the nature of our relationship.”
  8. Fascinating and concerning critical article about Jordan Peterson from a friend and colleague
  9. I helped start @NewFrontDoorIT because I’m convinced ministries need help with how to use IT for the cause of the gospel, and those with IT gifts need support in using those gifts for the benefit of as many as possible. Check out our new promotional video here
  10. A beautiful and sad and lovely little documentary about inline skating, materialism, leaving the rat race and the meditative biological effects of surfing and skating. Only a rich guy can ‘drop out’ like this.
  11. This is a cool article about a therapeutic kind of male repentance.

A little interview I did for our church bulletin about podcasts

My home church, Crossroads Presbyterian has been doing literal interviews over the last month with church members who listen to podcasts.

Here’s my instalment:

In our final week of interviews with podcast listeners (and to promote our own Crossroads podcasts -available on iTunes or app), Mikey shares his recommendations, PLUS in this bumper interview, he explains why he took up podcasting about a favourite leisure activity…

In what ways are podcasts helpful to you?

Entertaining, educating, encouraging.

Could you recommend a few podcasts for others at Crossroads to check out? 

The Briefing by Albert Mohler has 30 minutes every day of interaction with articles from newspapers from around the world from a Christian worldview. Mohler is pretty American, right wing and conservative, so occasionally I find myself going ‘Wait… WHAT now?’… but most of this is excellent.

Holy Hacks is started by an AFES staff person in Queensland. Short handy hints for Christian life and ministry, with a bit of theological content too.

First Things is a conservative American Roman Catholic podcast, that has all sorts of intelligent stuff from a right wing conservative Catholic point of view.

Short & Curly is a secular ethics podcast for late primary/early high school kids. Our kids love it.

BBC History Extra has really engaging academic stuff on world history.

Plato’s Cave is excellent film criticism, of both arthouse and mainstream films.

I could go on…

What do you think makes a good podcast?

I have to like spending time with the person. If I don’t enjoy the company of the host I lose interest.

Can’t be too heavily produced in a commercial TV sort of way.

I tend to prefer things with a dominant host, rather than anthology type stuff (This American Life) or interview heavy stuff (Richard Fidler), where I have to readjust every time to a new thing.

Why did you take up podcasting?

Firstly, to get sermons online…. but I always delegate the podcasting setup to others on my staff team (Uni Fellowship podcast here).

I started the Mad Beef Rollerblading Podcast at the start of last year for a couple of reasons…

— partly to learn how to do it, so I can use it for ministry just in case

— partly to ‘give back’ to this sporting community in a way that is relatively easy for me (I talk for a living, so yeah)

— partly as a way to potentially build relational connection with other people in the rollerblading world (which worked: I have friends around Australia and the world now!)

— not a big thing… but I knew I’d weave in Christian stuff off and on when it came up naturally

— and if I get enough Patreon patrons… maybe it can help cover some of the costs of my skate equipment? Or maybe I might get some freebies from time to time? 😛

The benefits of regional cities as training centres? – Apply Now!

We’re praying and planning to increase the number of MTS apprentices training through the AFES ministries at UTAS in Hobart from 2 to 6 in the next 5 years… and we’re also building an internship/Year 13 type program for still more people to have a taste of gospel ministry training.

In the process of thinking this through… we are also keen to invite people from elsewhere in Australia and the world to consider coming and training in Hobart. A beautiful part of the world, a way to contribute to a ‘gospel ecosystem’ in another, perhaps less-resourced place, that is striving to build a momentum of evangelistic, theologically rich, gospel-centred ministry.

But there are also unique benefits to training in a regional city:

  • shorter travel times gives the opportunity to mingle with a whole range of ministries and ministers,
  • regional churches without their own pastors provide extra preaching platforms,
  • smaller overall population gives the opportunity to observe and learn from a whole gospel ecosystem,
  • going somewhere culturally fairly similar, but also different means you can fruitfully serve fairly quickly rather than simply observe as an outsider.

Here’s a Twitter conversation I had with a pastor from regional Victoria who shared some similar experiences:

ME: Would be fun if Tassie became a place people came to serve in mission and train for ministry!

“Uni Fellowship is  planning to start offering a more deliberate Year 13 / Gap Year / Extra Ministry internship with Uni Fellowship (8-24 hours per week)”

HIM: Sounds great! Modelled on an MTS style apprenticeship? Or intentionally different by name and nature as an internship? Paid/unpaid?

ME: Kind of a feeder to MTS hopefully. So more the internship, unpaid type thing. A book list, lots of 1:1, invite to sit in on training and staff meetings, a few key jobs.

HIM: Really formative stuff, and ideal for that gap year where many “don’t know what to do next” but can do something in gospel work with leadership training for life. May it be a feeder for Tasmania and beyond.

ME: I pray so! Could also work for students who have capacity to do even more WHILE studying, especially if they take a 50-75% load. Even possibly older people whose life is in flux? We’ll see…

Seeing ‘explore Tasmania’ tourism billboards on Sydney bus shelters made me realise: us regional types need to turn our weakness into a strength — come for a Tree Change AND do ministry. Almost like short-term mission…

HIM: Absolutely! We see the regions have excellent opportunities to explore ministry experiences that are diverse (and relatively inexpensive on the $). I cut my teeth preaching because regional ministries are crying out for trainee preachers to step in and serve.

ME: YES! And travel times mean you can network with a larger number of minister(ries) in a more in-depth way.

HIM: Back in the day (2002) we used to load an old Tarago with trainee preachers from the uni ministry and do a Sunday circuit (also networking AFES). Travel time was debriefing/rewriting sermons for the trainees. Kind of like the speech writing team on airforce one.

ME: I’d watch that Netflix series.

A Dangerous Calling — verbose, judgmental, voyeuristic, simplistic, misanthropic, melodramatic and exhibitionist (an interim review)

We’ve been reading A Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry as an AFES Hobart staff team this year. We’re 6 months into the year and only 46 pages into the 225 book, and I’ve already had enough. It’s triggered some really helpful discussion, but in a strange way:

  • either we’re generously working to grasp the good point hidden in what he’s saying and how he’s saying it… and having a good discussion about a legitimate issue,
  • OR we’re having a really fruitful discussion as we react to and critique what he’s saying and how he’s saying it.

In other words, the benefit we are deriving from reading the book is largely in spite of Paul Tripp, not because of him.

I wouldn’t recommend the book.

It strikes me as verbose, judgmental, voyeuristic, simplistic, misanthropic, melodramatic and exhibitionist. For a book all about sincerity and Being Real, there’s something oddly disingenuous and unreal about it. I don’t think that it lifts me up and inspires me and equips me. It doesn’t often even challenge me, actually. Rather it presumes to know me and humiliate me and frighten me. Like an unwelcome Pentecostal street preacher or charity mugger or guidance counsellor getting right up in my face and presuming to read my motives.

I agree with its basic premise: we need to be honest about our frailty and brokenness. But there are so many other books out there that help me do this far better. A few things that make me squirm:

There can be terrible secret sins. But not everyone is equally terribly beset with secret sin

We are all sinners. Our hearts are desperately wicked. We should stop pretending we’re not. Yes. But A Dangerous Calling betrays to me a  kind of misanthropy that sees everyone as probably a pervert or addict or abuser. We mustn’t delude ourselves with the naïvety that says “It could never happen here” or “A preacher could never commit that outrageous sin”. But the horror of just how sinful we can be mustn’t lead us to the opposite problem of a paranoia that everyone is therefore as sinful as they might be.

Perhaps this is the unique tendency of those who deal with people at their most broken? By the sheer mass of severe problems they encounter in their consultation rooms, they get a slanted view of the whole. What is a lot of people for them personally becomes counted as a massive proportion of the total number of people.

But I don’t know how helpful it is for me to contemplate (for as long as Tripp wants me to) just how terrible ministry marriages and ministry lives can become. Especially when that is not my current personal experience. I need to face it, absolutely. And I have my own share of horror stories from my own pastoral experience and networks. But Tripp seems to want me to wallow in it. Which is why I say there feels like a kind of voyeurism in the book.

Christian leadership needs humble honesty about our brokenness. But it also requires uprightness and integrity

Tripp makes much of facing and admitting our weakness. He describes the burden of weak and frail pastors trying to keep up a good face. Surely this denies the gospel of grace, he says. We must admit our sinfulness and weakness.

But the kind of grace alone by which we are saved — by grace along through faith alone because of Christ alone — is not the kind of grace alone by which we serve in Christian leadership.* In Christian leadership, I qualify by God’s grace that works with my human will and effort to produce godliness (Philippians 2:12–13). If I am not living a mature and relatively upstanding Christian life, I am not qualified to be ordained. If I do not persist in a certain level of faithfulness in life, doctrine and ministry I can be disqualified. I do not serve as a Christian leader by grace ALONE in the same way that I am saved by grace alone.

This means that there is an unavoidable pressure and burden and gravity to Christian leadership, as James 3 says.

The degree of detail Paul Tripp goes into about his own alarming personal failings is supposed to be an admirable thing. And on one level his openness and vulnerability is courageous. But it is also troubling. Firstly, this is because in another way it is a particular kind of power move. By being so public about such personal matters, and so forthright with such serious weaknesses, he has in a way gained himself a different kind of kudos for his courage. Moreover, he has protected himself against criticism, by beating his critics to it. At worst, a similar ploy can even discourage critics, by making them concerned that they will crush their fragile pastor into despair.

Secondly, I am troubled by Tripp’s confessions, because I find it hard to piece together the timeline of his various disclosures. There seems to be a series of them, and in between he seems to also tell stories where he is the hero. So I find myself doubting at points whether he is even a credible teacher? Or is he still ‘in process’? Should he be presuming to tell me how to live my life and conduct my ministry or does he need a bit longer to work through his own stuff?

This is far from the example of the apostle Paul who commends himself as an example in his sincerity and uprightness and faithfulness. Yes he is frail and continuing to press on in his own faith, aware of his weaknesses and dependence on God’s grace. But he is not oversharing his ongoing secret sins… is he?

*incidentally that’s the problem with that song Grace Alone by Kings Kaleidoscope: it conflates saving grace with common grace, sanctifying grace and empowering grace and robs the word ‘alone’ of its meaning.

Pastors, and even pastoral counsellors, must be careful about presuming to know and shepherd another person’s heart

At many points, Tripp challenges the reader with long paragraphs of searing, searching, stinging questions aimed at the depths of our hearts. He tells stories of doing similar things in his classes, and then coming up against defensive and overwhelmed students. He expects us to be shocked at the defensiveness of these proud students. But I am just as inclined to sympathise with them — I’m feeling that way just reading the book! But he then tells us that he comes up eye to eye with these students and challenges them still further. I think we are supposed to applaud his prophetic insightfulness. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but as I read these stories on the page, they strike me more as invasive encounters, where he oversteps his proper place.

A danger with the Gospel-Centred-Christian-Counselling movement is that it emboldens counsellors, pastors and parents with the duty and confidence to shepherd the hearts and motives of other people. Yes we should ask probing questions, and yes sometimes we should boldly point out inconsistent beliefs or challenging underlying loves. But we must do so very cautiously, aware of our enormous limitations.

Our primary duty is to set forth the truth of God’s word, plainly and persuasively, and trust the Lord to apply this word specifically to the hearts, minds, motives, loves, secrets and decisions of our hearers. Primarily our roles in the lives of our friends, children or congregation members is an external role that God might use to do an internal work.

Disbelieving the gospel is not the only problem and embracing the gospel is not the only solution

This is another tendency that I encounter often in the Gospel-Centred-Christian-Counselling movement. It’s also a major theme of Tim Keller’s teaching. And it has a lot of truth in it. The gospel is a central and ordering truth for our theology, ethics, spirituality and even our psychology. But the narrow truths of the gospel of salvation by faith alone through grace alone by Christ alone is not the whole counsel of God.

Some sins are not primarily about ‘not believing the gospel’, and the amount of ethical and psychological acrobatics that have to be done to prove that in a sense they are fails to ultimately convince. Worse, it takes away from a clear vision of what the gospel, and gospel response, primarily is. Sometimes the primary driver for sin is actually an area of frailty or brokenness and the primary way to rectify it is through cognitive behavioural therapy, or good boundaries or better health and life routines, possibly even in concert with medication.

And some solutions are found on other levels than ‘believing the gospel more deeply and truly’. I may be a devout and sincere believer who still really really struggles with anger or anxiety or lust or greed. And there might be other courses of reflection, repentance and progress that lie in different or even more external approaches than a deep dive in the glory of God.

This is why the book also comes across as simplistic. It doesn’t reckon well with the complex physical, social, psychological and spiritual creatures that we are. It reduces us, it seems to me, to merely gospel-believing-spirits surrounded by repulsive pathologies.

About Xian Reflections

Xian Reflections is written by Mikey Lynch.

Mikey graduated from the University of Tasmania with a Bachelor of Arts in 2002. In 2000 he became one of the founding leaders of Crossroads Presbyterian Church where he was the lead pastor for 7 years from 2003.

Mikey now works as the Campus Director of the University Fellowship of Christians, University of Tasmania, Hobart. Mikey is the chairman of The Vision 100 Network (Tasmania) and a founding director of Geneva Push (national) – both church planting networks. He is also a chaplain at Jane Franklin Hall and the chairman of New Front Door: the Church IT Guild.