Right, let me get something straight right off the bat. I am not a conference junkie! It just so happened that I squeezed in these 3 during a manic 2 week period. In fact, this is the most conferences I have been to in 10 years! I do not usually like these things. I hate the crowds and the whole “famous speaker” thing but this can usually be offset by a decent book stall!
This conference was in Louisville, Kentucky and I was the guest of my friends at 9Marks. Some observations:
1. It was huge, almost 8000 people I think. That made it both good and bad. Bad in that it did feel a little impersonal and good that it was so powerful when we were all standing together singing some great hymns. It was such a powerful experience praising God with so many other people in one place.
2. Of the 9 main session: 3 were outstanding, 2 were good, 2 were OK and 2 were a disappointment (ironically, from the 2 speakers I was most looking forward to). As models for exegetical preaching, most of the talkers were poor but, as inspirational speakers, they were generally very good. I found the seminars and talking head things to be generally OK (ish), although they talked about issues which I feel are old hat for us in the UK (or maybe that’s just me). The one on famous pastors, particularly, (ironically chaired by famous pastors and even the guy against is famous for being anti famous) was bemusing to say the least. I think this part was weakened by the fact that every speaker (particularly CJ Mahaney) spent at least 10 minutes introducing each main session speaker by telling us why so and so was “the single greatest influence in my life as a believer and/or is perhaps the greatest treasure to the church today” or words to that effect. I don’t know if it is my European nature but I found this toe curlingly horrible.
3. It was brilliantly organised and there was a seamlessness to the event despite the huge numbers. Amazingly, it did not feel overcrowded at any point. All of the stewards were helpful and cheerful. The free book store was a brilliant idea and there was a massive selection of books to choose from. I only bought 1 because they gave so many quality ones away! I did find some of the stalls confusing. For instance there was a Gospel Coalition stall there which didn’t seem to do anything other than be a meeting place for painfully cool twenty somethings. I saw the odd person being interviewed but was otherwise mystified to its purpose. Other stalls were much clearer in handing out literature and promoting some of their work. Free sweets always works for me incidentally!
4. There was a great 2 day meeting afterwards at Southern Seminary. It was a retreat for pastors who had been invited by 9marks. I found that intense and immensely encouraging and enlightening. These are some Godly, friendly men and I have a real affinity and love for them. The way they invited feedback on the whole conference was a real example of humble leadership and wanting to learn. I bought myself a nodding Al Mohler doll for my shelf of tat at home (he sits alongside Obama) from the amazing on site book shop. The seminary just cracked me up. I noticed they had sold out to satan by allowing a Starbucks to sell their products in the place! It was a sort of theological Disneyworld with Al living in the princesses palace. His gaff seemed a little bit OTT for me!
Mark Dever and the 9marks team are just so open and generous with their time and resources. Truly amazing.
I have gotten involved with this group largely through a friendship with a guy called Al Barth. I also spent 5 weeks at Redeemer last year doing an intensive training programme for church planters. This particular set of meetings was for ‘network leaders’ from around the globe (sounds so grandiose when you say it like that)! Some observations:
1. I am still uncertain of the point of the event. It not really made clear (to me).
2. There were people from around the world and that was a good thing (in terms of shared ideas).
3. I felt some of the sessions were nothing more than psycho babble, business speak, seminar type things. One guy talked about having a crap-ometer and mine was in overdrive at certain points during the two days (and, ironically, particularly during his session).
4. Tim Keller, Al Barth and a couple of other people (one on prayer stood out) were on the money and spoke with a real authority and a distinct clarity. It was worth coming for that. The rest felt somewhat fragmented and lacking in cohesion. I observed that Tim pretty much disappeared straight away and I find him and some of his team strangely less accessible than Mark Dever and the 9marks staff.
5. It seemed very “American” in its “how to approaches”. In other words, much of what was presented would be a struggle to contextualise into Europe. Certainly, their heavy reliance on corporate models of church and leadership structures does not carry into our British types of churches (the majority at least).
7. The Bible was not really opened and expounded upon enough for my liking. It seemed to lack real theological foundation and punch. Maybe this was because this was not the purpose of the meeting? However, I would expect a room full of church planters from around the globe to get at it with the Word more. Very rarely was Christ and the gospel mentioned and certainly not really from the front.
8. I found it a more helpful trip in terms of establishing my relationship with a fellow gospel worker from Edinburgh, Neil Macmillan. We got to spend time together, (he got offered hookers and coke outside our hotel – always amusing), and we had many opportunities to talk about a vision for supporting church planters of all stripes in our city. That was perhaps the single biggest benefit of the time away for me. I also got to meet a couple of impressive men in the UK, not least of whom is a man called Neil Powell involved in Birmingham 2020.
9. The time away helped crystalise some thoughts about what’s next for me in my ministry and life.
To be frank, this was the one I could have done without. I was exhausted from my US trip (I was back a day and a half before heading to London) and only went along to do a seminar out of respect for Steve Timmis (and because I had made a prior commitment). If I’m really honest, I am not a big Acts29 fan in terms of all the machismo that sometimes come out of the US with this movement (cage fighting and beer drinking etc). I don’t find any of that stuff to be helpful in my context at all. I see the point that men need to be men (and not the feminised girly boys that mark so much of middle class Christianity in the UK) but at the same time I am trying to get guys to stop drinking (as much) and to see “being a man” as taking responsibility for their kids, not beating their girlfriends and/or spending their rent money on beer/drugs. Anyway, I digress. Some observations:
1. Straight off the bat it was gospel centred and it was gospel all the way.
2. The main preaching (I say this instead of ‘speaking’) sessions taken by JD Greear were on the money. By that I mean they were biblical, faithful to the texts and contextually applied to a European audience. This was a man who had done some homework and sought to engage cross culturally. He showed a great deal of humility in wanting to engage with us and not just turning up for the gig before being ushered out the door by his “personal aid” (other “speakers” take note).
3. The leading of the music by a couple of guys from Sojourn was profoundly biblical and extremely reverently done. I am not sure why it couldn’t have been done by someone from Europe but, regardless, outstanding and an example to any and all worship leaders (scrap that, everybody) in attendance.
4. The first day seemed to contain one too many sessions and I found the last speaker on the first day unnecessary in terms of what he had to say and how it fitted in with the overall message of the conference. Maybe I was tired but it didn’t resonate with me and those I was with. I think perhaps the problem was that Steve and JD can preach and, unfortunately, the gentleman concerned isn’t particularly gifted (in my opinion) to the same level (if at all).
5. As an outsider to Acts29WE I didn’t feel that I was given a full explanation of what they are about early on. I think there was a lot of assumption there and their 4 major principles could have been explained more clearly. I know there was a session on this somewhere but I got waylaid by people wanting to talk to me and missed it. Not the fault of the conference, but I would have appreciated this being explained in a session right at the opening of the couple of days so as to set the scene. As it was, Dai Hankey gave me a very good summary at lunch.
6. I am still unsure as to whom Steve Timmis is accountable in this movement. Who decides direction and strategy? Who keeps him from wandering off track? I am assuming his elders at TCH but how this will develop practically on the ground as this movement explodes (and it will) will be interesting. At the moment this looks like a movement largely bringing in those who are already planting churches, so it will be interesting to see how it develops as this first generation begins to birth them. I could smell the potential in the room and he is going to need a lot of support and prayer.
7. I found the seminar I attended to be pretty naff. The guy involved was from the states (a mistake I think) who used lots of illustrations that practically nobody in the room could relate to (he took a survey before ploughing on regardless). Many around me were playing on mobile phones or doing something else on computers. When I leaned in to the guy next to me and asked if he knew what was happening he just gave a resigned shrug. One guy at lunch said it “wasn’t the most helpful” thing he’d heard on the subject (posh speak for crap). It was a bit of a wayward presentation which didn’t seem to have any real connection in terms of application to the UK and/or European scene. I understood where he was trying to go philosophically but I didn’t really care how “Tinkerbell” fitted in to an overarching redemptive metanarrative! This space could have been used far more effectively for a seminar on Porterbrook, for example (see point 9).
8. The American contingent were extremely Godly, helpful, humble and insightful throughout the 2 days. They were a great example to some of their fellow countrymen who can sometimes present themselves in the opposite light when dealing with other cultures. I think Steve Timmis chose very wisely in this and, again, only strengthens my view that he is the right man for this type of movement from a European perspective.
9. The Porterbrook teaching material was there at a table but I felt it could/should have been given more prominence (there was a short talk given but it could have been clearer). There were some good interviews with planters and maybe an interview with someone using the material and how it has benefitted them would have been really helpful. This is a great tool for those of us trying to plant and train planters and I thought it deserved to be pushed more.
10. The interview(s) procedure(s) got various feedback. One of my friends found the chat intimate, friendly and helpful and another found it adversarial, aggressive and a bit hostile. Yet another, somewhere in the middle. It seemed to depend on “who you got” (and, to be fair, what stage you were at – all 3 were at different stages). As a person looking to perhaps join the network as a partner, I am not sure about this method (is there some universal questions to follow or is it more ‘organic’? – I suspect it is the latter given the feedback. I may be wrong!) and it’s purpose. It made me a little uneasy and hesitant to continue the process (more so for my shy wife than myself!).
11. Without doubt I would give the Acts29WE conference 11/10. I would have liked it to have gone on for more days and I left greatly energised and encouraged by God’s Word and the presence of so many planters out there with big dreams, battling in hard places. Steve and his team are to be congratulated for this.
In summary, T4G was a great experience. The pastors retreat afterwards was truly excellent. I love spending time with Mark Dever and his people. He is just such a great and supportive man. City2City was OK but often baffling. However, it gave me time to review what I was doing and the direction of my own ministry. Acts29WE was immensely encouraging and without doubt Steve Timmis will do the business. He is definitely the right man for the job. There were some great men there battling away in difficult places and it was a real pleasure and a privilege to get an invite. This is a movement that is going to grow and it will only be good for our continent and for the glory and fame of the Lord Jesus Christ. I would say that I left it with a confidence that Acts29 may have hit the jackpot in recent months with changes in personnel and the addition of Steve Timmis and those around him. Oh, and not a beer tasting competition or a cage fight in sight. Just good old-fashioned pubs and footie. Bliss!
I will be posting on the various talks in the coming weeks and trying to contextualise them for our housing scheme ministry. Watch this space!