Reflections on Chicago’s Gospel Coalition Conference 2011

Reflections on Chicago’s Gospel Coalition Conference 2011

I just spent a week in the ‘windy city’ so called (according to R Kent Hughes) because its politicians of long ago were infamous for their long, drawn out speeches and not (as I had thought) because it was simply windy (which it was)!

Anyway, during my time there I was privileged to attend TGC 2011 with a line up that read like a who’s who of modern Christian thinkers/preachers/movers and shakers. The theme this year was ‘Preaching Jesus and the gospel in the Old Testament’. There were 9 main teaching sessions and then lots of little workshops and round table discussions interspersed over the 3 days. Here are some of my observations from a UK perspective.

I think that what immediately struck me was the vastness of the place. Even though there were around 6000 attendees from around the globe it didn’t feel overcrowded in the slightest (apart from in Starbucks – wry grin to self!). Another thing that struck me forcefully was the ‘different flavour’ of the main speakers. It was, without a doubt, a white, middle class, intellectual gathering but there was certainly a diversity of methodological ecclesiology (or ‘doing church’), if not theology. Here are some thoughts on the main speakers:

* Tim Keller. He spoke on Exodus 14:5-31. Excellent message which is what you would expect from Tim. Standout quote: ‘we are not saved because of the quality of our faith but because of the object of our faith’. Listen here: Tim Keller

* Alisdair Begg. He spoke on Ruth. I didn’t take that many notes on this one. He was full of little anecdotes and funny stories. I do remember that he stood out as the most naturally ‘pastoral’ of the speakers. Listen here: Alisdair Begg

*James Mcdonald. He spoke on Psalm 25. I must confess that I wasn’t really expecting much from this session. He seemed a bit gimmicky with his on stage props and ‘pop up’ phrases on the screen. However, I found myself being drawn in by what he had to say. His title was simply: ‘When you don’t know what to do’. Worth a listen for all those who sometimes struggle in their Christian walk. Listen here: James McDonald

*Matt Chandler. He spoke (sort of) on Ecclesiastes 11:9-12:8. He spoke on the two imperatives of: (1) Rejoicing and (2) Remembering. I think what impressed me most was, firstly, his ability to communicate and, secondly, his powerful testimony of how he was suddenly struck down with a brain tumour. The prognosis is not good (the survival rate is something like 2 or 3 years) but he spoke with such passion and committment that I didn’t mind that his sermon didn’t flow in logical sequence. Very powerful! Listen here: Matt Chandler

*Albert Mohler. He spoke on John 5:31-47. He pinpointed 4 witnesses to who Jesus was and why he came. He finished off by reminding us that Christ is in the Old Testament everywhere. A very ‘full’ message in comparison to others (his seminary credentials are very evident) and extremely enjoyable. Listen here: Albert Mohler

*Don Carson. He spoke on Psalm 110. His title was, ‘Getting excited about Melchizadek’. Well, it got me excited because I have to preach on Hebrews 7 in two weeks! He was as deep and intense as I expected, although, surprisingly, more accessible than I imagined. I took more notes from him than any other speaker because his message was more biblically ‘dense’ than the others by a long margin. Still, I have to work out how to simplify it for my guys in Niddrie. I am not sure that the term ‘pre-incarnate visitation of the Christ’ is going to be catchy enough for my crew! Listen here: Don Carson

There were also some helpful round table discussions. In fact to catch up on anything else I may have missed see: The Gospel Coalition

There were a couple of observations that I made which I have yet to fully digest. My main concern was feeling ‘uncomfortable’ by the hype and celebrity hysteria that followed a few of the more popular main speakers. Queues of hundreds would form around them begging for autographs and photos. I watched with interest as poor Matt Chandler was trying to get out of the building and was constantly stopped by people wanting his photo. I must say he was very patient with them. I watched other people literally chase speakers down the hallway in order to get at them. I don’t know if it was just an American cultural thing or if I am just a sour faced git (probably a bit of both)! However, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the words of John the Baptist in John 3:30: ‘He must increase but I must decrease’. I am not making a judgement call on whether these guys chase after this stuff. It just made for uncomfortable viewing at times.

Secondly, it was also fascinating listening to some of the views on church planting. Every time I got into a discussion about our work in Niddrie, invariably the first question was: ‘are you being successful?’ By that they (by and large) meant were we seeing many people come to Christ? This worldview was further cemented into the cultural ‘pysche’ from the platform (and in general conversation) when stories of how so and so grew their church from one dog and a woman in a wheelchair to 9000 members in 3 weeks – this idea of ‘success’ being constantly inferred. I am not saying that it is not a legitimate barometer of success but is it the only one? Interestingly, I met a man who was a bi-vocational pastor of 17 people and had been doing it for more than 13 years. I get the feeling that such persevering, self sacrificial ministry would have been applauded by some but written off as failure by many. I couldn’t help thinking about Noah who built his ark in faith and preached faithfully for over 100 years and he saw squat in terms of ‘successes’. In many places today he would have been written off as not ‘planter material’ or ‘outdated’. Maybe he could have built a bar on the ark (better yet a Starbucks) or invited Lecrae for a bit of hip hop to attract the ‘yoof’. I don’t think he would have been invited to give any inspirational talks at many conventions! Yet there he is bold as brass in Hebrews 11 commended for his ‘faithful obedience’.  I haven’t made any concrete conclusions about this stuff – just thinking aloud.

It was a wonderful time though. I had a great time with a couple of men from the church. One I don’t get to spend nearly enough time with and the other was one of my assistants. I met up with some friends (old and new), felt challenged by the Lord, inspired by the speakers and I bought a shed load of books. Happy days!