Church planting is for wimps: a Q&A with Michael McKinley

Communications Staff — January 26, 2010

Michael McKinley serves as pastor of Guilford Baptist Church in Sterling, Va., a position he has held since June 2005. Guilford voted to receive McKinley from Capitol Hill Baptist Church (CHBC) in Washington, D.C., along with his family and seven other members of CHBC. This group joined the dozen or so regular attenders of Guilford for what McKinley calls a “revitalization” effort.

McKinley is the author of “Church Planting Is for Wimps: How God Uses Messed-up People to Plant Ordinary Churches That Do Extraordinary Things,” a forthcoming work from Crossway due out at the end of April. Towers had the chance to interview McKinley and ask him some questions about the book and church planting/revitalization.

Why is church planting for wimps?

McKinley: Well, it’s meant as a bit of a joke.  In the book I argue that revitalizing churches is harder and in some ways more strategic than planting new ones.  So in that sense, it’s a good-natured jab at church planters.

But also, I worry that a lot of guys are scared away from church planting and church revitalization work because they think that you have to be some spiritual Superman in order to do the work.  In reality, God seems to love to take messed up people and use them as he fixes them.

Why did you and Capitol Hill go the revitalization route with Guilford Baptist Church versus planting a new church?

McKinley: We thought this was particularly strategic.  Guilford was a dying church, with a few faithful sheep and no shepherd.  They had land, a building and a lot of money that wasn’t being used to extend the Gospel.  Rather than starting from scratch with nothing, we wanted to help those brothers and sisters and employ those resources.

You grew up in Philadelphia and describe yourself as one who loves punk rock and who once had green hair and wore combat boots to Capitol Hill Baptist Church (Washington, D.C.). Does the culture of your church reflect your tastes? Does it reflect the tastes of the 20-something generation?

McKinley: No, not really.  Our services are long, serious and joyful.  Some 20-somethings find that attractive, others are turned off because it’s too slow-paced. In terms of the church culture, our church is a crazy mix of really conservative folks, folks born overseas and more quirky people (like me).  But there’s a lot of unity and love between different kinds of people.

You compare some efforts at contextualization to the homogeneous unit principle — appealing to one homogeneous group of people — and say this is not what the Bible has in mind when it speaks of contextualization. Talk about this idea of contextualization you have observed and explain what you think the Bible teaches about contextualization.

McKinley: Well, obviously we all should and must contextualize on some level.  We make choices about where to meet, in what language we should conduct our meetings, what kind of clothes to wear, etc., based on the cultural context around us.  That makes sense.

I’m made uncomfortable, however, by attempts to contextualize that in fact become efforts to cater to a small sub-group of the population.  Some types of contextualization are so specific to a sub-culture that they in fact alienate a lot of other groups of people.   I don’t think that’s how the church is meant to be.  In the second half of Ephesians 2, Paul speaks to the diversity of the church as a display of God’s wisdom.  So if we make choices to “reach” 20-somethings by contextualizing our music, clothing and slang to make them more comfortable, but those choices make our church culturally inaccessible to people born in different cultures or people in their 40s and 70s then I think we’ve misstepped badly.

And as I understand what Paul is saying in I Corinthians 9, we’re supposed to give up our personal preferences and “rights” in order to remove unnecessary barriers to the Gospel.  Our contextualization shouldn’t raise more barriers than it removes.

How have you sought to create a culture where every generation, every race and every social demographic knows they are welcome at your church?

McKinley: We try to keep our gatherings fairly “stripped.” This means we read the Bible, we sing songs with fairly modest accompaniment, we pray and we listen to the Word being preached.  Nothing very fancy, nothing we couldn’t do if the power lines were cut and we were left in candlelight.  In fact, it’s not too different from what Christians do all around the world every Sunday.  So while there are some things that are inevitably foreign to international folks (particularly the songs we sing), most of the service feels like “home” to them.

It’s also important to be intentional about fostering this kind of unity in the church.  It really doesn’t happen very easily on its own.  So we make a point of encouraging men from other cultures to serve as elders (assuming they are qualified, of course).  We try to have a broad range of people involved in leading the service through prayer, singing or reading.  And more than anything, it’s a matter of doing the (initially) intimidating work of loving people who are different than you are.  Folks know whether or not they are welcome pretty quickly.

One heading in “Church Planting is for Wimps” reads: “Without a vision statement, the people flourish.” Explain what you mean there.

McKinley: Well, I think most of the emphasis that we put on vision statements is a little silly.  There’s nothing wrong with them, but most people put way too much time and hope into them.  Preach the word.  Love people.  Share the Gospel.  Pray.  It’s not easy, but it’s not complicated either.

You talk about church planting almost wrecking your marriage, or rather your sin revealed in the crucible of church planting almost wrecking your marriage. What mistakes did you make in this area that you would warn other men about?

McKinley: Hmmm…. thanks for the opportunity to confess my sin to a bunch of strangers.  Well, the number one thing I would warn other men about is the fear of man.  If you want to be well-liked, successful and recognized as a good pastor (and let’s face it, you do!), you’ll have endless opportunities to sin against your wife and family by putting other people’s needs before them.  Resist that urge.  Love your wife well, even if it makes some people think less of you.

What do you think an extraordinary work by a church planter/pastor consists of?

McKinley: Faithfulness.  What’s extraordinary about ministry is not necessarily the size of the church or number of converts, but the progression of the Gospel through “ordinary” means.  When a church preaches the Gospel faithfully to the world around it and people are being built up in their faith and growing in grace that’s extraordinary.  It may not be immediately satisfying to our egos, but it is the amazing plan of God to spread his fame.

If you could emphasize three things to men about to launch church plants what would they be?

McKinley:

1. Make your plans, but realize that God will lead you in directions you may never have imagined.

2.  Get other men in your life that will tell you the truth about yourself and ask you hard questions.

3.  Have a lot of confidence in the Word of God.  God delights in using it to accomplish His purposes.

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