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Michael McKinley

Gospel Coalition Travelogue

By Michael McKinley

In late May, 9Marks sent me to the Gospel Coalition Conference in Deerfield, Illinois. The main speakers were Don Carson, Tim Keller, Crawford Loritts and John Piper. The complete audio of the conference should be available in mid-June on the organization’s website, and numerous blogs have provided detailed summaries of the content of the talks. But, since 9Marks paid for my ticket, I should at least write something for them.

Therefore, I proudly present to you: "My Trip to the Gospel Coalition Conference" – or – "A Travelogue from My Journey to the Center of Evangelicalism."

TUESDAY, MAY 23

7:32 AM ET: Leave home for my 10:00 AM flight to Chicago from Washington DC’s Reagan International Airport.

7:39 AM ET: Seven minutes later, drive past Washington DC’s Dulles International Airport. Wonder if the guy making travel reservations for 9Marks is an idiot.

7:58 AM ET: Come to complete standstill in atrocious Northern Virginia traffic.

8:13 AM ET: Put on CD’s from CCEF’s conference on anger. Amuse self by imagining what David Powlison would do if he were stuck in this traffic in a 1998 Mercury Tracer with no air conditioning.

9:05 AM ET: Finally arrive at airport. Apparently, the 9Marks travel guy has redeemed himself by booking me on some exclusive luxury airline called "ATA." Imagine, an airline so chichi that it doesn’t even have words in its name.

1:10 PM CT: Arrive at Gospel Coalition Conference a few minutes into Don Carson’s talk, "What is the Gospel?" Initially, I was a bit disappointed. Not that Dr. Carson wasn’t brilliant, he was. But this was the first time that I had ever seen him in person, and I guess I had really high expectations. I was expecting that he’d have a grotesquely oversized head with blood vessels popping out all over the place, or maybe that he’d have to have a separate wagon along side of him to wheel his gigantic brain around. But alas, he was just a normal looking guy in a navy blazer with a surprisingly calming Canadian accent.

2:03 PM CT: Carson’s talk on the gospel from 1 Cornithians 15:1-19 was excellent. So often we take the content of the gospel for granted, or we assume that, because we’ve mastered a brief outline, we’ve explored the depths of the gospel. But Carson discerns from Paul’s words eight different summarizing words and five clarifying sentences that served as an excellent kick-off to the conference. If you’re going to plant your flag somewhere, plant it in the gospel.

2:15 PM CT: There’s no more bottled water in the back. Either the Gospel Coalition accidentally ran out or they are preparing us for a Sweat Lodge experience during Tim Keller’s talk. I’m kind of hoping for the latter.

2:30 PM CT: Browsing the conference bookstall, which appears to be have been stocked without any consideration to doctrine, theme, or authorial literacy. The definition of irony is a conference on the gospel led by Don Carson selling books by N.T. Wright. But at least I can pick up Phillip Yancey’s new book on prayer (seriously). When did this become okay for a serious conference? What, were the Joyce Meyers books on backorder?

3:00 PM CT: Tim Keller speaks on Gospel Centered Ministry. Again, this is my first time seeing Keller speak live, and since he was invoked in hushed tones as the avatar of homiletics properly done at the seminary I attended, I was anxious to see and hear him preach.

He’s the real deal, there's no doubt about it. He almost lulls you to sleep with his speech pattern, but you find yourself engaged and engrossed after a few moments. Even better than his rhetorical style was his clear and powerful presentation of the way that the declarative preaching of the gospel stands at the center of the true ministry. At one point, he said that the statement "Preach the gospel, if necessary use words" is a misunderstanding of the gospel. Amen. Given the nature of Keller’s ministry and his views on the church’s social responsibility (not that I am necessarily in disagreement with much of them, but no one is listening to what I say so I don’t need to clarify myself), and given the presence of lots of missional guys (you know the type, black plastic glasses and black T-shirts), I was really thankful for his clarity on the centrality of the gospel in ministry. It was a reminder that I needed.

Also, this guy is a quote machine. I am planning on running his whole message through the chop shop and working it into future sermons.

5:30 PM CT: Chicago local and fellow 9Marks writer Paul Alexander suggests we go to Applebees for dinner. How’s that for local flavor? We settle on a pretty good rib joint. Television in background shows Yankees taking 3 run lead over Red Sox in the first inning. My faith in triumph of good over evil bolstered.

7:02 PM CT: Back to the conference for lots of singing and prayer followed by the evening speaker, Crawford Loritts. His title is "Passing the Torch" and his text is Psalm 78:5-7. I have never heard of him before, but I am looking forward to hearing him. He must be pretty great if Carson and Keller are his warm-up acts.

8:40 PM CT: Loritts’ talk was good. He is a passionate speaker, a strong orator, and very clear on the gospel. I was motivated to consider the impact that my ministry will have on future generations. The talk was a bit thin in terms of content, but perhaps the speaker suffered from comparison to those who occupied the stage before him. I certainly wouldn’t want to bat third in that line-up. But I leave it to you, gentle reader, to listen to the audio and judge for yourself.

9:45 PM CT: Yankees win. Thhhhhhhhhhuuuuuuuuu Yankees win!

WEDNESDAY, MAY 23

6:42 AM CT: Finish workout in hotel fitness area. Watched highlights of Yankees-Red Sox approximately 348 times in an hour long episode of Sports Center. Life doesn’t get much better than this.

8:17 AM CT: Can’t convince Michael Lawrence to do a Cool Hand Luke style egg eating contest with me in the hotel lobby. Seriously, what’s a conference without someone getting protein poisoning? Apparently, I’m going to have to take responsibility for this myself.

8:31 AM CT: Don Carson speaks on the purpose of the Gospel Coalition. I have to admit, the whole egg thing was really messing with me, so I’m not sure I was the best audience. But I don’t think I understand the purpose of the Gospel Coalition any better now than I did yesterday (at which time I had never heard of it apart from the question, "Hey, do you want to go to the Gospel Coalition Conference?" being directly addressed to me).

Two things stood out from Carson’s talk:

1. He asked that we lead our churches to support the Gospel Coalition if we believed in their cause. Now, this is a tough dilemma. Frankly, I have no idea what this cause is about, though the phrase "Reclaiming the center of evangelicalism" did seem to be bandied about. Thus, I would normally have no intention of leading my church to give money to it.

But, and this is where it gets hard, my entire hermeneutical approach to any given text, and you might say my approach to my entire ministry is based on this one inviolable rule: do what Don Carson says. He’s pretty much always right, or at least you’ll sound smart as you go down in flames. Am I a cessationist? Am I amillenial? Do I believe in election? Let me ask you: what does Don Carson think? So, you can see the problem I’m having.

2. Whatever the Gospel Coalition stands for, it seems to be in favor of something Mark Dever does at his church called "Theology Breakfast," which basically consists of Mark reading theology out loud at 7:00 AM in a very crowded room. Carson talked about it for at least three minutes. Now, I have been a willing and—later, as someone whose checks were metaphorically signed by Dr. Dever—an unwilling participant in these theology "breakfasts." And let me tell you, this is not where the Gospel Coalition wants to plant its flag. Now don’t get me wrong, I love theology and Mark Dever and spending time in Mark Dever’s study. But I also really like sleep and personal space and donuts. What kind of diabolical program advertises a breakfast gathering wherein no food is served? Is this what the Gospel Coalition stands for? I hope not…

10:32 AM CT: Mark Driscoll and Michael Lawrence are speaking on how to mentor young pastors. Both make lots of excellent points about the church’s responsibility to raise up and train pastors. There is a delightful digression that I will leave to the reader to investigate more fully.

Overall, I have to say, I was also a little underwhelmed by seeing Driscoll live for the first time. Based on his books, I thought for sure he would be hammering back Boilermakers between his points and crushing empties on his forehead. But he just seemed like a nice, funny, laid back guy. Less Henry Rollins, more Henry Winkler.

12:03 PM CT: John Piper speaks on the triumph of the gospel in the new heavens and the new earth. I happened to be sitting up front, and I am fairly sure that, right before he began, I heard him mutter under his breath, "Let me show you punks how a grown-up preaches." Or maybe I misunderstood him. As I said, the one-man egg eating contest didn’t treat me well.

Seriously, this talk was amazing. You should not be reading this, you should be listening to it online. I have quoted from it in my church about 35 times in the past two weeks (that’s my other pastoral strategy…when in doubt, quote John Piper). It was full of rich, Christ-centered reflections on the meaning of sin and suffering and the hope of heaven. It is always a blessing to be pointed to Christ by Dr. Piper.

1:00 PM CT: The conference is over. In all, it was very good. I thought that it lacked energy in some ways, but the speakers were spectacular and the hosts were pleasant. The conference organizers made it clear that this was something of a trial run, but I could definitely see it becoming much bigger in the future.

1:39 PM CT: Stuck in traffic on the way to Midway Airport in Chicago, which is about an hour away. Signs up ahead indicate that we’re about a mile from O’Hare Airport. Apparently, the 9Marks travel guy hates me. Good thing my flight doesn’t leave until 4:00 PM.

3:38 PM CT: Still stuck in traffic, almost surely not going to catch my flight. Rehearse with the driver of the car all the things I learned from the CCEF CD’s about anger.

4:05 PM CT: Missed flight, still 35 minutes from Midway. Wife, home with three children under 5 years old, not happy about developments and not very interested in talking about how much traffic there is in Chicago.

12:04 AM ET: Finally land at Reagan, having caught a flight as a standby passenger.

12:49 AM ET: Drive past Dulles Airport. Too tired to be angry at 9Marks travel guy…

Michael McKinley is the pastor of Guildford Baptist Church and the 9Marks lead writer on church membership.

July/August 2007
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Topic(s): Theology