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Tony Merida: Welcome to “Churches Planting Churches,” a podcast on the theology and practice of church planting. I’m your host, Tony Merida.
The Word of God is precious. It’s sweeter than honey, and more to be desired than gold, for in it we meet the living God. This is the almighty God, who not only spoke the universe into existence, he also, in his great love and mercy, came to us in Christ to save us from the judgment we deserve. And we’re told in 2 Timothy that all scripture is breathed out by God and it’s profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training and righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. So, with the Bible, we can truly say that we lack nothing. In God’s word, we have all that we need. And this is good news for church planting pastors, as planting a church has many challenges and complexities. We can expect to be tested at just about every turn, but we can also be confident that God, in his word, will guide us into all truth.
Further, God’s word is enough for the people who are called to shepherd. And as under-shepherds, we want to lead people to the good Shepherd as he is found in the pages of the Bible. That’s our ambition as church-planting pastors. And yet, I also know that it’s easy to let worldly thinking seep into our ministries. We can be enticed by the latest growth strategy, recent trends in psychology, the newest leadership fads, or any number of things. Because of these realities, we must fight to keep the Bible at the center of our lives and our churches. In other words, we must never let the Bible lose its functional authority in all that we say and do. This is easier said than done. So, to help us think about keeping the Bible central in church planting, I’m excited to have Reuben Hunter with me on the podcast today. Reuben is pastor of Trinity West Church. He is married to Louisa, and they have four children. Reuben, welcome to the podcast.
Reuben Hunter: Good to be here. Thanks for having me.
Merida: So, I’ve just heard a lot of good stuff about you and your ministry, but we’re going to keep it simple on this podcast. We’re just going to talk about the Bible, and I’m assuming you use the Bible, you think highly of the Bible, so we’ll see.
Hunter: That’s right.
Merida: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Where did you grow up? How did you come to faith?
Hunter: Yeah, I grew up in Belfast in Northern Ireland. Not far from where our brother Lucas Parks is ministering. I grew up in a non-Christian home. Self-consciously non-Christian. My parents had rejected the nominal Christianity of their upbringing. Growing up in Northern Ireland, the church was very much a part of the culture and people went to church, whether they believed or not. My parents were children of the ’60s. They came to university in Belfast and threw off that church attendance. And so, I grew up in a very loving home, very happy home, great fun, but no interest in Christianity. No exposure to the gospel or the church in any way. And so, I was converted in my early 20s.
The process of that started with my father dying very suddenly when he was 52. And it wasn’t that I kind of thought, “We’ve had this great crisis and I need someone to help me.” You know, my father’s gone, I need a father kind of thing. But what it did was, it caused me to ask questions that I probably should have asked as a teenager. Questions about life, questions about the universe, and who are we, and who made us, and how do we get here, or whatever it might have been. And what I discovered was, in the midst of my grief, that my notional atheism didn’t explain life as I knew it. Intellectually and emotionally, what I was really working off as a way of living life couldn’t bear the weight of my human experience.
And so, I got interested in questions about how we are here, and the God question kind of came my way. And I kind of began this journey of exploring. This was a kind of intellectual thing. The other thing that was going on was that because my dad had died, I’d inherited some money, which meant I was able to buy a house. I had my own car, I had a job, I had some of the things that the world was telling me should satisfy me. And yet, I was very dissatisfied. I was restless, I was discontent. And really, the short story is over the course of a couple of years through the kind providence of God, he brought me into contact with Christians. He brought me into a church context where I heard the Bible being taught. And at some point, when I was 23 or 24, I met Christ. I made some professions of faith along the way. It was one of those very sort of bumpy journeys from definitely not believing to believing. And I don’t know at what point I probably crossed the line, but that was my story.
Merida: Now, walk us from that point then to pastoral ministry.
Hunter: Yeah. Well. So, one of the things that struck me from the very outset was how good the good news sounded. And I thought, how on earth did I get to this stage in my life and not be told this? Not hear this amazing life-transforming news about this man called Jesus? And so, from the off, I really was quite a zealous evangelist. I was clueless, but I was very zealous. And so, I tried to share the gospel with people as much as I possibly could. And gradually, the job that I was in when I was converted, I moved out of that in order to be able to kind of be more part of a church community, and I was kind of trying to evangelize people. I was doing Bible study with other men, and things like that.
And just my desire for that was growing and growing and growing. And my last job in the real world before I transitioned to ministry was, I was an estate agent. I sold property. And when I tell people that they think, you know, “Wow, goodness. How is that possible? That’s poacher turned gamekeeper kind of thing.” I really enjoyed the job, but I was increasingly just finding that my job was being fit around me trying to do ministry rather than the other way around. And so, I pursued some training. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I moved to London to go to a Bible training course there. And, you know, you probably know what I mean when I say you start to do some training, you realize how little you know, and so you start, and you get on this…you’re still going and you have a Ph.D., right? Yeah. Great. So, it’s one of those things that just kind of went and went, and I got involved in church work then, I suppose about 17 years ago, with some training, you know, I was training along the way. I went to seminary and I was ordained as a pastor 11 years ago this year.
Merida: Wow. So, tell me about some of your early influences. You have a long line of great expositors, right, in the UK. Who were some of the shaping influences on you?
Hunter: I knew that I needed some theological training, and I called a friend of mine who had a friend who was at a theological college seminary and I said, “Could you ask him what the best seminary in the world is?” You know, because I just, you know, I’m a single guy. I want to go and get the best possible training I can. And he advised me about a particular college and he said, you know, “These are the guys you need to talk to.” And I called the director of studies of this college and he said to me, “Tell me what books you’re reading.” And I said, “Well, you know, I am… Ooh, ah, books?” And I, you know, couldn’t come up with any weighty theological titles at all. In fact, you know, I can’t even remember.
“What’s So Amazing About Grace?” By Philip Yancey might have been the most theologically weighty offering. And this guy was shocked, and he said, “You need to read “Knowing God,” by J. I. Packer and you need to read John Calvin, and you need to read…” There was somebody else that he told me to read. I can’t remember who, but I went and I bought Packer and I thought, “Oh, right. This is going to be a steep hill.” And the Lord gave me a desire for reading really at that point, because I hadn’t been academic at all. I was a waste. I was in the sport and just messing around when I was young. And so, when I was converted, I really… That was when a passion for reading was birthed.
And so, I started with Parker. I read lots… Well, when everybody did that reading plan through Calvin’s institutes on 500 years or whatever, that was when I read it all. But I read large chunks of Calvin before that. Other big influences were, earlier on in that process, I met Mark Dever, Capitol Hill Baptist Church. He was at a conference in Northern Ireland that I’d gone back to in the summer, and he said, “You should come and do an internship at my church.” And I said, “Okay.” And I went over there and did six months with him, and they just get you reading, you know, Charles Bridges on “The Christian Ministry.” Just they break a young man down, you know, I am not fit for this task.
And that was a great experience to read that and to be completely humbled and brought low by the thought of what was gonna be involved in ministry. And we read… I think you read something like 30 books over the course of that time, and just very helpful. Other pastors that were influential, Liam Gallagher, who’s now at 10th Presbyterian in Philadelphia. He was the pastor of a church in London that I came to when I went to do this Bible training course. And he kind of helped me understand reformed theology. I think I had the instinct, and some of those frameworks in place just through reading the scriptures and some of the other books I’d read, but he helped flesh that out for me and helped me to understand it. So, he was quite influential then.
And I suppose, my first job when I was ordained was in a church in St. Albans, just North of London. The pastor there was a chap called Greg Strain, and he taught me a huge amount about what pastoral ministry looked like. He is a very faithful guy who, you know, hasn’t written any books or anything like that, but he’s just an excellent pastor and he taught me lots and lots of really good stuff. So, he’s a big influence.
Merida: Give us a little feel for what it’s like to pastor in West London. What challenges do you guys face there?
Hunter: Yeah, I think pastoring in West London is like pastoring in any big, diverse, global city. It’s multi-everything. Multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-economic, multi-class, multi, you know, whatever metric of diversity you wanna kinda think of, it’s there. And that’s exciting and energizing, and it brings with it a breadth of opportunities. But it also brings the challenges that cities bring. Cities in the West at the minute typically are hostile to the gospel, secularism is a big thing. I think we have a liberal establishment, you know. So there is a state church that has, for the most part, given up the gospel. There is a very…so, the culture makers, that is the media, they are socially liberal. The people that inform the thoughts of the city despise the gospel, I suppose.
And then, of course, Islam is on the rise, and we have a very big Islamic population in our neighborhood. My neighborhood, I think, is like a microcosm of London as a whole. It has everything in this melting pot and it’s, you know, it’s a tough place. But it’s also exciting and there are good opportunities. I think these are hard days for the gospel in the West. One other thing actually that I think is actually something of a challenge in a city like London is, London is a cool city, and so people come there. But because it’s cool, there are people that won’t… Because there are a lot of people, we have a predominance also of false gospels. So, there are churches that purport to be churches, but they teach a false gospel. And actually, they gain a bit of momentum. And therefore, that’s a challenge when you’re trying to do gospel ministry in a context like that.
So, as I say, these are hard days, but I suppose, then, it’s just a case of being realistic about that. I think we can’t be pessimistic. It’s stupid to say, let’s go to the city and change the world, you know? But at the same time, there’s gotta be realism. So, but at the same time, just thinking, you know, all the cities are gone. That’s it. Forget it. You know, or people saying, “Oh, this is the day of small things. There’s not much happening.” I am convinced that most of anything gospel focused, that’s going to be lasting will be somewhat small and unimpressive in a city like London from a worldly perspective, that is, at the minute, but that’s okay. And I think we just want people to have a long view.
I suppose, again, that highlights another challenge. The long view means that people need to stay, and people typically come to the city, stay for a bit, and then go. It’s a hard place to go. And so, giving people a vision for the gospel for the long haul is something that is a bit of a challenge. And calling people to embrace the sort of sacrifices that you need to make in order to stay, that’s often a hard sell. So, realism, but not pessimism. Keep reminding people that Antioch was a very hostile context for the gospel, and yet the gospel flourished there. And we believe, don’t we? That we have a promise that the earth will one day be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. And we’ve just got to do our bit the only way we can. In the end, the church will triumph, the gates of hell won’t, etc., you know?
Merida: Amen. Amen. Why keep the Bible central in church planting? Talk to the church planters out there. Why is it necessary to have a good understanding of ecclesiology, the church? If you want to be a church planter, I mean, isn’t it really about just sort of being a cutting edge, you know, extroverted personality that can gather people? What’s the big deal about the Bible in church planting?
Hunter: Oh, well, at one level, it’s simply because it’s God’s revealed word for all of life and for ministry. The big point about that famous verse in 2 Timothy 3, “All scripture is breathed out by God.” We think, “Oh, that’s a text about the inspiration of the scriptures.” But he says, “And is profitable.” That’s right. He’s talking about its sufficiency. And therefore, we need to have the sufficient word of God at the center of things. It’s how God makes himself known. It’s how his power for salvation is revealed. Faith comes by hearing and hearing the word. That much is obvious. The key question, I think, is what does it actually look like to have the Bible at the center of church life? We talk about being gospel-centered. We talk about being Bible-centered, but what do we really mean by that?
And I think we’ve got to recover a high view of the Bible for every aspect of how the church is ordered. The Westminster Divines, they had talked about the regulative principle of worship. The idea that the Bible was the regular, the rule for how the church ordered her worship services. But I think also it applies to how we order our church, you know? And there are things that the Bible speaks about and the Bible places great importance on, but they aren’t things that you have to believe for salvation. And so, typically, we say, “Well, it’s not a primary issue. Therefore, it doesn’t matter.” But in actual fact, secondary issues, and if you want to say even tertiary issues, that are very clear in the Bible, need to govern the way we do what we do in church life. So, all of that.
Merida: That’s good. That’s good. Let’s talk preaching for a second. Week in week out exposition. What’s that look like in your ministry? What are you preaching right now through a book of the Bible?
Hunter: We typically go through books of the Bible. Once or twice a year, I’ll preach thematic series, but those thematic sermons will expand a passage on that theme. And this year we just finished a short series in 2 Timothy, and a longer series in the book of Hebrews. And although the church don’t know this yet, Lord willing, when I return from my sabbatical, we will embark on a longer series in Leviticus.
Merida: Wow. Wow.
Hunter: So, I didn’t know what Hebrews was about. So, I decided the way to do that is to preach it. I don’t know what Leviticus is about, and so I’m going to start with that.
Merida: That’s very interesting. I’m doing the same thing right now. I’ve decided my weakest genres are prophetic, this is no surprise, apocalyptic, right? And wisdom. So, right now, I’m preaching through the 12 minor prophets. A sermon a week on the 12. And my plan, very, very tentatively, is to do wisdom next year, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs. And then, after my sabbatical, next summer, to do Revelation.
Hunter: Oh, good for you.
Merida: So, we’ll see. We’ll see.
Hunter: I don’t think I’ll get to Revelation before I retire.
Merida: In a transient city like London, how does that factor into your planning of preaching? Do you fear…if you get folks for a year or two, will they have Leviticus for two straight years? Do you try to move through your series rather quickly? Does your context impact how long you go?
Hunter: That’s a great question, and I actually haven’t thought about the kind of two to three-year thing as much as I should have done. Interestingly, I’ve thought about that in other aspects of church life, membership courses and things like that, and how we think about integrating people in the church life. But in terms of my preaching series, I basically think, if we do sort of 8 to 12 weeks in a row, that’s a lot. And so, I’ll typically look at the way the book breaks up, and let’s say, there’s 8 sermons in that, or there’s 6 in that, or there’s 10 in that, or whatever. But, like, I did, 70-something sermons in Luke when we started the church, but that took four years or something like that because… Just tried to break it up a bit.
And so, let’s say we’re in Luke and I’ve done this chunk, whatever, you know, in whatever way I’ve sort of thought that the book hangs together, I’ll have thought about this at a macro level. You know what it’s like. So, I’ll say, “Okay, there’s a block of potentially 15 sermons.” I go, “Well, I don’t want to do 15 in a row, so I’m going to drop that back. Can we get that? Okay. Okay.” And then maybe I can’t think that I’ve done more than 12 in a go. So, it would only be for a few months and then I would take something else. So, we did Ecclesiastes, we did a sermon in the Psalms, we did Ruth. Yeah, different books.
Merida: It’s good to hear you did Ecclesiastes. I’ll be finding that one.
Hunter: Those sermons will be of no use to you. I mean, in the kindness of God, they were, you know, faithful and people probably were helped back in the day. But if you’re actually thinking about getting the grips of the book, it’s probably a bit thin.
Merida: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, the Bible is obviously central in church planting as we think about leading our churches forming a healthy ecclesiology, it’s central in our preaching as we shepherd the flock of God. One of the things about church planting, I think, that gets lost sometimes with the missional focus and the complexity and innovation required in a lot of ways in church planting is just understanding what a church is. Right? And, I mean, it seems very obvious. If you’re going to plant a church, you should know what it is. But often, it seems like ecclesiology is separated from the discussions about church planting, even though that window of time of the church that’s very, very unique in the history of the church.
I’m speaking of the first year, or whatever, where you’re trying to gather people, form a church, etc. You know, that can look a number of different ways, I think. But at some point, you know, you’re leading an actual congregation and you’ve got to think through membership, you’ve got to think through polity. And so, you want to do all this stuff on the front end, right? To have a working understanding of how a church operates. And I think one of the particular temptations in church planting and ministry in general, is to just gravitate to that which works. It’s very pragmatic. Even guys who start off very convictionally driven, get out into the real world of ministry and they find that sometimes they’re not ready for the long haul that you described. And so, they’re looking for instant success and they’re open to compromising certain positions in order to see their church grow. Right? So, I wonder if you could just encourage church planters in that. You know, you’ve been at it now, you said, for 11 years at Trinity, is that right?
Hunter: I was ordained 11 years ago. We moved to this community to plant the church eight years ago, last month. And the church is six and a half years old. It took us 18 months to…
Hunter: …in that first phase.
Merida: Perfect. So, talk about just your own journey and what it takes to just hold those convictions about your theology. Because in London, there’s so much cultural opposition like everywhere in the world. But in a major city you’ve got agendas, political agendas, social agendas, and here you are trying to be the Bible guy, and you can also see churches growing who are not being biblically faithful. So, what’s it been like in your own life?
Hunter: Yeah. It’s worth saying that there is lots of good things happening in London in terms of churches being planted and good people doing good work. But yeah, I think, you know what route, it’s interesting when you talk about pragmatism, you’re describing that as doing what works, that you want to be a success. And I think we need to recalibrate what success is, and therefore, reassess what it is we want to work, you know. So, we’re doing what works in order to gather a crowd, and that’s not necessarily what we need to do. We need to ally, we need to define success as faithfulness to the scriptures, faithfulness to what God has called us to be as a pastor and a church, and to kind of trust him with the growth note.
I get that there is a pressure. That 18 months for me was miserable because, I mean, I nearly gave everything up, including my marriage and everything else. Like, I just, the Lord brought us so clearly into that setting and it was like he just disappeared. And, you know, the people that said they were going to come and join us didn’t. And, you know, we were on a very different track from the start. But I look back on that now and see that that was the Lord preparing me and working in me, and all of that, in healthy ways.
But, I think it’s important that when you set out to plant a church, that you recognize that the Bible tells us what a church is. The Bible tells us how a church should be led. The Bible tells us what a church should do, you know, what our mission should be. So, what a church is, Matthew 16, Matthew 18. How a church should be led, 1 Timothy 3, the pastorals in general. What a church should do, Matthew 28, very clear mission there. What responsibilities the church has. You know, have a clear idea that church discipline is a thing. You know, I mean the idea in that first phase where you’re just trying to get people to come and be part of things, that you’ve got kind of a clear idea in place of what a body of the Lord’s people are called to be. And therefore, you don’t just take anybody, you know, you can’t.
So, you need to be clear that this person understands the gospel before they are drawn into the membership of this new church. Before you launch publicly, you need to know who the church is, you know. And the Bible tells us what’s involved in that. And I think in order to avoid pragmatism, you need to realize that the Bible tells you what these things are, or it speaks clearly to these things. And then, you settle in your own mind what the Bible’s answer to those is. You know, there are different denominations, people have different views on some of these issues. But you settle in your own mind what those are, and then implement those convictions. And, you know, I think one of the things that I struggled with, and one of the things that I think others struggle with is that we kind of think that it’s an A plus B plus C equals success. And actually, as we call our people to live the Christian life by faith, we need to also lead our churches by faith and trust the Lord. And actually really trust Him, you know?
Merida: That’s good. That’s good. You’ve already touched on this a little bit, but last question. A lot of young guys, aspiring pastors, planters, listen to the podcast. How would you encourage them? You gotta encourage your old self before you…What would you want to tell that guy?
Hunter: Well, I think I’d say that, get on and pursue planting a church, but do it in the right healthy context. So, do it in relationship with another church, in partnership with a really good church planting organization. Like, for example, say, hang on, there’s Acts 29. Yeah, they’re a good group. And, you know, a young guy just to take our time and be accountable and be kind of tested and trained and mentored and equipped. But when it comes to these things to do with their convictions about the Bible, settle to know in their heart and in their mind that whatever happens in the culture, whatever way the culture goes, whatever pressure is on or not, that what our neighborhoods and our communities need above all else, and what we’ll make deep disciples, is God’s word at the center of church life, at the center of their ministry. If people will meet the living God, if they’ll grow in the living God, our ministry must be shackled to the truth of the gospel, shackled to the scriptures. And young guys need to settle that conviction as early as possible and just don’t budge…
Merida: And go. Yeah, that’s right. That’s right. Thank you for your time, brother. Talking about the word of truth, what a privilege it is to be able to preach the bottomless word of God.
Hunter: That’s true. That’s for sure.
Merida: Unsearchable riches of Christ. So, thanks for being on the podcast. If listeners do want to listen to your sermons, even though they’re not any good, where would they find those sermons?
Hunter: @imagodei.org, I think, that’s where I’d go. Trinity-west.org, something on there I’m sure.
Merida: Cool. I’ll visit one day.
Hunter: That’ll be great to have you come and preach.
Merida: Thanks, Reuben.
Hunter: Thanks, Tony.