Tony Cummings spoke to the Peak District-based children's communicator MICHAEL J TINKER
The British Church has for decades produced children's ministries of impressive quality and creative flair. In fact, compared with American counterparts, the Brits are miles ahead in making music and, increasingly, multi-media presentations that are both true to the Gospel message and don't leave parents wincing at their cheesiness. In the '70s and '80s it was Ishmael who pioneered cringe-free Christianity-for-kids communication and in subsequent years Doug Horley held the premier position in album and video sales. Now a new name, Michael J Tinker, is packing in the kiddywinkers (and often their parents) in festivals, churches, schools and retreats and even in these streaming-obsessed times his albums, videos and books are selling more than many high profile modern worship releases. Like Ish and Horley before him, Michael came to children's ministry after years of adult music making and similarly like those pioneers whose tireless efforts down the years Tinker is quick to praise, Michael is a musical eclectic able to sing and write music in pop, rock, R&B, folk and even rap styles while his invented multi-media character Inspector Smart is now a firm favourite in thousands of homes across Britain. Michael took time off from his constant touring to visit Cross Rhythms and tell me his story.
Michael was born in Oxford in 1982. He grew up in Keele, Staffordshire, his father being the chaplain at the renowned university. Explained Michael, "My dad didn't come from an academic background: he was the first of his family to go to university. It's an interesting one. Academia for us has never been 'Let's be high and mighty and use language nobody can understand.' But there was always a strong emphasis on learning, because that's a good thing to do if you've got the opportunity. Let's use our brains that God has given us. So I was always encouraged to read and to work hard at school - not that I always did. We were encouraged to use the gifts God had given us in his service. Academia, for my dad, is always that - learning in order to serve people. He writes a lot of books and they're very accessible. There's no point having a few academics sitting around a table, getting into the depths but most people not understanding what they're talking about."
Michael became a Christian at a very young age. He said, "I don't remember a time not believing that Jesus is Lord and that people needed to believe in him. When I was at Silverdale School, we had a piece of paper with an outline of a machine, and the machine could do anything you want it to do. Mine made people become Christians. The teacher said, 'What if they don't want to become Christians?' So it fired little crosses at people to make them want to believe. I think I was a budding Calvinist. I've always believed that; my parents always taught me it was true. We knew that other people believed other things, so we were always debating things and coming across ideas. My parents were always ready to answer questions we had. I think it was when I was nine or 10 at a Christian came that it first hit me emotionally what Jesus had done. I thought, 'OK, wow, he really died for me.' Through life you go through stages of trust and belief and understanding."
Interest in and enjoyment of music came naturally to Michael. "I had the choir robes and did the solos, 'Walking In The Air', at school and all that stuff. I've always loved music, but I was a bit lazy as a kid. I did music A-Level and got a D. Paul McCartney could never read music, so I'm happy with that. I played music and sang and did all that kind of thing, but didn't take it too seriously. I worked for churches, coming out of university through to 2011. The first job I had was working with students in Belfast, then moved to Sheffield. I was part of a Crowded House church - preaching, leading groups, outreach events. General life of church - but encouraged by Steve Timmis to write congregational music. I had a little band, mainly for fun, called Doc Brown And The DeLorians Of Sound. We even did some recording. The first was an EP and the other was a live album. We were pop, rock, jazz, country, anything we wanted to do. The first one was called 'Dirty Dishes'. It's very eclectic; it's got a couple of instrumental tunes on it, and one of them was called 'Dirty Dishes'. That was the EP. 'In Our Backyard' was the album, which comes from a line in a song that I wrote just before my daughter was born, looking forward to her being born and to showing her some of the Father's care, to - however ridiculously, imperfectly - image something of who the Father is to my daughter.
"In 2011 I stopped working for the church and became a professional musician. I started doing tuition, working with choirs, steadily building up, started to write songs. We were running a music cafe at our church and the first folk musician to get in touch about playing was Damian O'Kane, who was at college in Newcastle at the time. Folk music is very popular in Sheffield - a big, big following; some top musicians live around the area. I was like, 'Oh, I quite like this' - mainly because it's story-based. A lot of folk is accessible - very strong, emotive stories; very real, down to earth stuff. I really enjoyed that, so I started learning some of the songs, playing some of the songs, and it developed from there."
But doesn't, I asked, folk music have a lot of very dark themes - murder ballads and all that? Michael responded, "Yes, it does. In fact, some of the gigs I used to do, I'd take a chalk board and we'd chalk up how many deaths we had through the gig. When you got to a shipwreck, that'd be quite a few. I find it hard to write happy songs. One of my ambitions as a musician is to make people cry, because I want music to move people, and I think the best music does. There's a place for happy songs, but I just can't write them. I find them a bit too twee and dull. The interesting thing is, you get this a lot in the Bible - Lamentations and the Psalms. They're often talking about difficult situations, and it's often in those difficult situations we find out the most about God. It's that trusting him when we don't know what's going on and why it's going on, and yet we still say God is good, he does all things well. 'It Is Well With My Soul' - that was written going past the place of a disaster, his family being killed. That's what draws me to those the most - especially now I've got an older daughter. When the father comes in, there's some guy trying to court the daughter; I'm starting to appreciate those more."
In 2012 Michael recorded his first folk-orientated solo album, 'Shores Of Amerikay'. Speaking about the title track Michael commented, "Amerikay is America. I guess they [the writers] did 'Amerikay' so it would rhyme with things. That's a traditional song and I wrote a new tune to it. I'm pretty sure it's an Irish song and it's about going off to America, which many people did. The album was a mixture of traditional English songs, American songs, but also self-penned. I had a whole band put together for that, which was great fun. 2013 I did a single with Damien O'Kane, who plays with Kate Rusby, called 'Shenandoah'. It was a real pleasure to do that with him, up at their studio. 2014 I did an album called 'Songs For The Voiceless', which was a commemorative album for the centenary of the First World War - all true stories. I gathered 10 or 11 folk musicians to do that, and we did a little tour. Around that time I was starting to do more of the kids' stuff - releasing the albums, touring those. That's blossomed a lot, so it's taking up my time, which is a great thing to have take up your time."
His monumental leap into children's ministry took off with the release of the album 'Inspector Smart: The Rock Went A Rolling' and the book for four to seven year olds Inspector Smart & The Case Of The Empty Tomb. Michael explained, "Inspector Smart was a character I created when I was 17. My dad gave me the pulpit on Easter Sunday and I created this character to tell the case of the empty tomb. He investigated it, he interviewed the guards, the centurion, Mary and so on. A body has gone missing - what's happened? I used that character in Sunday school and family services, then in 2013 we did a holiday club around the case of the empty tomb. It was at that point I wrote two or three songs from that album. We used them in the holiday club, and we filmed some quite professional videos for them, where we had the characters we were interviewing. I bought a puppet for that purpose. The songs seemed to go down well, so I wrote some more songs. That developed into the album. We started touring The Case Of The Empty Tomb show then developed an album show with a lot more songs."
By 2016 Michael J Tinker released 'The Greatest Rescue Ever'; the following year a CD compilation 'Michael's Sunday Singalong' and just before Christmas 'Michael & The Topsy Turvy Kingdom'. I asked Michael to describe the music he utilises to get his message across. "There's all sorts of genres in there. I love so many different types of music, from jazz to blues to rock and roll to folk. It's great fun to be able to go, 'What style of music can I use for this particular song? What will be a good vehicle for this message?' There's a rap on there after Ronny Jordan's 'The Jackal'. There's a Bruce Springsteen-type song on there. There's a lot of country-influenced music. There's a 1980s heavy rock, Bon Jovi-type song. There's almost something for everybody. I know a very eclectic musician. We cheat a little bit. I work with a guy called Nick Cox, and he produces it all, he plays pretty much all the instruments. I write a song, I send him a demo of it - me and my guitar - and say, 'I'd love it to be in this style,' and he goes to work. The only thing that isn't live that he plays is drums or strings: he uses samples for that. But he's brilliant. He takes it and creates brilliant music."
Equally striking on Tinker's children's albums and videos are the artwork, done by Australia's Chris Wahl, who came to Michael's attention through his equally attention-grabbing work with another highly talented children's communicator, Colin Buchanan. Said Michael, "I can kind of go, 'This is the feel I want - I want detective, I want out in the jungle, Indiana Jones-type thing,' and Chris nails it. Visuals are so important for kids, something that just grabs their attention. So in the show, that's up on the projector, and I'm able to use it a lot. It's something kids can connect with."
So why, I asked this most passionate of communicators, did he call his latest release 'The Topsy Turvy Kingdom'? He replied, "I'm glad you asked that. The wonderful thing about God's Kingdom is that it's not like any kingdom you'll find on earth. It came from doing the Beatitudes. It's the poor in spirit, it's those who mourn, all the unexpected people are the ones who are welcome in his kingdom. You don't have to be rich, you don't have to be famous. It's those who recognise they have nothing to give God, except their sin. He forgives that on the cross, and they're welcomed in. It's wonderfully back-to-front and upside-down. I do a lot of schools work. I go into about 40 schools in the Peak District every half-term and before Christmas, obviously doing the Christmas story. I did Zechariah and Elizabeth and Mary, and kids were asking, 'Why did God choose them?' It's because it's a topsy-turvy kingdom! You've got an old couple who can't have children, you've got a young girl who hasn't got a husband yet. He chooses the people you just don't expect, and that's the way our God works. It's a wonderful thing, because it means broken people like you and me get welcomed right in."
I asked Michael to name two of the songs on 'The Topsy Turvy Kingdom which are important for both children and parents to hear. "The first 'You Are Lovingly Made" could be one of the most controversial today. There's a lot of talk about identity - who we are, and who decides who we are. Obviously a lot of people are wanting to say, 'You are who you want to be. If you feel that way, that's you. That's absolutely fine, and nobody should question it. It doesn't matter if you want to live as a dog.' I was watching a video yesterday of a white guy who's now identifying as a Filipino lady. The interviewer was going, 'We're saying you can change all sorts of other things, so why not change this?' The guy's like, 'Yeah, that's right.' That's the way things are going, that's how people are talking, and it's a very difficult area for some people. There are some guys saying, 'I'm a Filipino woman,' and there are other people struggling with deep, distressing feelings that they shouldn't be in the body they're in. People are given false hope in saying that you can be whoever you want to be, and it's because we've ditched the idea of a creator. When we're made, the maker is going to know how we work best. That works for any piece of equipment in this studio. If you try putting this microphone in a bucket of water, it's not going to work; and if you read the instruction manual, it'll probably tell you, 'Don't put it near water.' You trust the maker.
"That song is encouraging people to trust the maker. You don't need to work out who you are, because he's told you who you are. You are to be somebody who loves him and who loves other people. There's hope in that. It might be a difficult road of struggling with all sorts of feelings, because we're broken people. I have all sorts of feelings and struggles because I'm a broken, sinful human being; but that doesn't mean I should indulge any of those. I should look to the one who says, 'That's not what you were made for. Here's hope.' Jesus comes to bring you life, and life to the full. He was a single man, and yet he was the most fulfilled man in history. So we can trust that. We need to give that hope, and we need to stand firm while the rest of the world is screaming this other stuff at our kids and say, 'Stand firm in this. Cling to the Word of God. There's hope. It's good news.'"
Michael continued, "Another important song is 'Jesus Wins'. I wrote that the morning after the bombing in Manchester. You look at the world and it doesn't look like Jesus is Lord. There's brokenness, there's sin, there's fighting, there's evil, there's war. But the Bible promises Jesus wins. One day everyone will see Jesus wins. I think that's the message of Revelation. Revelation has all sorts of stuff that seems quite weird and wonderful, but I think it's all different perspectives saying the same thing that Jesus wins, the Lamb wins - no matter what it looks like, no matter what the Beast is doing, whether Babylon is stopping you from trading because you won't worship its gods, which is a very real thing for our age. Don't worry; look at the future: Jesus wins."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.