The shooting star that was the Young, Restless Reformed crowd shone brightly as it burned. Brightly and all the quicker for it.
And now with the likes of Mark Driscoll seemingly dumping all over Reformed Theology from his land of exile, and Josh Harris dumping his marriage, it certainly feels like what began with a bang has ended with a whimper, if not a whine.
When it comes to Reformed theology, my take on it is that there are two types: Those who were introduced to Reformed theology through Mark Driscoll, and those who were introduced to Mark Driscoll through Reformed theology. And the results are two very different beasts.
And if Driscoll’s recent slap-down of the Young Reformed crowd that followed him is any indication, and that they did indeed need a father figure, then he could have offered them any theological framework, and as long as he acted like the bullish patriarch they would have followed him.
That bears out my short experience of Mars Hill, having gone to Seattle for one of the first Boot Camps they had back in 2007, while we were living in the UK. I was strictly an observer, but what I observed, and the people I spoke to, struck me in a number of ways.
First, many of the young men who were standing around with beards, drinking whiskey and smoking cigars, were refugees from Southern Baptist slightly fundamentalist backgrounds. They were not at all clear about Reformed Theology at the time, but just sensed that the cultural restrictions they had experienced growing up were now a thing of the past. If hip Driscoll was going to replace the uncool Dad or pastor they had had back home, then they were fully on board.
The second thing that struck me when I attended one of their Sunday campus churches was how willingly a campus pastor gave over his pulpit to a video screen for the sermon. I remarked at the time to a friend who was also there, that any pastor who greets everyone at the door, leads the service, runs the communion, only to flick a switch on a screen for the sermon for someone else to preach, has put his manhood in a jar on that preacher’s desk.
The other thing that struck me was the sense among the crowd, and a sense that came through in many a sermon and video, was that this was the group that would take Reformed theology to the masses. The Old Reformed crowd were kinda stuffy and not “jiggy with it”. In other words they didn’t rate. Sure the theology was good, but it needed to be contextualised and given some modern treatment if it was to gain any traction.
So it was interesting to watch these Mars Hill guys breathlessly eulogise writers I had been aware of for years – and had even read – having just discovered them for themselves.
But therein lay a conundrum. They had already built sizeable churches with all the bells and whistles prior to coming to a Reformed theological position. Whatever they had grown that church with it wasn’t the theology! So the question was, what had they grown it with, and what might they need to keep doing to grow it, given that it wasn’t dependent on their theological convictions in the first place.
And it felt like it was built on style. Mars Hill felt like Nirvana with Jesus as the lead singer. And this was solving the perennial problem of the Old (Olde?) Reformed crowd. They didn’t rate. They didn’t trend.
The Young Reformed crowd, it seemed, were destined to Make Reformed Theology Great Again, and then put that slogan on a trucker’s cap, on top of a well coiffed haircut and beard. To make Reformed theology rate again. And doing it by getting it out there on all the new platforms. By taking some of the starch out of the collars, or even removing the collars altogether. After all the medium is never the message, right?
You see the Old Reformed crowd wore pleated pants not skinny jeans. The Old Reformed crowd had hip replacement and books by Calvin, rather than teeshirts with pictures of hipster Calvin. The Old Reformed crowd flew under the radar, rather than up in the Twittersphere. The Old Reformed crowd wrote books – often without pictures – rather than blogs.
The Old Reformed crowd knew what Spurgeon preached, not just what he smoked. They also knew that Tim Keller’s twitter account was just Tim humbly passing on the collective wisdom of the past heroes of the faith, rather than bangers he’d come up with in a Manhattan coffee house that morning. Well they would have known that if they’d been on Twitter in the first place.
And the Young Reformed crowd was going to take that fantastic theology, marry it to a more cutting edge cultural framework, and help it make the leap to the next generation, much like a musical act crossing over into the new decade intact with a new sound.
Now there is some credence to this. I know plenty of people who discovered a big picture of the Bible, and a solid theological framework through that crowd. And they may not have made that leap otherwise. But there’s been a huge body count, and I’m never sure that’s worth it.
And so here we are on the verge of another decade and there will be no new book coming out from those Young Reformed pioneers. Like Driscoll many have rejected what they barely understood.
The Old Reformed? Well they’re still going. Still going even as Driscoll puts his size 10 Chelsea boot into the same theology that made him (in)famous. They’re still going, even though Josh Harris has, sadly and tragically, kissed his marriage goodbye. All of which these blokes still write and blog about. If you’ve been steeped in the media culture, you’ll find a way to stay on trend, to rate, even if your theology or your marriage tanks.
I’m super grateful that my introduction to Reformed Theology was through that Old Reformed crowd. In other words, I was one of those who came to Mark Driscoll through Reformed theology, not the other way around.
And I thank God for that. The people who introduced me to that theological framework saved me from my worst instincts. Above all my instincts to rate, to trend, to matter, to influence. I know it’s all there, lurking just out of eyesight. Always on the horizon luring me towards rating, trending, mattering and influencing. I am, in short, a bit of a flake, and those blokes and their training of me knocked a heap of the flakiness out of me.
But here’s the other thing, and it’s probably connected with that: those Old Reformed dudes, er, gentlemen, who guided me when I first started theological training, didn’t really get off on the word “Reformed”. They just didn’t talk about it that much at all.
What did they talk about? They talked about Jesus. All of the time. It’s as if they were really, really close to him. They were keen to showcase Jesus from all of the Bible. Keen to show how the doctrines of grace impacted every aspect of a Christian’s personal life, ministry and worship. Keen to show its pastoral implications, not its sassy pretensions.
And they didn’t get off on rating. Didn’t get off on book sales. Didn’t get off on podcast numbers. Didn’t get off on telling you how many people were attending their churches. It’s as if they made it their ambition not to rate; to live a quiet non-rating life. To look at rating as a siren call that would lure us towards the rocks of temptation that all young men face, and that even middle age will not damp down if sin is not mortified.
And I’m grateful for that. I’m grateful that long before I ever went to Seattle, long before I listened to a bunch of podcasts, long before I ever had a dinner in Mark Driscoll’s house, that I’d sat in a newly minted, nondescript theological institution in a tin shed in Perth, Western Australia, being grounded in Scripture and the Christian life by an Old Reformed bloke.
I reckon without the Old Reformed crowd who first shaped me, then the Young Reformed crowd’s zeal to rate might have been my biggest temptation. Actually would have been my biggest temptation. I may well have been permitted – nay encouraged – to allow gifting to run ahead of character. I’m not for one minute saying all of the Young Reformed crowd is like that – not at all. But the sobering number of them falling by the wayside indicates there won’t be a book written called Middle Aged, Restless and Reformed.
I’m grateful in particular for one Old Reformed man, younger back then than I am now, who started that theological institution in that shed; who put together a robust library; who taught and preached with depth, intellectual and academic clout; who had integrity in the long haul; and who had a deep, deep love for Jesus and other people. His knowledge of Greek, his depth of reading, his insight into the doctrines of grace, his determination to preach Jesus from the text – all this gave me a foundation like no other. He could have been a “face” at a big theological college, but he was more concerned for the work of the gospel in the backwater of Perth.
Oh, and this bloke just did the dishes when they needed done at church or at a conference or wherever. And he could deliver a killer, humorous line so quietly that you just knew he could tear you apart if he’d wanted to. But he never wanted to.
He was – and still is – an Old Reformed man who didn’t rate. Who looked at rating and kissed it goodbye. And it’s that Old Reformed man that I still rate so highly and am grateful to God for today.