In November, Christ Over All offered a decade-by-decade engagement with evangelicalism. We would encourage you to go read many of those fine essays. In this two-part “Encore Essay” by Mark Devine, we return to our November theme, Engaging Evangelicalism, because of its many applications for our January theme: Roe v Wade after Dobbs.
While Evangelicals should not define themselves by politics, they have had an outsized role in political affairs throughout America’s history. Therefore, to understand evangelicalism one must grapple with the various ways politics, and especially the Pro-Life movement, have intersected with one another. To that end, Mark DeVine follows the last twenty years of evangelicalism to show the cross currents which have blown through our country.
Picking up a theme introduced by Jeff Robinson in his two-part narrative, the most significant movement among young evangelicals in North America between the years 2000 and 2020 was the resurgence of Reformed theology. Heading into the 2000’s Mark Driscoll and his Mars Hill Church and the Acts 29 church planting network influenced a broad swath of young evangelicals with Reformed theology. On the other coast, it was New York City pastor and The Gospel Coalition co-founder Timothy Keller who greatly influenced the Reformed resurgence among young evangelicals—what Colin Hansen called the “Young, Restless, and Reformed”—penetrating even the largest evangelical denominations and publishing houses. In the middle of the country were streams identified with the preaching of John Piper in Minneapolis, Don Carson’s writing and scholarship in Chicagoland, and Albert Mohler’s institutional leadership at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Perhaps the most surprising development in these yearly years of the Reformed Resurgence was its embrace by entity heads from the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Likewise, representing the rising generation of multi-site church pastors, Matt Chandler understood and shared with younger SBC-ers the staying power of institutions. At a 9Marks at 9 event, he said, “movements come-and-go, but institutions stay.” In this way, the staying power of this Reformed resurgence would occur largely within the safe harbor of larger denominations such as Keller’s own Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) the immense SBC.
1. Despite an abundance of anti-Calvinists present at all levels of the Southern Baptist Convention, Keller’s gospel-centered appeal to a rising generation of Calvinists in SBC seminaries and other institutions led to an ever-widening embrace of the Keller movement.
In what follows I will give a broad brushstroke of this movement along with some of its key thought leaders.
Making Calvinism Cool
The Reformed Resurgence found rich soil in the theological ground cultivated for decades by bestselling theologians John R. W. Stott, J. I. Packer, R. C. Sproul, John MacArthur, and John Piper—men who led movements of their own. But by the mid 2000s, Driscoll—who also gained notoriety for his work in the emerging church—was arguably the face of the burgeoning recovery of Calvinism among young evangelicals sweeping the country. One impressive feature of the movement was its effective targeting of notoriously resistant contexts for gospel advance—the great cities of America. 20- and 30-somethings in skinny jeans were in cities across the nation, by the tens of thousands, happily sitting under candid preaching about sin, hell, and predestination. Through his nationwide reach, Driscoll helped make Calvinism cool.
Multiple scandals that eventually came to a head in 2014 led to the demise of Mars Hill and the dimming of Driscoll’s once bright and rising star. But other Calvinistic preachers continued preaching and leading, and one of them rose to greater prominence: Timothy Keller. Keller had amazed church planters across the evangelical world by his success in Manhattan, and once The Reason For God appeared in 2008, Keller emerged as a nationally recognized star, a uniquely gifted apologist for the faith, and a church planting guru. With keen cultural awareness, Keller’s engagement within the context of a metropolitan city not only opened doors to share the gospel in New York—and in The New York Times—but it also resonated with Christians across the country hungry for a doctrinally-based approach to evangelism.
2. While it’s difficult to assess popularity, a rough metric in google trends (which shows how often certain terms are searched for by millions of people online) shows the general rise of Driscoll and then his eclipse by Keller after 2014—as measured by search results of “Mark Driscoll” and “Tim Keller.”
Indeed, both Driscoll and Keller sought to advance a robust Reformed theology in urban settings. But Keller’s strategic posture could hardly have contrasted more sharply with Driscoll’s. Driscoll assaulted Seattle audiences with an at times in-your-face, confrontational brand of preaching. Keller’s relaxed, open, comforting dialogical style prioritized the approach commended under the “About Us” tab on The Gospel Coalition website. What is true of the organization he co-founded is also true of himself—Keller strives to provide resources that are “winsome and wise, and centered on the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
When Cool Begins to Freeze Evangelical Light
By 2016, the Keller movement—at least in its theology of a sovereign God, its church planting philosophy, its Christocentric preaching method, and its apologetic posture toward the culture—found itself deeply ensconced within both the PCA and the SBC and many other centers of evangelical influence. Keller had released one bestselling book after another and had become for evangelicals something of a national sensation. Yet in 2016, Keller and his movement found itself the subject of unrelenting and withering criticism, not from the politically progressive communities they served, but from their conservative theological siblings who charged them with accommodating their message to the progressive urban cultures they inhabited.