On May 10, 2008, I walked a few blocks from my house on Webster Avenue in Wheaton, Illinois, down to the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, where I was a grad student at the time. On this commencement weekend the college had invited back to campus three classmates who had graduated together in 1968: John Piper, Mark Noll, and Nathan Hatch. The purpose was to hear these three evangelical leaders discuss the state of evangelicalism as compared to 40 years before, when they had graduated.
At the conclusion of the panel all three agreed that the evangelical church is far better off and far worse off than in 1968. They remarked that it is better off in that there is much fresh energy for a doctrinally robust mission-mindedness, especially among the younger generation. But it is much worse off, they said, in that the integrating gospel core has become fragmented, hollowed out. The insistent centering on a clearly contoured gospel message exhibited by Carl Henry, Francis Schaeffer, and Billy Graham had dissolved.
In just six years since hearing that diagnosis, huge steps forward have been taken, to the degree that it is difficult to transpose that same indictment onto the evangelical movement today. We are in the midst of a gospel renaissance.
I therefore write this article filled with gratitude for what God was doing in and around the time of that panel discussion, and then in the years since. Just six weeks before that panel, Collin Hansen’s book Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinists had released. Tim Keller’s The Reason for God was being written at the time, to release in 2009, inaugurating a sudden pace of a book a year that hasn’t slowed since. In 2007 The Gospel Coalition began a website, which in 2013 attracted almost 42 million pageviews and now hosts almost 100,000 audio, video, and text resources, to go along with a burgeoning suite of annual conferences, including regional events, since the original national conference in 2007. Together for the Gospel began in 2006. Seminaries rooted in the gospel largely survived the recession and many are emerging stronger than ever. Global initiatives for the sake of the gospel have sprung up all over the place (such as this one), and certain previously hostile places have proven remarkably open to the gospel (such as China). And this is just the tip of the iceberg.
The conclusion of that trio of evangelical leaders in May 2008 appears to have been not only diagnostic but also, in a sense, prophetic—what they lamented as lost is being remarkably, and quickly, regained.
Though in some ways evangelicalism is more diffuse than ever, it is undeniable that the gospel core is being recovered. The current rallying around the gospel of grace, a gospel with clear theological contours, crosses denominational, ethnic, national, and generational lines, and shows no signs of abating. A solar system of gospel-centered content has emerged, comprised of books and publishers, blogs and websites, preachers and leaders, conferences and events, and doubtless fueled by thousands of casual conversations.
Amid all this world’s chaos, God is doing a clearly supernatural work. Partnerships have been forged through the gospel. Evangelical publishing, amid much that is frothily unhelpful, continues to give us an abundance of help in understanding and living in light of the gospel. Evangelical leadership, once a small band of Christians swimming against the tide, has exploded into an army of gospel generals leading churches, seminaries, mission agencies, denominations, publishing houses, and even winning political office. To be sure, hostility remains. But the current gospel momentum is simply remarkable.
Celebrating the Present, Strengthening for the Future
For all this we thank God. Indeed, as I look at the resources, teachers, and digital support available to the church today (much of it for free), there is no other time in history in which I would rather raise my children.
Of course, like all true works of the Spirit, this current gospel renaissance has endured trials. Those championing gospel-centeredness have at times disagreed with each other about what this term entails, and sin in the ministries of some of those involved in the movement have become more evident with time. This is, in fact, always the case with works of God throughout church history: it moves forward amid, and even brings into stark relief, the messiness and fallenness of us all.
Indeed, as the pages of Scripture as well as the annals of church history painfully show us, we must take special care lest a time of divine blessing become a time in which the enemy slips in the back door, prayer imperceptibly wanes, and imbalances emerge. As we bless the Lord for his remarkable work among us in our time, perhaps we can also be thinking of ways to confirm and strengthen this current gospel renaissance in years ahead.
The major point of this article is celebration of the present; a closing minor point is something to bear in mind for the future as we seek to nurture this wonderful gospel stewardship that has been entrusted to us. As we conclude, then, I call in one of the evangelical forefathers mentioned by Noll, Piper, and Hatch—Francis Schaeffer—to reflect on one small reminder this man might offer us.
The Lord’s Work in the Lord’s Way
One of the most wonderful realities of our digital age is the way that particularly gifted preachers and leaders are no longer limited to the walls of their churches and organizations. Podcasts and other audio and video capabilities make most sermons available to anyone in the world, for free, on Monday. This embarrassment of riches can almost become paralyzing in the proliferation of leaders and messages available to us.
Yet this gift comes with a corresponding caution. We must take special care as we carry this momentum into the future to remember that regardless of who enjoys six-digit Twitter followers, heavy blog traffic, or sizeable book advances, no human being is any more created in God’s image than another. No one has less inherent dignity. As Schaeffer put it in the message (and title) of one of his books, there are no little people.
In one particularly important chapter in No Little People, Schaeffer reflects on the crucial significance of doing “the Lord’s work in the Lord’s way” (made available by Crossway here). By this he meant that human ingenuity and skill can never displace humble, prayerful reliance upon the Lord. To be sure, Christians have always been tempted to work out of fleshly motivations and loves. Yet various realities of our modern age amplify our opportunity to be obtuse to doing the Lord’s work in the Lord’s way, working out of the flesh rather than the Spirit. Our immersion in social media, for example, creates a strange and misleading illusion of omnipresence. An email travels from side of the globe to the other in a few seconds. A general sense of hurry and haste drives many of us through a normal day, as we multi-task more than ever, always improving our efficiency. We can promote a book or sermon or interview immediately and globally. In short, sitting down and opening up our laptop instantly opens up opportunities for communication and promotion that go further, faster, than any other time in human history.
Again, this change is morally neutral, and indeed provides unprecedented opportunity for positive gospel influence. But it also heightens our need to remember the pervasive biblical theme of the Lord’s delight to confound the world’s strategies for success, influence, and power. Whom does God use? The young, the outsider, the Gentile, the barren, the rejected, the crucified. How does God use them? Through their failure, their weakness, their seeming worthlessness, their unimpressiveness, their ignominy, their rejection on a cross. Had he lived today, Jesus Christ would have died with every last Twitter follower unfollowing him.
And I ask myself: Why am I more drawn to tweet something than pray it? Why does the web platform feel more powerful than the prayer closet? Am I forgetting—to use Schaeffer’s prophetic language—to do the Lord’s work in the Lord’s way?