More than 15 years ago I crowded into the Galt House Hotel ballroom, just across I-64 from the Ohio River in Louisville, Kentucky, with 3,000 pastors and students. We gathered for the inaugural Together for the Gospel (T4G) conference without much idea of what we should expect. We got something we could never forget.
We saw evidence of how nearby The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary had transformed 13 years earlier under the forceful leadership of Albert Mohler. C. J. Mahaney’s charismatic Calvinism and buoyant attitude kept the mood light and familiar. Ligon Duncan thundered from the pulpit in the best Southern Presbyterian style but also leavened each discussion with his equally boisterous laugh. Mark Dever directed the whole circus. He explained the conference agenda. They wanted to leverage their celebrity to model friendship across denominations for the sake of the gospel.
We converged on Louisville to hear from them. But they wanted us to meet each other.
From my seat near the front stage I saw the visible manifestation of the “Young, Restless, Reformed.” Back in 2006 it was new and exciting. But the next T4G, in April 2022, will be the last. And I’m grateful for all this conference has meant to me and thousands more. With similar pastors’ conferences nearly every month around the country, we may not need T4G any longer. But I’ll still miss seeing my friends. And I’ll mourn the reasons some friendships have strained.
One Last Time
Many have confused T4G with The Gospel Coalition (TGC), as if they were searching for ballpoint pens and couldn’t tell the difference between Office Depot or OfficeMax. In other words, the confusion is understandable. At one point, Mohler, Mahaney, Dever, and Duncan all served on TGC’s leadership Council. TGC, first gathered in 2005, launched a website and women’s conference and books and international chapters. Meanwhile, T4G never pretended to be anything more than a pastors’ conference. T4G stayed focused on stocking pastors’ libraries with massive book giveaways. Dever reminded us that T4G’s leaders took the decision on whether to renew the conference year by year. This year T4G decided the conference has run its course.
I’ll still miss seeing my friends. And I’ll mourn the reasons some friendships have strained.
Pastors younger than 35 may not even realize what they’ll miss. They won’t know why we were so excited in 2006. Now you can visit almost any country and find a group of Reformed pastors working together for the gospel despite their different views on baptism, eschatology, spiritual gifts, and ecclesiology. Many younger pastors just assume that the saving message of Jesus should preoccupy their ministry. Shelves stocked with Puritans wouldn’t surprise many visiting their pastor’s study today. T4G helped make this kind of ministry so normal that T4G no longer feels groundbreaking. It accomplished a vital mission, and its fruit will endure long past 2022.
Next year I’ll book a familiar downtown Louisville hotel near the KFC Yum! Center, plot my visit to favorite restaurants, warm up my vocal chords for hymn-singing, buy a couple of Louisville Slugger bats for my sons, pack an extra suitcase for discounted and free books, and make sure my friends will join me—one last time—as we rejoice at what God has done in our day.
Fog of Suspicion
When I think about T4G, it’s the friends who come to mind. I can remember the exact spots where I met some of my closest friends in ministry. Over the years I tried not to miss out on the singing, but I confess I skipped some sermons to catch up with friends I only saw once every two years in Louisville. T4G helped me see that we didn’t need to agree on everything to work together, to be friends. Just last week one of those friends challenged me, and I appreciated that he cared enough to disagree with me, instead of just talking behind my back. At its best, T4G modeled that kind of meaningful friendship.
T4G helped make this kind of ministry so normal that T4G no longer feels groundbreaking. It accomplished a vital mission, and its fruit will endure long past 2022.
I also remember where I met friends who have since left ministry, or left the faith altogether. Recently, while browsing through my contact list from nearly 20 years in professional ministry, I had to pause due to discouragement. Dozens and dozens of names—nearly half my list—wouldn’t welcome any message from me. They had disavowed Christianity or at least Reformed theology. Or committed suicide. Or changed their political views. Or were convinced that I’d changed mine. In ministry you’re always losing friends. You don’t always learn why.
Back in 2018 T4G invited me to reflect on 10 years since the publication of my book Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinists. (I later wrote much of the same reflections for 9Marks.) I observed that when T4G started, soteriology preoccupied dorm-room and seminary debates. Thanks in large part to T4G, ecclesiology gained urgency a few years later as these young leaders moved into pastoral ministry. Between 2014 and 2016, public theology began to dominate church discourse.
I didn’t know in 2018 if T4G and this so-called YRR movement could withstand these divisions. Statements such as Article XVII in T4G’s affirmations and denials—“We acknowledge that the staggering magnitude of injustice against African-Americans in the name of the Gospel presents a special opportunity for displaying the repentance, forgiveness, and restoration promised in the Gospel”—didn’t cause a stir in 2006. By 2018 they would be considered by some as evidence of theological downgrade.
That will be T4G’s legacy—not an arena-sized event but thousands of pastors who open the Word week after week in the confident hope that God will speak to his people.
In retrospect the 2018 T4G probably signaled the end. Reformed theology no longer guarantees as much unity. From left to right, many pastors find more in common with even unbelievers who share their political and cultural assumptions than with believers who affirm the same doctrine. Allegiance to parties and politicians obscures friendships in the fog of suspicion that has overtaken so much of the American church. But when April 2022 comes, I’ll still give thanks for a time when we could delight in the wondrous gospel of “And Can It Be,” singing shoulder to shoulder.
Not everyone will mourn T4G, no stranger to conflict in the last 15 years. These controversies have forced many pastors to reckon with the church’s response to abuse, to recall one example. Long after the final T4G, we’ll still struggle to discern fact from fiction as we stand on the outside of complex church dynamics, including those involving our friends. Social media will demand we judge these conflicts nevertheless. Hopefully the result will be safer churches that combat abuse in every form.
We know that more leaders will fall. More friendships will falter. New alignments will emerge. And the Word of our Lord will stand forever, as T4G has reminded us every two years. That will be T4G’s legacy—not an arena-sized event but thousands of pastors who open the Word week after week in the confident hope that God will speak to his people. T4G may not be able to resolve today’s political, racial, and cultural disputes. Yet the formula of faithful, holistic, contextual ministry won’t change. It’s the same for every season.
The final T4G will taste bittersweet, the end of an era that mixed so much joy with the pain of growing up. Next year I’ll mostly look back with thanks—to God be the glory. And I’ll pray for God’s help in the future. Because if we want to move forward—together—in these disorienting times, then we need to get back to the work and words of Jesus.
We need to be together—for the gospel.