As we look back on 2017 and look forward to 2018, many evangelicals are confused and concerned, worried about trends in the broader culture and also within their churches. They see a deepening secularism, threats to religious liberty, and growing cultural hostility to biblical Christianity. But some see the threats from within the church as even more worrisome.
Are evangelicals sacrificing principles for power, reverence for relevance, and costly obedience for convenient comfort? Is the church’s identity becoming more political than theological? Are we losing our grip on the gospel? Who speaks for and provides leadership to an increasingly fragmented evangelicalism?
I asked The Gospel Coalition’s leaders—Don Carson (president), Tim Keller (vice president), Kevin DeYoung (board chairman), and Ben Peays (executive director)—to weigh in on these and other challenges facing today’s church, and what TGC is doing to help address these challenges.
The challenges facing the church and the world today are many and multifaceted, but which of them represent, from the perspective of The Gospel Coalition’s leadership, the most troubling threats to the church’s health and the most significant obstacles to the gospel’s advancement? Here are five:
“The most significant obstacles are the ones we’ve always faced,” said Kevin DeYoung, of the issue (sin) behind every issue. “The world is worldly. Sinners and sinful. And the heart is deceitful. Which is to say, God is not surprised by what we face, and the gospel is not impotent to make all the difference.”
The effects of sin are wide-ranging, but one of the particularly insidious idolatries of our age, at least in Western culture, is our obsession with personal autonomy. We make sacred the right “to choose my own identity, my own morality, my own truth, with no major responsibility other than to be true to myself,” Don Carson said. “Small wonder this manifests itself in greed, sexual predation, moral confusion, and a tragically ignorant philosophical materialism.”
2. Division in the Church
Following the larger culture’s media-intensified polarization along every imaginable line—from guns to marriage to kneeling NFL players—the Christian church is replete with internal division at the close of 2017.
“It can feel as if we are more divided than we have been in a long time—divided by race, by politics, and by our approach to a changing culture,” DeYoung said. “The fractures run so deep that we aren’t even sure if ‘evangelical’ is a word many people want to use any more.”
3. ‘Evangelical’ Identity Crisis
What does “evangelical” actually mean in 2017? Is it a political voting bloc or a theological coalition? Tim Keller wrote recently in the New Yorker about this debate, observing, “In many parts of the country, Evangelicalism serves as the civil or folk religion accepted by default as part of one’s social and political identity. So, in many cases, it means that the political is more defining than theological beliefs, which has not been the case historically.”
Indeed, as TGC editorial director Collin Hansen recently pointed out in The Washington Post, for many so-called evangelicals, theological correctness and biblical faithfulness are less important that advocacy for political sacred cows: “You could preach almost any Trinitarian heresy and not one person is going to notice it,” Hansen said. “If you touch on the political things they care about like gun control or racism, they’ll have your head.”
4. Poorly Formed Christians
Behind the evangelical identity crisis is a crisis of formation. Largely cut off from history, biblically illiterate, and catechized more by cable news than by the creeds, today’s evangelical Christians are naturally being shaped more by the ideological zeitgeist than by theological orthodoxy.
Largely cut off from history, biblically illiterate, and catechized more by cable news than by the creeds, today’s evangelical Christians are naturally being shaped more by the ideological zeitgeist than by theological orthodoxy.
“If they are not controlled by Scripture and confessionalism, then of course [evangelicals] are going to fit into the grid of the broader and more secular culture,” Carson said. “By and large, these cultural evangelicals work out their cultural bondage in more conservative ways than their agnostic counterparts, but it is difficult to believe that racism is less evil than sexual promiscuity.”
Given the “world’s catechism” that instills messages like “Be true to yourself!” through everything from dolls to Disney movies, Keller thinks it’s essential for the church to rethink its practices for discipleship and formation.
“We need to foster better ways of doing formation that keep people thinking and living in distinctly Christian ways in very secular environments,” he said.
5. Extremes of Pietism and Partisanship
Keller sees two tendencies among evangelicals that pull in different unhealthy directions. One is pietism, which is a “completely inward” Christianity oriented toward “Jesus just wants you to be happy” prosperity.
“Pietism says my Christianity is fully inward and has nothing to do with the way I live in the world,” Keller said. It tends to retreat into the self and make no difference in the world. But the other extreme, partisanship, errs by politicizing Christianity according to rigid partisan categories that demand “package” deal alignment: you cannot be a true Christian conservative or progressive unless you tow the party line on every issue. This partisanship tends to shoehorn Scripture and Christian practice into one or the other political boxes.
“It’s not easy, because if you resist the partisanship, you look pietistic, as if you think Christianity has nothing to do with the world and is completely other-worldly,” Keller said. “But if you resist pietism, then you look like you’re basically trying to be a culture warrior, to impose your values on people.”
Given these challenges, what are the opportunities and priorities for organizations like The Gospel Coalition, who want to champion the gospel of Jesus Christ with clarity, compassion, courage, and joy in these tumultuous times?
Corresponding with the five challenges listed above, below are five opportunities for how TGC—in partnership with fellow believers like you—might rise to the occasion, for such a time as this.
The urgency and ubiquity of sin demands, as ever, that the gospel be preached and shared. That’s why we at TGC are committing ourselves anew to evangelism and the Great Commission.
We at TGC are committing ourselves anew to evangelism and the Great Commission.
Evangelism will be the theme of our 2019 national conference and a major content theme for 2018 print and digital resources, including new ventures in video and podcast formats. Plans include both resources that help Christians in the process of evangelism, as well as shareable and compelling content—a “What is the gospel?” video, for example—that is itself evangelistic.
TGC also plans to host events that are evangelistic in nature—the sort that Christians can feel comfortable inviting an unbelieving friend to attend, and which address life’s big questions from a biblical perspective.
An evangelistic emphasis doesn’t mean TGC will water down Scripture or neglect its calling to biblical literacy (see #3 below) or robust discipleship (see #4). On the contrary, evangelism is just the transferring of right Christian beliefs and practices to others, TGC executive director Ben Peays said.
“If the Christian life is shaped and guided by Scripture, then evangelism is about relaying what the Bible really teaches,” Peays said.
2. Unity and Fellowship
Disunity in the church has been a challenge since the earliest days of Christianity, and it remains a theological (and evangelistic) problem.
From the beginning, TGC has endeavored to be a non-sectarian, interdenominational coalition of coalitions—“trying to stay true to the Reformation, but in an interdenominational sort of way,” Keller said.
Part of how TGC has and will continue to enact unity and fellowship is through conferences and events, where diverse gatherings of men and women come together to fellowship, connect and, most importantly, worship God together.
Our upcoming MLK50 conference, in Memphis from April 3 to 4 and co-sponsored by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, is one example of TGC’s efforts to foster unity in the church in these divided times. The speaker lineup at the event—as with our 2018 Women’s Conference in June—is purposefully diverse to represent the many faces of gospel-centered Christianity.
Globally, TGC continues to support independent Coalitions functioning in Italy, Canada, Australia, Latin America, and French-speaking Europe. We are also helping independent Coalitions form in Eastern Asia, Korea, Brazil, Germany, Russia, and Ireland, reflecting the need and hunger for gospel-centered resources across the world.
TGC will continue to gladly link hearts with believers across national, denominational, ethnic, and class lines, as well as with sister organizations like T4G, Desiring God, Ligonier, ERLC and Acts 29 (read about our new partnership).
“There are so many great organizations out there pulling in the same direction,” DeYoung said. “TGC isn’t the only game in town. We are happy to play our small part alongside other ministries and in the midst of many fine schools, agencies, and institutions.”
3. Biblical Literacy
One of the reasons political convictions have so easily sidelined biblical fidelity among evangelicals is that politics is everywhere in our lives—in our social media feeds, on TV, radio, even on the football field—while our Bibles collects dust.
That’s why biblical literacy is a huge priority for TGC going forward, as it has been since the beginning. Biblical literacy leads to healthier churches, transformed lives and communities, new vigor in evangelism, stronger defenses against the errant philosophies of our day, and ultimately new converts.
“TGC pours most of its energy and resources into teaching and preaching the Bible—not only the sacred text itself but the theologically rich heritage of Reformed confessionalism,” Carson said. “We try to model and teach serious, joyful, biblically constrained expository preaching, as well as providing essays, blog posts, podcasts, and books that not only unpack the Bible but apply it to every domain of Christian thought and practice, with everything centered on what the Bible itself makes central, the glorious gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Everything TGC does and will do has a biblical literacy component, Peays said.
Everything TGC does and will do has a biblical literacy component.
“Our digital and print publications aim to take everyday issues and address them from a biblically and theologically faithful approach. Our events aim to model expositional preaching, letting God’s Word speak for itself to God’s people. Our International Outreach efforts seek to get biblical teaching and good theology into the hands of pastors and Christians in the global church,” Peays said.
Another effort in the area of biblical literacy is the newly launched TGC Courses, a platform that makes robust studies in the Bible and theology available for free to Christians everywhere. Future projects include plans for a 50-week program to help encourage Christians to open their Bibles and engage in more serious study.
4. Training and Formation
To combat the crisis in formation plaguing the Western church, TGC is committed to providing biblically sound resources and training to help Christians—both adults and children—become more like Jesus and less like the world.
Recent efforts in this area include The New City Catechism publications (catechism, devotional, curriculum, app, and songs), a partnership with Crossway and Redeemer Presbyterian Church, as well as Our Secular Age, a compilation book published by TGC in September to help Christians better understand the ministry challenges and dynamics of secularism. More publications are in the works for 2018 and beyond.
In addition to sharing robust cultural apologetics and discipleship resources on our website in 2018, TGC also plans to expand its on-site training programs to help Christians in areas like expositional preaching/teaching, how to walk a neighbor through the Bible and foundational theology, and other topics.
“Based on the response from our women’s training program, where TGC visits a church for a few days and helps their women learn how to better study and handle the Word, we see a large demand,” Peays said.
In partnership with our international Coalitions, TGC also hopes to provide more international training opportunities. One example is a planned week-long training program for 16 women leaders from eight countries in South America, to prepare them to lead a two-day Bible study workshop back home. The intent is for these women to return to their churches and communities and lead other women through a process of learning how to better handle and study Scripture.
5. Prophetic from the Center
The inertia of this age, fragmenting outward in every direction, demands a robust commitment to the gospel as the center. Christianity speaks prophetically to every age insofar as it speaks from unchanging gospel. This gospel brings healing and hope in a world of fear. It also confronts every idol and calls everyone to costly discipleship. The gospel of Jesus Christ is comforting (Matt. 11:29-30), but it is not comfortable (Matt. 16:24).
We are The Gospel Coalition because the gospel is our center. Our own happiness is not the center. Political power and cultural relevance is not our center. The gospel is our center.
Our own happiness is not the center. Political power and cultural relevance is not our center. The gospel is our center.
“I see TGC as occupying the same space that evangelicalism’s founding fathers—like Carl Henry, Harold Ockenga, John Stott, J. I. Packer, and Billy Graham—occupied,” Keller said. They wanted to be evangelicals, not fundamentalists; to engage with non believers and with society, and not just to withdraw, Keller said.
“We don’t want to be pietists, but we don’t want to be captive to the spirit of the age either,” Keller said. “But that is actually a hard place to be. It’s a lot easier to retreat to your fortress or to just go along with the crowd. But TGC, from the very beginning, wanted to avoid going in either direction. We wanted to be prophetic from the center, as Don [Carson] says.”
But prophetic doesn’t mean popular in a polarized age. Keller admits that TGC’s commitment to gospel centrality and biblical faithfulness in a politically charged, highly partisan environment will not be easy. It will likely mean TGC is a “bit battered” in moments—like the 2016 election—when Christians who avoid partisanship are viewed as weak or holier-than-thou.
But Keller is hopeful. He believes TGC’s online presence “represents non-pietist, non-partisan, interdenominational Reformed evangelicalism in a way that, frankly, is unique.”
“There are tremendous numbers of younger people who are being reached by TGC’s website, and I think it’s keeping people from the extremes—of getting too withdrawn or getting too caught up in the secularism of the age.”
There are tremendous numbers of younger people who are being reached by TGC’s website, and I think it’s keeping people from the extremes—of getting too withdrawn or getting too caught up in the secularism of the age.
How You Can Partner With The Gospel Coalition
If you have benefited from TGC’s ministry and desire to join us in our efforts—outlined above—to renew the contemporary church in the ancient gospel, there are several ways you can get involved:
Pray that everyone associated with TGC, from staff to Council members, would keep a close watch on their life and doctrine.
Give to help TGC continue offering free, gospel-centered resources to the global church. Make a tax-deductible donation here.
Attend one of our events, whether a national conference, women’s conference, regional gathering, or local workshop.
Share TGC resources with others. Read the website and share helpful content with pastors and leaders, or share on social media
Volunteer to help with a local TGC chapter near you, or at one of our national events.
Ultimately, Carson said, “every individual Christian and every local church that shares the same goals and passions is already working with TGC in the discharge of what is, at the end of the day, nothing other than obedience to the Great Commission.”
But the reality of an organization like TGC, which provides its digital resources (articles, podcasts, videos) free of charge, is that financial partners are needed to keep the ministry’s momentum going.
“As our reach expands, so also must the list of brothers and sisters in Christ who share our vision and want it to advance and multiply,” Carson said. “We grow and increase our service at the rate at which God provides the resources.”
We grow and increase our service at the rate at which God provides the resources.
We believe a gospel-centered orientation has the power to transform lives and unite Christians of every tongue, tribe, and nation, even in an era of intense division and fragmentation. If you believe that too, we want to partner with you to strengthen the church and champion the majestic gospel of Jesus Christ in the 21st century.
“This is no time to slink backward in defeatism,” Carson said. “Jesus is King, and he has promised to build his church, such that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
View a special Christmas greeting from Don Carson and learn more about joining us in ministry here.