My latest column at Christian Week:
The Gospel Coalition started as a friendship between theologian Don Carson and pastor Tim Keller. The friendship expanded to a group of pastors and churches from the Reformed heritage. Two years ago the Coalition went public with its foundation documents, which argue for historic beliefs and practices combined with social engagement and the integration of faith to all of life. The Coalition outlines a desire for ministry that is theological, gospel-centered and culturally engaged. They argue that this type of ministry is rare.
In April, the Coalition held a conference in Chicago. Some 3,400 people attended, including many Canadians. One of my friends observed that a similar conference 10 years ago might have attracted a couple of hundred older people. In contrast, this crowd was full of young adults. Carson estimated that 80 percent were under 40. They are, in the words of Collin Hansen, young, restless, and reformed—part of a growing trend of younger Christians who eschew church growth strategies and the modern reinvention of church and long for tradition, theology and transcendence.
A conference is just a conference, but the Coalition aims to become more. They aim to become a grassroots movement in which the best ideas don’t come from the leaders of the organization, but from the networks that develop outside of the conference. To help make this happen, they have launched an online social network on a site called The City.
The Coalition is modeling its approach on John Wesley’s organizational strategy in organizing bands and classes, which helped contribute to the Evangelical Awakening. Already, groups have started in the network for Canada, as well as for regional areas such as Ontario and Toronto. The Coalition hopes that the online connections will lead to local chapters for carrying on the work of the Coalition at the local level.
The Coalition borrowed this idea not only from Wesley, but from a recent book called Groundswell, which describes how social media spreads ideas and builds consensus in a way that can’t be controlled top-down. The Coalition hopes to find the right balance of top-down vision and grassroots momentum. They are also trying to stay sensitive to issues of American hegemony, so that they are not perceived as importing American solutions internationally.
Three of the Coalition’s council members are Canadian: John Mahaffey of West Highland Baptist Church in Hamilton, Ontario; John Neufeld of Willingdon Church, Burnaby, B.C; and David Short of St. John’s Shaughnessy, Vancouver, B.C.
What should we think of the Coalition and its plans?
It’s hard not to be encouraged by the number of younger people who are interested in ministry that is biblically faithful and culturally engaged. I have a quote from John Stott hanging over my desk: “I pray earnestly that God will raise up today a new generation of Christian apologists or Christian communicators, who will combine an absolute loyalty to the biblical gospel and an unwavering confidence in the power of the Spirit with a deep and sensitive understanding of the contemporary alternatives to the gospel; who will relate the one to the other with freshness, authority, and relevance; and who will use their minds to reach other minds for Christ.”
It seems that God is answering that prayer.
I’m also excited by the possibility of local networks starting in Canada. Some 20 people have joined the Toronto group in the first week. That’s not many yet, but it can lead to some important connections between groups that don’t normally meet. If this leads to a genuine movement in a place like Toronto, I will be very glad.
The Coalition faces its challenges. It is very difficult to hit the sweet spot between top-down control and grassroots momentum, and they will likely make mistakes. They are also putting a lot of hope in the online social network. It’s still too early to tell if that network will develop the momentum needed to sustain a movement across a number of different countries and areas.
I am encouraged, though, that someone is trying. I may be seeing the start of a biblically faithful, culturally engaged movement of young leaders. That gives me hope, and makes me want more.