The Gospel Coalition conference, held on April 21–23 at a suburban Chicago conference center, was an enriching and enlightening time of learning and personal fellowship with conservative evangelical brothers and sisters who share many ideals with Baptist fundamentalists. Both of us attended with a desire to learn more about a growing movement within evangelicalism.
It was an uplifting conference. The sheer number—3,300 people, primarily male—was a moving sight. The participants seemed to evidence a deep commitment to the Word of God and the primacy of bold proclamation of the Scriptures.
We were accompanied by our pastor at First Baptist Church of Arlington Heights, Ill., Dr. Bryan Augsburger. All of us are now in our middle-age years, probably at least 15 years older than the median age of the attendees, who are in ministry or preparing for ministry. Perhaps we stuck out in the crowd a bit, and for reasons other than our graying hair: Our pants didn’t have seven pockets, we tucked in our shirts, and we didn’t send any text messages to the guys sitting next to us.
Of course, we’re teasing! The younger men who attended this event seemed to have a strong desire for sound Biblical exposition. This fact in itself was encouraging. This is the same longing we have heard repeatedly from the younger men who are part of our particular fellowship of churches.
Part of this conference’s attraction was the opportunity to hear and meet well-known pastors and authors such as John Piper, Don Carson, Phil Ryken, Tim Keller, and Ligon Duncan. It is easy to see why young leaders gravitate to this conference—they want to follow the examples of fine Biblical expositors who are among the most articulate and thoughtful preachers in conservative evangelical circles. The speakers largely demonstrated the expository form of preaching that they hope to encourage.
The conference was organized around the theme “Entrusted with the Gospel,” a series of expository sermons from 2 Timothy. The schedule was also notable: three days of back-to-back sermons, morning, afternoon, and evening. No activities, no golf outing, no organized receptions or parties.
The singing was profoundly moving. The congregational singing was fervent and strong, marked by simplicity and traditional hymnody. The congregation stood in respect, singing every stanza of every hymn—even the obscure sixth stanza of “Amazing Grace,” no longer printed in most of our hymnals. The hymns we sang would be familiar in any of our churches: “Crown Him with Many Crowns,” “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “The Solid Rock.” We also sang newly written songs such as “O Great God,” “In Christ Alone,” “I Will Glory in My Redeemer,” and “O Church Arise.” The singing was also notable for what was absent: no performance music or “specials,” just the united voices of the congregation singing theologically substantive hymns.
The accompaniment was no leftover praise band from the seeker-sensitive 1990s. The players studiously avoided distracting performance mannerisms—they did not “emote”—and the sound levels were carefully mixed so that the predominant sound was the congregation of 3,000 men singing in full voice. Truth be told, the instruments were no louder than the pipe organ at Ryken’s Tenth Presbyterian Church, and just as supportive of the singing.
It was interesting to visit the exhibit area, which was populated by a wide variety of book publishers and various church ministries. Many in our association would perhaps be unfamiliar with the entire network or subculture of Reformed theological ministries that exists in conservative evangelicalism. These ministries seem linked to each other in a similar manner as the ministry network of the GARBC and other independent Baptists: no official ties to each other, but a great deal of affinity.
Some of the publishers were very generous with books. The attendees received several complimentary books, not the least of which was a hardcopy edition of the ESV Study Bible sponsored by its publisher, Crossway Books. Giving away books to 3,300 guests must be a tremendous expense. (This number would equal the entire print run for some of our RBP books!)
It was a treat to connect at the conference with many pastors and friends from GARBC churches and likeminded ministries. Pastor Ken Pierpont, Evangel Baptist Church, Taylor, Mich., attended with some staff and family members. Saylorville Baptist of Des Moines, Iowa, sent its entire staff, along with church-planting pastors supported by the church.
“I see two reasons for coming to a conference such as this,” Pastor Pat Nemmers told us. “It’s a great opportunity for us to get together as a staff, away from church, and a chance to hear some great preaching.”
Baptist Bible Seminary sponsored a display in the exhibit area, and gave away copies of their Journal of Ministry & Theology. Paul Golden, director of admissions at BBS, observed that he saw a dozen recent graduates of the seminary, along with current students from BBC&S, Faith Baptist Bible College and Seminary, Maranatha Baptist Bible College, and Northland International University. Perhaps the Gospel Coalition organizers will be surprised to learn how many Baptist fundamentalists attended and profited from the conference.
We had good fellowship and opportunities to interact about the conference and our ministries. We especially enjoyed the chance to interact with the younger pastors and wives in our association. Intrigued by their perspectives and stimulated by their thoughts, we were also pleased to find them very receptive to our counsel and perspective. We see this younger generation as willing to listen and learn . . . when the respect is mutual.
We believe the Gospel Coalition movement bears watching. Because the movement itself is still developing and taking shape, our thoughts here should not be taken as a full analysis of this new movement. But having attended the conference and having enjoyed many aspects of it on a personal level, we would like to offer a few tentative observations.
We share an emphasis on quality expository preaching. To be honest, while we felt the overall quality of preaching here was superb, it was not vastly different than what we are accustomed to from preachers in our association. Granted, the Gospel Coalition speakers were “heavy hitters” who have traveled and written extensively. We are grateful for their ministry. However, our pastors are just as committed to consistently and faithfully opening the Bible to feed the flock (though many of them will never become famous). We are grateful that the speakers here have humbly expressed complete confidence in the power and authority of the Word of God—but we also believe this is a virtue our pastors have consistently displayed. We returned home from the conference with a new appreciation for our own preachers. We should encourage such preaching wherever it occurs.
We do not share an exclusively Reformed identity. At times we felt more like spectators than participants in the conference—there are a few obvious points of theological difference. Many of the leaders of the Gospel Coalition are Reformed pastors and theologians. While respecting Reformed teaching, we do not fully identify ourselves under that umbrella. We make this distinction for what we consider to be valid theological and hermeneutical reasons. The GARBC has sometimes been described as “moderately Calvinistic” in its soteriology, but we do not embrace covenant theology and its hermeneutics. Some of our pastors and leaders feel more strongly than others about the resurgence of Reformed thought among our young leaders. As we continue these discussions, we need to carefully articulate the affinity—and differences—we have with Reformed theology.
Every movement has its loose cannons. During a seminar on “Preaching to a Christianized Culture,” one of the Gospel Coalition speakers surprised us with a bit of fundamentalist bashing—an allegation that the GARBC is legalistic. After the workshop was over, our pastor tactfully reminded the speaker that many GARBC pastors were attending the conference, and that perhaps his charge of legalism was an inaccurate generalization.
One of the conference speakers was Mark Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, who was a popular but controversial choice. We have watched from a distance as older leaders in conservative evangelicalism graciously but confrontationally admonish the younger men, especially when their patterns of speech do not conform to Scripture. Perhaps we will witness the process of a young pastor (who has been thrust into prominence) gradually maturing in the ministry.
We mention these incidents with charity. Our own movement has its loose cannons (and none of us is completely innocent when it comes to ill-advised words). All of us seek the best ways to nurture a younger brother or sister toward wise speech. May we all be willing to honor Driscoll’s preaching text, 2 Timothy 2:24, delivering public correction graciously when it is warranted.
The Gospel Coalition seeks to reform evangelicalism. Leaders in the Gospel Coalition seem to have launched a counter insurgency against the demise of solid Biblical preaching and practice in the evangelical community at large. Speakers at the conference made several references to the liberalism of the past, as if to head off a potential collapse of Biblical integrity if evangelical trends continue to their logical end. The Gospel Coalition has courageously called for an abandonment of trivial and worldly methods. They are beckoning a return to bold preaching from the authoritative Word, confronting people in their sin and communicating the reconciliation with God that comes only by the blood atonement and resurrection of Christ. In this regard, we commend their attempts at reform.
But having said this, we believe our pastors and churches should humbly emphasize that our own movement has always affirmed these “fundamental” beliefs. The sort of doctrinal and methodological housecleaning we see here was practiced by the GARBC in our earliest days. The problems in evangelicalism today are the bitter fruit of the “new” evangelicalism of the 1950s. We say this with no sense of I-told-you-so triumphalism. Rather, we humbly submit that the idea of ecclesiastical separation has protected our association from some theological and methodological problems that mark other groups. In this regard, the idea of fundamentalism was right. The adage is true, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” To be sure, our own movement continues to struggle over the limits and extent of this separation. So we, too, embrace the Gospel Coalition’s call to preach boldly and gently at a white-hot level.
While we may have personal fellowship, we cannot have organizational cooperation. The Gospel Coalition seems to be moving toward a more formal infrastructure. There is a governing council, a vision for regular meetings, a strategic plan for the future, a mechanism for local chapters, an approval system for prospective affiliates, a placement service, sponsored publications, and a church-planting network. In a recent Christianity Today article, Gospel Coalition cofounder Don Carson referred to these relationships as “almost a coalition of coalitions.” During the conference, Tim Keller called the interrelationship of organizations “a movement of movements.”
But leaders of the Gospel Coalition also acknowledge that some individuals may not participate in every aspect of their organization. In referring to their doctrinal statement as “a center-bounded set,” Don Carson has described the Gospel Coalition in terms of levels of agreement and levels of cooperation.
Carson’s idea could be helpful when exploring the limits of participation in cooperative events such as this. The idea of “levels of fellowship”—personal fellowship without organizational cooperation—has been articulated convincingly by fundamentalists such as Kevin Bauder, Myron Houghton, Rolland McCune, and Ernest Pickering, among others. While we may profit by our personal friendships with the broader evangelical community, our association would not have a formal alliance with theirs. The Gospel Coalition remains a broad-based evangelical organization bringing together some groups with which we would not partner in ministry. To do ministry together would require that one of us must choose to deemphasize particular doctrines that make us distinct. We prefer to not do that.
We must give attention to defining the gospel. The Gospel Coalition puts great emphasis on the centrality of the gospel to all of the Christian life and ministry. This idea was tightly integrated into the conference theme and preaching. It seems that the gospel to which they refer is not just the tenets of justification by faith, but the gospel, the cross, even the grace associated with the gospel that becomes the foundation for both justification and sanctification. This is a good and needed emphasis in ministry and preaching—corrective in many ways. By emphasizing the grace of God as the enabling force for transformation, the Gospel Coalition seems to be combating popular self-help and self-effort approaches to spirtual growth. We applaud this emphasis.
We must also give thoughtful attention to the possible misuse of these ideas. Dr. Bryan Augsburger suggests that a gospel-centered approach to homiletics is commendable, but could also become predictable or forced if careful interpretive guidelines are not applied. A less-careful pastor may attempt to wrestle the subject of Christ or the gospel into the natural flow of many preaching texts, especially the Old Testament.
“I agree that a gospel-centered approach is important,” says Dr. Augsburger, “but it is possible for this emphasis to become reductionistic.”
Here is where our conclusions become more tentative; analyzing a developing movement can be difficult. It seems the Gospel Coalition has developed a carefully-worded doctrinal statement, but remains somewhat undeveloped in implementation. Further, while it is heartening to see conservative evangelicals forsaking doctrinal ambiguity, it remains to be seen just how the participating organizations will cooperate. Or—how they will enfoce their own doctrinal core.
We returned from the Gospel Coalition spiritually refreshed and challenged to continue to integrate the gospel into every aspect of our lives. But we also returned with a commitment to the idea of an association of independent Baptist churches. When it comes to organizational cooperation, we’ll stick with the GARBC! Now, one might expect the GARBC national representative and the editor of the Baptist Bulletin to reach such a conclusion. Our intention here has been to charitably evaluate a developing movement—one that is meritorious in many respects, but one that must be approached with caution.
John Greening is national representative of the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches. Kevin Mungons is editorial director of publications for Regular Baptist Press. Photos by Peter Artemenko.