Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Interesting encounters. . . .

Several years ago – sometime during the mid to late-90s if I remember correctly – I sat in on a seminar at the Youth Specialties National Youthworkers’ Convention in San Diego. It was the year after I had done a NYWC seminar in Nashville on the postmodern worldview. I think this San Diego seminar had “postmodern” in the title so it caught my eye. I had been studying this stuff for a few years and the folks at YS were starting to address it with some intentionality. The seminar speakers were two guys I had never heard of or encountered before – Mark Driscoll and Chris Seay.

I arrived in the packed-to-the-edges room a little late so I took a seat on the side. Driscoll and Seay appeared to be a couple of trendy-looking twenty-somethings as they sat side-by-side in the front of the room on stools. . . . . first time I had ever seen anyone sit to do a NYWC seminar. For an hour-and-a-half, the two took turns in what seemed to be a stream-of-consciousness dialogue that seemed largely unprepared. As I listened, I became extremely uncomfortable with some of what they were saying, along with the varied responses of the impressionable youthworkers – many of them young – who were sitting in the room.

I remember the two of them being angry – very angry – in their tone. Their anger was directed at the church. As I listened, I quickly realized that I shared quite a few of their concerns. While I think the average attendee heard anger towards the conservative and evangelical church establishment, I began to sense that their anger – which at many spots was well-justified – was directed even more specifically at the culturally captive evangelical/conservative sub-movement that had become known as the boomer-oriented seeker-sensitive arm of the church. But the way they were presenting their case and the prescriptive corrections they proposed just didn’t sit well with me.

As I watched the responses of the people in the room, it seemed that Driscoll and Seay’s anger was polarizing. Some of the people in the room – mostly the younger folk – were finding in Driscoll and Seay a voice for their own dissatisfaction with the church. What worried me was that it appeared that these younger people were ready to jump right into bed with Driscoll and Seay, a move that I feared would be counterproductive as it would lead to a reaction against anything and everything in the church. . . . leading them to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Then there were the older people in the room, who were getting angry at Driscoll and Seay for their anger. . . including the fact that the two were peppering their conversation with some profanity. Throughout the course of the entire seminar, pockets of one or two people would intermittently get up and leave the room, sometimes muttering things under their breath or nodding in disapproval. By the end of the seminar, the room was only about half as full as it was in the beginning.

When it all ended, I sat there in my chair with my head, heart, and stomach swirling around with a variety of thoughts and feelings. I sensed that I had just sat in on something of significance, but I wasn’t sure what it was. I believed that I had just seen a line drawn in the sand. I remember fearing that what should have been and could have been constructive criticism of institutions and practices that fully deserved constructive criticism, had instead made a sharp turn and was heading down the road – in fact may have been pretty far along the road – towards a splintering of the church that would be reactionary. . . . and so much so that all the theological good that had come out of the modernist period would be thrown out with the bad simply because it was, well, modernist. In hindsight, I realize now that this was my first introduction to what would quickly become known as “The Emergent Church” . . . a very diverse movement, by the way, that has offered some much needed corrective critique.

I certainly didn’t have it all figured out at the time – nor do I now – but I was genuinely concerned by what I had just seen and heard, along with the response of the crowd to it. As I sat there searching inside for clarification and answers, it suddenly dawned on me that there was what I believed to be an answer out there. In fact, it was one that had been around for a long, long time.

I got up out of my chair and walked to the front of the room where people had gathered to chat with Driscoll and Seay. Driscoll was deeply engaged in conversation with someone so I stepped into an opening with Seay and introduced myself. I remember being a bit pensive, knowing full well that these guys were angry, they were already deeply invested in shaping solutions, and why – after all – would they want to hear something from somebody ten years older than them who had grown up as a part of the prior boomer generation? Here’s what I remember of that conversation with Seay: I introduced myself and quickly said something like, “I hear your anger. I think what you’re looking for is something I’ve found in Reformed theology. There are people out there who have been thinking and talking about these things for years, but they’ve gone largely unheard because, well, they are Reformed.” Seay looked at me like I was too old to have anything worthwhile to pass on, and that was the end of our conversation. It wasn’t a good feeling. I left to get dinner.

That afternoon has stayed with me for years as I’ve watched the movement that was represented on those stools grow rapidly. As I’ve watched it grow, I’ve continued to share some of their concerns about the church, but few of their prescriptions. I still think that Reformed theology, particularly the strain known as Dutch neo-Calvinism, is Biblically faithful and a foundation that informs matters of faith and life with consistency and integrity.

Fast forward ten years. Three weeks ago I’m heading west by myself on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. I’m going to the Jubilee Conference in Pittsburgh. This gathering of 2500 college students has been going on for over thirty years. It’s run by the Coalition for Christian Outreach, a Pittsburgh-based campus ministry group that I was a part of from 1978 to 1981. It was at Geneva College and with the CCO that faith and life really started to make sense to me – in fact it came to life – as our training and study laid out that Dutch neo-Calvinist approach to faith and life. It was like scales fell from my eyes. Before hopping in the car to head west, I decided to grab a couple of things to listen to on the way out. I borrowed Derek Melleby’s copy of Stephen Colebert’s “I Am American and So Can You” book on CD, along with a bootleg CD copy of a lecture someone had given me a few months before. There in black magic marker on the CD were these words: “The Emergent Church – Mark Driscoll.” Now I had heard that Driscoll had experienced an epiphany of sorts. I had heard that he was now hanging out with John Piper. I had heard that he was also hanging out with guys like C.J. Mahaney and Joshua Harris – who themselves had undergone some recent transformation as a result of discovering and embracing Reformed theology. I had also heard that he was hanging out with Tim Keller and was reading John Stott. This was not the Mark Driscoll I had listened to in San Diego.

So I’m driving. I decide that I’m in the mood for some laughs so I drop Disc #1 of Colbert into the CD player. Fifteen minutes into the CD it starts skipping. Stink. I pop it out. . . . knowing that Derek’s going to blame me for messing up his CD. By default, I pop in the Driscoll CD. I quickly learn that the recording was made last fall at a conference somewhere in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina. I am immediately drawn in as Driscoll tells his story, including repenting of his earlier arrogance, insecurity, immaturity, and anger. I think, “Hey, I remember that guy.” He talks about the work God has done in his life and the shifts that have taken place. Then, Driscoll launches into a critique of the emergent church. I’m listening to a man graciously transformed. By the end, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that his eyes had been opened to the same understanding of the Scriptures, faith, and life that God had used to transform me and to shape our ministry with CPYU. I couldn’t help but think back to San Diego. By the time the CD had ended, I had tears in my eyes. And, that funny tingling feeling you get when you see God doing something great, well, it was surging through my body. I literally had to pull into a rest area to sit, think, and rejoice.

As I pulled back on the road I was thinking of three things. First, I was thanking God. Second, I was thinking of all the people I needed to give the CD to. And third, I simply said to God, “If you ever allow me to, I’d like to be able to personally tell Mark Driscoll the story of San Diego, the CD, and how it served as a powerful testimony to your transforming grace.”

So last weekend, a couple of weeks after my trip to Pittsburgh, I fly to Seattle to speak at a banquet for the Shoreline Christian School (by the way, this is another one of those Christian Schools that has embraced Reformed Theology and isn’t the least bit scared to teach kids how to engage the world Christianly!). As the banquet guests are arriving, I’m walking through the room past groups of chatting people. I pass one group and hear a very familiar voice. I turn around – surprised - and see Mark Driscoll. His kids go to the school. To make a long story short, God has answered my prayer. We talk.

Grace is an amazing thing, isn’t it?


Jason said...

Any chance you can point us to that message/lecture by Driscoll? Or give some more information on it's title, conference, etc.? I would love to hear it.

Walt Mueller said...

Check that last comment of mine. I just dropped a link to Mark Driscoll's talk into the post.

Dan said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I have been listening to Mark's sermons through iTunes for a few months now and recently listened to the talk you reference in your blog. He had quite a critique on the church and has something to say to people in youth ministry (I was in youth ministry for about 9 of the last 12 years before a slight career shift). One of my struggles is to know what to do with what I learned about the unorthodox beliefs of one particular person Mark references through quotes (a person Mark admits to not having met personally). This person he references has helped me to understand God's grace and mercy in ways I hadn't grasped before...particlarly through the short-films he has produced. Also, a concern of mine is that the same anger expressed by Mark and Chris back in San Diego could become a part of the critique of those addressing the problems with the Emergent movement. Could there not be a dialogue between the two for the purpose of gaining greater clarity? As I listened to Mark quote things written or spoken by those he was critiquing I found myself repeatedly asking, "What was the context of your quote?" and "Wouldn't it be great to explore the rationale behind the quote?" One of the things we (as Christians) have assimilated from our culture is using sound-bytes and quotes to build our perceptions of a person and what he or she believes. A "dialogue" could help to eliminate that for those who are willing to watch and/or listen.

Thank you for sharing your own experience in a very thoughtful and grace-full manner.

Alan Rathbun said...

Thanks for the article, Walt. I've been listening to Driscoll for about 3 years and it has been great to hear his growth in just that span. I have a ministry coach who is on the staff at Mars Hill and it is great to hear what God is doing there.

David K said...

Walt, I'm not sure I felt more confident that I have a found a kindred spirit in you than I did when I read this post (right down to the use of the word "Stink" as an alternative to an expletive)! I've been immersing myself into the world of the Emergent Church thought over the last year to some degree (mostly on the periphery though I've read Bell, seen some of his videos, and read articles by others in the "movement"), trying to make heads or tails of what they're saying, understanding more and more the need for a measured response to our brothers and sisters in Christ within that umbrella. It wouldn't make a lot of sense "reacting" to their "reactions"!

As a Reformed guy, I've appreciated the shaping of guys like Francis Shaeffer and Jerram Barrs (Covenant Seminary) and, well, you! You've engrained in me the importance of reading with a confidence that God is the God of Truth and I need not fear things that are "strange to my ears" though I need to be anchored in God's Word all the same. I shudder when I consider my own blind movement within the American Christian subculture (my pride and arrogance as a young inconsistent Calvinist who boasted of grace but had none for those with whom I disagreed).

I enjoy reading the shapers and reflectors of contemporary culture as a youth pastor committed to seeing reflections of God's handiwork and I'm intrigued (and sometimes slightly frustrated) by the reactionary elements in the Church today as well as the entrenched American evangelical(?!) subculture today.

Guys like those in the Emergent movement (and Youth Specialties as it appears) are definitely reflecting the postmodern world and the way teenagers think today. My work with students seems to demand that I take this stuff seriously as well. (Yikes, this was a long post).

Nick Hill said...

Thanks Walt! This is an encouraging and moving story. Thank God that he is so patient and gracious towards us as his creation. I too have found in Reformed theology a humble orthodoxy that engages the world missionally and is intellectually satisfying.

Mandy said...

Walt, I appreciate the blog... I've been having the same cringing feelings that you had initially regarding the Emergent Church. I think some of what they are doing, particularly connecting with the culture and critiquing things in the church that certainly need critiqued is amazing. However, I have seen/heard several interviews on Youtube with Emergent Church leaders that concerned me. Not to mention, a talk that Phyllis Tickle (lovely woman and who I believe is very well known in christian literature/publication) gave at the NYWC Atlanta 2007 also concerned me. I was cringing again then due to (and I apologize, perhaps I am paraphrasing or implying too much) her saying that with the Emerging church movement, the accuracy of scripture is called into question. Perhaps someone has some insight on this, as I am still trying to understand what this movement is all about.

Anonymous said...

Walt, wow great story - i was in seattle with my pastor at the text context conference - good stuff.

i have not heard of "dutch neo-clavinism", can you point me to some material or book. thanks lisle.

Rick Morton said...


I am both laughing out loud and worshiping at the same time after reading this. I just listened to the same talk on my way back from Ukraine. Driscoll was very insightful, and his story (and your extension of it) is a great reminder of God's grace. This was a cool perspective. Thanks for sharing.

I'm laughing trying to imagine the conversation when you told Derek that you were returning his CD with a scratch!!!!

I'd love to see you. Hope you and the family are well!

Bob Robinson said...

This is an excellent post. As someone with feet in both camps (emerging church and neocalvinism), I resonate with these words.
I believe that the neo-calvinist worldview has a LOT to say in the "Emerging Church Conversation." And, thankfully, my voice is being heard. I hope that yours will be also.
Tony Jones, national director for Emergent, wrote about those who are favorable toward emerging church ideas and mentioned us "Kuyperians." In response, I wrote a post about that on my blog, to which Tony commented, "Great stuff, Bob. Thanks for taking the challenge. Long live the progressive Calvinists!"

Walt Mueller said...

For a concise summary of neo-Calvinism I asked Derek Melleby, Director of our College Transition Initiative, for links to some stuff he had written on this a few years ago. Derek has wrestled through this stuff personally, and I think the summary statements and explanations he wrote offer a wonderful introduction. In addition, he recommends some great reading. I would highly recommend Albert Wolters book on worldview, "Creation Regained." Here's the link to Derek's stuff -