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?