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Reflections on the Evangelical Fracturing, Ten Years In

January 17th, 2024 | 17 min read

By Jake Meador

While reading an ARC of Mike Cosper's forthcoming book, I was caught up in how Cosper described the church planting scene of the mid 2000s, particularly as it existed around the then still embryonic Acts 29 network.

There was a blending of innocence and confidence and hopefulness that Cosper captures well. I wasn't part of it directly, but I remember listening to Mark Driscoll sermons and then Matt Chandler sermons at the time and picking up something of the atmosphere from afar. (I was born in 1987, left the fundamentalist church I grew up in in 2005, spent 18 months in an attractional megachurch more in the Willow Creek stream than Mars Hill, and then found my way to RUF and the PCA in 2007, where I have been ever since.) From about 2005 until the early 2010s it seemed as if Acts 29 might represent the defining movement in the next wave of evangelicalism: They had found a way of blending the best insights of the attractional movement of Bill Hybels and Rick Warren with the theological and missiological acumen of Tim Keller and John Piper.

Moreover, because of their particular grunge-inflected aesthetic they naturally avoided some of the worst excesses of the attractional movement, which was a tendency toward the superficial and happy clappy. Their strength here wasn't necessarily a product of any special virtue—Gen X tends toward the brooding and melancholic, after all, and virtually all their leadership were poster children for Gen X. But the resultant synthesis of their many influences was compelling.

Moreover, as their three defining leaders of that era became established, you could see how the three fit together and could, together, chart a path toward long-term health and success: Mark Driscoll represented the kind of alpha figure who could draw a crowd, win a following, and define the direction of the network through sheer charisma and force of will.

Darrin Patrick, meanwhile, represented a more cerebral and patient voice who was in many ways ahead of his time in his analysis of cultural issues as well as being more balanced in his approach than many of today's commentators.

Matt Chandler was the more personable balance to Driscoll. Driscoll would deliver the "bodies behind the bus" type speeches and Chandler could then come in behind to help patch up whatever relational issues were created by Driscoll's harsh style that frequently shaded into straightforward bullying, especially as he became more and more detached from external authority. Again, this sort of arrangement within leadership is not without parallel in church history: Melanchthon was the moderating force on Luther. Oecolampadius was the moderating presence with Zwingli. Bucer was a moderating influence on Calvin. Friendships of unlike personalities who balance one another out are a common occurrence in church history.

In a happier timeline, Driscoll, Patrick, and Chandler would still have another 15-20 years of effective ministry ahead of them as a team: Driscoll is still only 53, Patrick would be 53, and Chandler is 49. For context, Tim Keller was 58 when he published The Reason for God and John Piper was 42 when Desiring God was published and 54 when he spoke at Passion in 2000 and gave his "Don't Waste Your Life" sermon. So if you think Piper's Passion sermon and Keller's Reason for God are their most consequential or influential personal works, that would mean that each of the Acts 29 triumvirate would still be several years away from the ages Piper and Keller were for their most far-reaching, influential works—and that is all to say nothing of all the things both men did after those two signature works. Keller published 29 books after he wrote The Reason for God, many of which I actually like better than Reason. Piper wrote or contributed to nearly 60 volumes after his Passion sermon many of which, likewise, surpassed the Passion sermon or, in my opinion, Desiring God.

Of course, that isn't the timeline we've gotten. Driscoll's story took a dark turn toward ever greater autonomy and away from real accountability, Mars Hill collapsed, and the magic of those early years never returned. Patrick tragically took his own life after a lengthy and by all accounts genuine process of repair and reconciliation with staff and church members at the church he planted. Chandler has remained in ministry and the Village has continued to do much good work, including particularizing their many campuses into standalone congregations—the same trajectory of the former Redeemer and Bethlehem campuses. But the continued ministry of The Village has not been enough, on its own, to sustain the old Acts 29 momentum. Additionally, Chandler himself took a leave of absence in 2022 after engaging in an inappropriate online relationship with a woman from the church.

Meanwhile, Acts 29 itself has struggled with pastors in the network breaking off in a variety of different cultural and theological directions with some going more progressive while others have taken a reactionary conservative turn.

The story of Acts 29's trajectory will feel familiar to many of us outside of the network as well. Indeed it may serve as a small-scale model for much of the evangelical fracturing that began around 2015 and has continued through to the present. So it is worth considering why all this took place.

Technology

One pastor friend who serves in Acts 29 observed to me that many of the early Acts 29 leaders began ministry in the early 2000s. Sermon podcasting was only just beginning and many Acts 29 guys were early adopters, as Cosper documented in The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. What this did is it allowed many early Acts 29 pastors to grow what today would be called a somewhat large digital platform and to do so at a relatively young age and very early in their pastoral ministry. That in itself is somewhat dangerous spiritually because, as others have observed (including Driscoll himself at one time), talent can become confused for maturity. So obviously talented men grew large platforms while still quite young and, often, they were not prepared for the spiritual weight of having such a sizable audience.

But there is one other factor to consider here: The mid 2000s was a very unusual time on the internet. Podcasting was established enough that you could grow, by the standards of the day, quite a large platform via sharing your sermons. And yet social media had not yet emerged as a tool for flattening hierarchies and bringing institutional leaders into more direct contact with their audiences. So the positive reenforcement one gets from possessing a large platform was there for these young pastors, who could generally have a decent idea of how many people their sermon podcasts were reaching. But the negative feedback and critique one can get from social media were not yet present.

So even by the standards of ministry in the digital era, a strong case can be made that no one labored in a more spiritually dangerous digital environment than Gen X pastors in the early 2000s. This might seem counter-intuitive given how destructive smartphones and social media have been and that neither of those things existed in the early 2000s and were not at all well established until the late 2000s. But if the danger in our current era is being malformed by negative attention, the danger of the former era was the easy optimism of digital tech with virtually no familiarity with its now very well known dangers. It was an era marked by a false hope that recognized the reach of digital media but did not perceive the spiritual dangers of it and was, technologically speaking, largely insulated from the negative feedback mechanisms that became unavoidable in later eras.

What this adds up to is a technological context that made it difficult to be obscure and that tended to inculcate pride and militate against humility. Certainly, one could simply not podcast one's sermons or one could charge for them, as Keller did, which had the effect of minimizing his reach. But the entire tech optimist ethos of Acts 29 tended to militate against that sort of tech skeptic approach, I think. And so the network that had a chance to be the future of American evangelicalism writ large saw its leaders and young pastors formed in a deeply corrosive environment whose dangers were for the most part invisible and, often, were only discovered much later.

Leadership Failure

Perhaps the defining story of the past five years—and likely to be an ongoing story for the next five to ten years—has been the often disastrous leadership transitions in many evangelical organizations as Baby Boomers have retired and their Gen X successors have failed to hold the institution or movement together. Amongst the many reasons these failed transitions have been a problem is that effective movement leaders serve as a restraint within their institution. When the restraint fails, the movement fragments. You might say that effective leadership creates an environment in which the impact of Charles Taylor's nova effect is somewhat muted. (The nova effect refers to the nova-like explosion of new identities and forms of expression that arise under modernity.)

To take two examples from outside Acts 29, Keller did this in the PCA by helping limit some of the battles that the missional wing of the denomination would sometimes try to fight. On at least one occasion he intervened to get a presbytery to withdraw an overture to GA that would have created enormous (and quite unnecessary) controversy and dissent within the church. Piper played a similar role in his circles: Piper was able to hold together a cultural critique that could say hard and necessary things about racial injustice while also maintaining a firm commitment to necessary right-coded political issues. This had the effect of restraining his institutions as a whole, keeping them back from both the hard left and hard right. His annual practice of preaching on racial injustice one week and then taking up abortion the following week is indicative of this synthesis. But in the aftermath of Piper's retirement, the dam broke, as it were: The leaders attracted to the social justice aspects of Piper's ministry flowed in one direction while those drawn to his more right-coded positions became similarly less restrained.

As Mars Hill collapsed and Driscoll fled ecclesial oversight and discipline, the leadership that had framed, guided, and directed the network began to fail. And as with any dam that breaks, the resulting flood can run in many different directions and behave unpredictably.

Leadership Styles

Another friend with Acts 29 ties suggested a third contributing factor in the breakdown of the network. He said that leaders often end up being what he called "thought leaders" or "people leaders." Acts 29 had both.

Thought leaders are people focused more on ideas. This is where people in media, non-profit spaces, or denominational leadership positions can naturally drift because they will spend much of their work day online consuming content and discussing ideas. Additionally, because many of these jobs will be based on blue cities, people in these fields will have daily experiences of trying to maintain relationships with progressives while being faithful, which will shape them in certain ways and also define their concerns and priorities. (All of this applies to me, incidentally, and part of my writing over the past 18 months or so is me trying to sort through some of what I now regard as my own missteps in the fracturing years.)

Thought leaders tend to be, as my friend put it, "emotionally calibrated toward ideas," which in turn makes them idealists and vulnerable to more idealist arguments and theories. So for these people, the successor ideology registered as more blue state political ideology which could be addressed as any political ideology is. The specific threats posed by an ideology so pervaded by the sexual revolution and also by bad anthropology on the whole did not register with us as quickly as they ought to have.

It is also important to understand that the successor ideology itself is highly idealistic—"if we just modify these issues in our system, we can all experience the good life, even without any real account of personal virtue." So thought leaders could easily slide into a mentality that said "well, the church is always reforming," and then adopt a posture of consistently being one or two years behind the progressives, slowly being changed over time and perhaps justifying these shifts with a half-baked appeal to the fictional reformation slogan "semper reformanda."

On the other hand, there are people leaders. Often these are pastors in local churches, especially pastors in either red states or more extreme progessive regions where the underlying conflicts with the successor ideology were far more explicit. These folks spend their days dealing with the ordinary struggles of parish life and pastoral care. These people tend to be organization builders of various sorts, highly entrepreneurial (you almost have to be to be a church planter), and as a result they tend to encounter the practical manifestations of ideology sooner than thought leaders do. This all made these people within Acts 29 (and evangelicalism more generally, I imagine) much quicker to condemn the successor ideology because they saw how it destabilized communities and organizations. While the thought leader might be operating at the more theoretical level in thinking about the sexual revolution while arguing with someone in a magazine about the issue, the people leader is probably dealing with a congregant whose child is transitioning or whose marriage is falling apart due to a spouse rejecting orthodoxy with regards to sex and gender.

I think we can say slightly more here, however. In his work The Nature of Doctrine Yale post-liberal theologian George Lindbeck argues that religious identity in modernity usually functions in one of two ways: either in a cognitive propositional mode or an experiential expressivist mode. In the first, "religion" basically means "intellectual propositions you must affirm in order to be religious." In the latter, "religion" means something like "a tool you use to help locate yourself, to interpret your identity, and possibly relieve angst or anxiety you experience in response to your environment."

One of the arguments we might make, then, is that the young reformed project circa 2015 is a species of cognitive propositional religion. I don't think that's wholly fair, given the actual on the ground practices at Redeemer and Bethlehem. Moreover, it airbrushes some of the history here as one of the most popular books within the movement at the time was Jim Belcher's Deep Church, a book which was explicitly trying not to be cognitive presuppositional in its approach. That said, I think one can say that certain books taken in isolation might be read as cognitive propositional and to whatever degrees those books exercised far larger influence, then the project itself might be seen as fitting Lindbeck's cognitive propositional frame.

What's interesting about this is that it is a cognitive propositional religion being used by blue-state Christians trying to act as missionaries who want to make their faith sensible and persuasive to highly progressive neighbors. So that missionary impulse tied to an overly propositional understanding of religion creates a context in which the missionary is constantly searching for new ways of articulating their propositions within a blue state grammar. It's a rare bird who can do that work well without slowly being tugged more and more to the left.

If "whatever the left is thinking now" is the frame through which you are seeking to do evangelistic work, then you will constantly be in the position of arguing, essentially, that "we Christians actually believe the same things you progressives do, if you just understood them rightly": We believe in egalitarianism too. We believe in equality too. We believe in social justice too. And so on.

Or, as Hauerwas might say it,

Christians are often tempted, particularly in this time called modern, to say more than we know. We are so tempted because we fear we do not believe what we say we believe. So we try to assure ourselves that we believe what we say we believe by convincing those who do not believe what we believe that they really believe what we believe once what we believe is properly explained.

Crucially, because this approach is propelled by evangelistic concern, any progressive slippage is easy to miss and easy to justify should anyone else comment on it. Probably you need a very strong foundation of faith and practice forged over decades of obscurity to make it work—a foundation that sounds a lot like what Keller had (and what Francis Schaffer, a strong influence on Keller, had as well).

But, as we already established, that isn't what many Acts 29 guys or Gen X leaders in evangelicalism in general had. Rather, they often had online platforms by their late 20s or early 30s, they were regarded as being more established and mature than they actually were, and they were denied (and denied to themselves) many of the experiences needed to cultivate the quiet sturdy maturity of a Keller or Schaeffer. And, of course, many organizations were complicit here as well for promoting people who were not formed or equipped for the level of visibility and authority they were being given.

This also led to another problem over time: When the cognitive propositional move seems to fail, the natural pull is going to be toward experiential expressivism as a corrective. What's strange about the evangelical story in contemporary America, however, is that whereas in Lindbeck's day the cognitive propositional people were conservative and the expressivists were more progressive, within evangelicalism the roles have reversed.

The center of the young reformed movement was perceived as capitulating to the progressive successor ideology due to its missiological positioning (which itself was downstream of its cognitive propositional method). So the conservatives in this case discovered the expressivist turn as a response to cognitive propositional centrism and then turned it toward right-wing ends. (In this respect, it somewhat overlaps with the way that Christian nationalists will quite explicitly claim to be using critical theory tools toward right-wing ends. Evangelicalism's reactionary conservatives are more methodologically revolutionary or even deconstructive in their approach while the centrists tend to be more classically liberal.)

Understanding that the reactionary right wing of evangelicalism is expressivist helps to explain a great many things: the centrality that vibes play in the movement, the reason that a certain aesthetic style dominates, why social media is so central to the movement, and why so many of their loudest voices take turns staking out the most politically extreme positions possible.

In particular, right-wing expressivist religion works itself out as a constant negation of all things endorsed by progressives, as Aaron Renn observed recently. It does this because the great enemy for the reactionary reformed right is not the angst of modernity, but modern progressivism. So they turn to expressivist solutions to that problem in the same way that progressives turned to expressivism in the past to address the difficulties they faced.

Kirsten Sanders has suggested that the cognitive propositional and expressivist modes of religion are actually something of a circle, or more specifically a cul de sac. Indeed, one might easily read a figure like Schaeffer as basically spending his career driving in that circle, sometimes sounding more cognitive propositional notes and sometimes more experiential notes. The way out, according to Lindbeck, will necessarily be a rejection of both, a move which he describes as a cultural linguistic framework.

Conclusion

The outcome of all this is that not only has reformed evangelicalism lost the steady leadership provided for so long by Piper, Keller, and Don Carson, but it has lost much else besides. Due to the past ten years, reformed evangelicals have also lost the underlying modes of thought and the specific contexts that helped to shape those men in the first place while at the same time losing the men who were the most obvious successors to the Baby Boomer generation of YRR leaders.

It is perhaps worth revisiting not only Keller's biography, as readers of Collin Hansen's book are doing. It is also worth considering Piper and Carson's as well: Both of them grew up with fathers laboring in quiet, difficult ministry over many years. Carson's book about his father's pastoral ministry is quite lovely, if sadly neglected today.

What unifies that older chapter of the movement and separates it from what we now have? One answer has already been suggested multiple times: There is a long period of quiet obscurity for each of Piper, Keller, and Carson that their would-be Gen X successors mostly didn't have due partly to their own choosing, partly to technological factors, and partly, I suspect, to the underlying logic of an American evangelicalism that tends to think of itself in highly market-oriented terms. 

That raises a second point: Because American evangelicalism tends to see itself as competing in an ecclesial, lifestyle, and political marketplace, it is also significant that all three of these older leaders were not American evangelicals sociologically speaking in their young and formative years. Keller was never really all that evangelical himself—he didn't grow up in it and found the PCA very early, which especially in those days was not especially evangelical. Even as he himself became more identified with the movement as he aged, he was always far closer to British evangelicalism than American evangelicalism. Meanwhile, Carson is Canadian, and Piper grew up fundamentalist in South Carolina, closer to Bob Jones than Stott. The fact that all three of these men spent relatively little time being shaped within a technique obsessed sociological bloc, like American evangelicalism, is perhaps enormously important for understanding their success and relative health.

Finally, one can see in the older generation a principled commitment to coexisting alongside and ministering with people unlike oneself. It is quite remarkable to review the roster of speakers that John Piper hosted at Desiring God events between 2005 and 2014. To some the list of speakers will still look quite narrow as all the speakers are broadly reformed as well as complementarian. In that sense, the list isn't broad at all. Yet if you follow the six-way fracturing framework, there's a good case to be made that Piper hosted everyone from low 1s to high 3s over that nine year span, which highlights the way in which the movement was quite diverse. Such gatherings are practically unimaginable today in the aftermath of the evangelical fracturing. (If we place the beginning of the fracturing in 2014 with the last Desiring God conference and the collapse of Mars Hill, then this year marks ten years since that sad beginning.)

There are understandable reasons that people have drifted apart. As described above, the practices and strategies of the thought leaders could undermine the work of the people leaders and vice versa. So relational divides that weren't relevant or did not exist in 2010 very much did matter in 2020. Moreover, during times of instability we naturally seek out allies to stand back to back with us as we feel attacked. Yet this ecumenism of the trenches can be quite dangerous. It causes us to abandon faithful brothers and sisters who we ought to persist in working with, as well as encouraging us to form quite dangerous and unstable coalitions with people who might align with us in some highly specific ways but are actually quite out of step with orthodoxy.

As Gen X leaders failed or lost credibility and as older friendships broke down, these vital restraints on individual and movement behavior fell away. The thought leaders who need people leaders in their ear lost those relationships and vice versa. The outcome of all this is that our movements have become smaller, less effective, more prone to schism, and more angry (if right wing or progressive) or more anxious (if centrist).

One of the tragedies of all this is that we now find ourselves in an enormously exciting time from an evangelistic point of view. The Spirit seems to be at work in a new and different way right now, dating back to late 2022 or early 2023 and as seen at a place like Asbury. The refugees of our unworkable social order are beginning to turn back toward Christianity and ask if perhaps there really is something to orthodoxy after all. There is such great work to be done. Yet so long as sociological evangelicals of both conservative and centrist dispositions remain fixated on their growing hatred for each other, continue to form dubious new alliances in response to the various scissors cutting our movement, and continue to utilize the narrow, fairly parochial ways that evangelicals tend to read culture, it is hard to see any path toward our being able to capitalize on this moment.

God will still work, of course. He can raise children for Abraham from stones, after all. If evangelicalism will not be the vehicle through which revival comes, then something else will be. Pentecostalism, most likely, or perhaps—God does have a sense of humor, after all—Orthodoxy. The local Greek Orthodox parish here in Lincoln recently had five adult new convert baptisms—which is about five times more than many PCA congregations will have over several years. If you put together the enormous questions around the Roman church as well as the specific role reenchantment seems to play in many conversions right now, it isn't hard to see how the next 15 years could be very good for Eastern Orthodoxy.

There's something hopeful in that, of course: God doesn't need evangelicals to deal with our own dysfunction in order to advance his work in the western world. Yet if you think that orthodox Protestantism is the most faithful, complete expression of Christian faith, then there is something sad in our own ill-preparedness for this moment.

Of course, as Ross Douthat once said, Christianity is no stranger to unexpected resurrection and so, perhaps, the specifically reformed evangelical movement in the American church can see such an unexpected thing today. Perhaps. But even if we do not, God will still work to accomplish his purposes.

And so even now we wait (and live) with hope.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).