Though it is the emerging church that seems to have received so much attention in the past few years, just under the radar there has also been a quiet and steady growth of interest in far more traditional Reformed theology. All across North America (and perhaps beyond) Christians, and young Christians in particular, have been rediscovering the church’s historic theology. These disparate movements seem to have grown from a common source–a reaction against the kind of “big box Christianity” of the church growth movement. Tired of seeing people as products and weary of experiencing church as a form of entertainment, church-goers have searched to find churches that offer a more satisfying approach to the Christian life. Many have gravitated towards emerging churches. Many others, though, have taken the opposite approach and have discovered the theology of the Reformation.
Collin Hansen, a young editor of Christianity Today, observed this trend and decided to investigate it. CT had recently published a cover story featuring the emerging church. But he found he just could not identify with this group of people. In the Prologue of his new book, Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinists, he discusses the genesis of this book:
The talk about emerging Christians put me in a difficult spot. As the youngest CT editor, I should have known more about this up-and-coming group. On the contrary, I didn’t know anyone who was emerging, even though my friends and I had recently experienced the fruits of postmodern relativism in college. We had witnessed the complete breakdown of moral authority and heard apathetic responses to Christian truth claims when we shared from the Four Spiritual Laws booklet. Yet we viewed these reactions not as problems with Christianity but as problems with sinners who reject God’s grace shown through Jesus Christ.
After one staff discussion about the emerging church, I talked about these experiences with my boss at CT. I expressed concern that when Christianity Today reports about the emerging church, we might give the impression that this group will become the next wave in evangelicalism. If anything, in my limited sphere I saw a return to traditional Reformed theology. My friends read John Piper’s book Desiring God and learned from Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology. They wanted to study at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and sent each other e-mails when they saw good sales for the five-volume set of Charles Spurgeon sermons.
Maybe that was just our little clique in Campus Crusade for Christ at Northwestern University. Or was it? I started thinking about leading seminaries in the United States and noticed a number of Calvinists in leadership positions. I considered millions of books sold by Piper and his yearly appearances at the popular Passion conference. Yale University Press had just released a major biography of Jonathan Edwards. Reformed theology had recently become a major point of contention in the nation’s largest Protestant body, the Southern Baptist Convention. Maybe it wasn’t just our group.
So I embarked on a nearly two-year journey to discover whether my experiences had been unique or a sign of something bigger. In locales as diverse as Birmingham, Alabama, and New Haven, Connecticut, I sought to find out what makes today’s young evangelicals tick. The result should help us learn what tomorrow’s church might look like when they become pastors or professors. Even today, common threads in their diverse testimonies will tell the story of God’s work in this world.
In the article Collin Hansen wrote in 2006 he gave Christians a framework to understand the contemporary revival of Reformed theology. It quickly went on to become one of that year’s most-read articles at the magazine’s web site and it ignited no small amount of debate and discussion. Now, in Young, Restless, Reformed Hansen takes a more in-depth approach, expanding that one short article into a full-length book.
The book is structured around chapters that focus on a particular place or event. The first chapter, for example, focuses on Louis Giglio and a Passion conference in Atlanta while the next chapter changes the focus to John Piper’s Bethlehem Baptist Church. Other chapters come from Yale University, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Covenant Life Church, a recent New Attitude Conference and Mars Hill Church in Seattle. Along the way Hansen features interviews with many of your favorite authors, pastors, theologians, and yes, even bloggers. If you are Reformed you’ll find a certain level of familiarity with the names and places in this book. In that way I found reading Young, Restless, Reformed almost like reading an autobiography–not of a person, but of a movement or organization and one that has swept me up along with it. You…
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Colin Hansen, an editor for Christianity Today, makes this observation (with a little hyperbole): your average Evangelical American high school student is in a youth group that emphasizes games, down plays preaching, and as a result the student does not even know the basics of the Gospel–much less the difference between justification and sanctification. But, your average American-Evangelical 22-year-old is probably a foaming-at-the-mouth Calvinist, a John Piper “fiend,” and would love to stay up all night arguing about the difference between justification and sanctification. What in the world happens to these kids between ages 18 and 22?
Young, Restless, Reformed is Hansen’s attempt to answer that question. He journeys around the country trying to figure out where all of these Calvinists are coming from, and why. He has conversations with Mark Driscoll, John Piper, Steve Lawson, C. J. Mahaney, Ligon Duncan, Rick Holland and many others. He asks them all this question: “Where does this new generation of Calvinists come from?” and their are surprising. He talks with dozens of students who fit this new generation of Reformed Christian, and this book tells their stories.
Despite the anecdotal nature of the book (no hard statistics here), some conclusions do emerge. High school grads who are actually Christians and who do manage to escape their cheesy youth group realize very quickly that they do not have adequate answers to explain the basics of their faith, much less to stand up to their secular professors. When they reach the point of realizing they don’t have the answers, they generally find someone who does, and this person (or book, or CD) is usually unashamedly Reformed.
If this observation is true, and it seems to be, then this corollary is also true: the more silly youth groups are, the more people will be driven to reformed circles upon graduation. Hansen does not make this point explicitly, but it is there. Hansen shows his insight into how the God of Calvinism captures the hearts of these college students when he writes, “Calvinism has not spread primarily be selling young evangelicals a system but by inviting them to join a new way of life driven by theological convictions. Theology gives them this passion for transformation” (124).
The exact channel that brings about this transformation varies from person to person. For some it is a Passion CD, others a Piper book. Some find a Puritan Paperback, and others stumble upon an RUF campus Bible study. But all of these sources have this in common: they introduce the students to a God that is more glorious than anyone had ever told them about. Suddenly depravity makes sense, and the rest of Calvinism falls into place.
But not all transformations are rosy. Hansen tells the story about Lawson’s resignation for Dauphin Way, and he looks at other young pastors that have been forced out of ministry for theological reasons as well. The most intriguing chapter is his trip to Southern Seminary–”Ground Zero,” Hansen calls it–where the reader sees the problems of infusing a new generation of Calvinists into a Christian culture that is not ready for them.
I loved this book because it was like reading my own spiritual biography. I remember the moment I found God’s Passion for his Glory, and even today I remember my thoughts as I began to realize that God was more glorious than I am, and that he chose me–not the other way around. I stayed in my previous church, hoping to disciple others and show them the doctrines of Grace as well, until I eventually went to seminary.
Until Hansen’s book, I had assumed that my story was, while perhaps not unique, at least not the norm. But this book is a catalog of people who had the same experiences. In fact, the very first college student we meet is a self-described “Piper fiend” and part of a Seventh Day Adventist Church!
Young, Restless, Reformed is not a utilitarian book. It is not a polemical book, it does not argue for Calvinism. It does not seek to be objective, despite Hansen’s awkward insistence on reminding us every few chapters that he is a journalist. But what it does, it does well. It presents a series of snap-shots of the Reformed landscape in the United States, and these pictures are zoomed in on the 20-something crowd that is likely to be wearing the “Jonathan Edwards is my homeboy” shirt featured on the cover. If you have ever asked yourself, “where are all these Calvinists coming from?” then this book is for you.
A final note: this book is the initial source for the Christianity Today article where Mark Driscoll voiced his displeasure over a Pulpit article MacArthur wrote. That exchange seems much less controversial in the context of the book than it did in the much shorter CT article.
A couple of years ago, the emerging church was getting all the attention. That changed when Collin Hansen wrote an article for Christianity Today called “Young, Restless, Reformed.” Hansen wrote:
“While the Emergent ‘conversation’ gets a lot of press for its appeal to the young, the new Reformed movement may be a larger and more pervasive phenomenon. It certainly has a much stronger institutional base. I traveled to some of the movement’s leading churches and institutions and talked to theologians, pastors, and parishioners, trying to understand Calvinism’s new appeal and how it is changing American churches.”
The article, and this book, are the result of a two-year journey to learn about what appeared to be a resurgence of Calvinism in America. Hansen traveled to Passion Conference in Atlanta, John Piper’s home and church in Minneapolis, The Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, Mars Hill Church in Seattle, and more.
Hansen discovered thriving Calvinistic ministries that focused on theology and doctrine, as well as young people who couldn’t get enough of writers like John Piper, John Owen, and Jonathan Edwards. It’s a diverse movement, somewhat disconnected, and often controversial. It’s also not flashy. “I tell people we’re a really boring ministry,” one leader said. “If God is not your attraction, you’ll be bored.”
Young, Restless, Reformed serves as an introduction to the new Calvinists in America. If you belong to this group, there won’t be a lot in this book that’s new. If you aren’t part of this group, or aren’t part of the American scene (like me), then this book will introduce you to what’s been happening.
I sometimes talk to people who think that effective ministry today means downplaying doctrine, or emphasizing entertainment. Young, Restless, Reformed shows that many are ready for more of a challenge. It also helps explain the attraction of the Reformed movement for those who just can’t figure it out.
Readers may face a couple of dangers with this book. One is overestimating the size of the Reformed resurgence. Despite its growth, it is still quite small. The other danger would be jumping on the Reformed bandwagon just to be trendy. Although these are dangers, a wise reader can learn lots from this book.
“Hunger for God’s Word. Passion for evangelism. Zeal for holiness. That’s not a revival of Calvinism. That’s a revival. And it’s breaking out in places like Emery, South Dakota.” Whether or not you’re Reformed, I hope we’ll see more of these traits all over America, and the world. Something seems to be happening.