The recent revelation that Mars Hill Church in Seattle paid an outside company to boost sales of its pastor’s books has raised questions not simply about personal integrity but also about the very culture of American Evangelicalism.
As an English Presbyterian living in the States, I am never quite sure about whether I am an “Evangelical” by American standards. Back home, I am Evangelical without question, but here it is more complicated. I certainly hold to a traditional, orthodox Protestant faith with a strong existential twist. But American Evangelicalism is more (and sometimes much less) than that. The political commitments of the movement are, on the whole, a mystery to me. And, while the celebrity leadership of the movement is comprehensible to me in sociological terms, I find it distasteful and arguably unbiblical. It too often seems to represent exactly what Paul was criticizing in 1 Corinthians 1.
For those unfamiliar with recent American evangelical history, some background: Six or seven years ago, Calvinism became cool. More than that, Calvinism became so cool it started to become a very marketable commodity and to attract big money. A broad, eclectic, and dynamic movement emerged, dubbed that of the “Young, Restless and Reformed,” after the title of a book by Collin Hansen. Calvinistic churches seemed to be thriving as mainline churches continued to struggle. Recruitment at Reformed seminaries remained buoyant even as it declined elsewhere. Young people read serious theology and sought to connect their faith to all areas of their lives.
As a professor at a Reformed seminary and as a pastor of a Presbyterian church, I certainly rejoice in the renewed interest in the teaching of the Reformers which this movement helped to generate. I have personally benefitted from the movement in many ways. Its advent was at the time most welcome. As the poet said, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very heaven!”
Yet the movement, such as it was, soon started to show signs of strain. Mark Driscoll and James MacDonald shared a Christian platform with T. D. Jakes, a prosperity preacher and a minister in a non-Trinitarian denomination. As a result, they stepped down from the Gospel Coalition, the movement’s flagship organization, with best wishes for their future ministry but with strong hints that behind the scenes the departure had been less than amicable. Then, other issues came to light: It emerged late last year that Mark Driscoll used ghost writers to produce some of his books, and that material had apparently been taken from other authors without citation. Finally, last week, came the revelation that his bestselling marriage book had been made into a bestseller with the use of more church funds than many congregations have in their entire annual budget.
Mark Driscoll is one person, a uniquely talented individual. Yet he is also a function of structural problems within the new Reformed movement itself. Despite its distinct and in many ways sophisticated theology, the “young, restless, and reformed” movement has always been in some respects simply the latest manifestation of the weakest aspects of American Evangelicalism. It was, and is, a movement built on the power of a self-selected band of dynamic personalities, wonderful communicators, and talented preachers who have been marketed in a very attractive manner. Those things can all be great goods but when there is no real accountability involved, when financial arrangements are opaque in the extreme, and when personalities start to supplant the message, serious problems are never far away.
The overall picture is one of disaster. Within the church, I suspect most pastors look with horror at the amount of money involved in some of these projects and will turn away in disgust. Outside the church, people know sharp practice when they see it, no matter what the strict legality of such might be. The reputation of the church suffers, and sadly it does not suffer in this case unjustly.
And then, finally, there is the silence. The one thing that might have kept the movement together would have been strong, transparent public leadership that openly policed itself and thus advertised its integrity for all to see. Yet the most remarkable thing about the whole sorry saga, from the Jakes business until now, has been the silence of many of the men who present themselves as the leaders of the movement and who were happy at one time to benefit from Mark Driscoll’s reputation and influence. One might interpret this silence as an appropriate refusal to comment directly on the ministry of men who no longer have any formal connection with their own organizations.
Yet the leaders of the “young, restless, and reformed” have not typically allowed that concern to curtail their comments in the past. Many of them have been outspoken about the teaching of Joel Osteen, for example. In their early days, when the Emergent Church was vying with the new Calvinism for pole position in the American evangelical world, they launched regular, and often very thorough, critiques of the Emergent leaders. In retrospect, however, it is clear that these were soft targets. Their very distance made them safe. Problems closer to home are always much harder to speak to, much more likely to earn opprobrium from one’s friends, and thus much more likely to be ignored. The result, however, is that some leaders become very accustomed to always doing things their way. All of us who are thought of as Evangelical or Reformed now live with the bitter fruit of that failure of leadership.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary.