Discover more from Digital Liturgies
The 'Young, Restless, Reformed' Movement Wasn't Enough, But It Wasn't a Mistake
Lamenting the passing of a good and imperfect thing.
The needle that I tried to thread in my response to David Brooks’s essay on evangelicalism could be expressed this way: The dominant evangelical institutions from 2006-2016 were rocked by Donald Trump’s presidential victory, the reasons for this are multifaceted and complex, but when the smoke cleared it was a particular strain of Reformed evangelicalism that was most fractured by it. The chief division right now in evangelical life seems to be between people who rejoice at this fracturing and those who lament it, but everyone agrees that 1) it happened, and 2) the evangelical moment known as “young, restless, and Reformed” was the most spectacular casualty of it.
In a few weeks the final gathering of Together for the Gospel will take place in Louisville. It’s very easy to overstate the influence of a single conference for pastors. But if you were shaped at all by the Reformed theology, expositional preaching, and culture-engaging ethos that came from places like Southern Seminary, Ligonier, and Redeemer Presbyterian Church, you probably were influenced in some way by the conference. It mattered to a comparatively small but comparatively influential moment in time for complementarian Calvinists. The conference’s ending, of course, is part of the larger shift of the YRR moment. I haven’t talked to one person who believes the conference would be ending in 2022 if Donald Trump and Ferguson had never happened. The conference is ending because the coalition it represented has changed.
Very briefly, I want to make one point about this. The rending of the YRR fabric has been traumatic for many, and the damage it has caused to friendships, institutional partnerships, and the mental and spiritual health of many evangelical pastors and leaders has been terrible. It is very, very tempting to look into history and see this fate coming. It is tempting to look at the YRR moment and see how its flaws and blind spots presaged such a fracture. They are there if you want to see them: the development of a celebrity teacher culture, the reliance on pastors and ministry models who were “growing,” the tendency within the movement to rely on the backchannel instead of strong leadership. Yes, these flaws and more set the stage for the frustration we feel now. What I take away from this, however, is that the YRR movement was never enough, but it also wasn’t a mistake.
The YRR machine helped a lot of people who felt alone in their ministry contexts. This is probably easiest to see if you come from a Southern Baptist background like me. The Reformed theology that is taken for granted in other denominations is still, to this day, explosive and revolutionary for many Southern Baptists. And because of the dominance of the single elder model throughout Baptist life, many pastors who were trying to lead their churches in a particular direction felt alone, because they were alone. The YRR movement, for all its fatal shortcomings, was a genuine attempt to gather many of these pastors and church members together so that they could feel a fellowship that few of them had known.
It’s not an accident that YRR was a creature of the mid 2000s, as the Internet and then the smartphone atomized American culture gave us an unusual amount of power over where we felt we belonged. This was the source of YRR’s biggest weakness and its biggest strength. The smartphone-shape of YRR meant that its foundation was inherently transient, downstream from current cultural trends rather than above them. Thus, the “anti-Big Eva” moment currently gaining strength is also a social media-drive group. Big tech giveth, big tech has taken away.
But it was also the source of YRR’s strength. The technology we were given in the late 2000s and 2010s reminded us that evangelicalism was not just an academic buzzword, but a living theological heritage that had something to say about the world as it really happened. Blogs, podcasts, and sermons created a sense of unity around that heritage. It matters to see the things you believe practiced by other people in real-time. It matters to hear preachers and teachers unpack the gospel in a powerful, followable way. If something feels alive to you because of the community you see practicing it, it matters.
The problems of the present are real, but so were the blessings of the past. The passing of a particular moment in evangelical life is lamentable not because it was irreplaceable, but because it accomplished something real, and those who saw it are, in a very real sense, different people for having experienced it. We do well to listen to Gandalf:
“The time that is given to you.” In other words, right now. The future may pass a verdict you cannot see. But under the authority of Christ and his word, that is something none of us can anticipate. We only have to decide what to do with the time that is given to us now. To what remains unseen, we can only trust that for all those who love him and are called according to his purpose, God works everything for good.