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.
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.