Editor’s Note: This article is reprinted with permission from The Baptist Bulletin.
The Gospel Coalition conference, held on April 21-23 at a suburban Chicago conference center, was an enriching and enlightening time of learning and personal fellowship with conservative evangelical brothers and sisters who share many ideals with Baptist fundamentalists. Both of us attended with a desire to learn more about a growing movement within evangelicalism.
It was an uplifting conference. The sheer number—3,300 people, primarily male—was a moving sight. The participants seemed to evidence a deep commitment to the Word of God and the primacy of bold proclamation of the Scriptures.
We were accompanied by our pastor at First Baptist Church of Arlington Heights, Ill., Dr. Bryan Augsburger. All of us are now in our middle-age years, probably at least 15 years older than the median age of the attendees, who are in ministry or preparing for ministry. Perhaps we stuck out in the crowd a bit, and for reasons other than our graying hair: Our pants didn’t have seven pockets, we tucked in our shirts, and we didn’t send any text messages to the guys sitting next to us.
Of course, we’re teasing! The younger men who attended this event seemed to have a strong desire for sound Biblical exposition. This fact in itself was encouraging. This is the same longing we have heard repeatedly from the younger men who are part of our particular fellowship of churches.
Part of this conference’s attraction was the opportunity to hear and meet well-known pastors and authors such as John Piper, Don Carson, Phil Ryken, Tim Keller, and Ligon Duncan. It is easy to see why young leaders gravitate to this conference—they want to follow the examples of fine Biblical expositors who are among the most articulate and thoughtful preachers in conservative evangelical circles. The speakers largely demonstrated the expository form of preaching that they hope to encourage.
The conference was organized around the theme "Entrusted with the Gospel," a series of expository sermons from 2 Timothy. The schedule was also notable: three days of back-to-back sermons, morning, afternoon, and evening. No activities, no golf outing, no organized receptions or parties.
The singing was profoundly moving. The congregational singing was fervent and strong, marked by simplicity and traditional hymnody. The congregation stood in respect, singing every stanza of every hymn—even the obscure sixth stanza of "Amazing Grace," no longer printed in most of our hymnals. The hymns we sang would be familiar in any of our churches: "Crown Him with Many Crowns," "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross," "The Solid Rock." We also sang newly written songs such as "O Great God," "In Christ Alone," "I Will Glory in My Redeemer," and "O Church Arise." The singing was also notable for what was absent: no performance music or "specials," just the united voices of the congregation singing theologically substantive hymns.
The accompaniment was no leftover praise band from the seeker-sensitive 1990s. The players studiously avoided distracting performance mannerisms—they did not "emote"—and the sound levels were carefully mixed so that the predominant sound was the congregation of 3,000 men singing in full voice. Truth be told, the instruments were no louder than the pipe organ at Ryken’s Tenth Presbyterian Church, and just as supportive of the singing.
It was interesting to visit the exhibit area, which was populated by a wide variety of book publishers and various church ministries. Many in our association would perhaps be unfamiliar with the entire network or subculture of Reformed theological ministries that exists in conservative evangelicalism. These ministries seem linked to each other in a similar manner as the ministry network of the GARBC and other independent Baptists: no official ties to each other, but a great deal of affinity.
Some of the publishers were very generous with books. The attendees received several complimentary books, not the least of which was a hardcopy edition of the ESV Study Bible sponsored by its publisher, Crossway Books. Giving away books to 3,300 guests must be a tremendous expense. (This number would equal the entire print run for some of our RBP books!)
It was a treat to connect at the conference with many pastors and friends from GARBC churches and likeminded ministries. Pastor Ken Pierpont, Evangel Baptist Church, Taylor, Mich., attended with some staff and family members. Saylorville Baptist of Des Moines, Iowa, sent its entire staff, along with church-planting pastors supported by the church.
"I see two reasons for coming to a conference such as this," Pastor Pat Nemmers told us. "It’s a great opportunity for us to get together as a staff, away from church, and a chance to hear some great preaching."
Baptist Bible Seminary sponsored a display in the exhibit area, and gave away copies of their Journal of Ministry & Theology. Paul Golden, director of admissions at BBS, observed that he saw a dozen recent graduates of the seminary, along with current students from BBC&S, Faith Baptist Bible College and Seminary, Maranatha Baptist Bible College, and Northland International University. Perhaps the Gospel Coalition organizers will be surprised to learn how many Baptist fundamentalists attended and profited from the conference.
We had good fellowship and opportunities to interact about the conference and our ministries. We especially enjoyed the chance to interact with the younger pastors and wives in our association. Intrigued by their perspectives and stimulated by their thoughts, we were also pleased to find them very receptive to our counsel and perspective. We see this younger generation as willing to listen and learn … when the respect is mutual.
Read part two (to be posted on Wednesday) for an evaluation of the Gospel Coalition movement.
John Greening is national representative of the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches. Kevin Mungons is editorial director of publications for Regular Baptist Press. Read more about the Gospel Coalition in "Reforming Evangelicalism" at www.BaptistBulletin.org. Read more about weakened evangelical theology in "How Much of a Doctrinal Statement Do We Really Need?" at www.BaptistBulletin.org.