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CHICAGO-The crowd inside a Chicago convention center ranged from middle-aged men in suits to young urban hipsters with stretched piercings. The common denominator among many of the 3,000 attendees: tomes tucked underarm, including English Standard Version study bibles or classic volumes from long-dead Puritans. The event: a late April conference of The Gospel Coalition (TGC), a network of pastors and theologians with a theologically Reformed underpinning.
WORLD almost never covers conferences, but this one attracted attention because, on the eve of John Calvin's 500th birthday this July, it was astounding that the Protestant reformer's systematic approach to Scripture had become as hip as Calvin Klein. Or so suggested Time magazine, which recently put the "new Calvinism" in third place on its list of 10 ideas changing the world-but the two TGC founders, Manhattan pastor Tim Keller and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School professor D.A. Carson, don't like that tag.
"We're not defining it in a way that unnecessarily makes people feel excluded," Keller told me. "There are just too many folks who we know are with us who may not use exactly the same terms or labels. . . . Why should anybody have to label themselves to be a part of this? It's Reformed, and people who are traditionally Reformed recognize it as Reformed. And yet we've got people who say, 'I'm not a Calvinist,' but still sign on to it because it's just what they see the Bible teaching."
Case in point: Kevin Bruursema, a pastor at New Life Community Church in Chicago, said he did not identify with "Calvinism" but was increasingly willing to identify with the new missional strain of Reformed ministers: "I grew up in a community that was completely Calvinist, and it was completely dead. Nobody was reaching anybody. Nobody was sharing the gospel. So my impression of Calvinism was that it was for religious folk that didn't really want to do the gospel. But now encountering Keller and some of these other leading lights of Calvinism, these people are bringing the gospel. It's redeemed my image of what Reformed theology is all about."
With "new Calvinism" a Time invention, what then to call this distinct flow? "It's an interdenominational Reformed evangelicalism that's mission minded," Keller said. "We're trying to say that evangelicalism has always meant this, and we're just trying to revive it." Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll, dressed in an all-black anti-suit of jeans and zippered jacket, cited four TGC emphases: engaging rather than separating from culture, moving into not out of cities, openness to charismatic gifts, and building bridges to other Christians.
TGC now has a networking website, The City, that connects close to 4,000 evangelical leaders across the globe, including Filipe Niel of Brazil, which he called "a huge evangelical country" that desperately needs good gospel teaching. The TGS's Council now includes about 50 pastors who meet regularly away from public spotlights. Council members are from Baptist, Presbyterian, Evangelical Free, and other churches, including nondenominational ones, and seminaries.
One conference attendee, Juan Frontera, came from Puerto Rico. He disassociated himself from the Reformed theological tradition but said, "I've learned a lot from Reformed theology and been very impressed by the way this new generation of preachers is applying Reformed theology in an evangelistic, culturally relevant way."