Things I learned at ‘Desiring God’

I just got back yesterday from the annual Desiring God Conference. It was a fantastic weekend, with several insightful speakers discussing the conference theme, “Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God.” Here are some things I learned and general observations:

  • Rick Warren reads more in a year than I do in a decade. In his talk, he said that he reads through the corpus of a single author each year. Last year he read through Jonathan Edwards’ works from Yale U. P., and this year he is reading through Barth’s Church Dogmatics. I would never have pegged Warren as such a bibliophile.
  • Warren is way too much of an extrovert for my liking. His talk was good but jumpy and lacking focus. By contrast, Piper is slow and reflective, aiming for the long-term retention of the main points being made. Piper wants to impress the mind and heart; Warren wants to excite and motivate.
  • Kevin DeYoung is one funny guy and way too intelligent for his age. In his talk, he criticized the over-extension of the term, “missional.” Among other observations, he warned about the temptation among certain missional advocates to emphasize the church’s mercy ministries, for which the world approves, instead of the church’s Gospel, which offends the world (“a stumbling block”). Everyone will praise you for digging a well in Africa; they will not praise you for the condemnation that is entailed in the Gospel. Of course, DeYoung repeatedly reminded the audience that the former is indeed part of the church’s mission.
  • Tullian Tchividgian was a big highlight for me. I’ve been a huge fan of what he’s been doing at Coral Ridge Presbyterian, bringing back the Gospel to a church that has been far too distracted by the culture wars. D. James Kennedy (requiescat in pace), for all his faithfulness to Christ, unfortunately lost his focus in the last several years of his ministry. It was very frustrating to turn on the television Sunday morning and watch Kennedy quoting the Founding Fathers more than the Bible — I’m not exaggerating. Tchividgian gave an excellent talk on the idols that are only revealed when we experience a period of great suffering.
  • Another big highlight for me was to see Michael Horton in the flesh. He did a live taping of the White Horse Inn and then gave a lecture on why he chooses the topics he writes about. If you are familiar with Horton, you can pretty well imagine what he talked about, but I am continually impressed by his ability to articulate/define the Gospel from so many different angles. I especially appreciate his obvious joy in the Gospel and lack of anxiety about the church, even when he is attacking the church (as is usually the case).
  • Al Mohler did a great job in his discussion of evangelical epistemology (our reason is not neutral because the will has precedence) versus non-evangelical epistemologies. Mohler is far better at philosophy than he is at science, which is why he should stick to theology and cultural issues instead of lame defenses of Creationism. Yes, I had to get that off my chest…again.
  • I have mixed feelings about Francis Chan. He is one of the most dynamic speakers that I have ever heard; it’s obvious why he is so well beloved. I readily admit that I was convicted by his sermon on our lack of love for others. Yet, I have strong reactions against any exhortation to love based upon a person’s eternal destiny, and this was Chan’s method at certain moments in his sermon. Frankly, I find it emotionally manipulative. Chan sincerely believes that any person who does not hear the Gospel, before he or she dies, will spend an eternity in hell — a position which I don’t care to attack (though I do reject it). However, I am vehemently opposed by the way this doctrine is used to generate high levels of empathy, which is often enough followed by despair, in order to motivate the spread of the Gospel. Maybe this is just my over-reaction to a fundamentalist upbringing. Thankfully, though, there were not any altar calls during the entire conference!
  • The influence of Calvinism has had immense benefits for the evangelical movement within the last several years — including, yes, the lack of altar calls among most Reformed-leaning churches. There’s much to discuss, and a lot of my own impressions have been solidified over the weekend, but I will wait to detail this (in a future post this week).

If you want to see some of the conference presentations, click here.



  1. Kevin

    I have read you saying how you dont agree with the idea that those who don’t hear the gospel are destined for hell on a few occasions. Maybe you wrote about this somewhere else but do you fancy telling us in more detail your views on this?

    Glad you where at the conference, its no substiute but tis better than nothing.

  2. I’ve long had respect for Rick Warren because of his health condition that gives him a migraine everytime he speaks in public (seriously).

    But ALL of Edwards in one year? ALL of Barth’s CD in one year? Whoa.

    • In addition to the migraines, Warren was actually not able to make it to the conference (he pre-recorded his message the night before at his own house and sent it to Piper) because three close family members were in serious physical health condition and in the hospital. So, yes, I’m impressed.

  3. Kevin,
    I had no idea you hung out with such shady characters. (kidding)

    But obviously as a Mennonite I am just going to diverge on opinion with many of these folks but don’t you ever consider them extremely divisive? It seems as if many of of their projects are entirely set-up as watchdog projects. Like Kevin DeYoung, this will be his third book that has to do with other people’s errors. And when I have heard him talking about mission he does emphasize that of course digging a well is part of the gospel but let’s be honest it really isn’t. Why else would he write a whole book on so many people are missing the heart of mission by trying to repair the world. His examples for why repairing the world isn’t OUR mission are bizarre (like Revelation says that God will kill all the evil ones and we shouldn’t be doing that either, ignoring many important facts about Revelations, but most of all that it also tells us tribe, tongue, and nation will confess as well, so why evangelize? Of course, all mission is properly God’s mission and not “ours”.) I hope it doesn’t turn out to be this but after reading Why We’re not Emergent I am less than hopeful.

    I guess my overall question is that you seem like sharp, critical, wise, ecumenical, caring reformed person, who enjoys dialogue with others, sees a vast Christian tradition, and yet I have hard time finding that “Desiring God” is helpful for that, let alone on the same path. Am I that wrong about them? Help me understand!

    • mshedden,

      Your query deserves a separate post, which I was planning on doing anyway, addressing your impressions.

      • Thanks Kevin. I didn’t mean to be flippant but I also know many of those people would question my ministry and perhaps my Christianity if locked in a room with me. And although I am not a Rick Warren fan I do know that it was a big step that he was asked to address the conference. I am looking forward to your post on this.

    • I must second mshedden’s request for followup comments. The Calvinists I had interaction with a few years ago would certainly place Piper, Mohler and others on high pedestals. They and the blogs they linked to would, I think, also excoriate people who read Barth. I might be criticized by labeling these people, but they were so quick to label others.

      My interaction and impression with these people was quite negative. Positively, this interaction has caused me to read in the areas especially of the incarnation and the atonement. Most recently I have been reading through Torrance’s Incarnation and Atonement, both of which I must praise with very high praise. Torrance, for these people, would be greatly despised.

      Please edify if you have a chance. I’m afraid my impressions are those of anger, sectarianism and supreme self righteousness.

  4. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed listening to Tullian Tchividjian at Desiring God but am taken aback by your take on D. James Kennedy. (Full disclosure: I am communications director at Coral Ridge Ministries, the media outreach founded by Dr. Kennedy.) It’s become something of a recurrent narrative that Dr. Kennedy in his later years steered south into the political wasteland. Cal Thomas, in one of his occasional attacks on Christian civic engagement, opined in 2007 that “Most of Kennedy’s televised messages in recent years have strayed from traditional preaching and focused primarily on politics and social issues.”

    Well, not really. Maybe Cal and others who invoke this narrative weren’t watching in the 1980s when Dr. Kennedy addressed communism, the importance of SDI, and the assault on the unborn. Or in the 1990s when Dr. Kennedy helped lead opposition to the effort to homosexualize the military and redefine marriage. Oddly enough, it was in 2000, toward the end of Dr. Kennedy’s long, faithful, and fruitful ministry ecompassing both evangelism and public advocacy, that he produced Who Is This Jesus, an answer to Peter Jennings’ wayward Search for Jesus and one of the most compelling and widely watched apologetics documentaries of the last several decades.

    I suppose it is true that a message on America’s Christian heritage might well reference more direct quotes from founders than from Scripture, so that’s a fair point, but it hardly summarizes Dr. Kennedy’s later ministry. It fails to take notice of the fact that almost every Sunday morning sermon Dr. Kennedy preached, as well as every broadcast of The Coral Ridge Hour, included an invitation to trust Christ for salvation. Or that the Center for Christian Statesmanship, the Capitol Hill outreach he founded, was a discipleship, training, and evangelism ministry—100 percent free from lobbying activity. Or that the grassroots outreach of Coral Ridge Ministries was titled not just The Center for Reclaiming America, but The Center for Reclaiming America for Christ. Or that Coral Ridge Ministries distributed some 90,000 free copies of Why I Believe, Dr. Kennedy’s popular defense of basic Christian doctrine, to service-members overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Whatever you may wish to say about Dr. Kennedy—and he is not above criticism, he was just a man—you cannot say he lost his focus. The man who founded Evangelism Explosion in the 1960s—a lay witnessing training program now used in every nation and territory and which saw more than 5 million people come to Christ in 2008—was still at it in 2006 before his incapacitation due to a cardiac arrest. He was going out weekly to share Christ in Broward County and using every personal encounter to ask those famous two questions.

    Dr. Kennedy did not idolize politics. He understood that politicians will disappoint, as he warned after the election of George W. Bush in 2000. (He was right.) Most importantly, he knew, as C.S. Lewis put it, “that He who converts his neighbor has performed the most practical Christian–political act of all,” That is why the chief legacy of this man who allegedly lost focus in his latter years is the world’s most widely used evangelism training outreach, one used to bring millions into the kingdom every year.

    • John,

      Thanks a lot for taking the time to offer your perspective. It’s great to hear from somebody on the inside, and I truly value your understanding of Kennedy’s ministry. I have never heard of Cal Thomas’ take on Kennedy. My impressions were entirely from watching Kennedy on Sunday morning in the late ’90s and periodically throughout the ’00s. My understanding of his early ministry, however, was by hearsay and little bits that I’ve read — after all, I wasn’t born until 1982.

      Regardless, the several sermons that I’ve watched, during the time frame mentioned, certainly gave the impression of a man far too focused on the decadence of our nation, in contrast to a (partly dubious) vision of America’s founding. That formed the substantial content of the sermons. I heard numerous exhortations to repent and calls upon God to restore holiness to our nation, but I heard little about God’s reconciliation of all things in his Son. I heard very little doctrine and a whole lot of morality. The doctrine should permeate the entirety of the sermon, not tacked on at the end. Of course, this does not characterize every sermon or every project in which Kennedy was involved (as your examples point out), but it did characterize a rather large portion of his ministry. Likewise, thousands of evangelical churches across the country (including the church in which I was raised) were overly distracted by a specific set of moral concerns — legitimate but limited. As a result, there has been a revolt from the succeeding generation, in favor of depth and doctrine: whether it’s the “Young, Restless, and Reformed,” or the postgraduate hipsters, or the converts to Catholicism — I sympathize with all three.

      I am extremely grateful for ministries like Evangelism Explosion. My own parents were converted under a similar ministry. In a sense, I owe my own salvation to personal evangelism outreach, because a young Baptist couple took the time to share the Gospel with my parents, before I was born. That’s the side of Dr. Kennedy that I admire. He was truly devoted to Christ throughout his life and to reaching others with the love of Christ. I do not wish to demean that focus as a vital aspect of his life, yet I must question his political-social emphases.

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