A Brief Timeline for Young Leaders Network and Terra Nova Project, for Understanding Ron Wheeler’s Open Letter to Mark Driscoll

In the ongoing efforts to call Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church to account for past and present behaviors, his former colleague and protégé Ron Wheeler posted the following open letter: I. Am. Not. Anonymous. In it, Mr. Wheeler details his early history with Mr. Driscoll and then says:

Soon I began traveling the nation with you, speaking at various conferences, seminars and events. It was such an honor. We became involved on the ground-floor of this new movement that was shaping the landscape of evangelical Christianity. We were on the board of Young Leader network together. We were on the Terra Nova project together. We were working with some pretty amazing people. These were the early days when there was talk of the postmodern era, and the Emergent church started “emerging” and New Calvinism had yet to emerge as a thing. It was heady stuff. It was also dangerous, as some of it started wandering far from historical orthodox Christian belief and practice. [Emphasis added.]

But then I listened as you slandered and maligned the men and women we worked with behind their backs -who though we didn’t agree with some of them theologically- were wonderful people, and never deserved to be spoken of, or treated the way you did. People who I know would have considered you a friend and have no idea how you really felt about them. I have personally tried to go back and apologize to people who were “kicked to the curb”, along the way, and yes, I do feel I was complicit to your actions; guilty by way of association and being silent.

For that, I could not be more sorry.

I believe this section of the open letter holds some significance, but would be hard to interpret. That’s because the history of Young Leaders Network (sponsored by Leadership Network) and its subsequent transition into the Terra Nova Project aren’t generally known. The purposes of this post are:

  1. To offer some background on the timeline of these Generation X-oriented networks.
  2. To overview some of the relevant terminology for ministry during that early part of the modern-to-postmodern transition.
  3. To suggest how that era relates to various “streams” in contemporary Christianity that came out of that period and have been coming into fruition over a decade later.

In a later post, I may summarize the ongoing controversies about Mr. Driscoll and Mars Hill Church, from my perspective as a research writer with backgrounds in studies of spiritual abuse, organizational dynamics, recovery ministry, and social transformation. But for the moment, I’ll focus on this material about Young Leaders Network and Terra Nova Project, so that section of Mr. Wheeler’s open letter has more context.

Timeline of the Early “Emerging” Movement in Evangelicalism

I’ve just recently been writing about this for another project I’ve been work on about a movement that came out of the “emerging church” movement. So, here’s an overview of that research, focusing in on the timelines for relational networks, and leaving out a huge amount of details on the people involved, issues, and controversies.

The Young Leaders Network (YLN) was incubated by Leadership Network. The first YLN “GenX Forum” event was in 1996 in Colorado Springs, CO – “Ministering to Generation X.” To the best of my knowledge, it was limited to 250 attendees and there were fewer than 10 people there who were age 40+ – most were in their mid-20s to 30s. At the 1997 GenX/Postmodern Ministry Forum, Mark Driscoll was the featured preacher at one of the evening general sessions. The 1998 “Re-considering Postmodernity” national conference at Glorieta, NM, was the last national event for YLN; in 1999, it hosted a series of “Ministry on the New Edge” regional events.

By the year 2000, the overall “tone” of the dialog was changing, and settling out after five years of general discussions on how to minister in an increasingly “postmodern” culture. So, YLN morphed into the Terra Nova Project (TNP), still under the sponsorship of Leadership Network. Terra nova is Latin for “new ground,” and the core topics of this emerging-culture“project” distilled down into four areas: theology, leadership, justice, and arts. (There wasn’t always cross-pollination or integration among the four topics, such as “How do you use arts in your social justice ministries?” but that critique is a whole other issue!) The original plan was for “working groups” to spend time developing those four areas and then officially launch TNP at a national conference in September 2001.

It proved more difficult to plan that event, as the approach was to shift from traditional proclamation (speakers and workshops) to demonstration (activities and interaction). So the TNP national conference was postponed to at least spring 2002. Meanwhile, things were starting to shift, and different specific groups began to emerge from within what generally emerging within church and culture. So, 2001-2002 is a murky transition period that I’m still trying to find facts about, but at some point, Leadership Network released what had been YLN/TNP; their role had traditionally been to host, facilitate, and incubate what they see as key resources for the North American Church. But out of this came multiple streams.

“Emerging” Terminology and Various Streams

Backing up a bit, several terms were used for this increasingly large movement of primarily GenXers (born 1965-1982) who sought to make a difference in/through churches and ministries. It started as GenX ministry, then more often was expanded to postmodern ministry, and then to emerging church or emerging ministry. Occasionally you heard this all called emergence or emergent Christianity. And, when Emergent Village entered the picture, the language horizon became even more confusing, as some people falsely assumed that the entire emerging movement, or perhaps the majority of it, had aligned with that entity.

At first, there was relative unity within this movement, based on deconstructing conventional Builder and Boomer generation ways of running (or perhaps ruining?) church. As time went on, though, it became apparent that there were some significant differences in theology and methodology within this larger movement. It took time for these to surface and for the insiders to differentiate themselves, find their tribe, and flow away from the larger generic lake of emerging as a separate and specific post-emerging stream.

As the differentiation took place, sometimes people left quietly, sometimes with animosity, but it isn’t always clear when exactly some of these split-offs occurred. What became Emergent Village started lifting off, and in fact that entity had set up a website at least by 2001, assumed another non-profit corporation. What became “New Calvinism” was lifting off by then, with Mark Driscoll dominant in that movement. There were other groups that simply didn’t fit with either of those groups and their theologies and/or methodologies. In my analysis, that included Emergings and Post-Evangelicals, Progressives, and Missionals. For details on my take of six streams, see the following post, and this link for half a dozen other writers’ views on “taxonomies of emerging.”

Let’s assume that contingents of all six of these streams were present in that original lake called “emerging” that started coming together in the mid-1990s. It takes time to find your tribe – seemingly about five years here to figure out there were substantial differences within the larger group. So, when you no longer comfortably fit with the rest of the crowd, you get to the point of splitting off … sometimes congenial, sometimes not. Then, if we start tracking the streams, we begin to see new associations forming in about another five years when critiques start appearing on prior streams.

So, we find the following milestone indicators of core theologies and/or methodologies. I’ve listed them in the chronological order they seem to have gained traction, starting in the early 2000 decade. There seems to be a sort of stair-stepping continuation of differentiation through the early 2010 decade as various subgroups find they still don’t fit with what’s gone before, they critique the others, and then seek to create their own niche in contemporary Christianity. (I have listed here only a few milestones of construction and critique that help anchor the timeline for development of each stream. If I can, I’ll add to these lists later.)

EMERGENT VILLAGE STREAM. Emergent Village Values and Practices (2001, and revised in 2006). “A Response to Our Critics” (2005). Both of these documents are available in the Appendices in The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier, by Tony Jones (2008).

NEW CALVINISM STREAM. Book, The Radical Reformission: Reaching Out Without Selling Out by Mark Driscoll (2004). Major changes in the structures of Acts29 Network for church planting (approximately 2005). Book, Young, Restless, and Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinists by Collin Hansen (2008). Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed: Black Holes, Love, and a Journey In and Out of Calvinism by Austin Fischer (2014).

PROGRESSIVE STREAM. This is a specific movement I haven’t tracked the timeline for closely in the post-emerging era. At this point, I’ll simply suggest that their overall bent is toward justice and social activism – perhaps the more concrete and constructive mirror image version of the more abstract and deconstructive Emergent Village paradigm.

EMERGING + POST-EVANGELICAL STREAM. Formation of The Origins Project (2009) with Dan Kimball, Erwin McManus, Scot McKnight, et al. According to Dan Kimball, it was renamed the ReGeneration Project in 2013.

MISSIONAL STREAM. Formation of Missio Alliance (2011), with an emphasis on sensitivity to cultural context and community development. [This happens to be the stream with which I have the most affinity.]

Some Closing Thoughts and Resources

First, I’d suggest that each one of these streams has some strengths and weaknesses – some of the streams far more so than others. But that is a topic for another time because it means extensive paradigm analysis, not just a look at theologies or methodologies.

Then, back to the original topic if the open letter from Ron Wheeler, hopefully these hints on timeline and terminology help put into perspective what he is talking about in relation to Mark Driscoll’s behaviors. In terms of the debate over whether Mr. Driscoll is disqualified by character and behaviors from serving in the role of an elder/overseer, the evidence given here (assuming Mr. Wheeler’s account is substantially accurate) offers snapshots of what can only be called contemptuous behavior going back to about 15 years ago, to at least around 2000-2002.

Meanwhile, it is relevant to see if there is evidence of apologies from Mr. Driscoll for those actions. However, the even larger question is whether there is substantive evidence of the fruits of repentance and ongoing transformation toward Christlikeness from him – that he has changed his ways significantly enough, if at all, during that time. Sadly, the evidence seems to lean strongly in the direction of little substantive change. But even to overview that is another post.

If you are interested in summaries and resources on the specific questions of a timeline of behaviors that demonstrate character, I would suggest the following nine sites as important sources:

  1. Mars Hill Refuge
  2. Joyful Exiles
  3. Wenatchee the Hatchet
  4. We Love Mars Hill
  5. Musings from Under the Bus
  6. Reddit: Mars Hill Church
  7. Summary of allegations of disqualification against Mark Driscoll (a Reddit page posted August 8, 2014).
  8. Warren Throckmorton
  9. The Wartburg Watch

The first seven are helmed by former members or attenders of Mars Hill Church, some of them by former lead pastors/elders and staff members. The last two are mostly research writing blogs that include major sections on Mars Hill. Some of these blogs include archives of documents; some include numerous personal accounts that testify of abuse; and some include articles analyzing the history, organizational structure, theological perspectives, etc., of Mars Hill and its leaders. You will find a vast amount of documentation of evidence, plus verification by personal testimonies – many of them from individuals who sought to go through a Matthew 18 confrontation and reconciliation process with Mars Hill leaders, but got nowhere with it.

There is only one source for the most comprehensive and accurate information available on the history and prominent people involved in the Young Leaders Network and “emerging church” movement, before it morphed into the Terra Nova Project and other streams. It’s by Steve Rabey, a former Associated Press reporter.

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