A lot of people know who Kevin DeYoung is. He’s written more than a dozen books, he speaks at major conferences and events, and his blog garners attention both appreciative and, well, not. He maintains one of the most influential public ministries within conservative evangelicalism, and he’s not yet 40.
Hear this young pastor-theologian, along with John Piper, Alistair Begg, John MacArthur, Al Mohler, Ligon Duncan, and many more at the April 2016 T4G PRE-CONFERENCE.
Behind and beneath the public ministry, though, lies a life that is both local and, frankly, ordinary.
Given the family into which DeYoung was born, and the way his early life played out, the current normalcy makes sense. And DeYoung recognizes that there’s glory in the ordinary.
“I have the great privilege of having a boring testimony,” DeYoung said. “I have one of those stories where I can’t recall a day where I didn’t know of Jesus.”
That’s because, in the DeYoung family, Jesus was not an add-on item. The gospel of Jesus was no less than the family vocation.
Before his family called Grand Rapids, Michigan its home, DeYoung’s father was the program director for Chicago’s top FM radio station. That changed in 1985 when, through a dramatic sense of calling, he applied for and accepted a position with “Words of Hope,” a radio missionary organization based in Grand Rapids.
Both Lee and Sheri DeYoung have worked for the group for about 30 years. The organization is affiliated with the Reformed Church in America – the DeYoung family has deep roots in the Dutch Reformed tradition – and broadcasts in dozens of languages, in places where traditional missionaries would have a hard time reaching. In DeYoung’s words, the organization “uses radio to reach the unreached with the gospel.”
The gospel that the DeYoungs were sending overseas found a hearing in their home, too. Kevin and his three siblings are all “walking with the Lord, married well, and involved in their churches,” he said. “I will always be really grateful to have grown up in the family that I did.”
It’s not surprising that, growing up in such an environment, DeYoung considered ministry at an early age. That thinking became more serious in sixth grade, when the pastor of his church left to take a new call, moving from Michigan to Iowa. The DeYoungs were close to the pastor and his family, so Kevin was distraught about his pastor’s departure.
“I remember very distinctly going up to him after the service – crying – and he said to me, ‘Kevin, someday you’re going to be pulpit supply for me.’ And I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to provide pencils? Erasers? A glass of water? Exactly what supplies are in there?’ He said, ‘You’re going to preach for me someday; you’re going to be a preacher.’”
The words of that pastor stuck with DeYoung, and “it wasn’t a straight line, but since then it never really left my mind that maybe that’s something the Lord would have me do.”
DeYoung grew more serious about his faith when he got to high school, a development he credits to some “good Baptist guys” who challenged him and “who weren’t interested in trying to be cool like I was.” After graduating, he headed for Hope College in Holland, Michigan, just half an hour from home. He began his studies in political science and got involved in campaigns, but that interest waned.
“I quickly got burnt out and re-established that ministry is really what I want to do. I’m not trying to sell something, I want to preach something. I want to proclaim this message,” he said.
In addition to clarifying his vocational direction, DeYoung’s studies at Hope College brought occasion to clarify his doctrine. After switching from political science to the religion department, he grew more conservative theologically. Hearing about the Jesus Seminar and listening to pluralistic and relativistic professors caused him to think, “This isn’t what I was brought up to believe.”
He didn’t let the time waste, however.
“It really forced me to read and to wrestle a lot with what I believed and why I believed it,” he said.
DeYoung read John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion – twice – while making sense of his beliefs.
He eventually finished his undergraduate degree and went east to seminary at Gordon-Conwell in the Boston area, where he studied for three years. He then received a call to serve as an associate pastor in Orange City, Iowa, which DeYoung deemed “the buckle of the Bible belt.”
In a blatantly providential turn of events, the senior pastor of the church where DeYoung served was none other than the pastor of DeYoung’s church growing up, the pastor who told a young Kevin he would be his pulpit supply one day.
“The Lord clearly arranged that; it wasn’t like the thing had been in the works or that we had even talked very often,” DeYoung said.
So the newly married and newly minted master of divinity moved to a small town in northwest Iowa, where he served for two years before receiving the call to be senior pastor of University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan. He was 26 years old – “which now seems incredibly young,” he said – when he accepted the call.
The church shares the city with Michigan State University, and began as an outreach to college students. That effort continues, with staff and resources devoted to reaching students on campus. Such proximity to a major university brings energy and culture to the city, but it brings challenges, too. The city of East Lansing is “very liberal,” according to DeYoung.
When Michigan passed a marriage amendment in 2004 declaring that the state would only recognize unions between one man and one woman – an amendment since nullified by the Supreme Court – Ingham County, in which East Lansing resides, was one of only two counties not to support the amendment. The other was Washtenaw County, home to Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan.
“It’s not a town that has a lot of residual Christianity or a lot of cultural pressure to go to church or to embrace a Christian way of thinking about things,” DeYoung said. “You talk to your neighbors and most of them are going to assume that you would rejoice at the Supreme Court decision, or assume you vote a certain way or that you don’t go to church.”
For these reasons, DeYoung said, “It’s a good place for Christians to be.”
That’s the approach DeYoung and his family have taken. DeYoung and his wife, Trisha, currently have their children in public schools, and Kevin serves on the school district’s sex education advisory board.
“You try to be a good neighbor and a good citizen and try to look for common grace, and yet try to do what you think is right and best and faithful,” DeYoung said. “It’s why you do ministry here, but it’s also very challenging.”
DeYoung knows he’s not the only one doing ministry in East Lansing, so his community presence extends to supporting and encouraging other local pastors.
Kevin Chen, former pastoral intern at University Reformed Church, got to see it up close.
“He loves local churches,” Chen said. “He regularly prays with like-minded pastors in East Lansing and participates at presbytery meetings in Michigan.”
While DeYoung continues to minister in his local community, his increasingly in-demand speaking and writing pull him elsewhere. This combination of local and broader ministry require him to battle the enemy of so many good opportunities: time.
DeYoung recalls meeting Mark Dever – pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., and president of 9Marks – a number of years ago, and inquiring how Dever accomplished all he did when he was surely so busy. To which Dever replied, “I’m not busier than anybody else. I just have to say ‘No’ to more things than most people.”
The lesson has proven helpful for DeYoung, who has a group of elders at his church help him respond to speaking requests and writing projects.
“Anything I do outside the church needs to be approved by them, and I submit myself to them,” DeYoung says. Shortly before our interview, DeYoung and the elders decided to say “yes” to one of about 15 speaking requests.
On top of all the outside opportunities before him, DeYoung is a doctoral student, studying early modern history at the University of Leicester in England (studying John Witherspoon, specifically). He’s also a professor at Reformed Theological Seminary.
Yet none of these various commitments has pulled DeYoung’s focus from the desire he felt in sixth grade and clarified in college.
“I really want to be a pastor,” DeYoung said. “I’m not interested in having Kevin DeYoung ministries – I don’t want to just write and blog and speak and then swoop in on Sunday morning to give a message. I really want to be a pastor and I want to know the people. Finding the time and the way to do that is the biggest challenge.”
Chen indicates that DeYoung handles the challenge well.
“Unless Kevin is on a research sabbatical, he’ll be with his church every Sunday morning and evening,” Chen said. “He modeled leadership at home and in the church.”
DeYoung has long cared about leadership in both arenas. Churches and homes, he says, always reflect some underlying structure and order, and “couples and churches do best when ordered according to God’s design.”
God’s design in these cases is complementarianism, the view that God has created men and women equally, while intending for men and husbands to exercise servant leadership in the home and church, and for women and wives to help and flourish under that leadership.
DeYoung cited a few sources that influenced his complementarian commitment, but the most direct influence also happens to be the most authoritative.
“As far as I can tell, I became a complementarian reading the Bible,” DeYoung said.
The church he grew up in has had women serve as elders, women “I really respect,” he says. “From the beginning, however, I couldn’t square women elders and women pastors with what I read in the Bible.”
That biblical commitment, combined with his parents “loving, complementarian marriage,” meant that he was a complementarian by conviction – though he didn’t yet know the term – by the time he left home.
When he arrived at seminary, DeYoung found only, by his estimate, about half of the students and faculty to share his convictions, while the other half held egalitarian views.
“It was definitely a live issue at Gordon-Conwell,” DeYoung said. The book Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem, helped DeYoung “better understand what I believed and why I believed it.”
DeYoung remains a convictional complementarian, and the issue remains a live one, and with wide implications.
“When we go wobbly on this issue,” DeYoung said, “it’s a sign we may not be approaching Scripture in the right way, and our theological instincts are not as sound as they should be.”
Due to the consequences involved in getting the issue wrong, there is “constant need of our winsome witness,” said DeYoung, who has added his voice to the conversation through many blog posts and his book Freedom and Boundaries: A Pastoral Primer on the Role of Women in the Church.
The way forward, according to DeYoung, is through a compelling example:
“Let’s not just defend complementarianism. Let’s show it to be beautiful.”
DeYoung has added his voice to a host of conversations through the books he writes and the blog he maintains with the Gospel Coalition, and it’s perhaps this side of his public ministry for which he’s best known. This aspect of his ministry is something DeYoung did not foresee.
“If you would have talked to me seven or eight years ago and asked, ‘What’s one dream you have?’ I would have said, ‘That someday, sometime in my life, I could publish a book,’” DeYoung said.
Now, seven or eight years later, DeYoung has more than a dozen books to his name, with Just Do Something as his best-selling book to date.
In the spring of 2015, DeYoung wrote What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality? In the summer of that year, his blog post, “40 Questions for Christians Now Waving the Rainbow Flags” incited a number of dissenting responses, many of which came in the form of 40 answers.
The book and the blog post capture DeYoung’s commitment to address issues from an unashamedly conservative biblical and theological point of view. And he writes on these matters for a public audience for the same reason he talks about them with his neighbors and within his children’s school district.
“I care about it because the Bible cares about it,” he said.
“We’ve always had in this church, since I’ve been pastor, people who struggle with same-sex attraction. I’ve sat down with a number of them over the years,” DeYoung said. “It’s not something that a faithful pastor today can keep at arm’s length. There are going to be people who struggle with that temptation and have questions.”
In fact, DeYoung’s pastoral experience in the liberal East Lansing has fueled his desire to address the issue for a wider audience.
“Almost everyone in your congregation is going to be connected to someone – a friend, a roommate, an aunt, a son, a daughter – who is struggling with this or has embraced it. So you have to speak on it. And the Bible speaks on it so clearly and plainly,” DeYoung said.
“If what the Bible says is true, people’s eternal destinies are really at stake. With this sin, as with any other sin, we can’t ignore it…you’re not a faithful pastor, not a faithful Christian,” DeYoung said.
Related to the issue of homosexuality, according to DeYoung, are the issues “related to church and state and culture and politics – what really makes for human flourishing in a society? What really protects and promotes the welfare of children?”
The weight of these matters is “why I don’t think we can ignore them,” DeYoung said.
As he looks ahead, DeYoung doesn’t just see cultural challenges awaiting, but opportunities to lead and minister to the broader evangelical world and to his local church. He wants to “get better at preaching,” and is excited to “pour into young pastors” through the church’s internship, he said.
What most excites DeYoung as he ponders the future, though, are the opportunities within his home.
The DeYoungs have six children: Ian (12), Jacob (10), Elizabeth (8), Paul (6), Mary (4), and Benjamin (2), and while DeYoung could fill more of his time extending his influence, it’s his family that first comes to mind.
“I want to love my wife well,” DeYoung said. “I want to cherish my children and enjoy them growing up, and be around, and nurture them and disciple them, and hopefully see them grow up to walk with the Lord.”
Just as DeYoung recalls his childhood to be gladly “boring,” his view ahead boasts an ordinary hue, as well.
Kevin DeYoung will be speaking at the forthcoming CBMW Pre-conference at Together for the Gospel, which will take place April 11-12 in Louisville, Ky. DeYoung’s talk will be called, “Redemption through Motherhood: Why Caring for Children Is Caring for the World.”
Register for the conference today, and see our special student rate of $40.
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