I am beginning to wonder if Tim Keller’s remarkable run of influence is beginning to expire. The reason for wondering is his recent post — an excerpt from his new book, Center Church — at the co-allies’ blog. Although Keller’s failure to be the Presbyterian minister his credentials say he is aggravate the bejeebers out of me, this time his call for a gospel movement seems tired, bordering on #sotenminutesago. It used to be that a megachurch in New York City receiving favorable press coverage in both religious and secular publications was novel. Now it’s not. Does anyone get excited about Willow Creek anymore? Or does Bill Hybels look in comparison to Rob Bell the way
Larry David Lucille Ball does to Lucille Ball Larry David? At a certain point, Keller’s cheerleading for the modern metropolis and Redeemer’s cutting edge ministry sounds stale.
In this case, though, Keller himself sounds fatigued. The reason may be that the only way he can conceive of transforming the city is to concoct a set of hoops and ladders that only the Navy Seals could negotiate. According to Keller, a gospel movement requires three things: a contextual theological vision, church planting and church renewal movements (that’s only one thing even though its a mouthful and a bit redundant — you need a movement to have another movement), and specialized ministries. Here’s where tiredness sets in, at least for readers:
Based in the churches, yet also stimulating and sustaining the churches, this third ring consists of a complex of specialty ministries, institutions, networks, and relationships. There are at least seven types of elements in this third ring.
1. A prayer movement uniting churches across traditions in visionary intercession for the city. The history of revivals shows the vital importance of corporate, prevailing, visionary intercessory prayer for the city and the body of Christ. Praying for your city is a biblical directive (Jer 29:4-7). Coming together in prayer is something a wide variety of believers can do. It doesn’t require a lot of negotiation and theological parsing to pray. Prayer brings people together. And this very activity is catalytic for creating friendships and relationships across denominational and organizational bounderies. Partnerships with Christians who are similar to and yet different from you stimulates growth and innovation.
2. A number of specialized evangelistic ministries, reaching particular groups (business people, mothers, ethnicities, and the like). Of particular importance are effective campus and youth ministries. Many of the city church’s future members and leaders are best found in the city’s colleges and schools. While students who graduate from colleges in university towns must leave the area to get jobs, graduates form urban universities do not. Students won to Christ and given a vision for living in the city can remain in the churches they joined during their school years and become emerging leaders in the urban body of Christ. Winning the youth of a city wins city natives who understand the culture well.
3. An array of justice and mercy ministries, addressing every possible social problem and neighborhood. As the evangelicals provided leadership in the 1830s, we need today an urban “benevolent empire” of Christians banding together in various nonprofits and other voluntary organizations to address the needs of the city. Christians of the city must become renowned for their care for their neighbors, for this is one of the key ways that Jesus will become renowned.
4. Faith and work initiatives and fellowships in which Christians from across the city gather with others in the same profession. Networks of Christians in business, the media, the arts, government, and the academy should come together to help each other work with accountability, excellence, and Christian distinctiveness.
6. Systems for attracting, developing, and training urban church and ministry leaders. The act of training usually entails good theological education, but a dynamic city leadership system will include additional components such as well-developed internship programs and connections to campus ministries.
7. An unusual unity of Christian city leaders. Church and movements leaders, heads of institutions, business leaders, academics, and others must know one another and provide vision and direction for the whole city. They must be more concerned about reaching the whole city and growing the whole body of Christ than about increasing their own tribe and kingdom.
Who can stand in that great day? What congregation of any means is capable of maintaining members who not only have the financial resources to pay for the church staff all of these ministries require? But after these folks have worked hard for their incomes and given to the church, do they have time to volunteer for all the additional work that this movement requires? If I were a church planter (I am sort of but I understand Hillsdale is unimportant in the world of ministering to global cities), I’d close Keller’s book and look for another model.
The funny thing is that the pastoral epistles provide an alternative (not to mention the Protestant Reformation’s success in European cities) and the way to advance the kingdom of grace is not nearly as arduous as what Keller prescribes. Granted, the preaching of the word may not produce a self-sustaining movement that will rock the earth’s biggest cities. But for some reason, Paul did not peg the value of the kingdom of grace according to the gospel’s reception among city dwellers.