The Corporate Gullibility of the Church

Call it harmonic divergence, but I couldn’t help but read the transcript Tim Keller’s remarks on “gospel ecosystems” in the light of J. Gresham Machen’s remarks about the corporate responsibility of the church. I happened to be teaching on the latter during adult Sunday school and reading the former after a holy day feast and the evening service. Maybe reading Keller and Machen in such close proximity is unfair to both men, but odd combinations like this regularly come with the turf of contemporary conservative Presbyterianism in the United States.

For those uninitiated, Keller’s notion of a gospel eco-system is an infelicitous (because it presumes scientific status just like Charles Finney’s New Measures) way of describing the sort of church planting efforts in which Redeemer Presbyterian Church is engaged (yes, by now it should go without saying) in New York City. According to Keller:

. . . an ecosystem is a dynamic balanced set of forces and energies that grow each other. Now the question I want to talk to you about today, is how do you start a gospel movement in your city, or how can you see a gospel movement develop in your city? . . . .

A gospel movement is this: a gospel movement happens in a city when across churches, across multiple denominations and networks, and beyond any one key leader or any one command center, or any one denomination, you actually have the body of Christ in the city geometrically growing, not just reconfiguring. The vast majority of what we consider, you know, “good things happening in that city,” is a reconfiguration of the body of Christ, not an actual growth of the body of Christ against the overall population. When the body of Christ is growing from 1% to 5% to 10% of the population, because its growing faster than the population, its actually growing.

Machen’s notion of corporate witness of the church refers to the obligations that everyone within a communion (especially one with presbyterian connections) has for anyone, like Keller or Machen, who preaches on the basis of the communion’s approval. He wrote:

The corporate witness-bearing of the Presbyterian church is carried on especially through the pulpit. Under Presbyterian law, no man can permanently occupy a pulpit of the church without the church’s endorsement; the preacher therefore speaks not only for himself, but for the church. That does not mean that the church seeks to impose any beliefs upon any man simply on the ground that they are beliefs of the church; it does not mean that there is the slightest interference with the right of private judgment. But it means that if a man is to speak in a Presbyterian pulpit, and obtain the endorsement which is involved in that position, he must be in agreement with the message for which the propagation of which the church, in accordance with its constitution, plainly exists.

The obvious implication for Keller’s gospel ecosystem is that all members of the PCA (along with those in churches that have fraternal relations with the PCA) are responsible for Keller’s ideas and practice. Of course, if his scheme is desirable and faithful, then everyone in the PCA gets to bask in the positive contribution of Redeemer New York. At the same, if Keller’s proposal is undesirable and unfaithful, then for starters members of the PCA have an obligation to walk Keller away from the ledge of this flawed measures.

Several reasons exist for questioning Keller’s idea of gospel ecosystem. At the level of Reformed theology and church polity, Keller’s notion of participating with non-Reformed churches in a church planting effort runs directly up against the problem of Calvinists cooperating with Arminians in evangelism and discipleship. It also conflicts with any notion of jure divino Presbyterianism, that is the idea that presbyterian polity is revealed in Scripture as the way to govern the church and oversee its ministry of word and sacrament. Nor is it entirely clear how Keller’s form of cooperation squares with the rules governing the PCA’s fraternal relations.

But while these concerns are part and parcel of an oldlife church-and-life view, Keller’s talk raises additional questions about the wisdom of those who apparently think the New York City pastor is the guy who hung the moon on contemporary Reformed ministry. His argument fails at any number of points and raises the possibility that those who find his arguments compelling have the same kind of critical skills as those who insist upon a young earth (despite the speed of light and the age of planets) or who believe in a Christian America (while still holding to liberty and justice for Jews, Mormons, and unbelievers). For when you look even in a cursory manner at Keller’s idea and supporting reflections, you wonder why the PCA would take the idea of developing gospel eco-systems sufficiently seriously to include them in a strategic plan and potentially devote human and financial resources to it.

1) Why would anyone heed a pastor with ideas about urban life if they were at all familiar with the history of cities, schools of urban planning, and the politics and economics that drive modern American urban centers? At the same time, why should anyone take my complaining about Keller’s lack of expertise on urban life seriously since I am also without street cred as an urban theorist? This is a fair question but skeptics of me would then need to be skeptical about Keller’s claims to read the tea leaves of urban life.
I would feel a whole lot better about Keller’s assertions about cities if he referred to names I do know about, like Jane Jacobs who singlehandedly saved neighborhoods in New York City from awful urban design, or Howard Kunstler who has argued repeatedly and voraciously against the suburbanization of the United States, or fellows at the Manhattan Institute who regularly comment on all sorts of aspects of New York’s public policies and institutions.

I’d feel even more comfortable if I thought that Keller had once rented and viewed the entire HBO series, The Wire, which may be bleak but offers a remarkably realistic assessment of the factors at play in modern American cities, circumstances that pose real barriers to church planting for starters and ultimately to urban redemption (if the salvation of non-human realities were possible).

2) Why use the metaphor of ecosystem when the Bible already provides an organic and less lethal metaphor? According to Keller, an ecosystem is “where you have a set of forces that sustain each other, interact with each other, stimulate each other. So organism A eats organism B, and it’s a good thing for organism C, because if organism B’s numbers weren’t tamped down, organism C wouldn’t exist because organism B eats C. And, organism A eats C, which means, if there wasn’t enough organism C there wouldn’t be any organisms A, but because they are all eating each other, because they are all, you might say, in a sense sustaining each other, you’ve got an ecosystem.” He glides pretty effortlessly from this organism-eat-organism world into a vision of churches in a city where they are cooperating to plant churches and gain new converts, and usher in a world of Protestant harmony. Keller prefers ecosystem to a denominational pattern where Christians simply circulate among different denominations depending on the stage of their spiritual life.

But an ecosystem would actually call for Presbyterians to eat Pentecostals who would eat Baptists who in turn would eat Lutherans, with these different denominational groups living with the others simply as necessary food for existence.

A better organic model, of course, is the body of Christ. I guess it would be less attractive than ecosystem because it might mean that Presbyterians are the brain and Pentecostals are the soul. But at least a body would be less Darwinian.

2a) How can an ecosystem be a movement? An ecosystem is a biological concept, a movement is a sociological category, and yet Keller has no trouble using the imagery of ecosystem as the basis for a movement. Maybe I am bound too much by academic categories, but I think church planters would have much more to learn from sociologists than from biologists when it comes to the place of congregations in a city. At the same time, I am not persuaded that describing Christianity as a movement is all that valuable. Movements, sociologically speaking, connote people who come together for certain political or economic ends. To speak of a Christian movement raises the specter – look out! – of the Religious Right.

3) Is New York City really comparable to a prison? I know many Americans would answer yes given the city’s reputation for worldliness and economic elitism. But when Keller speaks of a “city tipping point” and uses the experience of Prison Fellowship as an example, I’m not sure he thought through the potential problem:

what Chuck Colsen says, that there’s a, that when more than 10% of the population of a prison get involved in Christian ministries, get converted or get involved Christian ministries, he says that before that 10% place, obviously people’s lives are being changed, but you don’t seen much different in this prison, the prison doesn’t look any different than any other prison. But when you get to a certain spot where, there’s maybe 10%, its not a science, its not wooden, but there’s a spot at which the whole prison begins to change. The relationships between the guards and the prisoners begins to change, the culture of the prison begins to change, and even the look of the prison begins to change. And we also know it’s the same thing with neighborhoods, by the way.

Actually, I think sociologists and political scientists might be in a better position than a man who is working on sermons all week to say with certainty what happens in neighborhoods when populations change. But how will New Yorkers feel when they hear that a neighborhood in their city is like a prison population before ten percent of its residents become a Christian? The answer is probably the way they would feel if they ever talked to my fundamentalist parents about the desirability of living in the city.

3a) Will New York become like Wheaton, Illinois if Keller is succeeds?

The reason for asking is that Wheaton is actually a city – it really is a city according Illinois’ calculations – with a population of roughly 56,000. The city also has 63 churches, which ranks as one of the highest level of churches per capita in any American city. That sounds like Wheaton might qualify as a gospel ecosystem.

If so, does Keller’s vision for New York City involve turning the Big Apple into a Mid-western city of middle class and evangelical Protestant sensibilities? That would not be the worst thing. Having spent four years in the evangelical Jerusalem, I can vouch for Wheaton’s charms. At the same time, my preference is for the grit, grime, crime, and headaches of a big city because with those circumstances come the arts, universities, cultural experimentation, major league sports, and hustle and bustle.

In which case, would New York City have the hipness that makes Redeemer NYC attractive to Gen Xers in the PCA if it hosted a gospel ecosystem? Or would New York become as white-bred as a community like Wheaton, with its stability, standards, and restraint? I am not sure, though, how you hold on to urban chic while being evangelically earnest is a mystery. Maybe New York would turn into Omaha or Minneapolis. Then, would Redeemer NYC be cutting edge?

These questions do not exhaust my problems with Keller’s talk. Granted, it was only a talk and not an academic paper. But if the PCA is going to adopt the language of gospel ecosystem in its plan for missions, should Presbyterian Church in Americans ask for the fine print and supporting studies? Wouldn’t even common sense say that what works in New York City won’t fly in St. Louis or Atlanta? So if members of the PCA won’t fulfill the responsibilities that come with the corporate witness of the church, are they prepared to bear the burend of corporate gullibility?

Yet, if the PCA follows Keller, it won’t be the first time that Presbyterians have put evangelism ahead of theology and polity. New Siders did that in Keller’s region a long time ago when they believed that Presbyterian doctrines and church government had little to do with the Great Commission. So it wouldn’t be the first time in church history that a church — especially in New York City — was Presbyterian in name only. But if these guys are the smartest ones in NAPARC, they should be able to see through the holes in Keller’s strategy.

20 thoughts on “The Corporate Gullibility of the Church

  1. Heh. One can have a lot of fun with this analogy. For starters, if one were to take a close look at the LCMS and the ill-fated ELCA, one would find that most confessional Lutherans have already been eaten by the Pentecostals and the Baptists. What was the cause of that? A genetic mutation called Pietism?

    Also, living in Wheaton I can assure you that although it may be a city that has (had?) the highest number of churches per capita in the U.S., it is no longer a mecca of protestantism – the balance has shifted due to an invasive species of cultural groups migrating from decaying urban areas carrying along its Papist heritage.


  2. I’ve listened to all of your Machen series and your line “nothing good for Presbyterianism comes from New York” (or words to that effect) was my favorite. More and more it seems we confessionalists live in an ecclesiastical Roaring Late Twenties. As Machen was “radicalized” by his first visit to General Assembly, so was I by attending my first meeting of a presbytery which is heavily New Side/Redeemer-influenced.


  3. Just recently in my church (a Redeemer network plant), our minister held up a music CD produced by one of our “worship team” leaders and suggested that we as a church should “support our artists.” I was totally befuddled and wondered what in the h*$% he was going on about in our post-service announcements. He continued, “just throwing it out there” the we might go to and donate money for this Indigo Girl-like folk-rock effort. I complained about it to friends for a week, angered, amused, and mystified.

    Now it all makes sense.

    Keller: “again, the very big churches might have 200 artists in them, but by and large, if the Christians who are artists in the city are going to, resource each other, help each other, get together, they’re going to have to usually going to get together in various sorts of initiatives, the artists have to get together across the churches, and they have to be in supportive networks and organizations, then all kind of stuff come out, ideas come up. That’s how art happens by the way, it happens at parties, the artists go to parties, and then they get their ideas, and then they, you know, I read an article not too long ago, remember, about the, you know, the artists who say that everything, pretty much everything that happens, happens at parties. So Christian artists have to have parties, very important. You’ll never have a movement, you’ll never win your city to Christ, unless the artists, Christians artists are having lots of parties. Write that down, twitter it, whatever. So you have to have faith and work initiatives.”

    Read that again, “you’ll never win your city to Christ unless the artists, Christian artists are having lots of parties.”

    This may be the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard out of a minister’s mouth, and I’ve attended quite a few EV Free mega churches in my misspent youth. Makes me want to exercise my old life liberty again and say, what the …? It simply boggles the mind. There are so many things the church might support, beginning with the myriad seminarians in our midst. Their parties will never be as cool, but they just might have more to contribute to a gospel movement than a guitar lick.


  4. I agree with your comments, but I’m not sure quipping about the name “ecosystem” helps much. Keller is trying to find some way to describe what he’s doing and even if the name is poorly chosen, that doesn’t mean his ideas are necessarily wrong.

    In regards to your first point though, when you made the statement about sociologists and political scientists in point three, does that mean that Keller can *not* know such things?

    I say this because one of the main things a pastor needs to do is know his flock. He needs to know how to reach them and minister to them in their cultural surroundings. Keller is living in and serving in New York. If he were to minister successfully to the people there, wouldn’t we hope then that he would know something about the people there? True, he may not be a specialist, but it is part of his job when writing those sermons every week to make sure the people hearing it will understand it and respond to it.


  5. Charles Finney said “I want to lay it out before you, in the course of these lectures, so that if you will begin and go on to do as I say, the results will be just as certain as they are when a farmer breaks up a fallow field, and mellows it, and sows his grain.” Reverend Keller says “What does it take to have a gospel movement, in the city? And I think the answer is: the, an eco-system has to be put into place.”

    There was a consistency between Finney’s “gospel” and his method. Assuming Reverend Keller does preach the biblical/reformed gospel, there appears to be an inconsistency for him.

    There seems to be an unspoken premise among the gospel ecosystem advocates that theology and method are airtight categories, or perhaps parallel lines that need not intersect. That needs to be challenged. Though I am mindful, Dr. Hart, of your resistance to proclaiming “laws of history” I wonder whether the tendency is for unbiblical methods to eventually swallow up the biblical gospel when the two conflict.


  6. At the heart of Keller’s mission is found in the mission statement and the statements of his daughter churches. He wants to “transform the city for Jesus.” From my understanding of scripture that city will burn someday along with all others. The only city that will last is the city at the summit of the mountain, Micah 4.


  7. Eddie J. How much did Paul know about the Gentiles? He was a Jew of the Jews, kept the law, etc. etc. You don’t exactly expect him to be the one to be in charge of the mission to non-Jews. But somehow, God in his providence, used Paul’s preaching by the work of the Holy Spirit. If it worked for Paul, why not for pastors in the oh-so-hip-and-challenging NYC?


  8. I’m spending the summer in Boston where I can’t eat a bowl of chowda without some transformationalist TKNY-clone praying that God would “bless the city.” Every Lord’s Day I hear this multiple times in the prayers. Have we taken the Hot Tub Time Machine back to theocratic Israel? God is under no obligation to bless the city even if we get 3%, 5%, or 10% Christian. And what does it mean for God to bless the city – no crime, vice, or corruption? Does it look like Salt Lake? The demise of the Celtics may be a sign that NAPARC churches in Boston have not prayed hard enough for a blessing.


  9. “Eddie J. How much did Paul know about the Gentiles? He was a Jew of the Jews, kept the law, etc. etc. You don’t exactly expect him to be the one to be in charge of the mission to non-Jews. But somehow, God in his providence, used Paul’s preaching by the work of the Holy Spirit. If it worked for Paul, why not for pastors in the oh-so-hip-and-challenging NYC?”

    It seems to me that Paul had some knowledge to the culture of the Gentiles did he not? His preaching in Athens quoting the philosophers of his day is proof of that isn’t it? And what about his statement that he became all things to all people in 1 Corinthians 9:20?

    What about Calvin’s constant reference to Cicero in the Institutes? God may have used Paul’s preaching through the work of the Spirit part of that providence also included Paul studying and learning about the pagan culture that he was preaching into as well.


  10. Dan-

    I agree with your post. I just think “demise” is too strong a word when talking about my Celtics. But alas, that’s off topic. I need to get out of my Celtics ‘eco-system.’


  11. The Celtics loss to Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant is one of life’s mysteries. Along with human suffering, how do you explain it? Maybe Derek Fisher’s personal devotions were better than Nate Robinson’s? Ahem, anyway, we can always remember Cornbread Maxwell schooling the 76ers in game 7, 1981.
    What were we talking about?


  12. John, you’re trying too hard, as many of Keller’s defenders have to do. Paul was not citing Ptolemy or Calvin Gallileo, but Keller is using scientific terms that practically everyone who isn’t a scientist doesn’t know. To make it worse, I assume he was addressing a bunch of ministers or would-be church planters who would be even more clueless about an ecosystem. The funny thing is, we already have a system that is called Presbyterian for planting churches. It is not that well understood these days, as Keller’s activities suggest. In which case, it might be wiser and more biblical to explain the Presbyterian way rather than the biological metaphor.


  13. Dr. Hart,

    With all due respect, how in the world would you know that the people he was addressing are clueless to his use of terms? I’m a PCA pastor and I have a bachelor of science in biology with a minor in chemistry. I’ve done summer interneship in bio labs as well as done extensive research in hospitals as well. I listened to his message and his definition of ecosystems was correct.

    The fact is science is our new “wisdom of this age.” Back then it was philosophy for Calvin and Paul so they both quoted the authoritative secular sources of that time to explicate and further the gospel. True, Keller wasn’t talking to nonbelievers but nevertheless do you not think that there were some insightful things that could be of benefit? Even your collegue R. Scott Clark admitted that there were a lot of “good, interesting and thoughtful stuff here.”

    Just so you know I am not advocating what Keller is saying. Quite frankley it sounds to “pragmatic” for me. But I guess the issue I have is your assumption that Keller’s audience would have no clue as to what he’s saying or if he’s even using it correctly. I’m all for the Presbyterian way for planting churches as well but I also enjoy listening to Keller too. Can’t I do both without feeling shame and guilty?


  14. John, One reason is that Keller doesn’t seem to understand the term itself. The image for this post comes from a scientific site that explains an ecosystem. Keller believes that an ecosystem is a kumbayah moment where churches from different traditions will cooperate. An ecosystem — as even he describes it — is one where there is a lot of death and destruction. This is Darwinian, not Rodney Kingian.


  15. Dr. Hart,

    It is true that the definition he gave was a crude oversimplified definition of an ecosystem, and I did too found it funny that he started off with a very “natural selectionesque” flavor to it. But the more I listened to it I got the sense that he was thinking more in terms of a symbiotic relationship within a ecosystem of all those “circles” he mentioned. Symbiotic in terms of a mutualistic type not commensalistic or parasitic. But I can see where you see his inconsistency or misunderstanding of the term.


  16. I’ve heard Ken Myers use the metaphor of an ecosystem to describe the many aspects of culture. It is a very apt analogy in that case, but not so much for the mission of the Church. Culture is a way of life formed and sustained by a network of concrete entities, symbols, meanings and beliefs. Reading this post and the replies, I wonder if Keller is guilty of some sort of equivocation between Church & Culture.


  17. Meh. Criticise if you want, everyones open to it. Keller brings it home every sunday like no one else in this generation. Nuff said.


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