The Value of Keller's Stock

Bill Evans’ piece on the decline of conservative Reformed Protestantism has been making the rounds and it raises an important question about the better and worse times in church history. He starts by noting that conservative Presbyterians are not as influential as they once were:

A while back my friend Anthony Bradley posted an insightful and provocative blog piece asking why the popular influence of conservative Presbyterians prominent a few decades back (e.g., Jim Boice, R. C. Sproul, Sinclair Ferguson, and John Frame) seems to have waned in comparison to Baptists of a broadly Reformed soteriological persuasion. I posted an extended comment at the time, and thought I would expand on it here.

There are at least two big issues in play—the Baptistic Reformed success as driven by institutions (e.g., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the Founders’ Movement) and gifted individuals (e.g., Don Carson, Al Mohler, Mark Dever, Mark Driscoll) on the one hand, and the apparent Presbyterian decline on the other. As a Presbyterian I’m not particularly well equipped to comment on the first, but I think I have something to offer about the second.

Of course, the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition has been declining as a percentage of the American population since the nineteenth century. But statistics available in resources like ARDA and the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches indicate that some of the NAPARC denominations are plateaued or in decline. This is worrisome, and the reasons are doubtless complex, having to do with social as well as theological factors. Below are five general observations from the “for what it’s worth department.”

Matt Tuininga agrees and disagrees:

Evans describes the commitment of many Presbyterians to an increasingly rigid, or fundamentalist understanding of the authority of Scripture. He also worries about an exaggerated confidence in the ability of confessions to productively shape (or leverage?) Scriptural interpretation. When our obsession is with preserving our own micro-traditions, pale imitations of a once great theological and ecclesiastical stream, the temptation is overwhelming to manipulate Scripture for our own purposes, ignoring the difference between the Word and human interpretation of that Word. When we have an exaggerated understanding of the exhaustive significance of 16th and 17th century confessions designed with 16th and 17th century problems in mind, our theology, preaching, and church life quickly become more like artifacts in a museum than like the faithful witness of Christ’s church in 21st century America.

No doubt things are not quite as bleak as this blog post might suggest. And neither Evans nor I are suggesting that Reformed believers abandon the authority of Scripture or vigorous allegiance to our confessions. The problem is not with historic Reformed theology at all, per se. But what Evans seems to be suggesting, and if so, I agree with him, is that the church needs to reexamine whether a tragic preoccupation with tradition and with the forms, practices, and controversies of the past is actually undermining the authority of Scripture, the role for which our confessions were historically intended, and our faithful witness in the present. One thing seems clear. In terms of size, influence, and prospects, the Reformed tradition is, and has been for quite some time, in serious decline. We have a lot of soul-searching to do.

One item worth highlighting, as the title of the post indicates, is that despite the amazing popularity of TKNY in conservative Presbyterian circles, Tim Keller cannot make up for the presence that the likes of Jim Boice and R. C. Sproul projected and still project. It could be that associations with The Gospel Coalition so water down Keller’s Presbyterian identity that his influence from deep within one of the largest, most media-saturated, and wealthiest cities in the history of redemption cannot make up for the sheer doctrinal firepower of the old regulars at the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology.

The bigger aspect here, though, is how to assess the relative strength of Reformed Protestantism, whether thirty years ago, three hundred years ago, or today. The present is always the hardest to assess. What lasts is seldom known now. (It looks like the Harlem Shake has surpassed Gangnam Style. What a shame.) So making projections about the health of Reformed Protestantism based on contemporary observations is inadvisable.

When it comes to thirty years ago, it is possible to argue as I did in Between the Times that at least one conservative Presbyterian communion is doing better than it was. But the study of church history should always breed sobriety rather than enthusiasm. This is not because the history of Christianity is one long story of decline. It is instead because in the case of Reformed Protestant history, the Reformed churches have always faced an uphill battle. In fact, when the churches were at their most influential (the Free Church of Scotland, the Reformed Church of the Netherlands [GKN], or even the PCUSA), they were generally the most mixed they ever were. It is the nature of any organization, even spiritual ones, that when they become large, they also become fat.

In which case, it is interesting to notice that when they were turning heads thirty years ago, Boice and Sproul were still ministers in the mainline (not conservative) Presbyterian Church, which was hardly the strongest platform from which to lead a recovery of Reformed teaching and ministry.

I myself am not sure where conservative Presbyterianism is headed. I do hold to the view that the healthiest path for conservative Presbyterianism is not celebrity speakers and theologians but churches where worship is lean, teaching confessional, and government procedural. Slow and steady many not win the race. But in the eternal life race, finishing is pretty good.

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45 thoughts on “The Value of Keller's Stock

  1. I am too busy in my dotage to keep in touch with all (or even a few) of OLT’s fault finding with some great Christian brothers like Tim Keller. He seems to have loved one of my favorite WTS profs, Edmund P. Clowney. Ed taught me Practical Theology for one year (1952-1953). A few of you fellows tried to explain to me why OLT is very vluable. I still don’t get it and don’t think it is all my stupidity! Love, Old Bob Morris, self appointed spiritual and this-world helper at Alexian Village.

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  2. ” I do hold to the view that the healthiest path for conservative Presbyterianism is not celebrity speakers and theologians but churches where worship is lean, teaching confessional, and government procedural.”

    That’s a good word, brother… one that should not be limited to Presbyterians.

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  3. The Regulative Principle holds us back vis-a-vis the Baptists, but that’s o.k. We’ll just keep plugging along. I am optimistic about the future of conservative P&R churches. I think they will continue to have an influence greater than you would expect given their size.

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  4. How about we keep our kids in the church and convert unbelievers? If we were passing the flag to the next generation and winning converts, we’d have more influence.

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  5. How about being faithful in the few things God has called us to, and let him worry about how influential we are or are not in the broader culture? Sometimes it seems as if some of our conservative brothers are reading the Great Commission like this:

    Go in to all the world and preach the gospel of transformation not only to people but cultural institutions, really shaking things up, baptizing your aspirations for the broader culture with the holiest of intentions, because that’s what’s really how stuff gets done in the Kingdom

    I realize that the crassness of the above paraphrase isn’t something anyone, even those who are concerned with the influence conservative P&R churches might have in the broader culture would actually hold. But, if there were more hand wringing about being faithful to the simple things God has called his church to (e.g. the three marks), we would be in a far healthier place, regardless of whether or not the world deems us influential or not.

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  6. “But, if there were more hand wringing about being faithful to the simple things God has called his church to (e.g. the three marks), we would be in a far healthier place, regardless of whether or not the world deems us influential or not.”

    Exactly! Highly recommend Michael Horton’s “People and Place – A Covenant Ecclesiology” unto that end. And if you want to go the other direction, I can help you with your worship music here:

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  7. So, Todd, are you suggesting a fourth mark being doxology? I’ve always wondered about the one tradition that is prescriptive instead of descriptive and has the RPW doesn’t talk more about that possibility.

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  8. Todd, sorry, I was just taking the serious point about concern for the three marks and the joke about worship and coming up with another serious point about the latter, one that is just as culturally irrelevant as the others.

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  9. One of the things that drew me to Conservative Presbyterianism in the first place is the fact that they weren’t obsessing with influencing the masses. What is odd to me about this series of diagnoses by Bill Evans is that it is seeking to regain Presbyterian “influence”. I have more thoughts on this but to spare a lengthy comment I just threw them up on my site.

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  10. I wonder if Boice’s (and perhaps Sproul too, though I’m less familiar with him) decline in influence couldn’t not be traced itself to his discernible shift from mere bible exposition and bible defense to something more like tradition defense that took place with the rise of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. Boice wasn’t ‘unconfessional’ in any sense when he was focused on ‘expository preaching’ as the main thing, but I think there may have been a shift to focus on confessions and particular theological formulations as the central thing.

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  11. The success of TGC (and its precursors) seems to have had several effects over the past two decades, all of which bode poorly for the growth of conservative Presbyterianism.

    The PCA has always drawn its membership from two primary sources: (1) Baptists who are Calvinistic and who like to imbibe a bit; and (2) disaffected mainliners.

    TGC led to the emergence of a viable Calvinistic witness within certain Baptist communions, which was not as legalistic on things like alcohol. Therefore, Calvinistic Baptists who drink no longer need to flee their Baptist communion for the PCA. Disaffected Baptists have been one of the biggest sources of members for PCA churches. As Baptists stay in Baptist communions, the PCA loses out.

    Further, the success of TCG has led to a certain blurring of the lines between the PCA and the SBC. This means that the PCA is a much less attractive option for disaffected mainliners than it used to be. The ethos of the mainline is much different from that of revivalistic churches. As the PCA has become more revivalistic and more closely tied to right-wing politics (i.e., more evangelical), disaffected mainliners are seeking other options, such as the EPC.

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  12. To make matters worse, I have heard it bandied about on various blogs (more than a few times) that statistically speaking, up to 80% of PCA’s children currently walk away from the Lord and deny the Christ. How is that not an indictment on us? How is that not the equivalent to Jesus saying “I will kill your children” to the church of Thyatira?

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  13. Doug,
    I’ve read on blogs that 90% of statistics are made up. Do you have a source showing that 80% of kids who grow up in the PCA leave the faith. How could you even count that reliably for a denomination that has only existed for about 30 years?

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  14. The original question that Evans was responding to was why popular (Reformed) Presbyterian influence has waned in comparison to certain Reformed(-ish) Baptist influence. By only discussing the Presbyterian side, he changed the conversation to Presbyterian probems, but it’s worth revisiting the first post.

    How many among those “influenced” by Boice, Sproul, or Ferguson (or Frame? one of these things …) ever sought to join their respective denominations? If few, then what is the influence we’re discussing? Book sales and interviews? If the question is really just asking why those men were once bestsellers and Carson, Piper, and Driscoll are now, I’m not sure that we should start denominational soul-searching over it.

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  15. sdb, he said “up to 80%”, which is a tough figure to argue with. Up to 80% of professing Christians in the United States are members of the OPC. Up to 80% of theonomic ministers plea no contest to lewd exposure in the state of California. Unfortunately, the last percentage is substantially larger than the first. Fortunately for Dr. Gentry, California is not theonomic.

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  16. Mike,

    I’m not sure that the alleged popularity of Boice, Sproul, Ferguson, or Frame was ever that distinctly Presbyterian. It strikes me that their appeal was more broadly Calvinistic than particularly Presbyterian. In those days, the PCA (and the OPC, to a lesser extent) were about the only alternatives to Arminianism. So, for the most part, guys like Boice and Sproul were not competing with a bunch of Calvinistic Baptists. They were about the only show in town. I suspect that they persuaded a lot of people of the merits of Reformed soteriology without necessarily persuading them of the merits of Reformed ecclesiology.

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  17. In thinking a bit more about this issue, I also wonder whether the growing prominence of transformationalism within the PCA didn’t also contribute. Before the mid-1990s, the organizing principle of the PCA was the gospel. But by the mid-1990s, we saw the emergence of World Magazine and the heightened emphasis on politics as gospel work. Under the banner of Kuyperianism, many PCA churches began to view opposition to the Clintons as an essential ingredient of gospel work. By the lste 1990s, most PCA churches were hostile territory for anyone whose views were not in lock-step with the far right wing of the GOP.

    It was at that time that the TKNY churches became more prominent, probably in response to the rightward lurch of the rest of the PCA. We could wish that the TKNY churches had returned to the political agnosticism that had been a featre of much of the pre-1990s PCA. But, instead, these churhes retained some measure of the emphasis on politics, but held to political views that were more in step with political centrists.

    In the ensuing years, we’ve sorted out along political lines. For example, I frequently attend a PCA church in the DC area. I suspect that the overwhelming majority of folks in the church are in favor of same-sex marriage, are opposed to criminalizing abortion, and couldn’t give a rip about protecting cultural displays of Christianity. By contrast, if one were to visit a PCA church 100 miles south of DC, any PCA member who publicly held such views would be in danger of being excommunicated.

    At th height of Boice’s and Sproul’s popularity, there was a broad consensus within the PCA as to what constituted orthodoxy. By the late 1990s, a number of PCA churches began to embrace the political gospel of Colson, Olasky, and Belz, and made the Culture War an essential ingredient of Reformed orthodoxy. The TKNY emerged primarily as a reaction to this.

    When I was living in a certain large metro area, our TKNY church rented space on Sundays in the same bulding as a “young and restless” church. It was clear that these two groups did not overlap sociologically. The average ages were similar. But the TKNY folks were far more educated and wealthy, and tended to adopt more libertarian/pragmatic views on social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. By contrast, the “young and restless” were less educated, less wealthy, and more lkely to hold to socially conservative views (and to complement those views with an interest in other social issues, such as sex trafficking).

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  18. Bobby, that’s almost as fascinating as Sean’s briefings on the Vatican. You should write a history of the PCA. Or a memoir.

    I’m particularly intrigued by the demographics of TKNY and the YRR. If that’s true, Harvie Conn is turning over in his grave (since TK got his metro edge by invoking Conn).

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  19. “Harvie M. Conn was professor of missions at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia from 1972 until his retirement in 1998. He passed away in August of 1999 after a long battle with cancer.

    Dr. Conn was born in Regina, SK, Canada in 1933, and became an American citizen in 1957. He received an AB from Calvin College in 1953, a BD in 1957, and a Th. M in 1958 both from Westminster Theological Seminary. He was awarded a Litt.D. from Geneva College in 1976.

    In 1957, Harvie began a church planting ministry in New Jersey. Later, he went to Korea as an itinerant preacher in churches. He also taught New Testament at the General Assembly Theological Seminary in Seoul for ten years, as well as carrying on a ministry of evangelism there among prostitutes and pimps. He came to Westminster in 1972, and began teaching both apologetics and missions. He became an expert in interpreting popular culture and used this ability to regularly review films in a column for Eternity Magazine.

    While teaching at Westminster, Harvie took groups of students on missions field trips to India and Uganda. This led him to become a leader in urban evangelism and missions, which has become one of Westminster’s trademarks at degree levels. Harvie also edited the magazine Urban Mission from 1989-1999.

    One of Dr. Conn’s former students made the astute observation that “Conn’s most enduring missiological contribution was his concentration on the importance of the city. He wanted the church to focus on the city, not because it was trendy–it was not–but because he read closely both the biblical material and the demographic data, bridging them together on a third horizon: God’s mission to the cities of the world. No longer, Conn argued, could the world be considered a global village. Instead, it is a global city. This is the church’s context, and to be effective the church would need to sort out urban myth from fact. Not only did Conn help to put the city on the evangelical agenda, but he changed the way we think about the city.”

    As a result of requests from urban pastors in Philadelphia, the Westminster Ministerial Institute began in 1973 under Conn’s direction. Saturday classes at Westminster later led to the formation of the Center for Urban Theological Studies. (Information for this biographical sketch taken in part from an obituary for Dr. Conn written by Westminster professor Larry Sibley.)

    Below is an incomplete bibliography of Harvie Conn’s writings. We are looking into the possibility of this site hosting some of his unpublished or out-of-print writings in the future. Many of Dr. Conn’s in-print books, and even some of his recorded lectures, are available from Westminster Bookstore (www.wtsbooks.com).”

    Could Conn have ministered to these folks?:

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  20. Bobby, the way you describe it, I can’t help but continue to think the PCA is more or less now what the CRC was not very long ago.

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  21. The problem with Reformed people longing for greater relevance is that evangelicals do relevance oh so much better than we do. No matter how hard I tried, as a Northwestern College student I wasn’t going to be able to charm the ladies at that Young Life camp like those smooth guys from Wheaton.

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  22. D.G. Hart quoting Bill Evans: There are at least two big issues in play—the Baptistic Reformed success as driven by institutions (e.g., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the Founders’ Movement) and gifted individuals (e.g., Don Carson, Al Mohler, Mark Dever, Mark Driscoll) on the one hand, and the apparent Presbyterian decline on the other.

    RS quoting A.W. Tozer: The loss of the concept of majesty has come just when the forces of religion are making dramatic gains and the churches are more prospeous than at any time within the past several hundred years. But the alarming thing is that our gain is mostly external and our losses wholly internal; and since it is the quality of our religion that is affected by internal conditions, it may be that our supposed gains [successes] are but losses spread over a wider field. The only way to recoup our spiritual losses is to go back to the cause of them and make such corrections as the truth warrants. The decline of the knowledge of the holy has brought on our troubles. A rediscovery of the majesty of God will go a long way toward curing them.

    RS NOT quoting Tozer: It could be the case that the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Founders Ministries are not as Reformed and/or Calvinistic as they think they are and are able to make others think that they are. Perhaps their success is more like Tozer describes and as such it is not the old paths from the heart as they think.

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  23. Richard, with your absence I was beginning to think Richard Smith was an alias for Ratzinger. I don’t believe we have heard from you since news of the abdication.

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  24. Erik, would that make Matt Foley a Reformed motivational speaker?

    “Now, you kids are probably saying to yourselves, ‘Hey I’m gonna go out and GET THE WORLD by the tail and WRAP IT AROUND and pull it down and put in my pocket.’ Well, I’m here to tell you that you’re probably going to find out as you go out there that you’re not going to amount to JACK! SQUAT!”

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  25. D. G. Hart: Richard, with your absence I was beginning to think Richard Smith was an alias for Ratzinger. I don’t believe we have heard from you since news of the abdication.

    RS: Bless you my son.

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  26. Jonathon,

    Who is this guy talking to? Certainly this guy isn’t talking about the PCA?! We’ll be mainline evangelical in under 10 years at the most. If Keller had his way, we’d already be there.

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  27. Sean,

    I wondered that as well. The article lacks focus. It would be helpful if organizations were named. Clarity is not something that we are seeing in these recent (and internal) blasts against confessionally reformed denominations. Do these comparisons between the “growth” of non-reformed denominations (and cults) and reformed churches betray jealousy and covetousness? The desire for “influence” will do more harm in the long run…

    Point 1 sounds nice but it still doesn’t identify that alleged “something” to which numbers speak.

    Point 2 also seems to betray an ignorance of reformed worship. Worship is for believers and not for unbelievers. It sounds as if they would have our services be more “worldly” (i.e., “warm”, “inviting,” seeker-sensitive preaching, and program driven) and less “otherworldly.” The debates over church growth seem related to the worship problem…

    Point 3 would have us abandon the form of reformed worship. This discussion seems to betray a distaste for reformed worship. I’m not sure that friendliness means what he thinks that it means. If we change our method in order to be more “friendly,” then we have also changed something in our theology. I’m lost on this one…what does friendliness in our liturgy have to do with outsiders? What is the opposite of this? I haven’t noticed any hateful liturgies.

    I’m still scratching my head over point 4. Reformed churches don’t claim to be “pure” congregations. That sounds more like the baptists.

    Point 5 also makes too many assumptions. The last bit is funny. Apparently reformed pastors are not human and need to work harder at appearing human. The focus on “interest” is disconcerting. Why must things always be “interesting?”

    Point 6 assumes that the pastors of reformed churches are afraid of praying “too much.” I’m not sure what enough prayer would look like, but it sounds like it has something to do with a “great spiritual revival.”

    It seems that his target is confessionally reformed churches everywhere (with a particular eye on Brazil). Ultimately, considering the presence of this article on TGC and its timing, his opponents are probably congregations in the states

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  28. Jonathon,

    I just can’t locate the purposefully trained reformed pastors or theology, for that matter, that he’s talking about. Now, I’ve run across some poor preaching and poorly adjusted people manning the pulpit. The former was generally the result of poor doctrinal development, and the latter seemed to be inadequate discernment of calling and just general dysfunction. Not sure these were qualities their reformed ecclesiology naturally or purposely gave itself to championing. I can however, at least tentatively, make an argument AGAINST large congregations; Are our churches just teeming with elder boards or congregants for that matter with enough doctrinal depth to effectively shepherd more than 250 people, if that many? It seems to me one of the glaring weaknesses of large churches would be lack of discipleship and pastoring and discipline, not for lack of want, possibly, but just the logistical nightmare. How for instance do you effectively administer much less fence the table for a 1000 people on a weekly basis? How in the world can you even pastor that many, in a way that’s even remotely reminiscent to a biblical model of oversight and discipleship?

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  29. At this site you can see where Westminster is trying to get funds to support Lopes. http://www.wts.edu/investing/testimonials/alumni/morealumni/lopes.html

    Though I cannot find it now, he (Lopes) wrote an article four years or so making pretty much the same arguments. Reformed people should be less Reformed in order to get the Gospel out and to get more people in the churches. In doing so he appears to be trampling Reformed teaching under his feet.

    Augustus Lopes: Why would God want Reformed congregations to be uniquely small, to fail to thrive in a free country where other evangelical churches are growing dramatically? Did God predestine such churches to be doctrinally correct but tiny in size, and the others to grow despite unfaithful theology and methodology? Has he not predestined Reformed pastors to be soul winners, evangelists, church planters, and heralds of the kingdom?

    RS: Perhaps for the same reason that He called Isaiah to preach until cities were destroyed and sent him to harden and blind.

    Augustus Lopes: Some Reformed pastors feel so hamstrung by the doctrine of total depravity that they don’t know how to invite sinners to trust Christ. The ghost of Charles Finney, popularizer of the altar call, haunts and torments them; they reach the end of their message without a clue how to apply it to the lost—lest they give the impression they’re making an altar call. They also fear being too animated lest they look like Pentecostals. However, I believe if Reformed preachers looked more human, natural, and comfortable in the pulpit, they’d elicit greater interest.

    RS: The contradiction in this paragraph is so clear. Finney was certainly very natural and comfortable in the pulpit and elicited a greater interest than those around him. The doctrine of total depravity, however, teaches us that if we can elicit more interest from our ways and plans then those who are more interested are more interested in us rather than the Gospel.

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  30. There is an element of Lopes’ question that is like asking why there are more business majors than Astrophysics majors. The honest answer is that the latter is more demanding.

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  31. Men like Sproul and Boice were pioneers in a wilderness. They made the first offensive in recovering biblical Reformed theology in an evangelical time and world. Now, based on their labors and those like them, many have come into Reformed churches. The second generation consolidates, institutionalizes, preserves, and defines, much like Reformed scholasticism did following the era of the Reformers. The internal-looking that Evans laments is a natural 2nd stage.

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  32. Transforming Our World: A Call to Action (1998)
    by James Montgomery Boice (Editor)

    Paperback
    from $0.01

    One nation under God / James Montgomery Boice — The inseparability of church and state / William F. Buckley, Jr. — The Christian and society / Os Guinness — The Christian and the sanctity of life / R. C. Sproul — The Christian and God’s world / James I. Packer — The Christian and biblical justice / John M. Perkins — The Christian and the church / Richard John Neuhaus — Christian responsibility and public life / William Armstrong — The kingdom of God and human kingdoms / Charles W. Colson.

    maybe Boice was just too premill to get it done. But the efforts of Colson and Neuhaus have now eliminated abortion from the face of God’s exceptional nation.

    But of course things would have been much worse without ECT. And now a majority of the Supreme Court justices are on God’s side, and we have ourselves to thank for that…

    but that “historical Adam” thing, well, that still limits our wonderful influence

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