Could Keller Have Saved Detroit?

I haven’t seen too many posts from the transformers about Detroit’s decline and bankruptcy. (I can’t say that I would be all that concerned with Detroit if I were not now a Michigander.) Detroit is not chic. Even when it was the Paris of the mid-West it was still in fly over country and didn’t have the ginormous buildings that made East Coast folks marvel at Chicago. Then there was the automobile industry. If Detroit had been the home of Mercedes or BMW maybe New Yorkers would have cared. Just as likely, New Yorkers (and Philadelphians) would have preferred Chevys and Fords if Detroit made Mercedes and BeeMers.

Still, the woes of Detroit do put into perspective the hyperventilation that goes on in some neo-Calvinist circles when folks talk about the power of the gospel to redeem all of life. Cases like Detroit would certainly call for a bit of qualification to follow those inspirational claims since I am not sure that even having thirty full Reformed and Presbyterian congregations could have forestalled a constellation of circumstances that calls for David Simon’s genius. In other words, if you whet people’s appetites for transforming culture, then don’t they become disappointed when Detroits come along (as Geneva did not though its ecclesial fortunes have declined while its political and economic success has soured soared).

In which case, what the gospel does is not cultural but spiritual. And what works culturally are matters, still from God, but having little to do with what he sent his only begotten son to do.

And to help with this lesson in two-kingdom distinction-making, along comes an astute post by Matt Feeney on why the suburbs overwhelmed Detroit — because Detroit was a city that resembled a suburb:

For a long time I’ve thought an underappreciated factor in Detroit’s demise was this mix of housing, or, this lack of a mix of housing. The city is a virtual monoculture, residentially speaking, 140 square miles of detached, owner-occupied, single-family homes. Being a monoculture made it vulnerable to a particular pathogen that infected many large cities, but not so thoroughly as it did Detroit, the run on real estate known as white flight. If you were renting an apartment in a dense patch of, say, Chicago, in the 1950s or early 60s, the distant sound of whites fleeing areas to the south and west perhaps foretold a change in your neighborhood, which you may or may not have welcomed, but it didn’t make you panic that your biggest investment was heading for a collapse in value, because you were just renting. And so those who did own houses on the leafy back stretches of your cross-street could take your relative equanimity, and of the whole clot of other renters you’re part of, into account. Not everyone would be reacting to the same cues. Change would be slower and less total. It might be worth it to stay put.

Homeowners in Detroit had no such break on their panic. It was all houses, almost all owned by the families inside them. Maybe they were racists, the white people who owned and sold those houses, but it wouldn’t have mattered. You didn’t have to be a racist to flee whitely. You just had to suspect that some meaningful portion of your neighbors were, or that some meaningful portion of your non-racist neighbors were engaged in a slightly more anxious calculation than you were, for your market behavior to become identical to theirs: Sell! Racial fear and the endemic anxiety of homeowning fueled each other. The ’67 riots didn’t help, but those two factors were already spinning in a feedback loop.

This suggests another convenient, Jane Jacobs- and James Scott-inspired hypothesis I’ll just throw out there: Detroit’s stunning increase in violence, which made it the Murder Capitol in ’73, was not unrelated to this housing scheme. As in arid planned cities like Brasilia that turn sketchier than anyone imagined, life in the atomized residential blocks of Detroit is carried on less visibly, more amenably to crime, than in dense urban streets with 24-hour business happening under the streetlights of busy intersections. Crime obviously happens amid urban density, but maybe it’s easier for violence and fear to invade and conquer a place where so much less other life is visibly happening. And maybe this housing scheme heightened racial suspicion by making so much black-white interaction so private, comparatively, and high-stakes, subjectively, our property lines tending to be etched in vigilance already, if not yet fear: Why is that black man walking down our all-white street? Past our homes? Where our children live?

This non-mix of housing has of course made Detroit a less attractive target for repopulation and gentrification than pretty much any city of its original size, not to mention of its cultural prominence. (And this is the real issue in this conversation, not why Detroit went downhill – virtually all eastern cities lost jobs and people and saw crime rise after WWII – but why it kept going downhill and saw no revival as even humble rivals like Cleveland did.) Indeed, some of Detroit’s closer suburbs feel more like urban neighborhoods, by the light of the current urban BoBo revival, than most of Detroit does, or did, or, probably, could. By the 1980s middle-/working-class Royal Oak was already becoming a hip quasi-urban destination, with clubs and restaurants lining Woodward Avenue. More recently this role’s been taken up by Ferndale, right across blighted Eight Mile Road to the north, a humble old working-class suburb of little houses that used to be called “Fabulous Ferndale” ironically, because of its dilapidation under the care of poor whites, but which now bears that handle unironically, or in ironically self-canceling irony about the old irony – because it’s hip now, and because it’s where the gay people live and, perforce, fabulous. Buzzing right up against Detroit as it does, anchored in a strip of Nine Mile Road that probably has more vintage clothing stores than trees, peopled by hipsters living in its low-slung houses on its highly uninteresting streets, Ferndale feels like the gentrifying BoBo impulse throwing up its hands and saying, “Look, we’re really trying, but this is the best we can do.”

City planning in the name of Christ might help though it would likely add unnecessarily to too many meetings. But how about some basic city planning with or without Christ for all those pikers living this side of glory?


69 thoughts on “Could Keller Have Saved Detroit?

  1. While I too was intrigued by Feeney’s argument, I would stop short of calling it astute. Most of the urban success stories contemporary with Detroit’s decline (places like Raleigh, Austin, Houston, San Antonio, Las Vegas, Orlando, Dallas-Fort Worth, Charlotte, and Phoenix) have a density much more similar to Detroit than NYC, Philly, or Chicago. The mere fact that Detroit had a lot of single-family dwellings is insufficient grounds for handing over godlike power to the density zealots of New Urbanism.


  2. Keith, Las Vegas a success? They need a tag-team of Keller and Piper.

    Are you indifferent to density (and the environment)?

    How do you count success? (We need to have a beer sometime.)


  3. A good question. Could the cosmic co-redeemers have saved Detroit? I don’t think it’s the right kind of city. Not enough influential people to finance your ministry efforts.

    Same thing goes for why we’re planting churches in wealthy neighborhoods around Houston instead of in the poorer sectors. If you were to overlay a map of the most recent church plants (say last 10 years), over a map of Houston that shows cost of housing/income distribution, etc., I can tell you what you’d find.


  4. But RGM, Redeemer has a whole series of church planting manuals, downloadable lectures and enough sermons to last the neophyte church planter a couple of years. Certainly you’re not implying that I can skip all that and go to the old real estate tact of racial and social class steering! How cynical we’ve all become. That’s like saying that all the pastors coming out of CTS and into the PCA, were all SEC frat boys who’s first pastorate was an RUF ministry. I just can’t believe it.


  5. Our church has talked about doing a plant. Here are the planning factors: Area without a confessional reformed church and several of our member families already live there. Too simple? Community redemption hasn’t really factored in. Not sure we’d know how to do that.


  6. Sean, nailed it. I’ve seen them in the flesh. Or in the plaid, anyway.

    “That’s like saying that all the pastors coming out of CTS and into the PCA, were all SEC frat boys who’s first pastorate was an RUF ministry. I just can’t believe it.”


  7. I heard one church planter say that they were planting in an area that did already have other reformed churches there, but they were small, inward-focused churches, so that didn’t really count.


  8. The NAPARC church planting “rules” go out the window if you’re cool Same thing happened in our presbytery except it was a satellite campus of a Redeemerish brand.


  9. RGM and C-Dubs, we’re gonna have to start our own support network. The uber-urban Redeemer plant in San Antonio is working on killing off 2 other PCA’s. They’ve gathered up at least 3 other ‘assistant’ pastors(i.e. SEC frat boy friends) and we’re just waiting for the edict to come down from the bishop/Lord Marshall; “either convert now and hire one of these SEC frat bo…errrr……assistant pastors or die”. The remaining PCA’s are all praying for our Furyan warriors to come from West West. But apparently they get all soft after their stint in Escondido and are afraid to stray too far from the PCH.


  10. C-Dubs, that’s mixing movie metaphors a bit but yeah. Some of the guys are nice enough, but I’ve never seen such a cookie cutter process and product as the CTS grad to SEC-RUF minister to Redeemer plant guy and minions. Here in Texas it all works off the uber-wealthy PCPC(Park Cities Pres Church) hub in Highland Park (oil money Dallas). The guy here(San Antonio) is trying to emulate PCPC(roughly, no money here like they’ve got up in Highland Park or Houston for that matter) and plant sister churches-‘for the city’. It’s pretty funny. Lots of South Texas and West Texas is straight out of ‘No Country for Old Men’ or vice versa. But, regardless, Manhattan, NY is the template they’re working off of. Nothing beats holding mid-week lesbian bible studies in Harlingen Texas I suppose, and reaching out to the legals and illegals coming over the border with conferences on ‘Christianity and the culture of Jazz’


  11. The one in San Antonio is one of the ones I was thinking of. I know that at least one of the churches in San Antonio is not going to join the borg.


  12. RGM, yep. I think we’ve gathered up enough insurrectionists to make us unappealing for at least a while longer.


  13. A “plant” in Canada consists of opening a store or truck stop on Sunday right across from successful Evangelical and Reformed churches.


  14. RGM, Oakwood is definitely one of them. I know Jon some, solid by all accounts, I can’t say I know the rest of the congregation real well.


  15. How cool is that Rachel. My wife has known Jon since she was a little girl in his reformed baptist, Skeeter Greene days. I think all you reformed baptists have known each other at one point or another.


  16. I’m guessing that having a mayor for 20 years (1974-1994) who was a man of the hard left didn’t give the city much of a chance for renaissance.


  17. Sean, you’d have a hard time leaving too if it were 78 and clear blue skies for 2 weeks straight in the middle of summer.


  18. “That’s like saying that all the pastors coming out of CTS and into the PCA, were all SEC frat boys who’s first pastorate was an RUF ministry.”

    That’s not a fair characterization of CTS grads – a lot of those guys were ACC frat boys.


  19. RGM wrote: “I heard one church planter say that they were planting in an area that did already have other reformed churches there, but they were small, inward-focused churches, so that didn’t really count.”

    GW: When hipster church planting types try to justify stealing sheep from smaller churches in their area, in my experience this is precisely the kind of “argument” they use (whether the argument is stated directly or simply implicit in their church planting tactics). In my experience what the hipster church planters often mean by “small, inward-focused churches” are churches devoted exclusively to the ordinary, God-ordained Word-and-sacrament ministry and to the three basic, Christ-ordained functions of the visible church (i.e., worship, fellowship, witness). But that is too “ordinary” for the hipsters. “What!? No soup kitchens? No church-sponsored English-as-a-second-language courses? No addictions-recovery support groups or MOPS (Mothers Of Pre-Schoolers) groups? No conferences on “Christian filmmaking” or “Christian Art”? No over-programmed-seven-days-a-week church? No cool praise band or singing off the wall? How lame and irrelevant can you be!”

    One suspects that the bulk of “church growth” experienced by large hipster church plants is not so much conversion growth, but mostly “growth” gained by sucking the life out of smaller established churches which aren’t as “hip” and “with it.” Members of smaller confessional churches who have not learned to be content with the God-ordained “diet” of the ordinary Word and sacrament ministry are drawn by the hyped up “bells and whistles” offered by the cool new large church plant down the road. And many of them can be relied upon to stay in the new hipster church only until something newer and more hip comes along to dazzle and wow them.


  20. Nate: Sean, you’d have a hard time leaving too if it were 78 and clear blue skies for 2 weeks straight in the middle of summer.

    Me: It keeps you soft.

    sdb, I haven’t seen those boys this far west. The SEC(Secure Enough Cash) frat boys must have struck a deal.


  21. D.G. – Detroit is not chic. Even when it was the Paris of the mid-West it was still in fly over country and didn’t have the ginormous buildings that made East Coast folks marvel at Chicago. Then there was the automobile industry. If Detroit had been the home of Mercedes or BMW maybe New Yorkers would have cared. Just as likely, New Yorkers (and Philadelphians) would have preferred Chevys and Fords if Detroit made Mercedes and BeeMers.

    Erik – Witness the treatment Detroit received on the recently-ended season of “Mad Men”.


  22. New to the blog here … I understand many people’s cynical side when it comes to this stuff, but do we really need to go there? I run in that missional Keller circle and in my circle of missional buddies we all understand that no one saves anything, but Jesus. The spiritual stuff compels us to do the cultural stuff. We are compelled to love and serve our neighbors with great joy because Jesus loved us first. We are obligated to share the good news with them in appropriate ways at the appropriate time because of Jesus’ command.

    When a city get’s its heart right with God, its culture begins to heal. That’s revival. We often lead with the cultural stuff to spurn conversations to why we do what we do … and one by one the story of Jesus gets told. This is basic missionary stuff that missionaries have been doing overseas for decades, now many of us are applying the same concept here.

    I don’t know Detroit very well, but it would not surprise if all of this physical and economic depravity is accompanied by a healthy dose of spiritual depravity. If white flight was due to racism, then it shows the spiritual depravity of the whites. If it was due to safety, then it shows the spiritual depravity of the blacks (assuming the blacks where committing the crimes). Oversimplified, I know. But for the sake of brevity it will have to do. During that time, if people internalized the work of Jesus and its effect on their hearts as well as looked forward with great anticipation to the vision of John in Revelation 7 becoming a reality, much of this may have been avoided.


  23. Hi David,

    Good questions. The cynicism is not against those Christians who seek to be good neighbors in tangible ways like you said. We may disagree with the philosophy of those churches trying to make a social impact in their cities, but the cynicism is toward the disillusions of grandeur; the incredible claims made by many as to the value and importance of their particular institution or ministry. While Jesus spent most of his ministry in rural, low-brow Galilee, away from the cultural center, preaching the gospel and seeing many turn away, we are told that those churches in large urban areas are making great, long-term, spiritual and social impact for the kingdom via their own institutions, opposed to those small “inward focused” churches as they call them, that do not have the resources, population or smarts (vision) to change a city. Better just to quietly do ministry and not boast about how important you are and what a great impact you are making for God, don’t you think?


  24. David, I’ve got a little test I like to apply to proposed church endeavors: Did Paul do it or can I reasonably imagine him doing it? I don’t find much support in the epistles for the culture stuff — be it theonomic, Kellerite, or missional. How exactly does a “city get its heart right”? Be precise.


  25. David, the cynicism here comes from the way you guys talk about this. Follow the Nike ads and just do it. Don’t promote yourself.

    But then there is the problem of what the Bible actually teaches. As Todd suggested, Jesus is no model for what you are proposing to do (nor are the apostles). Jesus could have transformed the world if he had succumbed to Satan’s offer. Imagine all the lives he could have saved and all the cities he could have transformed if he had taken the kingdoms of the world. But he had other work to do.

    When you guys actually ponder the tension between the spiritual and the cultural, rather than assuming they get along merrily, then you may have something more interesting to say. Until then, it’s going to sound like Eric Metaxas.


  26. Great feedback guys.

    Let me take a stab at this one at time. First, I do not claim to speak for the entire movement, just me and the way I see the gospel and missiology coming together.

    I don’t subscribe to the notion that there are some churches in urban areas moving the needle while those in the back woods aren’t. It seems to me that we need all sorts of congregations serving different parts of our society. I know of several microchurches, in the city and country, who are healthy and the lives of those who are a part of those congregations are being transformed from one image to another. Who could ask for more?

    As far as getting a city’s heart right, the only way I know that happens is starting with prayer, then preaching, then the spirit moving mightily. There are a few examples of revival of this nature that have swept through cities and regions. John Woodbridge of TEDS has written about these accounts.

    One of the things that I caution by friends about city transformation is it won’t happen in one year, five years, or 10 unless the spirit of God moves mightily. Rodney Starke of Baylor has written extensively on the rise of Christianity in the first several hundreds years. His conclusion? Christianity spreads in the surest and steadiest way is when common people do the uncommon thing and it can take hundreds of years for a culture to be transformed.

    As far as the Bible goes, in Paul’s missionary journeys it seems like he spent the majority of his time in the larger influential cities. Ephesus was the religious capital, Corinthians was the commercial capital, Athens was the cultural capital, and Rome was the political capital. It doesn’t appear that he made his way to the largely rural Colossians church. He seemed to contextualize the gospel to the Jews and to the Gentiles and he was not afraid to start a congregation in a synagogue or by the river with a businesswoman.

    From what I know of some of the guys promoting the missional stuff, it’s coming from a place of letting people know how to do this type of ministry because the American church, by-and-large doesn’t know how to be a missionary body. I understand how that can come across as self-promotional as times.

    I do recognize the tension between the cultural and the spiritual. It seems to be a similar tension between the law and love. It’s something that we all need to continually wrestle with so that we don’t fall to heavily to one side or the other.



  27. David, thanks.

    For what it’s worth, the tension between the spiritual and the cultural is not simply something that calls for balance. Historic Protestantism has been traditionally otherworldly, as in “let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also, the body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still, his Kingdom is for eh eh eh-ver.”

    Or to put it differently, at some point you’re going to serve somebody. Trying to balance is what made Protestant churches liberal. It’s happening again.


  28. David, a couple of things. If there is the sort of one-to-one correspondence between physical and economic depravity and spiritual depravity then what do you make of Babylon, as in economically booming but spiritually busted?

    And Paul may not have made his way to rural Colossians, but rural Colossians was still there and Paul’s writing to them never sounds anything like that of the transformers. The point isn’t that there is anything wrong with starting congregations in economic/political/cultural centers (see the Babylon point); it’s that there is something not a little naive with thinking that as the city goes so goes the church. The Protestant liberals had a slogan for that: the world sets the church’s agenda.


  29. David, it’s good to have you here, but you’re getting right in the OL wheelhouse now:

    “From what I know of some of the guys promoting the missional stuff, it’s coming from a place of letting people know how to do this type of ministry because the American church, by-and-large doesn’t know how to be a missionary body. I understand how that can come across as self-promotional as times.”

    “The guys”, most of whom seem to lack gray hair (unless they’ve shaved it for effect, in which case we can’t tell) are telling the rest of us benighted souls how to do it. The assumption is that “the guys” have discovered something wholly new or rediscovered something from some golden age.

    You may say that golden age was the early church, but is this the missional strategy Paul had in mind — for most Christians most of the time? Maybe not. After instructing the Thessalonians to take care of “the brothers” Paul wrapped it up like this:

    “But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more, and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.”

    This seems to be about keeping the earthly from screwing up the spiritual/heavenly. Maybe the missionals and tranformers are just better jugglers and this doesn’t apply.


  30. “As far as getting a city’s heart right”
    What does it mean for a city to get its heart right? What are examples of cities that have right hearts?

    Is it possible that a city could cease to exist for reasons other than having its heart wrong? Thinking back to Detroit – is its heart really worse than Cleveland’s, Pittsburgh’s, or Newark’s? In what way? Could it just be that the the industry that undergirded it has gone away and it doesn’t have a good reason to exist any longer as a major metropolitan area?

    What evidence is there that cities with higher percentages of Christian believers are better cities? I guess we need to define better, but murder rate, teen birth rate, drug addiction rates, and poverty level might be pretty good measures. These things all seem to be better in the more irreligious cities than the ones in evangelical communities. How does relatively godless Toronto compare to evangelical Atlanta? Or does getting a city’s heart right not have these kinds of tangible effects?


  31. And there’s really nothing new here. The pietists, Methodists, and confused Presbys were doing something similar in the early 1800’s. City churches of all types were doing it in the late 1800’s. In the 20th lots of protestants began applying a sort of foreign missions nation-building strategy to their neighbors. And I know the Southern Baptists took a similar interest at least by the early 70’s. That missionals have glommed on with their version of Xian Urban Homesteading is about the most unoriginal thing I can imagine.


  32. sdb, and if a city has a heart, then so do Doug’s nations, and there you have the transformationalists functioning as soft theonomists. I wonder if the hipsters know that’s the train they’re on.


  33. On the one hand, there’s something about reaching the city just because of the potential number of people there that can hear the gospel. On the other hand, some versions of transformationalism speak almost as if God doesn’t care about the farmer in rural Iowa. It’s really quite odd.

    The early Christians reached Rome, but that didn’t stop the Vatican setting from up shop and teaching idolatry.

    A lot of the attempts I’ve seen to reach the culture try to do so almost exclusively on the culture’s terms. Often that ends up with Christians trying to copy the music, art, and so forth of the culture around them—quite poorly, I might add. Where does the Bible say the church is supposed to be a hip place? Its supposed to be the place where the odd and misfits gather—at least that’s my hope, speaking as one who is odd.


  34. When God works in the heart of a sinner to show them their sin and causes them to repent and turn to Christ that is an amazing thing. When that person joins and faithfully attends a church that is likewise amazing. We have enough work to do in facilitating these two things. To have the chutzpah to think that this is only the beginning and that transforming cities and cultures is what we should be about is a problem. Let’s be content with playing small ball.

    A note on greatness. Most people who are truly great are not self-aware of their greatness and influence (especially when in actuality they haven’t accomplished that much). Look at the example of Shelby Foote for an example of true greatness, The guy toiled in relative obscurity for 30+ years, writing a few novels and a three volume history of the Civil War that took decades to complete. Not many people had even heard of him. Then Ken Burns comes along and does his PBS documentary, “The Civil War”. He features interviews with Foote and everyone is like “Crap, who is this guy, he’s great!”. What made him great was the years of toil at his discipline, though, not having a good PR representative who could play him up in the media. Toil for a long time to be excellent at what you do if you want to be great and impact anything.


  35. As far as the cultural/spiritual balance, it seems that we may have different definitions of culture or ways at looking at it. For me, I define culture in the broadest terms.

    For instance, the culture inside our local school district’s bus barn turned 180 degrees when the two most influential employees who cussed a lot, made sexist jokes, impugned Christians, and ran down God came to Christ within six weeks of each other. They no longer do these things and the work environment has changed 180 degrees. People actually like coming to work now. The culture has changed. The Christians in the department had been praying for years, standing firm in their faith, and witnessing to these two, and the Spirit of God moved.

    So, how would the city or town change if this was happening in hundreds of places of work? Over time the culture would change because, in part, common people did the uncommon thing.

    Another example: there is a large church in my neck of the woods who decided that they were going to do VBS at four public elementary schools, rather than the church building this summer. They have a terrific relationship with these schools because the people of the church have gotten really involved with them over the past four years … from tutoring to helping with the school carnivals and everything in between.

    The schools were open to hosting VBS and even sent flyers home with the kids the last week of school. They reached about 150 kids and a number of parents that they otherwise wouldn’t have. If they weren’t trying to impact the “culture” or reach into the community, these kids would not have heard the message of Christ. So, what if there was a VBS was in every public school in your town? How would God use that to change hearts and to begin change the “culture” of those families, the community and the local school?

    As far as the one-on-one correlation with spiritual depravity and economic depravity in Detroit: it’s more complex than that. I was just trying to follow the article’s lead and isolate one aspect of the issue as it did. In the broadest sense, the big 3 didn’t innovate fast enough and labor was stuck in their ways. These two things killed the competitiveness of Detroit. Just think of all the foreign cars plants that are in the states now. If Detroit would have had their act together, I wonder how many of those car manufacturers would have selected Detroit because that’s where the high concentration of the highly skilled auto workers reside. It would have gone a long way, economically speaking, if Mercedes, BMW, Honda, Kia, Toyota, Nissan, and Hyundai had plants in the Detroit area rather than in TN, AL, SC and the like.

    Good to have this conversation with ya’ll.

    To the comment about this missional stuff is not new. You are correct. There is nothing new under the sun and that is why history is so important. Each of these movements have had their successes and failures. This is just the latest in a long line of them. Is some of this stuff utopia thinking? You bet, yet the vision of what it would look like if heaven came down to earth in my community today fuels me. I think we would all agree that we would want there to be less abuse and crime in our communities and greater amount of reconciliation and healing between spouses, family members, races and the like. The only thing that will get us there is the gospel, not the social gospel. Doing the missional stuff is another entry point into the lives of those who the church has struggled to reach. Being missional is the mindset that Christ can use you (as he used the bus drivers) as his ambassador to transform your part of the world.


  36. David,

    Thanks for the interaction. What seems so disjointed from your last post is that you seem more exited about the improvement in a school work environment that that two people were redeemed. What if the work environment barely changed for other reasons, and yet these two people now belonged to the Lord? Would that be equally as exciting and effectual as to ministry results? Do you see the potential danger in seeing the gospel as the means to earthly good and social improvement, instead of a means of reconciling sinners to God?

    “Our modern Christian life so often lacks the poise and stability of the eternal. Religion has come so overmuch to occupy itself with the things of time that it catches the spirit of time. Its purposes turn fickle and unsteady; its methods become superficial and ephemeral; it alters its course so constantly; it borrows so readily from sources beneath itself, that it undermines its own prestige in matters pertaining to the eternal world.” (Geerhardus Vos)


  37. David, I’m not sure I understand your response to my point about the correspondence between economic and spiritual condition.

    But you go on to say “…the vision of what it would look like if heaven came down to earth in my community today fuels me.” Sorry for the cliche, but this is what old lifers call immanentizing the eschaton. What it looks like is Word and sacrament ministry every Lord’s Day, as n being raised up to heaven through the appointed means of grace. Even Paul said no eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those that love him. So if even he had no clue, one has to wonder what gives us any right to indulge vain imagining about what the next age looks like and how to make it so. Isn’t this where goofiness about harps and roads of gold come from, not to mention sophomoric depictions of hell as a flip side?


  38. Todd: My joy is much greater for the two repentant sinners than the work at the schools. After all, that is the goal, isn’t? I would be just as thrilled if the “culture” had not changed because of other reasons because I know that God is on the move in the department and trusting him that he would eventually change it.

    I do see the danger in the improving vs. reconciling. If your aim is to improve, I believe you are putting the cart before the horse and it will blow up in your face. The battleground has always and will forever be the heart of man.


  39. David,

    I hesitate to respond because there are already enough folks talking to you and though I’m a fairly regular reader, I never comment. But since we are both evangelicals, I’ll attempt to put my best foot forward.

    Among the many things that make my head spin about these new culture warriors is they offer no definition of the word “culture.” You yourself say you define it broadly, but nothing concrete is offered. You say it’s the heart of a city, yet your actual examples are simply workplace norms. Your example of VBS classes being moved from the church to an elementary school are no different. Are those examples of culture change, or just a change in location?

    As an apt example of what these culture warriors actually do, I sat through a shipwreck of a sermon series using the book of Nehemiah as a pretext of how God transforms a city. Eventually the mentality seeps into the pulpit. You can’t have it both ways.


  40. Zrim:

    I see your point about “immanentizing the eschaton”. Possibly, the misunderstanding comes from the means of grace v. the effects of grace. When I talk about “heaven coming down to earth” I am talking about the effects of grace. When people trust Christ through the means of grace and abide in him, there is a peace which surpasses all understanding that comes into their hearts. As a result, relationships begin to heal, marriages become stronger, abuse stops,and all the rest. If a lot of people who live in the same area come to Christ, the effects of that would change the culture.

    Just dreaming here, but wouldn’t it be great the effects of grace through the the means of grace put Child Protective Services out of business? Now, I know it will never happen because sin abounds this side of heaven, but what if they had to reduce staff by a third because the means of grace had impacted so many hearts that child abuse wasn’t as pervasive as it once was. Can it be done? I don’t know, but it’s worth a try. After all, he can do exceedingly abundantly more than we can ask or think, cant he?

    Love to interact with you all more throughout the day, but I have a lot to do. Maybe tonight if we wan to continue.

    These effects of grace gives us a small taste of what is to come because they point us to the time of the eschaton.

    Point about the depravity issue: there is not always a one-to-one correlation between the two. The original post emphasized the racial aspect of the fall of Detroit. If, in fact, that was the primary cause, then a spiritual issue led to economic decline.


  41. Scott: I will have to get back to you on the definition of culture … I have much to do today. I think part of the general disconnect is how missiology fits in with ecclesiology. Maybe, we can touch on that a bit later.


  42. David, you write: “When people trust Christ through the means of grace and abide in him, there is a peace which surpasses all understanding that comes into their hearts. As a result, relationships begin to heal, marriages become stronger, abuse stops,and all the rest. If a lot of people who live in the same area come to Christ, the effects of that would change the culture.”

    I know this is the standard refrain, and it plays well to flatter the faithful, but frankly it’s a version of prosperity gospel. Faith just doesn’t yield these kinds of results, in fact the opposite tends to come with faith. How does one read the NT where the faithful suffer and die and harmonize it with this sort of religious optimism?


  43. It’s interesting to note that the primary example of “cultural renewal” and “making all things new” in Scripture was carried out unilaterally by God and didn’t go so well for mankind — the flood. Not a lot of examples of people rallying around the gospel and renewing their communities. Most people beyond the age of 40 have kind of moved on from that notion, unless they’re selling something.

    There is Joe Bayly’s “The Gospel Blimp”, though:


  44. Zrim: I am able to harmonize the two quite easily. It depends on context. Here in America, we don’t suffer NT or early Christian persecution because we are protected by the constitution from institutional persecution. Not so much in Rome or Jerusalem back then and not so much in Saudi Arabia today or Egypt in the past 72 hours.

    I would agree with you that when a person trusts Christ, their lives could get more difficult for a while before it gets better, but it’s usually due to living through their consequences of their former life. The darkest, yet sweetest time of life was the nine months after I trusted Christ.

    The gospel does heal … after all we are ministers of reconciliation. Read “As We Forgive”. It is a chilling and powerful collection of seven stories of reconciliation and forgiveness for the victims and perps of the genocide in Rwanda back in 1993.

    When people repent of their sins to those they have sinned against … which includes confessing, asking for forgiveness, turning from their ways, and asking Jesus for the strength to move forward much of the relational brokenness present in their lives would be on their way to being healed.


  45. David, then could it be that the American arrangement, contrary to popular belief, is a hinderance to Christian piety? I don’t say that to be flippant, and I sure like my religious freedoms, but if as the Bible suggests martyrdom and persecution are marks of God’s favor on his people then I might have cause to wonder if my life of ease and comfort are marks of, well, something less than favor. My point is that if you are laboring for a temporal life marked by health and happiness then I wonder what you might have against the prosperity gospel?


  46. David,

    Have you read much Machen or have you read’s Hart’s book on Machen’s experience?

    I do welcome you here because we haven’t had a perspective like yours for awhile. Maybe never that I can recall.

    The reason I asked about Machen is I think most of what he experienced when he stood valiantly for truth was opposition and frustration. He had no luck whatsoever “making all things new” within Presbyterianism. In fact, he was basically kicked out of the PCUSA and Princeton Theological Seminary (which led to the formation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and Westminster Seminary).

    People didn’t flock to join the OPC then or now and I haven’t heard many stories of OPC’s renewing the cultures in which their churches are located. How do you assess that? Is the OPC somehow unfaithful or unbelieving?


  47. Machen died on a speaking trip in North Dakota, trying to drum up support for the newly created OPC. He was born into wealth in the east. I don’t know if one would say from an earthly perspective that things “got better” for him as he matured in Christ. They probably got worse and certainly got harder.

    As I grow older I become more convinced of and comforted by the notion that God’s ways are not man’s ways.


  48. David, my service and commitment to my old school church nearly cost me my marriage and things are just tolerable at the moment. Before you say “You’re not doing it right” I’ll admit you’re probably right. But there’s no formula to crank out a perfect suburban Vision Forum family, antebellum rural paradise of patriarchy, or victoriously awesome Xian hipster life. That’s what the guys are saying.


  49. Pulled an all-nighter at work last night and managed to watch a really good documentary on Harry Nilsson:

    Also watched most of “Top of the Lake”, the series starring Elisabeth Moss. Pretty dark. We’ll see how it wraps up.

    Meanwhile the first four episodes of “The Larry Sanders Show” arrived in my mailbox.


  50. Been away for a couple of days … life and ministry often get in the way of great conversation.

    To clean up several items:

    1) Someone on the first page asked about the definition of culture. Cultures generally have a common language, government, beliefs, commercial system (like capitalism, socialism, etc) education system, arts, science, food, and the like. When the talk turns to “transforming the culture”, many people in the missional camp do not have in mind changing governmental policies or establishing new laws as their first priority. (That’s the D. James Kennedy and Dobson crowd)

    Rather, their concern is primarily the battle within people’s hearts. They see the heart as full of idols and is the battleground between good and evil. If that is the case, then how do you reach these people?

    The same way missionaries do overseas: understand the community your serving, find ways to serve in order to earn a voice to speak into their lives (in many parts of urban America, the church has no voice and conservative Christians are dismissed out of hand), then speak that voice and call for action. BTW: This takes years … something a few missional people don’t get.

    History tells us “the primary change agents in the spread of faith … were the men and women who earned their livelihood in some purely secular manner and spoke their faith to those whom they met in this natural fashion.” Kennenth Scott Latourette The History of the Expansion of Christianity V. 1 p. 116.

    This is the way our faith spreads the surest and most sustainable way throughout generations and over time cultures do begin to change. It took the Roman empire about three hundred years to change … during those three hundred years, I suspect there were many setbacks along the way, but God continued to move forward in order to fulfill his ultimate mission found in Revelation.

    The best thing we can do is teach our people how to communicate the gospel in appropriate ways at the appropriate times.

    Zrim: I do think our first amendment rights do play into the church not being on fire, but that may not be the whole story. There have been a number of “revivals” here and since our founding millions of hearts have been transformed due to his power and love.

    Chortles: Life is difficult and discipleship does cost regardless the type of church. Sin is real, suffering is painful and the cost is often great. There is nothing perfect this side of heaven and to paint life in those rosy terms is not right. Despite us never attaining perfection here, we can attain healing. After all Jesus is the Great Physician who has redeemed us from all that binds us and sets us free from the wounds we carry. That’s the power of his resurrection.

    Erik: I have read about Machen and admire him. He absolutely did the right thing by severing ties with the New Princeton crowd. I wonder if the Spirit of God left the PCUSA before Machen did? If so, that would explain why Machen was unsuccessful in reforming the denomination and many people since him have failed as well. Ministry is only successful when the Spirit precedes our work. As far as forming his new works, the OPC and WTS: there will always be frustration and headaches when starting up. It is tough and troubling work, so that is why the Spirit going before is so crucial.


  51. David, you said: “When the talk turns to ‘transforming the culture’, many people in the missional camp do not have in mind changing governmental policies or establishing new laws as their first priority. (That’s the D. James Kennedy and Dobson crowd)

    Rather, their concern is primarily the battle within people’s hearts. They see the heart as full of idols and is the battleground between good and evil.”

    Right, this is the kinder and gentler inside-out transformationism, as opposed to the harsher outside-in transformationism. But it’s all still in the orbit of transformationism. The problem with the kinder, gentler form is that it banks on a rather naive way of understanding the world actually works, as in the more Christians there are the more the world changes. I’d recommend Hunter’s “To Change the World”:

    If there is an exemplar whose life mission touches all of these themes and strategies—and who is celebrated as such—it is William Wilberforce (1757-1833). Wilberforce was a member of the British House of Commons and spent over forty years seeking to end slavery and “reform the manners” of his society. He was a devout Christian who believed that true personal change came through salvation by faith in Jesus Christ, and his ideals were fed by his deep faith. As an activist, he led a social movement committed to the moral reform of British society and against much opposition eventually prevailed in abolishing the legalized slave trade. Wilberforce was indeed, a great man and a model of what one courageous person willing to step into the fray can do.

    At the end of the day, the message is clear: even if not in the lofty realms of political life that he was called to, you too can be a Wilberforce. In your own sphere of influence, you too can be an Edwards, a Dwight, a Booth, a Lincoln, a Churchill, a Dorothy Day, a Martin Luther King, a Mandela, a Mother Teresa, a Vaclav Havel, a John Paul II, and so on. If you have the courage and hold to the right values and if you think Christianly with an adequate Christian worldview, you too can change the world.

    This account is almost entirely mistaken.

    Thus ends chapter two. Hunter then goes on to explain what one might hope would be quite obvious to the sane and sober mind. In a word, the real world works in a much more complicated way than certain wistful hearts might imagine. In another word, “Culture…is a knotty, difficult, complex, perhaps impossible puzzle.” If that is fundamentally understood it trends to cast a less-than-enthusiastic reception of ubiquitous calls to transform the world. In chapter four he suggests an alternative view of culture and cultural change in eleven propositions (which is actually the title of the chapter). He begins with one alternative assumption that “one cannot merely change worldviews or question one’s own very easily” and suggests that “Most of what really counts, in terms of what shapes and directs us, we are not aware of; it operates far below what most of us are capable of consciously grasping.” From there a handful of others follow, among which are: culture is a product of history (“It is better to think of culture as a thing, if you will, manufactured not by lone individuals but rather by institutions and the elites who lead them”); ideas only sometimes have consequences (“Weaver’s statement [that ideas have consequences] would be truer if it were reworded as: ‘Under specific conditions and circumstances ideas can have consequences’”); and cultures change from the top down, rarely is ever from the bottom up (“In other words, the work of world-making and world-changing are, by and large, the work of elites; gatekeepers who provide creative direction and management within spheres of social life…In a very crude formulation, the process begins with theorists who generate ideas and knowledge; moves to researchers who explore, revise, expand, and validate ideas; moves on to teachers and educators who pass those ideas on to others, then passes on to popularizes who simplify ideas and practitioners who apply those ideas”).


  52. Kruger on “mercy ministry”:

    “In light of the rapidly increasing focus on mercy-ministries in the modern evangelical church, we need to be willing to ask the tough questions: How Christ-centered (really) is our mercy ministry? Are we any different than the United Way?

    “If we are going to maintain Christ-centered mercy ministries that do not morph into social-gospel ministries, then two things will need to be in place.

    “First, we need a Christ-centered motivation. When we call people to do mercy ministry, we must call them to do it for biblical reasons, and not for worldly ones. Certainly, Christians should not do mercy ministry to earn favor with God; our favor with God is secured by the finished work of Christ. We should not do mercy ministry just because it’s hip or trendy, or because it gives us “street cred” in the eyes of the world. We should do it for the glory of Christ and out of keen sense of the mercy that has so lavishly been poured onto us.”


  53. My question is what business do churches have altogether in “Mercy Ministries”? In my opinion, mercy ministries (in a public sense) should be something that is akin to the way that we petition the Government in “cases extraordinary” (WCF 31.4). The church’s business (if I may so speak) has to do with itself.

    A “Christ-centered” mercy ministry, if we are speaking of a service provided by the church, ought to have it’s own members as the recipients of that ministry. If Christians want to help with their own time and resources in these types of ministries that’s one thing. Christians are obligated to support and provide for those who minister the word (1 Cor. 9; 1 Tim. 5:17-18) but even when it came to Christians supporting the poor in Jerusalem, Paul did not put them under obligation – “So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to go on ahead to you and arrange in advance for the gift you have promised, so that it may be ready as a willing gift, not as an exaction.“. And this was for a ministry to be disbursed among those who were are part of the Jerusalem church, not unbelievers.

    Mercy ministries are not ever pitched that way by churches – they are rolled into the church budgets that get ever expanded and burden members into giving more to support the ‘welfare-esque’ programs of churches. If there are surpluses from members who give to the church to pay those who minister the word, then that is one thing, but to make them a part of regular budgets is a whole other issue.

    The sad truth is that most “Mercy Ministries” are as harmful as they are helpful (an interesting book on this topic is When Helping Hurts and
    this gal
    certainly tries to debunk international government aid)

    This isn’t to dissuade Christians from privately giving to organizations, etc. but that all those good intentions are doing the good that we necessarily think it is. Hence why the church should focus primarily on serving the gospel and ministering the word.


  54. Zrim: I am a fan of Hunter and have read bits of his latest book. His research is solid and he is sober minded in his analysis. Perhaps, there can be a both/and, rather than an either/or to this transformational business.

    Briefly, the LGBT movement got started in the late 60’s in a gay bar in NYC after a few of them were roughed up pretty good. I can’t remember if anyone died or not, but none the less they decided to stand their ground and organize. Now it has take nearly 50 years to get there, but they are on the cusp to having nationwide institutional approval for their lifestyle. (the arts, the media, the education system, many in the business sector who have provided benefits for years, and lastly government and mainline faith communities all approve.) Yet, it started as a grass roots deal, then the thought leaders picked up on it and have been able to transform many adults minds (the TV shows Modern Family and Glee are extraordinarily effective) and form children’s thoughts.

    The same was roughly true for Christians during the Roman times. It started out as a fringe movement of 120 people and 300 years later it became the dominant worldview (loosely defined) and institutionally approved throughout the empire.

    One of the things that I know is true is that whenever Christians are not involved in the public square a vacuum is created and is usually filled by views not so kind to Christianity. For me, that is why I stay engaged as much as I can to be and I can tell it you, it has made a difference at the local level. Our local urban public school would be a different place if the Christian parents hadn’t consistently voiced their opinions and showed their love for the school. Because I have been intentional about building relationships with folks in city and state government, I can reason with them on policy issues and many times get them to agree with me.

    Mercy Ministries: this is a tricky, tricky business. In most cases, we live in the tension between temporary help and creating dependents. There are over 2,000 verses that speak directly about the poor and oppressed and many of those verses call us to respond. Calvin, Luther, and Chalmers created relief societies (a network of local churches able to respond to the poor) in each of their cities with great effect. I also believe these societies started pubic works projects for sanitation and medical needs. I know that Calvin and Luther saw their actions as a part of the common grace of God … along the lines of treating your neighbor as you would want to be treated.


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