Odd What Big Cities Do To Church Life

Is Tim Keller getting cold feet about “the city”? He bears his apparent burden to the other coolest guy in the Reformedish room, Jamie Smith:

JS: As a pastor, and now increasingly a theological educator, where do you most see a need for renewal and intentionality? If you could heal churches, what would you heal in them? What do you wish was stronger, deeper, healthier, more functional in local congregations?

TK: One challenge is pastoral care, primarily because of transience. There is an indication—though it’s hard to prove—that, say, thirty years ago, the average member probably came to church four out of five weeks or five out of six weeks. Now it’s like one out of two. People are travelling more; their attention is divided. Also costs are such that it’s very expensive to have a full-time staff. Frankly, it’s seductive to have a larger church with fewer pastors where people are basically consumers. They’re not really being watched or cared for. There’s pastoral triage, which means that when your life’s falling apart the good churches will be there. They’ll be at the hospital, they’ll be at the funeral parlour, they’ll be in the counselling office. They can do triage. But when it comes to the ordinary kind of positive, proactive pastoral care and intervention where you are actually examining people, only in a nice way—How are you doing? Where are you going? How much do you know about the Christianity? Where could you grow?—that’s just not happening at all.

Keller also seems to pine for a small church. But elders? Not so much:

JS: How much is that the weakening of the priesthood of all believers, do you think? Your point makes me think of a line from Klaas Schilder, a minor twentieth-century Dutch theologian who said something like, “Don’t underestimate the significance of the wise ward elder. He is a cultural force.” By attending to families, doing household visits, the elder is a culture-shaping force because he or she is forming people. I wonder how much what’s missing is not just a lack of pastoral staff but a failure to equip lay elders to do this care.

Several years ago, I was at Whitworth University, and they do a summer program for pastoral professional development—the Whitworth Institute of Ministry. But then alongside it, they do this elder leadership initiative where pastors bring some elders with them and they dive into theology and pastoral resources. I just thought, as go elders, so go the church. What are you seeing in terms of people’s capacity to be elders?

TK: I do think there’s a breakdown. In fact, I get where you’re going and I absolutely agree. The right thing to do is to have a layer of lay leaders; maybe there is an elite group that you can call your elders, but by and large you probably have more like 10 or 15 percent of your people who are mature enough and willing enough and maybe even have the time to be regularly trained by the pastors to do every-member ministry, every-member pastoral care—including evangelism, by the way. Those are the people who bring their friends to church and reach out. But there are also people who are out there just caring for people and then letting you know. They’re your radar system; they let the pastors know.

In a small church where you have maybe eighty people coming to church, then you need about eight or ten of those folks, and you should be meeting with them at least every month. So you’re catechizing them and you’re reading great books together and that makes them feel two things: (1) It makes them feel confident to pry a little bit into people’s lives and have conversations, otherwise they’d be afraid. Most of these folks are afraid to be asked a question they can’t answer. That’s the reason they don’t reach out both in evangelism and in instructing and caring.

So you have to give them (1); but then (2) they have to know that they can get right back to you. If I’m talking to somebody and they ask me a question I can’t answer, I need to be able to get right to you and know that you will get right back to me. So if you have eighty people in your church and you’re a full-time pastor and you have, say, eight or nine people like that and maybe two or three elders as part of that group—you’re going to be fine. Nobody’s going to fall through the cracks, people will lead probably proactively, the minister will visit people and see them, and they’ll also be getting other touches from the church, not just the minister.

So the priesthood of all believers is absolutely crucial. You know, by the way, in Geneva, what Calvin did—at least I’m pretty sure; you know the experts are going to tell me I’m wrong, but I’m almost sure I remember [laughter]. In Geneva the elders were responsible for wards, and when it looked like there was somebody that needed pastoral exhortation, they were brought before the consistory, which met every Thursday, and it was Calvin and the elders. Evidently, like ninety-five times out of one hundred, there was no real discipline. There was exhortation. So people were exhorted to come to church or to love their wife better and so on.

In a small church? If you have 80 people in your church? What is Keller talking about? Why not include observations about Redeemer?

The optics!

The reticence!

37 thoughts on “Odd What Big Cities Do To Church Life

  1. Apart from the city/Redeemer stuff, Keller suggests “lay leaders” rather than elders. How does this guy get away with this tripe? The spine of Presbyterian ecclesiology is the presbytery Tim, that is ELDERS.
    And this fella called Jamie cooly refers to male and female elders. Why doesn’t Tim take him to task over such blatant error? And why isn’t GC peers like Kevin Deyoung calling these chaps out? Sell out all round; these guys and their sycophants like Robertson remind me so much of Brit. politician Tony Blair. Blair was a charmer, a smooth operator and behind his sickly grin was someone who reeked havoc and left a trail of destruction.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I wonder what universe Dr. Keller lived in 30 years ago. Mainline churches figured that they were doing OK if 1/3 of their membership was in church. A lot of them didn’t come close to that. Was it better in the PCA? Maybe–in its birth enthusiasm. The long haul is another story. I suspect that people are more regular when they know they are missed. Hence the 80-member church, provided its members genuinely care.


  3. The optics!

    The reticence!

    The obsession!

    BTW, I googled “Tim Keller Anonymous” but came up empty. So perhaps you could start your group. And since you would be starting the group, you can either add or subtract from the 12 steps most anonymous groups employ–at least that is my guess.


  4. Jeff,
    James refers to male and female elders in the full article. He mentions the elder as he or a she who is a culture forming influence, which sounds like something a sociologist would come out with. James seems to like earnest adjectives a lot.
    Curt, your concerns about OL’s focus occasionally on Tim lacks weight when stacked up against the blatant disregard such men like Tim and Kevin show for their solemn ministerial vows. Both vowed to uphold the Westminster Confession. Instead both men and all others who are like them do so much except uphold explicitly the WC, such is their passion for evangelicalism.
    Both men when they visit the UK give very little sense of advocating Presbyterian polity, spending their time with those they truly identify with, which is slightly intellectual, Gospel partnership churches run by admittedly jolly nice middle class folks (usually post grads) in what is essentially the evangelical wing of Justin Welby’s Church of England.


  5. Curt, did you know that the rest of evangelical Presbyterianism and Southern Baptist Calvinists are obsessed with Keller? Give me credit for sharing with diverse groups.


  6. D.G.,
    I agree that there are others who are obsessed as you are. But that means that there is no reason for not starting that TKA support group since there are others who are in need of the same kind of support and help. And you would be the Mikey from the Life cereal commercials in that group because you seem to hate everything Keller says and does.


  7. Curt – don’t hold your breath hearing from Paul or anyone else on Keller’s “violations” of the WCF. I’ve asked multiple times, and it’s only crickets in response.

    A couple of other points. First, Dr. Keller not correcting the interviewer when he says “male and female” elders does not imply that he agrees with ordaining female elders. He has said the exact opposite on numerous occasions and has made clear both verbally and in print that he opposes female ordination. It’s not his job as an interviewee to critique the interviewer’s doctrine in the middle of a question.

    Second, Keller never “suggests” lay leaders take the place of elders. In fact, he specifically advocates elders and even gives a paragraph-long example of John Calvin’s use of elders at Geneva. He seems to believe there should be a group of lay leaders who can help the pastor understand the happenings in the lives of his flock, but he specifically says elders should be a part of this group. What’s the problem here?

    Oh, right, it’s time for another anti-Keller post here at OL. Have to nit-pick at something….


  8. Look at Keller’s range — interactions with Princeton Seminary, Jamie Smith, the PCA, TGC, Ed Stetzer. He obviously fancies himself (and is fancied as) a pan-Xian figure. He has a subway pass that will take him anywhere in the Xian Megapolis. Who’d be shocked if he starts training Jesuits? Methinks working retirement will allow him to get up to all sorts of mischief.


  9. DG,
    Yes, Tony Blair at least had hair, but this made him look like the sinister Joker from Batman when he also gave that toothy smile. He was a smooth talker and slick operator until his messiah complex got the better of him. Regarding Jamie’s love of adjectives and buzz words, they do indeed reveal a lot.
    VV and Curt,
    Keller shows little adherence to the WC and Presbyterian polity. He works with those who practise is antithetical to Presbyterian polity in the GC, like Baptists who diss covenantal theology on baptism. I could spend ages on the TKNY Redeemed sites looking for much remotely Reformed. By working within the GC which allows women to teach (an elders work) in it’s numerous conferences and books, this makes me think that indeed he is happy not only to have women acting as deacons but as elders as well, but not ordaining them either.
    VV, I see you have corresponded with at least one chap on Twitter who basically became an odd nuisance on OL but thankfully cleared off in a typical huff. Perhaps you see yourself as perpetuating his contrary spirit.


  10. Dr Hart, forgive me if I’m a bit behind the eight ball here, but who would you say are the intellectual descendants of Francis Schaeffer in reformed circles today? I can’t quite tell if Keller is aligned with Schaeffer (Christians need to transform culture) or if he’s trying to pull back from Schaeffer’s politics.


  11. D.G.,
    I’ve read literature from that school of counseling but that was a while ago. So why not answer my question directly? You always pivot when you ask questions and that is simply a sign of disrespect.


  12. PAH, I thought Schaffer was passe until I saw Jake Meador (I think) at Mere Orthodoxy say that Schaeffer is one of his heroes. The way I see it, Schaeffer become the guru for Falwell and LaHaye. Kuyper did it for evangelical academics and some wonky evangelicals. I don’t think Schaeffer has much traction any more.

    Then there’s Meador.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. D.G.,
    I have understood that for a while. But isn’t that kind of play disrespectful when people are seriously asking you legitimate questions? And if it is, then is being disrespectful is another way for you to play?


  14. Paul – I don’t think it’s fair to say Dr. Keller has “little adherence” to the Westminster Standards or Presbyterian polity simply because he “works with” non-Presbyterian folk. And your quip about women NEVER teaching – even in a group like the Gospel Coalition – sounds an awful lot like Doug Wilson/Tim Bayly patriarchy.

    The correspondence you are referring to on Twitter was initiated by someone I have never interacted with previously (and haven’t since). I don’t know what his relation to this site is/was, and frankly don’t care. I don’t intend to be a contrarian on Old Life. I voice my agreement with DGH and others when I agree with them, and my arguments and counter-points with them when I disagree. In another thread I am arguing that Dr. Keller’s church did actually violate the RPW with the dance performances. So I’m hardly an apologist for “TKNY” or a contrarian on OL in general. I actually really like Old Life, and learn from the discussions here, even if I don’t always agree. I appreciate a blog that allows comments these days, especially a Reformed blog. Most others are too afraid to allow comments, or too lazy. Blog comments can be a minefield, but they can also be very helpful with the right group of commenters.


  15. D.G.,
    It doesn’t matter if I agree with your textbook answers, I am asking for them. I want to know your honest answers to the questions I ask.

    And when your playing amounts to disrespect, then you should ask yourself whether you are following Mencken or what the NT says in how regard and treat people.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.