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?