Ministry Inside the Bubble

Redeemer NYC has been in existence for almost twenty years and by this point it may be worth asking whether Tim Keller and company have transformed or been transformed by the bubble. Consider, for starters, that Redeemer spawned churches that cover Brooklyn — bubble central — about as well as Verizon. Notice as well that Keller speaks of the dangers of white nationalism the way many in the academy, Hollywood, Washington, and the Times do (though he also worries about secularism).

More substantive than these atmospheric impressions are the way that the Kellers promote the big city and its culture. Does anyone remember how Kathy Keller lauded the benefits of living in the city?

Lifestyle Benefits

simplicity more possible—you collect less stuff in small apartments

immediate family is closer physically, harder for kids to isolate themselves; meals together more likely

apt cleaning/care is easier, less time-consuming than a house

you don’t spend all your free time on house/yard chores

no scraping off your car in icy weather—enjoy walking in the snow instead

no school snow days—the subway is always working

sense of community, bonding, in your immediate neighborhood

for new parents, especially stay-at-home moms, you don’t experience the isolation and despair of being stuck at home all day, unable to go out or even see another adult person—just a trip to the laundry room gives you someone to talk to, and a stroll outside brings you to the world

many large American cities have something like Fresh Direct: order your groceries online and have them delivered the next day, boxed, to your kitchen; great if you are sick or time pressured

fresh fruit and cheap flowers at corner stands rival expensive shops elsewhere

great food in every restaurant—no bad meals . . .

General

airline prices are cheaper to/from larger cities; fewer transfers

closer to ministry opportunities, especially diverse groups, the poor, ethnic communities (instead of traveling many miles to reach a people group); virtually all people groups are in the city, especially Africans, Russians, and South Americans

less expensive for getaways; can travel by subway to a new neighborhood or a cultural enclave for a change of pace; so many unique experiences close at hand

wealthy people in cities are always happy to lend their vacation homes to ministry families for weekends and getaways, as long as you are flexible; since ministry happens on weekends, mid-week getaways don’t generally conflict with the owners’ desire to use it on weekends

easier to reach the suburbs from the city center than to reach the city center from the suburbs

access to the best of the best in: professional sports, cultural interests (museums, lectures), entertainment (theatre, music, improv), educational opportunities/options, shopping, influencers in every field, restaurants, medical care

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a fan of cities for many of these reasons. But Ms. Keller doesn’t seem to understand that urbanism separates her from lots of other Americans, while signalling to urban dwellers that she and her husband’s ministry “get” — nay, love — the city (even if the big steeple PCA churches in the South or the social justice warriors in St. Louis do not: “bless their hearts for being urban, but they don’t know NYC the way we do” – read they aren’t bubblicious). How do you then challenge the bubble when you’re on the same side as the bubble?

Tim Keller himself earlier this year showed that he was not as comfortable with urban artistic life as many might assume given Redeemer’s Faith & Work Center:

Contemporary art is dominated by either critical theory or commercialism. Much art is aimed at transgressing and debunking all social norms in order to liberate the individual. Or it is designed to provoke in such a way that attracts eyeballs and income. It’s possible that gospel-changed Christians in the arts would bring far more hope and less nihilism, and could express visions of community and shared values.

Isn’t that all the more reason to wonder whether Redeemer’s ministry did anything to prepare New Yorkers for what happened on election day. Or, were they part of the constituency that Saturday Night Live mocked?

They pride themselves on being open-minded, but they actually close themselves off to contrary arguments; The Bubble is a “community of like-minded free-thinkers—and no one else.” They think they’re more thoughtful and intellectual, but they’re really just confirming each other’s biases; a “wide array of diverse viewpoints” is two people doing nothing but agreeing with each other. They think they’re well-informed and cultured, but they draw from a very narrow range of trendy lifestyle fads and “only the good websites.” They think of their lifestyle as simple and accessible, but only the well off can afford it. (“Anybody is welcome to join us,” the ad proclaims, but a one-bedroom apartment starts at $1.9 million—not far off from reality in Manhattan or San Francisco.)

They say they are above racial division, but they’re the ones obsessing over it. (“We don’t see color here—but we celebrate it.”) Then there’s the preening, condescending race-consciousness of the privileged white “progressive”—who, in this sketch, ostentatiously points to the “black power” button on his lapel and gets a subtly exasperated roll of the eyes from his black co-star.

Most important: They depend on the support and protection of blue-collar workers who don’t share their values and culture.

Can’t Presbyterians ask what happens to Presbyterian frogs in the New York City kettle? Isn’t that what Presbyterian polity is about? Or are we supposed to be awed by Redeemer exceptionalism?

Teflon Megachurch

Jake Meador blames the poor styles of Jen Hatmaker on the megachurch. Evangelicalism of the 1990s relied more on personal branding than on churchly boundaries. The result is Hatmaker’s inability to see what’s at stake in LBGT debates. She’s a product of her megachurch culture.

Meador is especially hard on Bill Hybels and Willow Creek:

At the heart of this evangelical movement was the megachurch, which we have already mentioned. But the suburban megachurch calls for closer attention because it is in the megachurch that we find the methodological keys to understanding both the evangelicalism of that era and the second-generation spin on this same model that is embodied by women like Hatmaker as well as her friend Shauna Niequist, herself the daughter of the founder of this movement, Bill Hybels.

The seeker-sensitive movement began with a simple idea: Charitably stated, it was that the Christian faith was increasingly nonsensical to modern Americans and it needed translators who could listen to the culture and then speak about the faith in ways that were sensible to them.

Unfortunately, the way that Hybels and others like him attempted to do this work of translation depended far too heavily on secular ideas about marketing, branding, target demographics, and so on. The faith became a product, churches became places of entertainment and commerce, and pastors became the heroic CEOs with the right vision to grow the business:

So churches like Willow Creek leaned on a method for doing evangelism and outreach that essentially amounted to selling the Gospel using marketing strategies targeted at specific demographic groups. They did market research, figured out what people wanted in a church, and began shaping church services accordingly.

The problem with this method is that it can only ever be reactive. Seeker-sensitive evangelism and churches can only react to what they learn in their market research and what they gather from observing mainstream culture. But they cannot create work that drifts from the basic grammar and vocabulary that they inherit from the culture they’re attempting to reach.

My question is why does Tim Keller and Redeemer NYC get a pass? Redeemer is a megachurch, uses strategies designed for its urban context, and it came along at the same time as Willow Creek.

Meador may object that Hybels is not Keller when it comes to communicating or defending the truth of Christianity. But Meador forgets that Lee Stroebel was a big part of Willow Creek’s brand back in the 1990s and no one could apologize better for the faith than an atheist-journalist who studied at Yale Law School turned Christian teacher.

Plus, if you consider where some of the junior pastors in Keller’s New York City outreach landed, Meador could conceivably add Redeemer to his lament about evangelicalism and millennials. Anyone remember this (two years before Jen’s hatmaking went haywire)?

This aligns with our existing core vision: the doors of this church are as wide as the arms of the Savior it proclaims. We remain passionate about having as many people hear the gospel as possible. City Church will continue to receive into membership all those with a credible profession of faith and expect the same commitments represented in their membership vows.

On the other hand, we want to be clear what this now means. We will no longer discriminate based on sexual orientation and demand lifelong celibacy as a precondition for joining. For all members, regardless of sexual orientation, we will continue to expect chastity in singleness until marriage. Please pray for our Board as we continue to discuss pastoral practices with our LGBT brothers and sisters in Christ. Pray for our denomination, the Reformed Church in America, as it does the same.

So I ask, what gives?

How Professional Sports Profanes the Lord’s Day

And why don’t more serious Christians, the kind who worry about what their vote says about theeeehhhhhhmmmmmm, worry about profaning a holy day?

Remember that Protestants and Roman Catholics technically agree about the Lord’s Day even though they number the commandment differently (four and three respectively). Boniface recently wrote:

One final thing: even though the disappearance of a real catechesis about the Lord’s Day is a post-Conciliar phenomenon (perhaps with the exception of St. John Paul II’s Dies Domini), do not be tempted to think that flaunting the prohibitions against work on the Lord’s Day is something modern. As far back in history as one can find homilies, one can find examples of preaching against servile labor on Sundays. Even in the “golden age” of the 13th century, surviving homiletics reveal that working on Sundays and Holy Days was endemic; several chapters in the Fioretti of St. Francis are devoted to describing the misfortunes of peasants who worked on Holy Days. It is certainly not a post-Vatican II novelty. So please, no comments about how in the “old days” no Catholic would have ever dared work on Sunday.

We also should remember, in the Middle Ages there were many more days that were considered Holy Days where work was prohibited – so many so that many common folk complained about not having enough time to finish their work. I cannot cite the source, but I remember reading in one scholarly work on medieval calendars that in some places as many as 100 days out of the year were nominally supposed to be work-free. This was, of course, excessive, and by the 13th century many of these days were no longer being observed. This cluster happened as a result of the accumulation of universal and regional festal days over the centuries; it was not until after Lateran IV and the reforms of the late Middle Ages that the status of many of these feasts changed to make their observance more manageable.

Why then do the devout turn the other way when rooting for members of their tribe between the white lines? Here’s a piece on the Mets’ Rene Rivera that might tighten Boniface’s jaws:

Our own natural families grow bigger when we are part of the Catholic Church. Our fellow Catholics may not be related to us by blood, but they are related to us spiritually. That connection is one of the things that makes walking into a church so reassuring and peaceful.

Even more than that, though, is the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Every Catholic parish has Jesus in the tabernacle, so that means you can feel comfortable spending all the time in the world there. If you’re praying in a Catholic parish, you’re not alone. Jesus is always there, and so is God the Father and Holy Spirit. Mary and the angels and saints are there, too.

Home plate is where I like to be for baseball, home with my family is where I like to be even more, and being “at home” in church is the very best place anyone can possibly be.

But what about Protestants (and the New Calvinists who root root root for them)? (Thanks to our southern correspondent) the Cubs’ Ben Zobrist seems to know (as does his pastor father) that he shouldn’t play on Sunday but that doesn’t stop him (or the Gospel Allies from rooting):

Ben and Julianna are both committed to the local church, even if finding a workable process took a few years to sort out, Yawn said.

“Ben is a hardcore local church guy,” Yawn says. “He cares about what’s happening at the local church level.”

Part of that rootedness comes from growing up in Eureka, where, after 28 years, his dad is still the pastor.

“We felt like Ben’s spiritual life was more important than his sports life,” his father says. “We wanted him to understand the importance of the local church. We didn’t let him play on teams that played on Sundays. . . . Nothing is more important than the Lord. I don’t think children make that connection if the parents don’t have that commitment.”

So Zobrist plays on Sunday, why? Even Sandy Koufax tried to observe the high holy days of Judaism much to Walter Sobchak‘s approval. Why can’t professing Christian athletes and their professing fans do the same?

A Liberal Cigar Smoker? Go Figure

Don’t always believe all that the Allies tell you.

Thanks to our southern correspondent now comes news (only 25 years old) that Charles Spurgeon brought politics into the pulpit (good and hard):

The great preacher did not shun political questions as a diversion from spiritual religion. Although he kept political ventures within limits, especially in his sermons, he urged others to go further. “I often hear it said,” runs one passage in a sermon, “ ‘Do not bring religion into politics.’ This is precisely where it ought to be brought, and set there in the face of all men as on a candlestick.”

Not only that, he was a Liberal:

Spurgeon’s identification with the Liberal Party is well illustrated by an address to local voters that he issued at the 1880 general election. “Are we to go on slaughtering and invading in order to obtain a scientific frontier and feeble neighbours?” he asked. “Shall all great questions of reform and progress be utterly neglected for years? … Shall the struggle for religious equality be protracted and embittered? … Shall our National Debt be increased?”

Spurgeon was advocating four great principles. First, he was protesting against the recent imperialistic ventures of a Conservative government; that was a stand for peace. Second, he was calling for measures of change that would benefit the common people; that was a commitment to reform. Third, he was urging religious equality, the distinctive aim of Nonconformists. Fourth, he was demanding a decrease in wasteful public spending; that was a recommendation of retrenchment.

Nothing wrong with being a Liberal, and the British Liberal Party was more akin to positions advocated by Republicans and Progressives in the United States. So we’re not talking Barack Hussein Obama or John Kerry. Still, I sure would like to know how you minister the word of God and endorse a party platform outside the promised land of Israel. Can we get a little exegesis here?

It’s Always Sunny In Religious Journalism

The New Calvinists have to be feeling pretty good with yet another puff piece about one of the under home boys (as in under shepherd in relation to Jonathan Edwards as the New Calvinist home boy). Tim Keller is once again the darling of a national media outlet, the Weekly Standard, and he is doing what few pastors seldom can — showing that faith is not backward or sectarian but young, urban, even urbane:

Timothy Keller lists the types of congregants filling his auditorium pews: “A cross-section of yuppie Manhattanites—doctors, bankers, lawyers, artists, actors, and designers, some of them older, most of them in their twenties or thirties.”

Huh? We raise our eyebrows. How could this be, when the city runs on secular selfishness? Or at least, secular selfishness drives the creative class and their upwardly mobile professional counterparts to pursue material success and swami-organic “self-actualization.” The traditional mainline Protestant denominations may be mostly dead, making way for the ongoing rise of a new orthodox evangelicalism. But in Manhattan?

So contrary to the secularization-is-winning narrative that predominates the media and academy, Keller (and the rest of the evangelical megachurch world) is what is really happening:

The truth remains: Megachurches from the Upper West Side to the Bible Belt draw mega-congregations. For Episcopalians, who can’t stomach evangelicalism, the rule is attraction rather than promotion. As empty pews and dwindling parishes testify, gospel-as-metaphor doesn’t attract troubled souls, particularly when the 21st-century’s troubled soul wants to know what’s it got to do with me?

It’s not news that yuppies, creatives, and masters of the universe have immortal souls, too. In 2016, it might take a minister like Timothy Keller to remind us what that means.

Granted, this is a short piece and so the author may not have had room to dig a little deeper in the Keller phenomenon to see if it is all numbers, success, and orthodoxy. Old Life readers likely are aware that some in the Presbyterian world (okay, me) wonder if the New York City pastor is as fully committed to the orthodoxy of his Presbyterian communion as this journalist assumes. Some of those critics (okay, me) also think that Keller’s cooperation with Baptists, Pentecostals, and other Protestants in planting churches in New York City and around the world not only raises questions about his commitment to Presbyterianism but also demonstrates the tell tale signs of the kind of interdenominational cooperation that turned the Protestant mainline from evangelical to liberal. If you can cut corners with the Shorter Catechism, your successors can cut more than corners — maybe an entire block.

Feature stories in journalism to be sure rarely go into great depth regarding the controversies or critics that surround their subject. But when the New Yorker recently ran a feature on the University of Chicago philosopher, Martha Nussbaum, they did not shelter audiences from some of the less than flattering aspects of her life. Not only did the writer cover the philosopher’s complicated relationship with her father, but also refused to ignore Nussbaum’s run-in with feminists:

In 1999, in a now canonical essay for The New Republic, she wrote that academic feminism spoke only to the élite. It had become untethered from the practical struggle to achieve equality for women. She scolded Judith Butler and postmodern feminists for “turning away from the material side of life, towards a type of verbal and symbolic politics that makes only the flimsiest connections with the real situations of real women.” These radical thinkers, she felt, were focussing more on problems of representation than on the immediate needs of women in other classes and cultures. The stance, she wrote, “looks very much like quietism,” a word she often uses when she disapproves of projects and ideas.

In letters responding to the essay, the feminist critic Gayatri Spivak denounced Nussbaum’s “civilizing mission.” Joan Scott, a historian of gender, wrote that Nussbaum had “constructed a self-serving morality tale.”

The feature story on Keller also reminded me of Christianity Today’s coverage of Bill Hybels back when Willow Creek was emerging as the more important megachurch in the U.S. The article sounded more like the Weekly Standard on Keller than the New Yorker on Nussbaum:

Because of Willow Creek’s size, the church’s leaders feel participation in small groups is essential to the spiritual support of its members. And in keeping with its megachurch status, Willow Creek is loaded with specialized ministries for virtually every need among its believers: programs for four age divisions of youth, three categories of single adults, married couples, divorced persons, single parents, and physically and mentally challenged individuals, as well as outreach services to the homeless, the poor, and prison inmates, are just a few of the selections from the church’s huge and diverse menu.

Willow Creek’s success has not gone unnoticed. Three times a year, the church sponsors a conference at which 500 church leaders gather to see how it is done. And in 1992, Hybels and his church elders formed the Willow Creek Association—which currently has a membership of over 700 churches—to provide support to other seeker-sensitive congregations.

Bill Hybels says Willow Creek is simply following the pattern of the first-century church. In the meantime, hundreds of twentieth-century churches are: eager to follow the pattern of Willow Creek.

So aside from questions about Keller or Hybels and their way of doing ministry, what’s up exactly with Christian and conservative readers of journalism? Do we always need to hear the positive and fear any mention of the negative? Faith is about inspiration, not about troubles? That may be what editors think and what marketing reveals. But for a religion that features all those animals butchered in the Temple, the execution of the son of God, not to mention Jesus’ followers clear teaching about suffering, it sure seems odd that secularists appear to handle the dark side of human existence better than believers.

When the Election is not about the Nation but MmmmeeeeEEEEE

Why do Christians on both sides of the Tiber frame the current presidential contest in a secular republic no less in terms of what a believer’s vote says about his or her devotion or virtue? Here are a few samples.

First, how the character of a candidate may affect the character of the voter:

Christians can, morally, either support Trump over Hillary or not support either. Nearly all Christians who support Trump over Hillary do so without adopting strong-man messianism. Being clear that one is not endorsing specific moral flaws, and having one’s eyes wide open about the calculation, is not an internal threat to the Church. It’s not even a problem unique to this election cycle.

Whew. If I vote for Hillary I won’t stain my soul.

But morality won’t resolve my dilemma of for whom to vote (if I’m Roman Catholic):

. . . it’s plain to see that Catholic moral reasoning does not map on to the current American political grid. What then should Catholics do? What should be the final thought of the undecided American Catholic voter, behind the sacred veil of the voting booth?

Some Catholics react to their complicated political instincts by isolating one issue about which to make an electoral decision. At the national level, we find many “single-issue voters” on the topic of abortion. As a fundamental matter of life and death, one of the non-negotiables of Catholic moral teaching, it makes sense why many Catholics highlight abortion as a way to clear a path toward a conscience-protecting vote. But there are other non-negotiables in Faithful Citizenship too, such as torture and racism. And some Catholics also believe that recent uses of American military power, especially targeted killings through drone strikes or accidental bombings of allies, have crossed the line of non-negotiable moral teaching about the dignity of human life and the protection of noncombatants during war.

Uh oh.

For Protestants, voting winds up functioning as a part of self-disclosure:

A vote for Trump is a vote signifying that evangelicals are owned by the GOP. Part of the tragedy here is that evangelicals are still a big enough voting bloc that we could prevent either candidate from winning the election.

Let that sink in. If evangelicals just said, “No, I refuse to be coerced into supporting candidates who do not meet a very basic standard,” we could swing the election. You probably read that sentence and immediately dismissed it, thinking something like, “That is a fantasy. The reality is people are going to vote for one of the two major candidates.”

People won’t vote for a third party candidate because third party candidates don’t win because people won’t vote for a third party candidate—which is great for the two major parties because they don’t really have to even try to address the concerns of voters.

A vote for Trump also communicates to our neighbors that we believe he would be an acceptable leader for our country. Sure, you can qualify your Trump support by saying you have reservations but you believe he’s better than Clinton; however, by casting a ballot for him you are fundamentally claiming that it would be good for Trump to govern you and your neighbor.

How would anyone actually know how I vote? Isn’t the ballot supposed to be private? If so, then maybe ordinary Christians should not be so glib about how they are going to vote. Propriety, people!

But no. For some this election season is so wicked and Trump so depraved that the only response is revulsion (which it seems you should display so that people know you are not so morally compromised):

I believe that the proper response of the well-former mind and heart to the very idea of Donald Trump as President of the United States is, to put it bluntly, revulsion. . . .

What concerns me far more deeply is the ordinary, everyday Christian — the person who claims to be an evangelical Christian — who is not revolted by Trump, who lacks the requisite “wisdom of repugnance.” I think, for instance, of the people who have compared Trump to King David, presumably because both are guilty of sexual sin. But those who make this comparison have failed to recognize the difference between one who says “For I know my transgressions, / And my sin is ever before me” and one who says that he doesn’t “bring God into that picture” when he does something wrong and follows up by saying “I am good. I don’t do a lot of things that are bad.” And if you don’t understand that distinction — and equally if you understand it but for political reasons pretend not to — there is very little about the Christian message that you truly grasp.

By the way, I’m not talking about Hillary Clinton here because there is so little evangelical support for Hillary Clinton. She also offers much for us to be appalled by.

And I’m not even making the argument that an evangelical Christian should never in any circumstances vote for Trump. (Not today, anyway.) I am simply saying this: the fact that so many American Christians feel no revulsion at the thought of electing Donald Trump — this man so palpably “unsound, uninformed, unhinged and unfit” — as the leader of this or for that matter any other nation, but rather express great enthusiasm at the prospect, indicates not just a lack of knowledge but also, and more important, a lack of moral training. The immediate responses are missing or wrong.

Voting as fruit of the Spirit. Politics as sanctification.

It seems to this 2ker that investing voting with such moral and spiritual significance is to overestimate (way way so) the United States or a Christian’s place in the nation. Everyone has ideas about American government, what would be good for the nation, which candidate may offer a corrective to certain trends, which figure symbolizes a part of the nation’s worthwhile qualities. Of course, Americans could be more informed about policies and how government works, though if members of Congress can’t parse the Affordable Care Act which of us can stand in that pretty good day of national or state debate? Chances are that after this election, even if Congress impeaches the next president (which could happen to either major candidate), the republic will go on and the forces of consolidation and centralization will also remain thanks to the United States’ standing as a global hegemon.

Life will go on.

Sanctification for the saints will continue.

Christians will more or less throw themselves into policy, activism, party politics.

CNN and Fox will sensationalize.

Large sums of money — almost as much as professional athletes make — will go to politicians in hopes of access.

It’s all bigger than mmmmeeeeeeEEEE.

So it’s time to switch from the summer cocktail of choice — the gin and tonic — to the one for cooler temperatures — the whiskey sour. Somewhere in the world it’s 5:00.

I Just Wanna End Small Group Prayer

This should put a stop to it — just have believers think about what they say before they pray:

1. Avoid vain repetition. The one leading in prayer should be careful not to say, “O Father,” “Holy Father” or “Lord” over and over and over again.

2. Avoid hesitation and stumbling. The one leading in prayer should spend time on the prayer prior to the service so that he does not come across unprepared.

3. Avoid ungrammatical expressions. For example, the one leading in prayer should avoid such phrases as “Grant to give us…” “Grant to impart to us…” Grant and give are verbs expressing the same thing. This is a redundant and inaccurate use of language.

4. Avoid disorder. We need regularity and order in our prayer. The ACTS acronym is helpful: Include prayers of Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication (i.e. Petition and Intercession). By following an order, the one leading in prayer can help those he is leading pray along unhindered.

5. Avoid praying in minute detail for certain things. Balance out prayers in general. Especially for a Lord’s Day morning service. It is good to pray according to the same general nature for all the things for which the one leading prays. If there is a man or woman who has a terminal sickness, it is sufficient to plead with the Lord to heal that individual. There is no need to go into all the specifics of that with what he or she is dealing.

This is based on Samuel Miller’s thoughts on prayer which goes on for another 13 items. Not quite Rick Warren like, so not enough for forty days of driving your way to a life of purpose. But if Christians ever had to consider that praying in public does not come naturally to some believers, this post might get them started. And it really would throw a wrench into the praying patters of the seemingly intimate small group.