Ecclesiastical Networkionalism

If you think about Congregationalists, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians as the church equivalent of PanAm Airlines and Sears & Robuck, you may have a point. Denominations have been in decline numerically for some time just like the blue chip businesses of the 1950s. Some of that is a function of the mainline’s problem with message — are they a church, an NGO, or a wing of the Democratic Party? Some of it is a function of conservatives perhaps being too zealous about what makes their denomination distinct — the OPC is the denomination Jesus founded!! But much of it comes from not understanding the point of being connected to other congregations and using those ties to organize larger ministry endeavors (e.g., evangelism, missions, education, ecumenism). A pastor in a small town may find that the congregation in which he ministers is sufficient to carry out its work, and that denominational expectations and funding is a restriction.

At the same time, the work of independent congregations has to be difficult. Where do you find trained pastors if yours retires? What about pension funds for pastors? What about supporting foreign missionaries? If someone proposes a joint-worship service among local churches, how does an independent church decide whether to participate? Denominational committees help with a lot of the activity that goes beyond a congregation. In other words, a local congregation has trouble functioning as its own denomination. This is especially true when it comes to planting churches. From where do you acquire the funds to support a like-minded ministry until it is self-sustaining?

Networks appear to be the current remedy. These are the new sources of venture capital (apparently) for church start ups. It seems to be a case of financing the church the way entrepreneurs find patrons for businesses in Silicon Valley.

Apostles Church (three separate congregations) in New York City seems to be an example of the new world of ecclesiastical entrepreneurship. One of its pastors, John Starke, used to write for The Gospel Coalition, and since these churches are in New York City, Ground Zero of urban ministry for urban ministries, you might think Apostles might be a partner with both the Gospel Coalition and Redeemer City-to-City. As it turns out two of the three Apostles’ congregations do show up as partners. But not with Apostles Downtown. That raises a question of how much the three Apostles congregations are in full partnership with each other. But since they are urban and in NYC, it seems odd that Redeemer is not a partner.

Instead, the churches have ties to these networks:

Send North America: Our strategy is simple and straightforward. We believe that the Church is God’s plan—you are God’s plan—to reach North America and the nations with the hope of the gospel.

As a part of the Southern Baptist Convention, the North American Mission Board is here to help local churches send the hope of the gospel across North America in two primary ways: compassion ministry and church planting.

Hope For New York: Our vision is a New York City in which all people experience spiritual, social, and economic flourishing through the demonstration of Christ’s love.

Our mission is to mobilize volunteer and financial resources to support non-profit organizations serving the poor and marginalized in New York City.

Sojourn Network: …by offering the pastors in our network a strong vision of planting, growing, and multiplying healthy churches and by providing them with thorough leadership assessment, funding for new churches and staff, coaching, training, renewal, and resources, we can best steward their gifts for the benefit and renewal of their local congregations.

Since 2011, our aim at Sojourn Network has been to provide the care and support necessary for our pastors to lead their churches with strength and joy – and to finish ministry well.

Of course, other networks have been around for a while. Willow Creek is now long in the tooth and struggles, I imagine, after revelations about its founder, Bill Hybels and guru, Gilbert Bilzikian. Acts 29 is also about as old as Redeemer NYC and its founder, Mark Driscoll, has had Trumpian moments.

But if someone wanted to plant a church, the prospects never appear to have been better. Lots of energy, money, and people are starting churches and finding funding outside the denominations, whether small or large. But what gives these networks an identity? Can you substitute Sojourn for Methodist, Acts 29 for Episcopalian, Redeemer City-to-City for Presbyterian? As tired or as broad as the older denominational names have become, they have direct reference to a specific historical moment and a distinct set of ideas and practices. What is a network other than a mechanism for funding churches and consoling psychologically damaged church planters?

Tim Keller once said of churches that:

promote cooperation between individuals and the kind of associational life that is necessary for human happiness and social success. Without informal shared trust, things are more litigious and combative. Life is much better when neighbors pull for each other, help each other, collaborate together. But this kind of “social capital” is very difficult to generate through public policy. Governments cannot duplicate the effect of religion as a source of shared values.

Well, don’t denominations create associations where networks create websites and podcasts? So why start a network when you are in a denomination? And why start a church planting network when you are in a denomination that has an agency devoted to church planting — called, Home Missions?

Yuval Levin recently wrote about the decline in institutional life in the United States. Some of this owes to businesses or political parties or churches where executives or officers abuse power and betray trust. But Levin adds a wrinkle. It is those people who use institutions to advance their para-institutional endeavors:

What stands out about our era in particular is a distinct kind of institutional dereliction — a failure even to attempt to form trustworthy people, and a tendency to think of institutions not as molds of character and behavior but as platforms for performance and prominence.

In one arena after another, we find people who should be insiders formed by institutions acting like outsiders performing on institutions. Many members of Congress now use their positions not to advance legislation but to express and act out the frustrations of their core constituencies. Rather than work through the institution, they use it as a stage to elevate themselves, raise their profiles and perform for the cameras in the reality show of our unceasing culture war.

President Trump clearly does the same thing. Rather than embodying the presidency and acting from within it, he sees it as the latest, highest stage for his lifelong one-man show. And he frequently uses it as he used some of the stages he commanded before he was elected: to complain about the government, as if he were not its chief executive.

The pattern is rampant in the professional world. Check in on Twitter right now, and you’ll find countless journalists, for instance, leveraging the hard-earned reputations of the institutions they work for to build their personal brands outside of those institutions’ structures of editing and verification — leaving the public unsure of just why professional reporters should be trusted. The same too often happens in the sciences, in law and in other professions meant to offer expertise.

Or consider the academy, which is valued for its emphasis on the pursuit of truth through learning and teaching but which now too often serves as a stage for political morality plays enacted precisely by abjuring both. Look at many prominent establishments of American religion and you’ll find institutions intended to change hearts and save souls frequently used instead as yet more stages for livid political theater — not so much forming those within as giving them an outlet.

Artists and athletes often behave this way too, using reputations earned within institutional frameworks as platforms for building a profile outside them. When he was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the former Chicago Cubs second baseman Ryne Sandberg implored fellow players to remember “that learning how to bunt and hit-and-run and turning two is more important than knowing where to find the little red light on the dugout camera.” When vital institutions across American life fail to produce people who remember that, they become much harder to trust.

I cannot prove it but I have a pretty good sense that this is what is happening with networks in relation to denominations. We see pastors and denominational leaders working outside denominational structures in networks. They use their denominational standing to generate interest in an activity and alliance outside the denomination. This is not simply a function of the parachurch sort of replicating what the church does in forms of preaching- and teaching-like activities. This is supplying funding for congregational startups that could very well be part of a denomination’s church-planting effort.

Denominations are by no means above criticism. But how do you start a network even while you belong to a denomination? If the federal government had any regulatory power over religion, this would be high on the list of investigations.

Speaking of New York City Circa When Harry Met Sally

Sam Desocio thinks the shelf life of Tim Keller and urban ministry may have expired. For one thing, the reasons for doing urban ministry that motivated Keller in the 1990s are now mainstream, tired and maybe even trite:

As a church planter I often have the opportunity to spend time with other ministry leaders and church planters. Among most of them I don’t see the assumed disgust for the city which Dr. Keller uses as a sparring partner. While many of them are in rural or suburban locations, almost all see urban ministry as vital. In fact, When I talk to current or hopeful church planters, urban ministry is undeniably given preeminence. I was once meeting with a church planter making plans for a move to a new city. He shared with me that he had a small scattering of people interested in working alongside him. Some of these folks were in the suburbs on one side of town, while others, were in the suburbs on the other side of the town. So, I asked him what area he was considering, (someplace close to one of those two areas I assumed). He answered that he was “called to the city”, and so the folks in both areas would have to be willing to move or come closer to him. I really liked this guy, but he had recently moved to his city, and –from what I could tell–expected longstanding residents to move away from existing relationships to pursue his vision of relevancy (maybe it was Christianity’s relevancy, but maybe it was his own).

Of course this is a subjective estimate of the prioritization of urban planting. So lets look at the stats coming from within the PCA. Six of the ten churches organized in the PCA in 2012(the most recent stats) were in cities with populations over 100,000. Of the over 40 church planters placed on the field by the PCA in that same year: 21 were in cities of over 100,000. Nine were in cities between 100,000 and 50,000. Only 12 were in cities below 50,000. A glance at the Acts 29 Network (also admittedly influenced by Dr. Keller) shows that only one of the last ten churches in that network where planted in cities with populations less than 100,000.

For another, Keller’s call to urban ministry may distort Scripture:

Dr. Keller’s argument for cities pushes too much of the Bible through an artificial urban rubric. This rubric down plays Paul’s ministry in the country side of Lycaonia. It tables Jesus’s pursuit of the one at the expense of the 99. I don’t bring this up to argue that Jesus didn’t care about Jerusalem, of course he wept over that city. Its clear that Paul care about major cities in the Roman empire, but it is impossible to boil down the locations of Paul’s ministry to one easy framework. We could ask: if Paul’s strategy was to go “into the largest cities of the region”, then why did he travel to Lystra several times, while there is no mention of any time spent in Smyrna (Population 90,000) or the even larger Sardis (Population 100,000).

Dr. Keller’s prioritization of important places, potential swells beyond population and ends up reinforcing a view of the world which esteems significance as the highest good.

Instead of challenging the cultures views of importance, Dr. Keller seems to be reinforcing them.

Good thing Sam doesn’t blog at Gospel Coalition.

Succession (not apostolic)

I have long been intrigued by the question of who succeeds a personality who has made a particular institution a success — not just a success, but upon whom the institution depends. In the parachurch world, for instance, folks wonder who will replace R. C. Sproul. Can anyone? If not, what will become of Ligonier Ministries? Or what about Mike Horton? He’s not about to retire but could White Horse Media go on without Mike? Then there is the case of our friend Ken Myers and Mars Hill Audio. Will Mars Hill simply stop production whenever Ken decides to tend only to his garden?

This is not simply a question for Christians. Would Fresh Air be what it is without Terry Gross? Or what about Garrison Keillor and Prairie Home Companion? In the former case, Gross has had enough guests fill in for her that the show could conceivably go on. Gross clearly “branded” Fresh Air but it continues to be a worthwhile listen when she is not running the show. She has (or her producers have) done what the late night talk shows did routinely — recruit guest hosts who then establish a connection with audiences that allows a Jay Lenno or David Letterman to emerge as a natural successor to Johnny Carson (or even a rival to Johnny’s replacement). (The later series of The Larry Sanders show are very entertaining but also poignant on the egos and expectations involved in these transitions.) In contrast to Terry Gross, Garrison Keillor does not seem to be interested in grooming anyone to take over the show. Not that I am a regular listener, but I can’t recall anyone filling in for Keillor as host. And yet, I can think of any number of writers or entertainers who might possibly make it work — Ellen Degeneres, Roy Blount, Jr., Tom Bodett, or Mitch Albom. The show would lose the Lake Wobegone connection. But it would go on as one of the more entertaining sites on the radio (a distant second to Phil who is cannot be replaced, unless R. C. Collins has a change of heart about a career).

By the way, another example of successful succession is First Things. Who would have imagined that the magazine could go on without Richard John Neuhaus? But after a rocky interlude, Rusty Reno appears to have righted the ship and edits what continues to be a thoughtful, ecumenical but primarily right-of-center Roman Catholic publication.

What prompted me to express these thoughts publicly was the news (thanks to Anthony Bradley) of the Village Church shuddering its doors. This was a congregation formed 18 years ago in Brooklyn when the brand of TKNY was expanding shelf space in the church planting superstore. But that work has ceased:

The time has now come for the Village Church to conclude. We believe our Lord is allowing the community to come to a graceful end.

As we look back over the past eighteen years, we are grateful for all that we have seen Christ do, working through us, even us, to comfort many in need, to challenge the strong, to walk alongside those who follow Jesus, and to bear witness to His life in Greenwich Village. We are happy to see what has been done in hundreds of important lives.

Now the members of the Village Church are being scattered. Along with the sadness of loss of relationships, we see God’s hand in this, causing us to take what we have learned into other church contexts. We are confident that He has, for each one of us, different work to do, in “preaching the word.”

We celebrated Christ for the final time at Greenwich House on April 7th. It was a time of great rejoicing and appreciation for what God has done.

Bradley wonders if this indicates the shelf-life for a “baby-boomber planted missional church.” My wonder is if this is another signal that Tim Keller’s empire is in decline. Of course, Redeemer NYC faces the same problem that Sproul, Horton, Myers, and Keillor do — how do you replace the guy who defined the institution? Although a common problem in the world of communications, it is one that churches that are defined more by teaching and worship than by personality do not usually face. Most congregations understand that its own pastor is not the best in the world but is the one called by God and the congregation for a specific stage in the life of a church. When that pastor retires or takes another call, the congregation assembles a committee and calls another man who will carry out his functions in the context of this congregation’s characteristics (both good and bad). Out of these circumstances emerges a form of spontaneous order where congregations and pastors have reasonable expectations of each other, ones that include an understanding the pastor does not define the congregation. But does the same dynamic work for celebrity pastors? And if one of the jewels in the Redeemer crown of city churches cannot survive even with Keller still active, what does this portend for the other congregations in NYC?

Reformed Missions, Neo, Restless, and Paleo

Weeks have lapsed since John Starke engaged in a bit of cherry picking by claiming that modern young and restless missionary and evangelistic efforts are as old as old Calvinism itself.

Calvin and Geneva sent missionaries not only to France but also to Italy, the Netherlands, Hungary, Poland, and the free Imperial city-states in the Rhineland. We even know of two missionaries sent from Geneva in 1557 to Brazil. “Missions was not a ‘section’ of his systematic theology,” Keith Coleman says, “it was central to what he was trying to accomplish in his ministry.”

Church planting and missions aren’t a byproduct of the young Reformed resurgence of the last decade but something embedded in the Reformation’s God-centered commitment to advancing the gospel.

Without wanting to add to stereotypes about Calvinism and missions — the old canard that predestination gives no incentive for evangelism, as if justification gives no reason for good works — Starke exhibits and anachronistic turn of thought that could use correction. (It goes with another anachronism he has circulated, namely, that the sort of networks seventeenth-century British dissenting Calvinists constructed are similar to the Gospel Coalition.) The simple point is that sixteenth-century church planting was not the same as modern foreign missions or evangelistic efforts. In fact, the modern missions movement among Protestants did not begin until the late eighteenth century with institutions like the London Missions Society (founded roughly in 1795). What Calvin and other reformers were doing was trying to reform existing churches in Europe. Switching a parish or town from Roman Catholic to Protestant might qualify as missions or evangelism in one sense. But the notion of taking the gospel to a people or society that had never heard about Christ was not something that European Protestants began to undertake institutionally until almost 250 years after Calvin’s death.

Even here, when Europeans and those of European descent began to conduct what we know today as foreign missions, they did so through parachurch agencies (which are like the Gospel Coalition). In fact, Reformed state churches were slow to sponsor foreign missionaries, partly because they were still trying to complete the task of home missions. The Church of Scotland did not send Alexander Duff to India, considered to be the first Presbyterian missionary, until 1829, partly because the Kirk was still trying to plant churches in the Highlands.

Still, the point that folks like Starke need to consider is that prior to 1800 (roughly) European Christians were exceedingly ambivalent about indigenous peoples outside Europe. When Christianity traveled to new worlds, it did so as part of the baggage that either European colonists or immigrants packed on their way to places like North America, South Africa, and Australia. In colonial settings, settlers established churches for Europeans. Only later, as these communities became stable and as Europeans sought some kind of harmony with indigenous peoples did the work of planting of indigenous churches begin. And for the most part, only in the twentieth century did these indigenous churches, formerly dependent on European patrons (both ecclesiastical and colonial), establish their independence and become truly native.

That is likely an overstatement — “truly native” — since European Christianity, either through colonialism or migration, has been responsible for spreading Christianity around the world. Even when missionaries of the newly founded missionary societies, like the London Missionary Society, traveled with the intention of evangelizing non-Europeans, they did so with the blessings of and conveniences afforded by colonial governments and projects. It is virtually impossible to think of a case where Christian missionaries simply dropped into an indigenous setting and began to preach the gospel (how could they unless they spoke in tongues?). Even in Uganda among the Karamoja, where the Orthodox Presbyterian Church has a vigorous mission station, Presbyterians are dependent on the sort of penetration of Ugandan society that Europeans started under colonial auspices. Well before the OPC showed up in Uganda, other European churches had conducted mission works that acquainted natives in some way with the idea and nature of having churches. And these missionary efforts only came to Africa, whether church or parachurch, because of the remarkable (both good and bad) hegemony of Europeans around the world starting at the end of the fifteenth century.

But this dependence on cultural patterns established by former Christians is not all that different from the experience of the first church planters. The apostle Paul rarely preached to people who had no acquaintance with the God of Israel or his followers. When he did preach to the Greeks at Mars Hill, who seem to have had little awareness of Judaism, they snickered. Otherwise, Paul went to local synagogues and used the Christian groups in various cities as the basis from which to evangelism and plant churches.

All of this is to say, if Starke wants to make the point that predestination is not a barrier to evangelism, great. But generally only the Roger Olsons of the world would make such an argument (and to do so they would have to ignore the weekly proclamation of the word in churches of Calvinist persuasion). If Starke wants to claim for Protestant missions continuity between Geneva and Wheaton (the headquarters of Crossway Books and therefore of the Gospel Coalition), he should leave the task of history to licensed professionals.

The Corporate Gullibility of the Church

Call it harmonic divergence, but I couldn’t help but read the transcript Tim Keller’s remarks on “gospel ecosystems” in the light of J. Gresham Machen’s remarks about the corporate responsibility of the church. I happened to be teaching on the latter during adult Sunday school and reading the former after a holy day feast and the evening service. Maybe reading Keller and Machen in such close proximity is unfair to both men, but odd combinations like this regularly come with the turf of contemporary conservative Presbyterianism in the United States.

For those uninitiated, Keller’s notion of a gospel eco-system is an infelicitous (because it presumes scientific status just like Charles Finney’s New Measures) way of describing the sort of church planting efforts in which Redeemer Presbyterian Church is engaged (yes, by now it should go without saying) in New York City. According to Keller:

. . . an ecosystem is a dynamic balanced set of forces and energies that grow each other. Now the question I want to talk to you about today, is how do you start a gospel movement in your city, or how can you see a gospel movement develop in your city? . . . .

A gospel movement is this: a gospel movement happens in a city when across churches, across multiple denominations and networks, and beyond any one key leader or any one command center, or any one denomination, you actually have the body of Christ in the city geometrically growing, not just reconfiguring. The vast majority of what we consider, you know, “good things happening in that city,” is a reconfiguration of the body of Christ, not an actual growth of the body of Christ against the overall population. When the body of Christ is growing from 1% to 5% to 10% of the population, because its growing faster than the population, its actually growing.

Machen’s notion of corporate witness of the church refers to the obligations that everyone within a communion (especially one with presbyterian connections) has for anyone, like Keller or Machen, who preaches on the basis of the communion’s approval. He wrote:

The corporate witness-bearing of the Presbyterian church is carried on especially through the pulpit. Under Presbyterian law, no man can permanently occupy a pulpit of the church without the church’s endorsement; the preacher therefore speaks not only for himself, but for the church. That does not mean that the church seeks to impose any beliefs upon any man simply on the ground that they are beliefs of the church; it does not mean that there is the slightest interference with the right of private judgment. But it means that if a man is to speak in a Presbyterian pulpit, and obtain the endorsement which is involved in that position, he must be in agreement with the message for which the propagation of which the church, in accordance with its constitution, plainly exists.

The obvious implication for Keller’s gospel ecosystem is that all members of the PCA (along with those in churches that have fraternal relations with the PCA) are responsible for Keller’s ideas and practice. Of course, if his scheme is desirable and faithful, then everyone in the PCA gets to bask in the positive contribution of Redeemer New York. At the same, if Keller’s proposal is undesirable and unfaithful, then for starters members of the PCA have an obligation to walk Keller away from the ledge of this flawed measures.

Several reasons exist for questioning Keller’s idea of gospel ecosystem. At the level of Reformed theology and church polity, Keller’s notion of participating with non-Reformed churches in a church planting effort runs directly up against the problem of Calvinists cooperating with Arminians in evangelism and discipleship. It also conflicts with any notion of jure divino Presbyterianism, that is the idea that presbyterian polity is revealed in Scripture as the way to govern the church and oversee its ministry of word and sacrament. Nor is it entirely clear how Keller’s form of cooperation squares with the rules governing the PCA’s fraternal relations.

But while these concerns are part and parcel of an oldlife church-and-life view, Keller’s talk raises additional questions about the wisdom of those who apparently think the New York City pastor is the guy who hung the moon on contemporary Reformed ministry. His argument fails at any number of points and raises the possibility that those who find his arguments compelling have the same kind of critical skills as those who insist upon a young earth (despite the speed of light and the age of planets) or who believe in a Christian America (while still holding to liberty and justice for Jews, Mormons, and unbelievers). For when you look even in a cursory manner at Keller’s idea and supporting reflections, you wonder why the PCA would take the idea of developing gospel eco-systems sufficiently seriously to include them in a strategic plan and potentially devote human and financial resources to it.

1) Why would anyone heed a pastor with ideas about urban life if they were at all familiar with the history of cities, schools of urban planning, and the politics and economics that drive modern American urban centers? At the same time, why should anyone take my complaining about Keller’s lack of expertise on urban life seriously since I am also without street cred as an urban theorist? This is a fair question but skeptics of me would then need to be skeptical about Keller’s claims to read the tea leaves of urban life.
I would feel a whole lot better about Keller’s assertions about cities if he referred to names I do know about, like Jane Jacobs who singlehandedly saved neighborhoods in New York City from awful urban design, or Howard Kunstler who has argued repeatedly and voraciously against the suburbanization of the United States, or fellows at the Manhattan Institute who regularly comment on all sorts of aspects of New York’s public policies and institutions.

I’d feel even more comfortable if I thought that Keller had once rented and viewed the entire HBO series, The Wire, which may be bleak but offers a remarkably realistic assessment of the factors at play in modern American cities, circumstances that pose real barriers to church planting for starters and ultimately to urban redemption (if the salvation of non-human realities were possible).

2) Why use the metaphor of ecosystem when the Bible already provides an organic and less lethal metaphor? According to Keller, an ecosystem is “where you have a set of forces that sustain each other, interact with each other, stimulate each other. So organism A eats organism B, and it’s a good thing for organism C, because if organism B’s numbers weren’t tamped down, organism C wouldn’t exist because organism B eats C. And, organism A eats C, which means, if there wasn’t enough organism C there wouldn’t be any organisms A, but because they are all eating each other, because they are all, you might say, in a sense sustaining each other, you’ve got an ecosystem.” He glides pretty effortlessly from this organism-eat-organism world into a vision of churches in a city where they are cooperating to plant churches and gain new converts, and usher in a world of Protestant harmony. Keller prefers ecosystem to a denominational pattern where Christians simply circulate among different denominations depending on the stage of their spiritual life.

But an ecosystem would actually call for Presbyterians to eat Pentecostals who would eat Baptists who in turn would eat Lutherans, with these different denominational groups living with the others simply as necessary food for existence.

A better organic model, of course, is the body of Christ. I guess it would be less attractive than ecosystem because it might mean that Presbyterians are the brain and Pentecostals are the soul. But at least a body would be less Darwinian.

2a) How can an ecosystem be a movement? An ecosystem is a biological concept, a movement is a sociological category, and yet Keller has no trouble using the imagery of ecosystem as the basis for a movement. Maybe I am bound too much by academic categories, but I think church planters would have much more to learn from sociologists than from biologists when it comes to the place of congregations in a city. At the same time, I am not persuaded that describing Christianity as a movement is all that valuable. Movements, sociologically speaking, connote people who come together for certain political or economic ends. To speak of a Christian movement raises the specter – look out! – of the Religious Right.

3) Is New York City really comparable to a prison? I know many Americans would answer yes given the city’s reputation for worldliness and economic elitism. But when Keller speaks of a “city tipping point” and uses the experience of Prison Fellowship as an example, I’m not sure he thought through the potential problem:

what Chuck Colsen says, that there’s a, that when more than 10% of the population of a prison get involved in Christian ministries, get converted or get involved Christian ministries, he says that before that 10% place, obviously people’s lives are being changed, but you don’t seen much different in this prison, the prison doesn’t look any different than any other prison. But when you get to a certain spot where, there’s maybe 10%, its not a science, its not wooden, but there’s a spot at which the whole prison begins to change. The relationships between the guards and the prisoners begins to change, the culture of the prison begins to change, and even the look of the prison begins to change. And we also know it’s the same thing with neighborhoods, by the way.

Actually, I think sociologists and political scientists might be in a better position than a man who is working on sermons all week to say with certainty what happens in neighborhoods when populations change. But how will New Yorkers feel when they hear that a neighborhood in their city is like a prison population before ten percent of its residents become a Christian? The answer is probably the way they would feel if they ever talked to my fundamentalist parents about the desirability of living in the city.

3a) Will New York become like Wheaton, Illinois if Keller is succeeds?

The reason for asking is that Wheaton is actually a city – it really is a city according Illinois’ calculations – with a population of roughly 56,000. The city also has 63 churches, which ranks as one of the highest level of churches per capita in any American city. That sounds like Wheaton might qualify as a gospel ecosystem.

If so, does Keller’s vision for New York City involve turning the Big Apple into a Mid-western city of middle class and evangelical Protestant sensibilities? That would not be the worst thing. Having spent four years in the evangelical Jerusalem, I can vouch for Wheaton’s charms. At the same time, my preference is for the grit, grime, crime, and headaches of a big city because with those circumstances come the arts, universities, cultural experimentation, major league sports, and hustle and bustle.

In which case, would New York City have the hipness that makes Redeemer NYC attractive to Gen Xers in the PCA if it hosted a gospel ecosystem? Or would New York become as white-bred as a community like Wheaton, with its stability, standards, and restraint? I am not sure, though, how you hold on to urban chic while being evangelically earnest is a mystery. Maybe New York would turn into Omaha or Minneapolis. Then, would Redeemer NYC be cutting edge?

These questions do not exhaust my problems with Keller’s talk. Granted, it was only a talk and not an academic paper. But if the PCA is going to adopt the language of gospel ecosystem in its plan for missions, should Presbyterian Church in Americans ask for the fine print and supporting studies? Wouldn’t even common sense say that what works in New York City won’t fly in St. Louis or Atlanta? So if members of the PCA won’t fulfill the responsibilities that come with the corporate witness of the church, are they prepared to bear the burend of corporate gullibility?

Yet, if the PCA follows Keller, it won’t be the first time that Presbyterians have put evangelism ahead of theology and polity. New Siders did that in Keller’s region a long time ago when they believed that Presbyterian doctrines and church government had little to do with the Great Commission. So it wouldn’t be the first time in church history that a church — especially in New York City — was Presbyterian in name only. But if these guys are the smartest ones in NAPARC, they should be able to see through the holes in Keller’s strategy.

More Some of This and That

Church Rater is a website in which users may rate churches or look at ratings in order to select a church.
Here is a sample of what church planters are up against:

This is for one of the lowest rated churches, Westminster Presbyterian Church in Dubuque, Indiana: “typical lackluster presbyterian church; bible is read, but not interpreted for adults; kids sermon is down-to-earth; stuffy anglo saxon white community.”

Here is the review for the top-rated Mars Hill Church in Seattle: “Modern facility in a not-so-modern area: the place teamsters would go for a Starbucks, or the place advertising executives would go for a cuppa joe.

There were some paintings inside that reminded me of the cover art for “In the Court of the Crimson King” (

The lighting was low. The band was backlit in greens and reds. The music was something you could easily hear on the radio… Switchfoot-y, Puddle of Mudd-y, Creed-y.

Mark Driscoll was pumped up: thickset, groomed, a choker around his neck, a lost Baldwin brother perhaps (we were kind of far back: it was a PACKED house).

Here’s what I heard: Marl Driscoll was telling us not to eat chocolate cake, not to be lustful, and by denying ourselves such impulses (and many others), we would glorify God.

I get it: selfish behaviors do not glorify God. But is simply denying those behaviors glorifying God? Was I hearing that I didn’t have to DO anything to glorify God, I only had to NOT do certain things?

I felt like I was being lectured. I wasn’t learning anything. I wasn’t sure what to do next. I knew what I supposed to NOT do next. But I felt like having a piece of chocolate cake anyway.

This website may be useful for Home Missions types, especially in showing that the tricks designed to attract are not so attractive. Are American consumers discerning, or what?

On a different note, oldlifers may want to wander over to Scott Clark’s blog for recent interviews with the co-founders of the Old Life Theological Society. One is about union, the other is about Van Til. The blog provides a handy tool for ratings – it’s called comments.