Can Redeemer Presbyterian Church Be Redeemed?

The bloggers over at Mere Orthodoxy linked to an article by Tim Keller on the size and culture of congregations which still has me scratching my head. Originally published in 2006 in The Movement, and then again by one of the Vineyard Church’s publications, now it reappears in Redeemer’s City to City on-line magazine.

The head scratching part may also reveal my Bible-thumping past. But when a minister of the Word talks about the church wouldn’t you expect more references to Scripture than sociological hunches? Take, for instance, Keller’s nonchalant observation that size is a given and cannot be changed:

Every church has a culture that goes with its size and which must be accepted. Most people tend to prefer a certain size culture, and unfortunately, many give their favorite size culture a moral status and treat other size categories as spiritually and morally inferior. They may insist that the only biblical way to do church is to practice a certain size culture despite the fact that the congregation they attend is much too big or too small to fit that culture.

Now I am loathe to grant an inch to biblicism, but why wouldn’t the teaching of Scripture at least provide a greater check on congregational culture than the fixedness of size? For instance, if a pastor is called to perform the tasks that Paul gives to Timothy – you know, the pastoral epistles? – then if a congregation becomes too big or too small for a man to carry out those divinely appointed tasks, then perhaps the pastor and session need to reconfigure the congregation so the pastor can do what God has called him to do.

But when Keller describes the senior pastor of a large (400-800)-to-very-large congregation (above 800), the biblicist impulse is hard to suppress. He writes:

The larger the church, the more important the minister’s leadership abilities are. Preaching and pastoring are sufficient skills for pastors in smaller churches, but as a church grows other leadership skills become critical. In a large church not only administrative skills but also vision casting and strategy design are crucial gifts in the pastoral team.

The larger the church, the more the ministry staff members must move from being generalists to being specialists. Everyone from the senior pastor on down must focus on certain ministry areas and concentrate on two or three main tasks. The larger the church, the more the senior pastor must specialize in preaching, vision keeping and vision casting, and identifying problems before they become disasters.

This may be a digression, but does the bit about large churches nurturing specialists say anything about ministers of the Word — what Machen called, specialists in the Bible — sticking to Scripture rather than dabbling in sociology, even ecclesiastical sociology?

At the same time, where in the Word does it say anything about pastors as vision keepers? Or leadership for that matter? Pastoral authority held by an undershepherd is one thing, leadership is twentieth-century management-speak. So what exactly is biblical or true about these ruminations on size dynamics within a congregation? Again, I’m all for the light of nature and godly (even unregenerate) wisdom. But without some kind of biblical reflection on pastoral ministry, these ideas are even less compelling than pious advice.

The part of Keller’s article that has me scratching the other side of my scalp is his bold admission of the problems that attend very large congregations.

Of course the very large church has disadvantages as well:

Commuting longer distances can undermine mission. Very large churches can become famous and attract Christians from longer and longer distances, who cannot bring non-Christians from their neighborhoods. Soon the congregation doesn’t look like the neighborhood and can’t reach its own geographic community. However, this is somewhat offset by the mission advantages and can be further offset by (a) church planting and (b) staying relentlessly oriented toward evangelism and outreach.

Commuting longer distances undermines community/fellowship and discipleship. Christians coming from longer distances are less likely to be discipled and plugged in to real Christian community. The person you meet in a Sunday service is less and less likely to be someone who lives near you, so natural connections and friendships do not develop. This can be somewhat offset by an effective small-group system that unites people by interest or region.

Diminished communication and involvement. “A common pattern is for a large church to outgrow its internal communication system and plateau . . . as many people feel a loss of the sense of belonging, and eventually [it declines] numerically.” People are no longer sure whom to talk to about things: in a smaller church, the staff and elders know everything, but in a very large church, a given staff member may know nothing at all about what is going on outside his or her ministry. The long list of staff and ministries is overwhelming. No one feels they can get information quickly; no one feels they know how to begin to get involved. This can be offset by continually upgrading your communication system. This becomes extraordinarily important
in a very large congregation.

Displacement. People who joined when the church was smaller may feel a great sense of loss and may have trouble adjusting to the new size culture. Many of them will mourn the loss of feeling personally connected to events, decision making, and the head pastor. Some of these “old-timers” will sadly leave, and their leaving will sadden those who remain in the church. This can be offset by giving old-timers extra deference and consideration, understanding the changes they’ve been through, and not making them feel guilty for wanting a different or smaller church. Fortunately, this problem eventually lessens! People who joined a church when it had 1,500 members will find that not much has changed when it reaches 4,000.

Complexity, change, and formality. Largeness brings (a) complexity instead of simplicity, (b) change instead of predictability, and (c) the need for formal rather than informal communication and decision making. However, many long-time Christians and families value simplicity, predictability, and informality, and even see them as more valuable from a spiritual standpoint. The larger the church, the more the former three factors grow, and many people simply won’t stand for them.

Succession. The bigger a church, the more the church is identified with the senior pastor. Why? (a) He becomes the only identifiable leader among a large number of staff and leaders of whom the average member cannot keep track. (b) Churches don’t grow large without a leader who is unusually good in articulating vision. This articulation then becomes the key to the whole church. That kind of giftedness is distinctive and is much less replaceable even than good preaching. This leads to the Achilles’ heel of the church—continuity and succession. How does the pastor retire without people feeling the church has died? One plan is to divide the church with each new site having its own senior pastor. Lyle Schaller believes, however, that the successors need to be people who have been on staff for a good while, not outsiders.

This is a perplexing passage since, first, it seems to reflect the dynamics at Redeemer NYC (especially the part about the problems of succession — who will fill Keller’s shoes, Marc Driscoll?). In other words, Keller would know these problems first hand. Second, of all the other church cultures he describes, from the house congregation to the very large one, he does not devote a separate space to the problems inherent in these other sized churches. Keller does, to be sure, comment on ways that the other churches need to change if they are to become very large, in which case, being smaller is implicitly a disadvantage. (But if you’re in a place like Hillsdale, Michigan, with a population of 8,000, how could you ever become very large without putting all the other congregations out of business?)

Furthermore, Keller does mention the advantages of very large congregations. One of these is the following:

“Research and development” for the broader church. Again, the larger church is usually a good place for new curriculum, ministry structures, and the like to be formulated and tested. These can all be done more effectively by a large church than by denominations, smaller churches, or parachurch ministries.

But I thought that was the point of belonging to a denomination. After all, Great Commission Publication, the joint-effort of the OPC and the PCA, does precisely what Keller here suggests of the very large church. And what is more, they do so under the oversight of the General Assembly, which is, if you read your Bible aright, the God-appointed way to try new curricula. The assemblies of the church are, in fact, “ministry structures” in their own right.

So with all of the defects of the very large church, why is its size a given? And if Redeemer is experiencing the difficulties Keller describes, why do so many congregations want to be Redeemer-like. Maybe small is not just beautiful but – dare I say – biblical.

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Now He's Channeling Glen

Not Glen Beck but Uncle Glen, that is.

Carl Trueman is on a roll and a recent post gives his objections to celebrity pastors. A friend told Trueman about an inquirer who came to him with a doctrinal question because the inquirer’s own pastor was too busy on the speaking circuit to meet with his congregant.

To which Trueman responds:

What was interesting was that this person was a member at one of the flagship Reformed evangelical churches in the US where the pastor is seen as one of the great hopes for the spread of gospel churches in the post-Christian world. In fact, this church member had actually tried to speak to this pastor about the issue, but had not been able to get an appointment. The church leader was simply too busy, with countless external demands on his time; and now, presumably protected by a praetorian guard of personal assistants and associate pastors, he was essentially as unavailable to the masses in his large congregation as the average rock star is to the punters who buy his concert tickets. . . .

I am immensely grateful that I have only ever held membership in churches of a size where the pastor has always been accessible and available. Indeed, my pastors have always even known my name, my wife’s name, my kids’ names, and even what sports they play (this latter may seem trivial but it has been peculiarly important to me: my kids may not always enjoy going to church; but they have never doubted that the pastor actually cares for them; and that is something for which I am more grateful than I can articulate). Indeed, each of my pastors has cared about his people, not as a concept or a good idea or as an indeterminate mass, but as real, particular people with names and histories and strengths and weaknesses; and this surely reflects the character and love of God who, after, calls his sheep by name and cares for us all as individuals. If I gave you the names of said pastors, few reading this post would ever have heard of them: they have written no books; they have never pulled in huge crowds; and they have never spoken at megaconferences. But they have always been there when even the humblest church member has called out for advice, counsel or even help with bailing out a flooded basement.

This sounds a lot like the point that avuncular Glen made in the pages of New Horizons to his nephew James:

The problem with your attraction to Pastor Strong’s church is that you may be succumbing to unhealthy standards for a pastor. Yes, this man does much of what a minister is supposed to do, and he does it in a much more visible way than most. He studies Scripture, expounds and applies it, leads worship, and apparently assumes his responsibilities as a presbyter both in his session and in his presbytery. I say “apparently” because someone who travels the way he does, especially when he is in book-promotion mode, is not going to be available for some regularly appointed session and presbytery meetings, not to mention any committees on which he might serve. He is also an effective speaker, and I have heard a number of recordings that attest to his powers of delivery (though I am not as sure that he preaches as much as he “gives a talk”).

As I say, Pastor Strong does the things that pastors are supposed to do in a very visible or public way. This means that he is ministering the word to a wider audience than that of his congregation. But when folks read his books or listen to his online sermons, Strong is not acting in his capacity as a minister because he has no relationship to the reader or listener. They are not members of the congregation that called him. They did not take vows to submit to him in the Lord, and he has not made promises ratified by real people to minister the word faithfully to anyone who picks up his book in a bookstore. In other words, he has no personal, and therefore no pastoral, relationship to remote listeners and readers.

Granted, you say you would like to become a member of his congregation, and this would put you in a real relationship to Strong. But then comes the flip side of the problem I have just described. How can a man who is as busy as he is have time for a personal relationship with his congregants? What generally happens in situations like Strong’s is that he is at the top of a large pastoral staff in which the pastors without star power have the day-to-day responsibilities of shepherding the flock. At least that accounts for the pastoral oversight that Christians need. I can well imagine the disappointment you will experience if you move to Boston only to discover that you had more access to Strong during his visit to Rutherford than you do in the place where you worship.

Think of it another way. Have you ever heard of a celebrity dad? Well, of course, there are dads who are celebrities because of their work outside the home (Brad Pitt might qualify). But do you know any dads who are celebrities because of their activities as a father and husband? Bill Cosby’s character on his hit television show comes to mind, but that still isn’t the real thing. We do not know what Bill Cosby was like as a father because most of the duties of fathers are hidden from the public eye—taking out the trash, cleaning up after a child’s upset stomach, praying over the family meals. These are not tasks that create celebrity because they are unexceptional and do not attract publicity.

Some might argue that I am simply setting into motion a set of expectations that tolerates average or even mediocre men in the ministry—those without the ability to attract large audiences. Perhaps so, since I believe what Paul writes about God using earthen vessels to accomplish his purposes. The skills of the pastor are not what make his ministry effective; rather, it is the power of God that saves. My point, though, is not to deny the value of excellence. It is rather to underscore the quiet and routine ways in which the pastoral ministry transpires. Pastoral ministry is not flashy, but we need it in the same way that we need fathers and mothers to be in the home, not on speaking tours about parenthood.

It is good to know that Westminster Seminary has someone who understands the personal and routine nature of the pastoral ministry. Back in the day when I was at WTS, a certain transforming pastor in a large metropolis had a reputation at the seminary so large that he not only walked on water but hovered over it. Now, perhaps, sanity about the work of a pastor is reemerging at Machen’s seminary.