Bigger is Bigger

The appeal of Roman Catholicism is size. It has 1.2 BILLION members. It has 2000 years of history. It has oh so many paintings, galleries, cathedrals, yada yada. Size matters.

Redeemer Big Apple’s appeal is also to size — but it is the big city, and being connected to churches in other big cities, in following a pastor who has enough celebrity even for New York City editors. It’s size has almost nothing to do with the past, at least if Kathy Keller is to be believed:

I’ve saved my most important value for last: carefully screening our language is the most critical thing we can do.

I can’t find enough words to stress how important this is. We must have a care for how we choose our words, our images, and our ideas when we communicate, no matter what we’re communicating — whether it’s donor updates, lectures, or emails about events that are coming up. You absolutely must comb out all of the Christian subcultural phrases that clutter up so much of the Christian church. This is vitally important, and perhaps it’s even more important today than it was 30 years ago, because the cultural moment that we’re in now loathes evangelical Christians, and we don’t need to give them any more reasons to disrespect and dislike us.

Redeemer has been pretty good at this, partly because it was actually one of the major parts of my job description to search and destroy any piousbabble. That’s the word I coined to describe the-language-that-must-not-be-spoken. You’ve heard of psychobabble? That’s pop psychology drawn from catchphrases, media, podcast pontification and other non-academic sources.

Piousbabble are those phrases and those words that creep into your prayers and into your language.. Lord, we just, we just, Lord … We want traveling mercies, we want to bathe it in prayer, and we need prayer warriors, and we need a hedge of protection. All that sounds kind of normal-ish to most Christians. But it’s like Swahili to the nonbelievers and the seekers who are coming.

Does pious babble extend to words like Presbyterian, justification, Holy Spirit (Ghost is even more alarming, I guess), eschatology, ministry, or vocation?

That may explain why Tim Keller thought he needed a catechism other than the one his own communion uses.

But isn’t this piousbabble?

Sixth, that we do not hurt, or hate, or be hostile to our neighbor, but be patient and peaceful, pursuing even our enemies with love. Seventh, that we abstain from sexual immorality and live purely and faithfully, whether in marriage or in single life, avoiding all impure actions, looks, words, thoughts, or desires, and whatever might lead to them. Eighth, that we do not take without permission that which belongs to someone else, nor withhold any good from someone we might benefit.

Even so, if I can count on Kathy Keller to renounce the use of such pious phrases as “dead orthodoxy,” I’m on board.


What If Redeemer NYC Were Big Enough?

Some big changes at the most influential PCA congregation IN THE WORLD!

Here is the text of yesterday’s announcement:

The Center for Faith & Work (CFW) is pleased to announce the newest phase of its fifteen-year history as its staff joins Redeemer City to City (CTC) and continues to serve the Redeemer churches and New York City, while over time broadening its reach to global cities.

“Redeemer is changing with CFW because Redeemer is now not one church, it’s a family of three churches, which means it’s immediately looking outward to bless the whole city,” says Redeemer’s founding pastor Tim Keller. “Redeemer has become centrifugal; that is, it’s starting to push out to start new churches and help others start new churches. And so Redeemer is actually looking outwards, just like CFW will be looking outward, beyond Redeemer. They’re both making the same change at the same time. If CFW stays locked in Redeemer alone, then I don’t think a lot of its wisdom will be as available to the world. This is why now is the optimal time to do this.”

So apparently, Redeemer NYC is too New York to be of use to the rest of the world, unlike Redeemer CTC which is apparently global in orientation and structure. Do the folks who are New York Presbyterians really mean to imply that understandings of vocation in New York are parochial and cannot work in other parts of the world, unless integrated into a global organization? Since Tim Keller recently explained his worries about nationalism, what must he make of metropolitanism, something like the hyping of the Big Apple above the needs and realities of the rest of the world?

As the announcement explains:

Throughout its existence, CFW has encountered New Yorkers of all backgrounds facing a decidedly more global vocational culture. In our quickly changing world, the need for new tools, curriculum, and communities that help Christians wisely and meaningfully bring their faith to bear at work, across all spheres, is paramount.

City to City provides a developed network and infrastructure to strengthen CFW in its three-fold aim of equipping, connecting, and mobilizing Christians around the world in faith and work integration. City to City ensures a centralized effort towards that global expansion, while continuing a close and collaborative relationship with the Redeemer Presbyterian Churches.

So being a Christian banker in Beijing is decidedly different from banking on Wall Street?

Aside from vocation, this announcement raises questions about organizational footprint of Redeemer’s operations and Keller’s alliances. Are we really supposed to believe that Redeemer NYC — whichever congregation — was too inflexible a platform for the Center for Faith & Work? When did ecclesiology or administrative restrictions prevent Redeemer NYC from expanding its reach, or starting new programs? Heck, I suspect the PCA’s Mission to the World could have incorporated the work that the Center does if New York’s administrators had decided to work with PCA missionaries and their offices in different parts of the world? Is the Center’s activity really so special that the PCA’s structures can’t handle it? After all, the reading list available at the Center’s website is very, oh so very neo-Calvinist, with Al Wolter’s Creation Regained occupying the “advanced” understanding of vocation:

Few contemporary books have been cited as often by those who are writing about taking up callings and vocations faithfully. This this serious little book walks us through the key Biblical themes of the goodness of creation, the seriousness of the fall into sin, the decisive redemption gained by Christ, and the implications of working out the promised hope for a creation-wide restoration. With the keen eye of a philosopher and the passion of a Bible scholar, Wolter’s offers one of the definitive, concise books about a Christian worldview. One of the most important books for those of us in CFW and highly recommended to understand a uniquely Christian view of cultural and vocational engagement.

Granted, the neo-Calvinists never took root in NYC after the English displaced the Dutch colonists about two-thirds into the seventeenth century. But what is distinctly global about a set of readings that come largely from Christian Reformed writers living in North America and published Dutch-American editors in Grand Rapids?

And what about The Gospel Coalition? Is it parachurch chopped liver? Don’t the Allies have branches all over the world? If Redeemer can partner with TGC on The New City Catechism (TGC has a link at it’s menu page), why can’t the Center for Faith & Work collaborate with the Coalition in it’s own Faith & Work work?

The word that comes to mind is marvelous. But the marvel experienced here is that anyone in Presbyterian ministry has time for all of these structural niceties even when the bells and whistles of Presbyterian polity don’t seem to be all that important.

Is the PCA Big Enough?

The death of R. C. Sproul and the occasion of The New Yorker publishing Tim Keller provide the opportunity for further reflections on ecclesiology and parachurch agencies. For instance, Keller’s article in The New Yorker includes this byline:

Timothy Keller is the founder and Pastor Emeritus of the Redeemer Presbyterian Churches of New York City.

And here is how Christianity Today began its death notice for Sproul:

Late PCA leader influenced generations of Christians by filling the gap “between Sunday school and seminary.”

Both men belong/belonged to the PCA. But no one identified either man in his professional life with the PCA. Keller is his own church-planting guru with Redeemer City-to-City as the vehicle for funding church start ups in big cities around the world. Sproul made Ligonier Ministries his brand. Both are hugely successful authors who are/were known more for books than denominational affiliation. Neither man found it possible to work within the confines of denominational mechanisms. Could Keller have somehow made his church planting operation part of the PCA’s Mission to the World? (And what if Keller decided to put Crossway Publishing on his back and allow them to publish his New York Times bestsellers? Or, what if Keller became the face of the Gospel Coalition and transferred his energies from Redeemer’s many operations into the Gospel Coalition’s many operations?) Imagine what that might do for the PCA’s name recognition. Or could Sproul have operated Ligonier as an arm of the PCA’s Discipleship Ministries (the equivalent of the OPC’s Committee on Christian Education)? The answer is yes. But that affirmative would have changed significantly the shape of what Keller and Sproul accomplished as expositors of God’s word and teachers of doctrine.

This is not meant as a criticism of either man. The intention here is simply to note the real limitations of denominations. Everyone faces them. Denominations are clunky, procedural, deliberative, slow. Presbyterian denominations even more so. So to take a non-profit and move it under the umbrella of another non-profit is a dicey institutional maneuver. At the same time, becoming the head of a denomination’s church planting operations or its Christian education agency is to give up space for personal initiative and take a back seat to supervising committees and denominational procedures.

And yet, not everyone conducts work that duplicates that of a denominational agency or committee. In the case of a church historian, for instance, a denominational committee may publish books that cover institutional or theological history but they don’t produce books on the arts and sciences. In which case, an academic historian needs to find other publishing outlets for non-denominational writing. At the same time, writers and authors constantly face the temptation to create their own media company. Think Rush Limbaugh. Then imagine Rush having to cooperate and even submit to the guidance of the Republican Party. Not gonna happen. But when Rush wants to achieve a higher profile, does he work with his own website and editorial services or does he seek a trade press that knows the ropes of getting books into bookstores and handles distribution and invoices?

Which comes around then to a question bigger than celebrity, namely, entrepreneurialism. To what degree should pastors and theologians be in the business not only of creating ideas and arguments that encourage the faithful but also the start of organizations for promoting their own initiatives? The related question is whether denominations or church government is compatible with entrepreneurial pastors. Communions like the PCA, from the outside, look fairly capacious. If the OPC has the reputation for helicopter Presbyterianism — which is so far from reality — then the PCA is a Presbyterian version of a confederation of congregations like the URC or the SBC. It would seem to be a perfect place to allow for energetic and industrious pastors to work out their gifts and callings.

But the examples of Sproul and Ligonier, and Keller and Redeemer suggest otherwise. Not even as vigorous, missional, and hands-off a denomination as the PCA is capable of employing the talents of men like Sproul and Keller.

So either denominations have run their course of usefulness, or gifted ministers need to turn down their talents to settings conducive to a communion’s normal operations.


Do Celebrity Pastors Need Their Own Publishers?

I received my monthly newsletter from the Redeemer City to City network and the announcement of a new publishing endeavor reminded me of the origins of the movie studio, United Artists. In response to tighter control by the existing Hollywood studios and a rigid system of movie production (both in financing and creative content), in 1920 Mary Pickford, Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and D. W. Griffith started a new company with the express purpose of producing movies by these highly acclaimed actors and directors. Over time, United Artists fizzled, only to be revived by Arthur Krim and Robert Benjamin, who turned UA into one of Hollywood’s more successful companies (even launching a record label for a time), until the bloated Heaven’s Gate almost put the company out of business.

What, pray tell, does any of this have to do with Redeemer City to City? Well, it turns out that the Keller brand (TKNY) is now starting a publishing firm. The description of operations is murky since it appears that Content Labs, the name of the publisher, is going to do a lot with products related to Keller’s existing books. This would seem to indicate a kind of symbiotic relationship between Keller’s publishers, who will print and distribute his books, and the church publisher, which will print, sell, and distribute study guides to the books.

But Content Labs also promises new books. Here is a description from one of Redeemer’s many webpages:

To help us reach a wider audience in our target cities, Labs publishes content resources for leaders to use for evangelism, discipleship, and every stage of spiritual growth, as well as learning platforms for a global community of leaders.

Publications to date:

Books: King’s Cross.

DVD Group Studies: The Prodigal God, Gospel in Life, The Reason for God.
Coming Soon: The Meaning of Marriage, Center Church, King’s Cross study, and books on Preaching, Faith & Work, and Suffering.

Among the several puzzling aspects of this venture is the obvious redundancy of the books that Content Labs promises. I can think of any number of works already published by P&R or Crossway or Baker that cover preaching, vocation, and suffering. To borrow another movie analogy (i.e. Barton Fink), these other publishers’ books may not measure up because they don’t have that “Tim Keller feel.” But do we really need another publisher to produce books on such topics? Redeemer’s niche seems to be that it is THE uber-urban church and so it apparently is at the front-lines of urban church planting, thus making its wisdom on urban ministry unparalleled. But does that make John Piper and Minneapolis chopped liver?

The question of redundancy is especially pertinent since Content Labs is asking donors to contribute to the endeavor. According another webpage for Content Labs:

In 2011, our total budget is $890,000. We plan to make about 20-25% of our budget through sales and royalties of our
books and DVD group studies. This means we need to raise 75-80% of our budget through donations from individuals like

Since United Artists started out with Hollywood stars who already had a lot of money, the new producer could afford to risk a new movie-making venture. Can Redeemer really afford another expense stream? And will Content Labs endure beyond the brand name recognition of TKNY?

Where Have All the Presbyterians Gone? They Joined Networks

Russell Moore, academic dean at Southern Baptist Seminary, wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal that attracted the attention of many Presbyterians thanks to his title, “Where Have All the Presbyterians Gone?” Since Moore is a Southern Baptist, perhaps he should not have weighed in on matters Presbyterian. But then again, asking the question “Where Have All the Baptists Gone?” would be silly since the Southern Baptist Convention weighs in a the largest Protestant entity in the United States. We can’t really call it a denomination or a communion because being Baptist is premised on preserving the authority and autonomy of the local congregation.

Moore’s point was not so much to tell Presbyterians to shape up but to observe the decline of denominationalism in the United States – or more accurately, the loss of denominational brands for believers’ identity, such as “Hug me, I’m a Presbyterian.” He writes:

Studies conducted by secular and Christian organizations indicate that we are. Fewer and fewer American Christians, especially Protestants, strongly identify with a particular religious communion—Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, etc. According to the Baylor Survey on Religion, nondenominational churches now represent the second largest group of Protestant churches in America, and they are also the fastest growing.

Moore argues that the rise of megachurches corresponds to Americans looking for church for practical reasons: “Is the nursery easy to find? Do I like the music? Are there support groups for those grappling with addiction?” If people bring these concerns to a Baptist church, they may be disappointed: “A church that requires immersion baptism before taking communion, as most Baptist traditions do, will likely get indignant complaints from evangelical visitors who feel like they’ve been denied service at a restaurant.”

But Moore sees some hopeful signs for a return to an older understanding of church, grounded in a doctrinal and evangelistic identity. One sign is the growth of the Southern Baptist Convention, which has 10,000 seminarians now a six different schools.

Moore concludes:

If denominationalism simply denotes a “brand” vying for market share, then let denominationalism fall. But many of us believe denominations can represent fidelity to living traditions of local congregations that care about what Jesus cared about—personal conversion, discipleship, mission and community. Perhaps the denominational era has just begun.

The SBC may not be the best case for denominationalism not simply because it is self-consciously not a denomination but also because it hardly has the order or unity that insures a SBC congregation in Saddleback, California will be remotely similar to one in Louisville, Kentucky. But the point about the decline of denominations is fitting and the example of Presbyterians is a good one. Aside from the mainline PCUSA, which continue to hemorrhage its millions, the largest Presbyterians denominations are in the thousands: the PCA at roughly 300,000, the EPC at approximately 60,000, and the OPC bringing up the rear at around 30,000.

One factor in Presbyterian decline that Moore should not have been expected to acknowledge (since you need some local knowledge) is the phenomenon of Presbyterians becoming networkers. An irony of Moore’s piece is that it came out the same week that David Nicholas, one of the leaders in church networking, died. The founding pastor of Spanish River Church (PCA) in Boca Raton, Florida, Nicholas also established the Church Planting Network, which according to the website has nine churches around the world.

That may seem an insignificant number until you factor in that Nicholas was an important force behind two other significant church planting networks: Acts 29 and Redeemer City to City. Nicholas’ Church Planting Network may not have impressive numbers, at least according to its website, but his congregation, Spanish River, helped to plant close to forty other churches in the PCA, including Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church. It is hard not to imagine that the idea for Keller’s Redeemer City to City network of churches came from Nicholas’ own Church Planting Network.

But even more impressive, if you’re of the New School Presbyterian worldview, is Nicholas’ connection to Mark Driscoll and the Acts 29 Network. According to the Acts 29 website:

Pastor Mark Driscoll founded the Acts 29 Network with Nicholas in 2000. Nicholas was influential in starting many current Acts 29 churches, and provided much support for many of our church planters.

The list of congregations associate with Acts 29 is too long to count – though it does feature some nifty logos (which also make the page a bit tardy in loading) – but it indicates another successful network that traces its roots to Nicholas. I am almost tempted to say that Nicholas is the man behind the Gospel Coalition since his fingerprints are all over two of the larger celebrities in that phalanx of Christian allies. Which makes Nicholas the leaven for yet another network of congregations, since the Gospel Coalition is also web of congregations.

And just when we were finished with Presbyterian networks comes news of yet another Presbyterian connection of congregations, in this case a group of churches from the mainline PCUSA who have finally concluded that their denomination is “deathly ill.” As such, these pastors believe a new form of connection is important for Presbyterian conservatives:

We believe the PC(USA) will not survive without drastic intervention, and stand ready to DO something different, to thrive as the Body of Christ. We call others of like mind to envision a new future for congregations that share our Presbyterian, Reformed, Evangelical heritage. If the denomination has the ability and will to move in this new direction, we will rejoice. Regardless, a group of us will change course, forming a new way for our congregations to relate. We hate the appearance of schism – but the PC(USA) is divided already. Our proposal only acknowledges the fractured denomination we have become.

In which case, the answer to Moore’s column is this: Presbyterians abandoned the structures that made their denominations tick – such instrumentalities as sessions, presbyteries, synods, and assemblies for overseeing the ministry of word and sacrament. Instead of being Presbyterian, many Presbyterians find more congenial surroundings in locales where the schmoozing, entrepreneurialism and informal alliance-building are characteristic of being the church. Have they swapped Presbyterianism for Rotarianism? Maybe so.

This is a revealing development on two levels. The first is the fading cachet of Presbyterianism itself as a religious and theological brand. Time was in the not so distant past when saying you were Presbyterian was to indicate that you were part of a broad swath of American Protestantism that was respectable, reliable, dignified, and even refined. Granted, such cultural Presbyterianism was too much bound up with the mainstream Protestant project of aiding and abetting the American way as the Protestant way. Still, being Presbyterian was desirable because it connoted a certain seriousness of purpose – like DuPont or IBM.

For conservatives outside the mainline, being Presbyterian said less about being from the right social circles and more about identifying with the Reformation and its wonder-working powers in reshaping western civilization. To be Presbyterian was to draw a connection to John Calvin and John Knox, and to place yourself within a certain trajectory of European history and the West’s heritage. To be sure, Presbyterianism was more than history or cultural significance, but it suggested a faith and worship that was older, weightier, and more profound than fundamentalism or dispensationalism.

But Presbyterianism no longer has such cultural resonance. The networkers seem to have calculated that they have less to lose by abandoning an older identity for a new constellation of congregations orbiting around a single congregation, visionary pastor, or – better yet – celebrity preacher.

The second oddity about the current Presbyterian penchant for networking is how little consideration its advocates seem to give to the ephemeral character of these ties. Say what you will about denominations, they last in ways that networks do not. Does anyone remember the Moral Majority? How about the Evangelical Alliance? So why will Acts 29 survive the career of Mark Driscoll or Redeemer City to City outlive Tim Keller? Once Jack Miller, the founder of one of Presbyterianism’s original networks, the New Life phenomenon, New Life Presbyterian congregations have persisted but the buzz no longer fizzes. So if you are a congregation looking for a larger set of associations, you may think that Acts 29 is a solid bet. But will you actually receive any of the care and oversight that a Presbyterian denomination provides through its – yes dull – but effective structures?

Of course, the more important question is whether God has ordained networks to feed his flock. Granted, some will likely argue that denominations have no such divine imprimatur. But because Presbyterian denominations do have sessions, presbyteries, and assemblies, they are actually far more biblical than any network of churches, no matter how Calvinistic its celebrity leader or creative its congregations’ logos.

Correction: The Evangelical Presbyterian Church claims approximately 115,000 members. (Thanks to one of our scrupulous readers.)