Experimental Catechesis

The news of the gospel allies teaming up with Tim Keller to produce a catechism is a target too big to miss. Given the urban hipster brand of TKNY, one can only wonder if the catechism (which is supposed to include material from the older catechisms) will have Q&A’s like this:

Q. What is the chief end of man?
A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him hedonistically, especially in the city.

Q. How does God execute his decrees?
A. God executes his decrees in the works of creation, providence, and urbanism.

You get the point.

Keller’s own explanation for the import of catechesis, however, did not produce laughs but did cause some head scratching. He begins with a Jeremiah-like lament:

The church in Western culture today is experiencing a crisis of holiness. To be holy is to be “set apart,” different, living life according to God’s Word and story, not according to the stories that the world tells us are the meaning of life.

This is a curious way to begin for someone whose church has been such a booster of a city not exactly known for its restraint and modesty. If you wanted to be holy, you might pick a different city — say, Toledo — in which to live and minister. Granted, New Yorkers also need to be holy. But the pro-city rhetoric of Keller and Redeemer PCA has not echoed Tertullian, as in what has Jerusalem to do with Athens? Instead, the refrain has been more like how can Athens embody Jerusalem.

When Keller turns to his brief for catechesis he invokes the sort of experiential piety that Old Lifers have long associated with New Life Presbyterianism.

Catechesis is an intense way of doing instruction. The catechetical discipline of memorization drives concepts in deep, encouraging meditation on truth. It also holds students more accountable to master the material than do other forms of education.

Truth be told, catechesis can actually be dull, tedious, and hard. And the results of mastering the doctrines taught in the answers will not necessarily be immediate. If you carry around the truths long enough, you may begin to see their significance. But just like the process of learning the difference between the nominative and accusative cases in Greek grammar seems pedantic until the student goes farther in reading and even writing (as is the case with grammar instruction more generally), so to the doctrinal grammar of the catechism will likely strike many students as boring. The new case for catechesis really should set expectations at the right level.

Keller appeals to another warm and fuzzy reason for catechesis when he writes:

Catechesis is also different from listening to a sermon or lecture—or reading a book—in that it is deeply communal and participatory. The practice of question-answer recitation brings instructors and students into a naturally interactive, dialogical process of learning.

Again, I wonder if Keller is getting catechumens’ hopes unrealistically up. Communal and participatory is not what comes to mind when I think of taking out my Shorter Catechism pocket cards while I was out walking and memorizing the catechism. “Deeply” communal and participatory produces a giggle. Of course, catechesis done in a certain environment could turn out to be communal and participatory. But the catechism itself won’t do this. It will require a pastor, elders, parents and teachers creating settings that may have such qualities.

And if that’s the case, if the deeply communal nature of catechesis depends more on the environment than the catechism itself, then I sure hope the gospel allies are going to provide a manual that describes wall colors, carpeting or wood floor covering, lighting options, room temperatures (radiators or forced air?), seating arrangements, and which cookies are best dunked in milk to go with the topic of baptism. Call it New Measures Catechesis (and hear John Williamson Nevin’s bones rattling around in his grave).


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?

Kingdom Sloppy: A Big Bowl of Wrong

Readers of Oldlife may think I am too hard on Kuyper and neo-Calvinism. I know of one reader and commenter who regularly replies that I am just pointing out errors but that neo-Calvinism in its purity is — well — pure. Another respondent has admitted to some flaws along the way but nothing inherently erroneous about neo-Calvinism per se.

And then I receive a deluge of examples that suggest neo-Calvinism is not simply prone to abuse by a few of its proponents. Instead, repeatedly, neo-Calvinism blurs the distinctions between the church and culture (what we used to call the world), and consistently does not recognize the fundamental difference between redemption and cultural activity. Herewith some examples (and I have the good Dr. K. to thank for several of them).

The first comes from James K. A. Smith in an article he wrote for Pro Rege in which he tried to argue for more of a liturgical component for neo-Calvinism. (I actually think Smith has a point, especially when he conceives of a church-college as a worshiping community in which liturgy should be at the center of campus life.) But to defend his view, he observes a tendency within neo-Calvinism (and he is pro-neo-Calvinist) that is precisely what Old Lifers detect in Kuyperianism:

Kuyper has been inherited in different ways in North America, yielding different Kuyperianisms. While Zwaanstra suggests that “ecclesiology was the core of [Kuyper’s] theology,” one quickly notes that it is the church as organism that is the “heart” of his doctrine. This emphasis, coupled with some other emphases in Kuyper, led to a strain of Kuyperianism that actually had little place for the church as institute in its understanding of Christian engagement with culture. Indeed, there have even been strains of Kuyperianism that have been quite anti-ecclesial. On the other hand, Kuyper himself clearly saw a crucial role for the church as institute and devoted a great deal of his time, energy, and gifts to its welfare and reform.

Next comes a quotation, which also came to my attention through Dr. K., which seems to run rough shod over distinctions between redemption and creation, such that Bach, bordeaux, and republican governments become the fruit of the Spirit.

Reformational Christians are not very accustomed to relating the working of God’s Spirit to nature and to culture. The under-appreciation of the broader work of the Spirit betrays an incorrect vision of the relationship between nature and grace. Here, too often the point of departure involves an antithesis between the general and the special working of the Spirit. Only the latter is saving.

For the Reformation, grace is not opposed to nature, but opposed to sin. By grace, a person does not become super-human, but genuinely human. Grace restores and redeems nature, but it adds nothing new to nature. “The re-creation is not a second, new creation. It introduces no new substance, but is essentially reformatory,” according to Herman Bavinck. . . .

The Bible connects the work of the Spirit also to the gift of art. That applies to devotional music, to be sure. But architects and visual artists like Bezalel and Oholiab were also filled with the Spirit of God in order to be able to do their creative work [Ex. 31.6; 36.1-2; 38.23].

Christians may pray for the working of the Holy Spirit in their own lives, but also for the corruption-restraining working of the Spirit in society. That working extends to the meetings of literary guilds, of the advertising review council, and of the film rating commission. Where the Holy Spirit is absent, the demons of terror have free reign.

Therefore the church prays for the world this petition as well: “Veni creator Spiritus”—Come, Creator Spirit! (Dr. H. van den Belt, “Focus op bekering mag zicht op vernieuwing aarde niet ontnemen,” Reformatorisch Dagblad [13 June 2011])

We can see where such blurring leads when we look at a new initiative at Redeemer Presbyterian Church. I learned about this one thanks to the ever watchful eyes of the Brothers Bayly. (It should also be mentioned that the good Dr. K. seems to approve of Tim Keller because of the New York pastor’s use of Kuyper.)

The Center for Faith and Work at Redeemer PCA/NYC is hosting a conference this fall on the gospel and culture. The vision for this conference sounds like this:

“And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem,coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” Rev 21:2

In this great climax of redemption, we get a glimpse of where all of history is moving, and the scope of God’s redemptive purposes extends far beyond what we could have ever imagined. God is at work preparing his bride, and this bride is a holy city—a city designed and built by God Himself. God has intimately invited us into this redemptive story, and when we understand how the story ends, the way we see and engage the city around us changes. When we begin to realize that God cares for New York City, in all of its dimensions and sectors, our eyes become opened to see His love and care for all that we often overlook. Our hope for this conference is that you will begin to see how real the gospel is in every inch of our city and to leave with a renewed sense of purpose and calling as you see hope-filled glimpses of the great City of Peace that is to come.

What is striking about this understanding of the gospel in the city is that the gospel seems to be there even if the church isn’t proclaiming the gospel or transforming the culture. It sounds like this wing of Redeemer believes that the gospel is already there in NYC and so Christians need to become more sensitive to it so they can see how God is at work everywhere. So much for needing to transform the city. The church needs to be culturalized.

To add plausibility to this interpretation, consider that one day of the conference will be devoted to “glimpses,” that is, a “cultural event (1) based in New York City, (2) experienced in community, (3) which points toward evidence of God’s glory and Sovereignty over all things.” Conference participants may gain a glimpse by engaging in one of the following suggested activities:

STARTER IDEAS — Food Tour · Metropolitan Museum · BAM · NYPhil · Brooklyn Heights History Walk · Brooklyn Bridge Architecture Walk · The Morgan Library · Times Square “Branding” Walk · Off B’way · Carnegie Hall · City Opera · City Ballet · IFC · Angelika · Lincoln Square Cinema · Jazz @ Lincoln Center · Fashion Show · Joyce Dance · B.B. King’s · NY Historical Society · The MET · Rockwood Hall · Living Room · 92nd St.

I have had some very good meals in NYC. They were better temporally than the meal of the Lord’s Supper that I now eat weekly at our OPC congregation (though the bread made by the pastor’s wife is very good!!). But I never suspected that when dining on Osso Bucco I was actually experiencing the coming of the kingdom of grace or the relishing the fruit of the Holy Spirit. And I don’t think it is necessarily fundamentalist to distinguish peace, love, and joy from the creations of Winslow Homer and Woody Allen.

In which case, if the gospel can be construed so broadly, and if Kuyperianism has a tendency for the church as organism to outrun the church as institute, why won’t neo-Calvinists exert a little internal regulation and pot down the excess? For that matter, do the Allies at the Gospel Coalition really endorse Redeemer church’s understanding of the gospel and culture?

The culture cannot be saved — only created beings with souls can. But if you are in the habit long enough of thinking that cultures can be saved, then perhaps you start to adjust your understanding of the gospel and find salvation in the culture that you deem civilized (or hip).

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.

End of Year Giving, End of Visible Church

First it was Justin Taylor informing the world (or at least the readers of his blog) that Desiring God Ministries needed money. The post from last June was entitled, “Helping DG,” and at first I thought, even hoped, that Justin was very kind to offer me help. Turned out that the DG in question was not the underemployed one living in downtown Philadelphia but the Minneapolis-based entity who last summer was facing significant budget cuts.

Then it was a year-end post about the Gospel Coalition itself needing funds.

And now I receive an email from Tim Keller himself, requesting support for Redeemer City to City. Although I had heard of Redeemer-like churches, and knew of Keller’s involvement in both GC and the Presbyterian Church of America, I had not known about his/Redeemer’s “movement” of global churches, designed to renew global cities. In addition to being a pastor in the PCA and a best-selling author, Keller is president of RCTC. A year end email indicated the following need:

Dear Redeemer City to City supporter,

Over twenty years ago I received a calling to move my family to New York City and plant a church. God blessed our church beyond all of our expectations, and has blessed New York City through many other ministries as well.

Today, we are standing at the cusp of another humbling opportunity – to use our twenty years of experience ministering and planting churches in New York City to serve a groundswell of church planters and urban Christians in the great cities of the world. In today’s globalized world, cities will exercise more power than nations in the previous age (see Foreign Policy’s recent cover story).

To date we have helped to plant 190 churches in 35 global cities, many of which will plant other churches. In 2010 alone, we saw 34 new churches started in Tokyo, Barcelona, Johannesburg, São Paulo, Kuala Lumpur and 15 other cities, and published resources to help churches like these do discipleship, mercy & justice and evangelism.

We still have a budget gap of $200,000 for 2010. Please consider making a one-time or recurring gift to support these gospel movements in the great cities of the world.
Grace & peace,

Tim Keller
President, Redeemer City to City

Not only am I amazed that Keller has the time to be involved with the PCA, GC, and RCTC – the OPC is a sufficient ministry outlet for my time and offerings – but I do wonder about the built-in redundancy of these efforts. Would GC have an easier time raising money and hiring staff if they could simply incorporate Desiring God and Redeemer City to City in its structure and activities? That seems logical enough. But then why would Keller and John Piper join GC but keep their own networks of churches and supporters?

I know the non-profit world has much overlap between persons and institutions, but that overlap has limits. For instance, the chairman of the board of the Philadelphia Museum of Art would likely have to cut back his commitment to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art if, for instance, he was serving on PAFA’s board when appointed to chair Philadelphia’s museum. So why would Keller or Piper, reconsider their own involvement with RCTC and DG respectively if they joined a coalition for the gospel? Is GC simply window dressing, you know, drive for show, put for dough?

And this says nothing of Redeemer NYC’s membership in the PCA. What does membership in RCTC mean, compared to the communion of the PCA? Are all ministers simply free-lance entrepreneurs of religious goods with no restraints from obligations to sets of churches or ministries? Maybe, but that’s not the way Coke and Pepsi operate; even the world of for-profits recognizes some form of brand loyalty such that you can’t – at least the last time I was there – purchase Pepsi products at McDonald’s.

This may seem an overly narrow reading of religious identity or Christian fellowship, as if belonging to GC or DG or RCTC might place limits on someone’s additional fellowship outlets. But it is the case that if you join the OPC, you have to renounce other memberships, such as the Southern Baptist Convention, or the Free Masons (no intention of drawing equivalency there). The OPC and the SBC understand the nature and work of the church differently, and also disagree about theological matters. This does not mean that Southern Baptists are barred from the Lord’s Supper at an OPC congregation. But it does mean that SBC pastors will not preach in OPC pulpits, and it also means that someone coming from the SBC into the OPC will need to make another profession of faith and be examined by the session.

But in the case of GC, DG, and RCTC, no such boundaries exist, at least for the leaders who attract readers, donors, and fans. Apparently, someone can be part of DG, GC, and RCTC – though since Keller’s movement has a Gospel DNA, one may wonder if GC’s commitment to the gospel is less genetically precise. Plus, another distinction between RCTC and GC is that many of the churches that belong to GC are not sufficiently urban or global to qualify for RCTC. In which case, a congregation’s geography matters more than its commitment to proclaim the gospel. I had heard of race, class and gender. But now we need to add city?

Well, actually GC calls is membership a “city.” The website says:

Our online community of over 8,000 people from 65 different countries is called The City. You will find groups based on geographical location as well as special interests in order to help you connect with like-minded, gospel-centered people.

Apparently this “city” is not sufficiently urban or global to be part of RCTC. New York City does have high standards, after all, though Scriptural norms for belonging and fellowship might embrace suburbanites and agrarians. Heck, it would also include the homeless since we are all pilgrims.

Anyway, task of mapping the boundaries and ties among these various evangelical and somewhat Calvinistic enterprises is almost as complex as the Southern Baptist Convention’s hierarchy is Baroque. If belong to GC is to be part of “the city,” then becoming part of RCTC is, I guess, to join the ueber-urban inner city circle of GC. Yet, when you look at GC’s handy church directory, you see that of the five churches listed at the RCTC list of Philadelphia CTC churches, only liberti church east and Grace Church of Philadelphia also belong to GC. (Apparently, neither organization has rules about spelling and capitalization.) But a comparison of these cites also shows that RCTC has more members in Philadelphia than GC (five to four). If both groups opened up to each others membership, then RCTC and GC would have seven congregations in Philadelphia; as it stands they limp along with reduced numbers.

And to keep the comparison going, RCTC has no churches in Lake Wobegone country where John Piper ministers. But Piper’s congregation is part of GC, and Trinity City Church in St. Paul is the other urban member from the Twin Cities. (With a name like that, you would think Trinity City Church would be a shoe in for joining RCTC.)

And what of the Baptist General Convention and the PCA? Are these denominations and associations of congregations simply chopped liver? I can understand that an independent congregation that wants to feel connected may look to GC as a form of fellowship beyond the local congregation. To alleviate their predicament, they could actually consider becoming part of a Reformed denomination or federation, but Reformed communions are a little more rigorous about baptism than GC, DG, or RCTC. Still, if you already belong to the PCA or the General Baptist Convention, why would you need to join GC or RCTC or DG? And if GC, RCTC, and DG did not exist, would the ministries of denominations like the GBC and the PCA be healthier and less in need of year-end contributions themselves? I mean, do the GBC and PCA not promote the gospel, desire God, or exclude urban congregations?

But over against the disadvantages of denominations, GC, DG, and RCTC allow for forms of membership, loyalty, and fellowship that come with few restrictions and plenty of opportunities for giving financially. One of the virtues of the U.S. currency, even in this difficult economy, is that it works in all parachurch agencies and Christian movements. What is more, the U.S. Christians who own those dollars don’t need to belong to any ministry, movement, or coalition in order to give. All these persons need to do is neglect giving any thought to what sort of obligation their own church membership and denominational ties places upon them.

If Justin Taylor Gives to the OPC’s Thank Offering, I’ll Contribute to the Gospel Coalition (maybe)

Golfers know the adage that you drive for show and putt for dough. The translation for non-golfers is that 300-yard drives don’t matter if you three-putt the green on to which you’ve chipped because of your impressive – u-dah-man!! – drive. In fact, if you don’t sink your birdie putt (one under par for the golf challenged), you are not going to be much more than a duffer.

This adage would seem to apply to the Gospel Coalition, though it needs to be adjusted to this – join for show and withhold the dough. According to Justin Taylor, GC is in the midst of a year-end fund-raising effort in which supporters who contribute the most will receive ten free registrations for the GC annual conference, along with ten free nights at the conference hotel in Chicago. (Since I doubt W. C. Fields would have been much of a fan of GC, I wonder if his joke would be that second-prize is 20 free conference registrations and 20 free nights in the hotel – 30 if in Philadelphia.) And so that everyone can benefit from the effort, anyone who starts a campaign page at his or her blog or website will receive a copy of Tim Keller’s DVD curriculum, Gospel in Life.

To what purpose do contributions go? So far GC amounts primarily to a website/blog presence and a national annual conference. To accomplish this, the Coalition employs three full-time people. According to Taylor, “The Gospel Coalition (TGC) is not a church, but it does exist to serve and honor the Church. TGC is ultimately ‘a fellowship of evangelical churches deeply committed to renewing our faith in the gospel of Christ and to reforming our ministry practices to conform fully to the Scriptures.’” He adds that the Coalition is more than just a set of blogs or a conference sponsor but “ a place where ‘humble orthodoxy’ is modeled, thoughtful arguments are made, people are loved and honored, conversation is advanced, and the gospel is applied—all to the glory of God.”

Among the benefits of belonging to the Coalition is the Ordinary Pastors project. Since the link that Justin supplied for this endeavor is defective, either GC attracts no ordinary pastors or they need another staff member.

Another feature that caught my eye was GC’s directory of churches (which again has a defective link at Tayloy’s blog). This is a nifty device that shows where GC congregations can be found across the greatest nation on God’s green (and warming) earth. But the directory comes with this warning: “Disclaimer: The Gospel Coalition does not endorse all churches in the directory. We are not able to fully vet all churches.”

This is a remarkable concession and points to the relevance of applying the golfing adage about putting to GC. Apparently, churches will join GC but will not give. The advantage of this strategy is obvious – you get some free publicity and can draft off the celebrity of John Piper and Tim Keller, but you don’t have to find any money in your budget for membership dues. At the same time, why wouldn’t a coalition committed to the gospel be willing to vet anyone that joins its ranks?

So Taylor’s pitch for GC could be improved if the Coalition offered a better product. In fact, better products exist and they are called not parachurch organizations but churches. In my own case, the OPC can vouch in some way for all of the congregations that belong to its fellowship. Not only that, the OPC can vouch for all its church members who are in good standing. We also have a website with a church directory that allows people to find an OP congregation. We also have lots of publications that are widely available to anyone, whether they belong to the Gospel Coalition or to the Southern Baptist Convention or to Redeemer Presbyterian Church. And we have way more than three full-time employees – just look at our directory and see all the pastors, missionaries, and teachers. And we also have a relatively uniform product – all of our officers agree about infant baptism and follow the Westminster Confession on the Lord’s Supper. And don’t talk to me about the sovereignty of God. The OPC has the sovereignty of God coursing through its spiritual veins, from Van Til’s apologetics to its commitment to the ordinary work of proclaiming the gospel in the United States and foreign lands. For those interested in a conference, can anyone beat a visit with presbytery or an all-week’s paid trip to General Assembly?

By the way, the OPC is also having a year-end fund-drive, called our Thank Offering, which solicits offerings for the General Assembly’s programs and agencies.

If the OPC is a better philanthropic value than GC, why does Justin Taylor want his readers (including Orthodox Presbyterians like me) to give to the Coalition without mentioning better options like the OPC for spiritual investing? And a related question is why do parachurch organizations have no problem looking far and wide for contributors while churches don’t expect non-members to give to denominational or church causes? I wonder, for instance, what kind of budget Keller’s Redeemer church has allocated for the Coalition in this fiscal year? Or Piper’s Bethlehem Baptist? Shouldn’t a fund drive for GC start with GC members, especially those congregations that have more than others? Meanwhile, shouldn’t the Coalition be circumspect about raising funds from believers who should be giving to their own churches?

Of course, in that case, if church members gave to the local churches or denominations, then GC would have no budget. But since we have churches that need money, and churches that provide services superior to the Coalition, why does GC actually exist? I know such questions might seem mean spirited, further evidence of Machen’s Warrior Children’s instincts. But the parachurch folks only consider such questions impertinent because they have no sense of propriety. They have no idea that they are duplicating the work of the church and then taking energy and support from the very churches that they supposedly seek to serve.

Act Two, Scene Two: Cheap Shot

Actually, the title should be plural since in one of his first reviews of VanDrunen’s Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms Nelson Kloosterman decided to insert a [sic] after VanDrunen’s phrase, “the Reformed tradition of natural law and the two kingdoms.” Kloosterman explained, “Because we are in danger of annoying our readers, we shall now desist from using ‘[sic]’ [which abbreviates the Latin sicut, which means ‘thus’ or ‘such’] as our way of identifying the author’s repeated, persistent, and unqualified use of the definite article to identify his construal as ‘the’ Reformed natural law and two kingdoms doctrine.”

Aside from the small-mindedness among the Dutch-American Reformed when they hear of a “Reformed” tradition that does not follow their way of doing and thinking, this is a petty remark and reveals the lengths to which Kloosterman will go in condemning 2k. I wonder when he will mention the typos in the book (if there are any). To younger writers out there, these are the sort of criticisms that should be left on the editing floor and any good editor would have it deleted it on grounds of impropriety and triviality – improper because the level of disagreement is already high and this detracts from the main point; trivial because the use of a definite article is not essential to Kloosterman’s argument.

But the pettiness continues in Kloosterman’s most recent part of his review — I guess he is really going to go through VanDrunen chapter by chapter. (Kloosterman better be hoping that Harold Camping is wrong about the date of Christ’s return and that a significant theological controversy does not prompt the editors of Christian Renewal to reserve inches for more important business.) In this stage of his response to VanDrunen – specifically, the chapter on Calvin – Kloosterman faults the Westminster professor for poor scholarship. VanDrunen uses John Bolt’s discussion of Calvin’s Christology to make a point about the difference between Christ’s rule as mediator and as creator. But because Bolt uses Calvin’s Christology to affirm Kuyper and because VanDrunen — who hasn’t tipped his hand on his own use of Calvin — uses Calvin’s Christology to understand Calvin’s views of the two kingdoms (views for which Kloosterman cannot account), Kloosterman judges VanDrunen to be a poor academic. He writes:

Bolt’s own application of the Christological distinction is the very opposite of the use to which VanDrunen puts it in his NL2K discussion of Calvin! Surely readers deserve better scholarship than this!

Since Bolt’s application of Calvin was not the point of VanDrunen’s argument, I don’t see what is shoddy about this scholarship. It surely seems that Bolt takes the extra Calvinisticum in one direction — the Kuyperian one — and VanDrunen and Calvin take it in another direction, namely, to distinguish between the temporal and spiritual realms. VanDrunen is simply using Bolt’s language to explain the extra Calvinisticum, not to claim Bolt as a proponent of 2k. But since Kloosterman cannot tell the difference between a work of description — which is what VanDrunen’s book is — and one of prescription, he can’t see the different purposes to which an author may use a quotation. Talk about overexcited.

The problem for Kloosterman is that he exhibits the very impoverished academic work of which he accuses VanDrunen. This comes in his complaints against VanDrunen’s conception of the kingdom of God. Kloosterman believes that VanDrunen should have consulted creedal and catechetical material, and if he had, he would have found in the Heidelberg Catechism, for instance, no such distinction between the redemptive and creational rule of Christ. Mind you, the logic here is unclear since Kloosterman affirms the Kuyperian distinction between the church as organism and church as institute. This dualism, though, is a good one that disallows distinguishing between the rule of Christ inside and outside the church. Apparently, for Kloosterman, Christ rules everywhere and everything through the church, both as institute and as organism. He goes on to quote John Bolt to show that the purpose of the church is to restore the world to its creational, God-intended course – as if that could happen short of judgment day. This is another way in which the church is part of the means by which Christ rules all things.

But the point that needs to be underscored is Kloosterman’s poor reading of Heidelberg:

. . . the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), Q/A 50, deals with the session of Jesus Christ: “Why is it added, And sitteth at the right hand of God? Because Christ ascended into heaven for this end, that He might there appear as Head of His Church, by whom the Father governs all things.” Surely in the history of interpretation, the church has understood this answer to acknowledge that God the Father rules all things through Jesus Christ, the incarnate, risen, and ascended Savior of the church! Especially the Scripture references undergirding this answer, Ephesians 1.20-23, Colossians 1.18, Matthew 28.18, and John 5.22, teach us that this confession of Jesus as Lord of all is eminently biblical.

Moreover, such royal activity accords with what we confess in Lord’s Day 12, Q/A 31, that Jesus Christ is our eternal King, who governs and defends us. To my knowledge, no interpreter of the Heidelberg has argued that the incarnate, risen, and ascended Jesus Christ is eternal King 9 of 11 of the church only. Rather, this incarnate, risen, and ascended Jesus Christ is eternal King of the universe!

Well, VanDrunen (nor does any 2k advocate) say that Christ is lord ONLY of the church. What kind of reading skills do Christian day schools teach (and do they give refunds)? What 2k advocates argue is a distinction between Christ’s lordship over those who do not confess him as lord, who do not bend the knee in worship, and those who do trust in Christ and are members of his church. That would appear to be an important difference – for instance, how Christ is lord of both Tim Keller and Tiger Woods. 2k teaches that Christ is lord of each man, but not in the same way. And the different rule is apparently what the very author of the Heidelberg Catechism had in mind when he explained the second petition of the Lord’s prayer in his commentary:

A kingdom in general is a form of civil government in which some one person possesses the chief power and authority, who, being possessed of greater and more excellent gifts and virtues than others, rules over all according to just, wholesome and certain laws by defending the good and punishing the wicked. The kingdom of God is that in which God alone rules and exercises dominion over all creatures; but especially does he govern and preserve the church. This kingdom is universal. The special kingdom of God that which he exercises in his church consists in sending the Son from the Father, from the very beginning of the world, that he might institute and preserve the ministry of the church, and accomplish his purposes by it that he might gather a church from the whole human race by his word and Spirit rule, preserve and defend it against all enemies raise it from death, and at length, having cast all enemies into everlasting condemnation, adorn it with heavenly glory, that God may be all in all, and be praised eternally by the church. (Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, pp. 632-33) [emphasis added for the reading impaired]

So contrary to Kloosterman’s claim that “we” know of no interpreter of Heidelberg who says that Christ is lord only of the church, I know of one author and interpreter of Heidelberg who does something very comparable to what Calvin does and what VanDrunen observes in Calvin. Surely, we could expect better theological scholarship than this.

And we find better theological scholarship in another Dutch-American Reformed theologian. Louis Berkhof follows Calvin and Ursinus in making a distinction between the universal lordship of Christ (Tiger Woods) and the special rule that he extends over his church (Tim Keller).

The Kingship of Christ over the universe is subservient to His spiritual kingship. It is incumbent on Christ, as the anointed King, to establish the spiritual kingdom of God, to govern it, and to protect it against all hostile forces. He must do this in a world which is under the power of sin and is bent onthwarting all spiritual endeavors. If that world were beyond His control, it might easily fustrate all His efforts. Therefore God invested Him with authority over it, so that he is able to control all powers and forces and movements in the world, and can thus secure a safe footing for His people in the world, and protect His own against all the powers of darkness. These cannot defeat His purposes, but are even constrained to serve them. Under the beneficent rule of Christ even the wrath of man is made to praise God. (Systematic Theology, pp. 410-11) [more emphasis added for neo-Calvinists]

Unless I missed something, Berkhof is talking about a rule by Christ that governs the works of all men outside the church (Tiger Woods) in such a way that nothing will ultimately harm those whom he governs as redeemer (Tim Keller). That sure sounds like a rule as creator that is universal rather than a rule as redeemer that is particular. After all, Tiger Woods does not know Christ as lord and redeemer (such as we can tell from the media). But Christ is still lord of him, the PGA, and Woods’ sponsors. That lordship is substantially different from Christ’s rule over Redeemer Presbyterian Church NYC (even if I wish that rule were a little more on the order of Reformed governance).

I don’t know why that is so hard to see. Calvin saw it. Ursinus saw it. Berkhof saw it. Kloosterman misses it. And that means that he is digging a deeper hole for himself the more he digs in against VanDrunen and 2k.

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.