Christians and the Life of the Mind

A popular perception out there is that Tim Keller is a version — maybe the most popular one — of a Protestant intellectual. Back when Nicholas Kristof interviewed Keller in the pages of the New York Times (can you believe it? A CHRISTIAN IN THE PAGES OF THE NEW YORK TIMES!!!!! No, I’ve never heard of Ross Douthat), Scot McKnight wrote a favorable piece about how Keller is defending Christianity against the skeptics and cynics of our times:

Kristof is no H.L. Mencken and Tim Keller is no Willam Lane Craig nor is he a Rob Bell. He’s a conservative, Reformed, Presbyterian pastor with a lot in his noggin’ about how to respond to Manhattan singles and marrieds and wealthy-wannabes and educated. He’s done this well. He just told Nicholas Kristof he will need to join the throng of believers in the resurrection. In a pastorally sensitive way. No doubt Kristof got the message.

Maybe his critics would do themselves a favor by looking in the mirror and asking if they are reaching with the gospel and converting skeptics and cynics and doubters. If not, maybe they could look at Tim Keller and ask Why is he? I know I do.


But can’t we ask if Keller has as much in his noggin’ as the promoters promote? Here’s one reason for asking: the recent piece in ByFaith magazine which indicates what Keller will be doing once he retires from regular preaching. He will be training pastors for ministry in urban settings:

When it comes to the urban environment, ministry here requires also a knowledge of urban life dynamics, urban social systems, cross-cultural communication, non-western Christianity, and many other subjects not covered in ordinary seminary programs. I also want to give more than the usual help on both expository preaching, on developing a life of prayer, on leading the church in an adverse cultural and financial environment, and on reading that provides cultural analysis and insight. The combination of the M.A. (which in two years covers all the academic material, including languages and exegesis) together with the City Ministry Year will provide much more space for these than an ordinary M.Div. can.

For one thing, this was precisely the sort of agenda that William Rainey Harper took to the University of Chicago Divinity School almost 120 years ago — the idea that modern (read urban) times need new ways of doing ministry.

For another, how does someone with at most a D. Min. have enough intellectual chops to discern which books to read on urban life dynamics, urban social systems, cross-cultural communication? And is Keller proposing for pastors what medical specialists endure — 12 years of training (9 beyond the basics of Greek, Hebrew, exegesis, systematics, church history, etc.)?

In other words, the different parts of an urban setting require specialists in academic disciplines that go way beyond the competency of a specialist in the Bible or even a Ph.D. in historical science. To suggest that a person with a D. Min. is competent to adjudicate sociology, political science, urban studies, history, economics, demographics, anthropology and communications is not intellectual but borders on middle brow if not anti-intellectual.

And not to be forgotten, once you’ve mastered planting a church in Manhattan, are you really prepared to minister to the outer boroughs — Trump country?


When Does The Multi-Site Pastor Get to Confess His Sins?

Rockwell worshipOne of the advantages of being a Country Parson that Tim Keller and I both failed to mention is the ability of rural ministers to worship with their congregations while leading in worship. This thought came to mind when reading the recent USA Today piece on the Rev. Keller and multi-site churches.

According to the story, the reporter, one church member

heard [Keller] preach at 10:30 a.m. on the Upper East Side. Now she has brought friends to hear him at the West Side 5 p.m. service. He briefly greets her, then slips into the service just before his sermon.

In 45 minutes, before the final hymn, Keller’s gone — off to deliver the same sermon, “The Gospel Changes Everything,” on the East Side.

Then, again, Keller, founder and senior pastor of Manhattan’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church, will dash back to West 79th Street for his fourth service of the day at three leased locations.

It’s not the traditional American mom-and-pop church, where the same pastor counsels parishioners, visits when they’re ill or marries or buries them.

Keller’s service-hopping — he usually preaches to three-fourths of the 5,500 people who attend Redeemer services — reflects a new model for worship spreading rapidly across the U.S. church landscape: multisite churches.

I know what follows may sound like criticism, and I know Keller has recently written on how to respond to criticism in a way that has attracted praise, but this story does raise a number of troubling questions.

The first, what does this multi-site performance say about worship and the sermon? I know one pastor in the Redeemer network who regularly complains about Presbyterian worship being logocentric. But what could be more logocentric than a pastor showing up to give his sermon, not having participated in the rest of the service? And isn’t a tad logocentric for those attending these multi-site services to go mainly to hear the Big Kahuna preacher? Reformed worship regards the service as an organic whole, with prayer (in various forms), the word (in various forms), the offering (in one form), and the sacraments constituting the means why which God communes with his people. The sermon may be the main course in the meal of worship, but it is not the only one.

The second question goes to the point of this post’s title: isn’t a pastor worshiping with the congregation during a service? I know he is leading, and I also know – having led worship, reluctantly (as a four office Presbyterian elder) – that a person is thinking about leading worship in ways that are different from thinking about honoring and glorifying God. Still, doesn’t a pastor need to confess sins, sing praise, hear the word as he reads it, and maybe even tithe (usually his wife has that covered)? But if the pastor only shows up for the “main event,” doesn’t this communicate that he is not part of the congregation, not part of the worshiping assembly, not in need of the same means by which the rest of the believers are receiving God’s grace and blessing? Or does urban ministry require a different kind of church?

Which means that the advantage of a mom-and-pop church, whether in the city, suburbs, or country, is that a pastor can worship God too along with the rest of the congregation.