Call it harmonic divergence, but I couldnâ€™t help but read the transcript Tim Kellerâ€™s remarks on “gospel ecosystems” in the light of J. Gresham Machenâ€™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, Kellerâ€™s notion of a gospel eco-system is an infelicitous (because it presumes scientific status just like Charles Finneyâ€™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.
Machenâ€™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 communionâ€™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 churchâ€™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 Kellerâ€™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 Kellerâ€™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 Kellerâ€™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 Kellerâ€™s idea of gospel ecosystem. At the level of Reformed theology and church polity, Kellerâ€™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 Kellerâ€™s form of cooperation squares with the rules governing the PCAâ€™s fraternal relations.
But while these concerns are part and parcel of an oldlife church-and-life view, Kellerâ€™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 Kellerâ€™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 Kellerâ€™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 Kellerâ€™s claims to read the tea leaves of urban life.
I would feel a whole lot better about Kellerâ€™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 Yorkâ€™s public policies and institutions.
Iâ€™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 itâ€™s a good thing for organism C, because if organism Bâ€™s numbers werenâ€™t tamped down, organism C wouldnâ€™t exist because organism B eats C. And, organism A eats C, which means, if there wasnâ€™t enough organism C there wouldnâ€™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, youâ€™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 â€“ look out! â€“ of the Religious Right.
3) Is New York City really comparable to a prison? I know many Americans would answer yes given the cityâ€™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, Iâ€™m not sure he thought through the potential problem:
what Chuck Colsen says, that thereâ€™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 peopleâ€™s lives are being changed, but you donâ€™t seen much different in this prison, the prison doesnâ€™t look any different than any other prison. But when you get to a certain spot where, thereâ€™s maybe 10%, its not a science, its not wooden, but thereâ€™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 itâ€™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 â€“ it really is a city according Illinoisâ€™ calculations â€“ 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 Kellerâ€™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 Wheatonâ€™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 Kellerâ€™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? Wouldnâ€™t even common sense say that what works in New York City wonâ€™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 wonâ€™t be the first time that Presbyterians have put evangelism ahead of theology and polity. New Siders did that in Kellerâ€™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 wouldnâ€™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 Kellerâ€™s strategy.