And Another Thing…

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Maybe this is how it’s done

There is a great profile of Tim Keller in this month’s issue of Christianity Today. For those of you who don’t recognize his name, Keller is a pastor, author and church-planter. In 1989 he and his wife began Redeemer Presbyterian Church in the heart of Manhattan. Keller’s prior experience had been as a pastor in the suburbs and a seminary professor. Balding, bespectacled, and studious, he is by his own admission neither dynamic or hip. In fact, he admits in the article that he didn’t even want to go.

Sounds like a recipe for disaster, doesn’t it? Yet today Redeemer has an average Sunday attendance of 5000 and shows no signs of slowing down their growth in the near future. Redeemer’s membership body is made up of life-long New Yorkers, Wall Street wizards, blue-collar workers, and everything in between. Every ethnicity in the city is represented. And they are in the process of planting new churches all over the city. They do this without multimedia, soft rock, or interpretive dance. Keller’s sermons follow the liturgy and the music is traditional, except for evening services. They didn’t even advertise. Consider:

“Redeemer’s worship is seemly and traditional. Instead of using video monitors, casually dressed worshipers follow a 20-page bulletin that includes hymns, prayers, and Bible texts. Organ and a brass quartet lead the music. For evening services, jazz musicians play contemporary Christian songs.

Standing 6’4”, with a bald head, glasses, and a coat and tie, Keller, 58, does not look hip. Nor is his sermon funny, charming, or daring. He preaches from the first chapter of Genesis, on the doctrine of Creation.

Keller speaks like a college professor, absorbed in his content, of which there is a lot. When longtime friend and founding member Dee Pifer invited colleagues from her Manhattan law firm, she would say, “I want you to hear a really good litigator.”‘

How does this happen?  You really need to read the article to get the whole picture, but the following points stood out to me:

Research  Before starting, the Kellers made it a point to learn everything they could about the city; moving beyond media presentations and stereotypes to get to know what life is like there.

True fondness  The Kellers, who previously had lived in rural and suburban areas (despite Tim’s teaching in Philadelphia) fell in love with city life and the people that they were ministering to. Their call became their passion.

Preaching that is accessible and responsible  As a former seminary professor, Keller is no theological lightweight, and he doesn’t water his sermons down or compromise Biblical truth. What he does do is tailor the delivery of his message to believer and unbeliever alike. Hard doctrine delivered in a way that makes sense to folks who have not really heard it before.

No politics  ’nuff said.

So maybe this is how it’s done. Maybe we don’t need mission statements, emblems, advertising, jugglers with flaming batons, or sex challenges to reach the lost. If we love God and love the people we are trying to reach (and I mean love in the agape verb sense) amazing things can happen. This is a lesson that we all need to learn, over and over again.

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8 Responses

  1. Margie says:

    I definitely miss hearing good solid preaching. The preacher at my hometown church in Gainesville, Florida is excellent at combining good theological truth, scripture, and stories that hit at the heart of the church members. He doesn’t shy away from tough topics or focus on stories with a sprinkling of scripture. I miss that and yearn for more.

  2. odgie says:

    Margie – Amen.

  3. David B says:

    Having seen a lot more churches that are declining than not over the years, I understand your point…churches need to worry about depth than the gloss. Yet too often I’ve seen highly contextual, loving, scriptural, and apolitical churches simply never take off, and some churches that deserve to fail find a niche and do great things.

    Who can explain this? I can’t. But I trust that God knows what he’s doing, and he simply expects us to be faithful.

  4. Jr says:

    (Odgie: I think my original comment may have been lost; this is a redo a bit expanded – delete the previous if you received it – sorry!)

    Tim Keller is also Reformed in theology. This is something the churches of Christ would be well served in seeing resurgence in. Thankfully, more and more youth are falling in love with it and the doctrines of grace. (Calvinism)

    Keller, in the group of reformed theologians and pastors like John Piper, Mark Driscoll, Matt Chandler, CJ Mahaney, etc. are seeing explosions within their ministries – especially in the 18-35 year old range. It is amazing when we stick with the authority of Scripture (the Word) what God will do.

    Too many pulpits and congregations are filled with fluff and trash – and what do we expect when we downplay the Almighty and Powerful Sovereign God in favor of man-centerdness and ability? Arminian and semi-Pelagian theology is destroying the churches of Christ.

    We need something bigger than ourselves; thankfully that is exactly what the God of the Bible is. May God continue to bless Keller and other unapologetic proclaimers of the Gospel.

  5. odgie says:

    First, some housekeeping:

    I don’t know why WordPress is holding the posts of regular commenters for approval, but I will try to straighten it out.

    Jr, per your request I deleted your earlier comment (which was held for approval while I was asleep before I went to my night shift) and approved your second.

    Now, on to the discussion:

    Dave – The situations you describe are certainly befuddling, and I think most of us have seen such things happen. Like you, I wouldn’t attempt to account for all of the reasons for these outcomes, but I would partly attribute the inability of some doctrinally sound churches to grow to unreceptive, non-believing communities.

    Jr – I’m not sure that reformed theology has ever really had a hold in the churches of Christ, and therefore can’t really experience a “resurgence”. But it’s been a while since I studied Restoration history.

    I do take issue with the notion that Arminianism and semi-Pelagian theology is destroying the church for two reasons:

    1. The vast majority of writing and preaching in our tradition has historically rejected Pelagianism (semi or other) on the grounds that it promotes a works-based salvation i.e. man initiates a relationship with God rather than the other way around. At least in the c of C, it seems to me to be a non-issue.

    2. You know as well as I do that the Arminian and Reformed schools are more intertwined than they are separate. Arminian doctrine teaches God’s sovereignity, man’s fallen state and inability to save himself, just like Reformed. Hardly the stuff of “fluff and trash”. Where we differ is on the role that determinism plays in salvation.

    3. Now where I do agree with you is on this point: “Too many pulpits and congregations are filled with fluff and trash – and what do we expect when we downplay the Almighty and Powerful Sovereign God in favor of man-centerdness and ability?” But I don’t attribute this to Arminian or Pelagian thought. I attribute it to churches becoming preoccupied with a business/success model and ignoring the entire historical tradition (even conflicting schools of thought) in favor of “the next big thing.”

  6. Jr says:

    Thanks, Odgie.

    “Resurgence” was probably the wrong word to use (good call). The Reformed connection with our tradition comes from the deepest roots of the restoration movement; as Thomas Campbell (father of Alexander) proudly called himself a Calvinist. At least we know Alexander was deeply influenced by said theology growing up. Of course, they moved to America from the hotbed of Reformation so this isn’t surprising. I understand the battle they faced between sectarianism and unity; but I think within that battle important theology was lost. I think for the c-of-c; a good hard look at our theology (as a group) would be well for us; and that is because I disagree with your view that we have “rejected Pelagianism (semi or other).” Our worship at the altar of autonomy has allowed each individual congregation to run amuck (in some cases) with theological positions that in some cases are worldly-first and soulfully dangerous.

    The end of your second reason is exactly what makes our theology semi-Pelagian: determinism. It is the most common in Christian circles these days; c-of-c or not. It is this notion that spiritually dead enemies of God can incline a decision to be born-again even before regeneration occurs (heart of stone  heart of flesh). It is not “by grace alone” – but it is “by grace PLUS my intellectually-and-spiritually-superior-to-that-of-a-non-believer-decision” that we are saved. It has dead people being re-born by an element of willful power of dead flesh; which contradicts John 1:12-13 (among others).

    Anyway – not to get so far off your original topic; but that is how I would define semi-Pelagianism – seeing how different the issue of “determinism” is in contrast to Augustine and the theology of grace. I absolutely agree with you that always looking for the pragmatic “next big thing” is harmful; where I think we differ is that I attribute that methodology to our theological understanding of God and man. We think we have to do something to make it all work; because theologically we believe we have to decide to give ourselves life (when in fact, the irresistible Spirit does both).

    Much more goes into what the Keller’s of the world are doing – as you noted – and I do not want to take away from those you pointed out. Suffice it to say “yes,” I believe “this is how it’s done.”

    Good to have you back; grace be with you –
    Jr

  7. odgie says:

    Jr,

    Thanks for the feedback, its a good read and raises more questions for me – not to be argumentative but of curiosity. It would probably be better to communicate via e-mail so I will shoot one over to you later this week.

    Funny that you should bring up autonomy in this discussion, as I had a conversation about the pluses and minuses of that with another brother and a relative recently. But more on that in my e-mail. Grace be with you as well.

  8. Kathi says:

    Thanks for posting this article and writing about it. So thought-provoking…

    I get really prickly when people assume that happy-clappy music MUST be the answer to all our problems of attendance, or that the congregation doesn’t have this program or that program, etc. etc. To me, it’s a matter of intentionality.

    I preached on 2 Cor 5:17 yesterday but also included the idea of v. 18 in the sermon – that WE are ministers of reconciliation. So, to go back to intentionality – the churches which are growing (OR are successfully caring for their flocks) seem to be the ones who are intentional in being ministers of reconciliation.

    The thing is – it takes work. And prayer. And thought. (And maybe – yikes – some planning!) And it’s not just the work of the pastor (or intern), or youth minister, or music minister, or, or, or – it’s the whole congregation’s job to care for others. I have learned that so well in my internship.

    And by the way – kudos to him, too, for actually preaching about the Bible, rather than the crappy, all-anecdotal, no Scripture, feel-good preaching which seems to be prevalent. (Again, it takes work to put together prayerful, meaningful, exegetical, challenging, pastoral sermons as opposed to putting together four stories received by email…but I digress.)

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