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Preparing For the Big Issues Facing the Church

[Editor’s Note: The following commentary by Tim Keller, first posted at Redeemer City to City, is a follow-up to his previous post, “The Big Issues Facing the Western Church.”]

1. The local church has to support culture-making. Most of the young evangelicals interested in integrating their faith with film-making, journalism, corporate finance, etc, are getting their support and mentoring from informal networks or para-church groups. Michael Lindsay’s book Faith in the Halls of Power shows that many Christians in places of influence in the culture are alienated from the church, because they get, at best, no church support for living their faith out in the public spheres, and, at worst, opposition.

At the theological level, the church needs to gain more consensus on how the church and Christian faith relate to culture. There is still a lot of conflict between those who want to disciple Christians for public life, and those who think all “engagement of culture” ultimately leads to compromise and distraction from the preaching of the gospel. What makes this debate difficult is that both sides make good points and have good arguments.

At the practical level, even the churches that give lip-service to the importance of integrating faith and work do very little to actually equip people to do so. Seminary only trained us ministers to disciple people by pulling them more out of the world and inside the walls and ministries of the church. So how does a church actually help its members in this area? Leaders who want to get started should look at Redeemer’s Center for Faith and Work.

2. We need a renewal of apologetics. There is a lot of resistance right now among younger evangelical leaders toward apologetics. We are told we don’t need arguments any more because people aren’t rational. We need loving community instead. But I think this is short-sighted for two reasons.

First, Christians in the West will finally be facing what missionaries around the world have faced for years—how to communicate the gospel to Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and adherents of various folk religions. All young church leaders should take courses in and read the texts of the other major world religions. They should also study the gospel presentations written by missionaries engaging those religions. Loving community will be extremely important, as it always is, to reach out to neighbors of other faiths, but if they are going to come into the church, they will have many questions that church leaders today need to be able to answer.

Second, there a real vacuum in western secular thought. When Derrida died I was surprised how many of his former students admitted that High Theory (what evangelicals call ‘post-modernism’) is seen as a dead end, mainly because it is so relativistic that it provides no basis for political action. And a leading British intellectual like Terry Eagleton in recent lectures at Yale (published as Religion, Faith, and Revolution by Yale Press) savaged the older scientific atheism of Dawkins and Hitchens as equally bankrupt. Eagleton points out that the Enlightenment’s optimism about science and human progress is dead. Serious western thought is not going back to that, no matter how popular Dawkins’ books get. But postmodernism cannot produce a basis for human rights or justice either.

This is a real opening, apologetically, in reaching out to thoughtful non-Christians, especially the younger, socially conscious ones. We need to think of new ways to engage, asking people how they can justify their concerns for human rights and social justice. (For a great recent form of this approach, see Chris Smith’s “Does Naturalism Warrant a Moral Belief in Universal Benevolence and Human Rights?” in The Believing Primate: Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Reflections on the Origin of Religion (Oxford, 2009.)

Over the last twenty years my preaching and teaching has profited a great deal from doing the hard work of reading philosophy, especially the work of older Christian philosophers and scholars (Plantinga, Wolterstorff, Mavrodes, Alston) and the younger ones. Ministers need to be able to glean and put their arguments into easy to understand form, both in speaking and in evangelism.

I agree with the critics that say the old, rationalistic, ‘evidence that demands a verdict’ makes people’s eyes glaze over today. But that doesn’t mean that people don’t still use reason and still make arguments. There is a big chink in the armor of western thought right now. People don’t want to go back to religion, which still scares them, but they are not so sanguine about the implications and effects of non-belief.

3. We need a great variety of church-models. Avery Dulles’ book Models of the Church does a good job of outlining the very different models of churches in the west over the centuries. After qualifying his analysis by saying these are seldom pure forms, he lays out five models. Each one stresses or emphasizes: a) Doctrine, teaching, and authority, or b) deep community and life together, or c) worship, sacraments, music and the arts, or d) evangelism, proclamation, and dynamic preaching, or e) social justice, service, and compassion.

Many evangelicals today have bought in to one or two of these models as the way to minister now in the post-Christendom west. So for example, those who believe in the ‘incarnational’ (vs. ‘attractional’ approach) emphasize being and serving out in the neighborhood, smaller house churches and intimate community (a combination of Dulles’ b and e models.) Meanwhile, many evangelicals who are afraid of the ‘liberal creep’ of the emerging church, stress the traditional combination of a and d emphases. Each side is fairly moralistic about the rightness of its model and seeks to use it everywhere.

I feel that our cultural situation is too complex for such a sweeping way to look at things. There are too many kinds of ‘never-churched-non-Christians’. There are Arabs in Detroit, Hmongs in Chicago, Chinese and Jews in New York City, Anglos in the Northwest and Northeast that were raised by secular parents—some are artists and creative types, some work in business. All of these are growing groups of never-churched, but they are very different from one another. No model can connect to them all—every model can connect to some.

4. We must develop a far better theology of suffering. Members of churches in the west are caught absolutely flat-footed by suffering and difficulty. This is a major problem, especially if we are facing greater ‘liminality’—social marginalization—and maybe more economic and social instability. There are a great number of books on ‘why does God allow evil?’ but they mainly are aimed at getting God off the hook with impatient western people who believe God’s job is to give them a safe life. The church in the west must mount a great new project—of producing a people who are prepared to endure in the face of suffering and persecution.

Here, too, is one of the ways we in the west can connect to the new, growing world Christianity. We tend to think about ‘what we can do for them.’ But here’s how we let them do something for us. Many or most of the church in the rest of the world is used to suffering and persecution. They have a kind of faith that does not wilt, but rather grows stronger under threat. We need to become students of theirs in this area.

5. We need a critical mass of churches in the biggest cities of the world. I know I’m always expected to say this! But this is not a mere tack-on to the other measures for addressing the Big Issues. In some ways, this is the ‘Big Idea’ that will help us move forward on all fronts.

If there were vital, fast-growing movements of churches—orthodox in theology, wholistic in ministry, and committed to culture-making—in the great global cities, so that 5-10% of the residents of the 50 most influential cities were gospel-believers, a) it would have a great impact on culture-making, b) it would help the church learn new ways of reaching the never-churched (since they concentrate in cities), c) it would connect western churches more readily to the new churches in the non-western world, d) it would unite churches across traditions and models.

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