A few weeks ago, I began a series on the rise of the neo–Religious Right, starting off with (1) a brief history of the culture war, (2) the tendency to tear apart conviction from civility, (3) a closer look at the idea that we now inhabit a “negative world,” (4) why this feels like a blast from the past to me, and (5) the need to change the lens so as to complicate the “negative world” framework.

In the columns to come, I will get a little more prescriptive regarding how to engage in public life in fruitful and faithful ways, but there’s one more element I’d like to discuss first: pastor Tim Keller and his approach to culture.

James Wood’s Critique of Tim Keller

James Wood’s “How I Evolved on Tim Keller” is the best representative of constructive critique of Keller’s evangelistically front-facing “third way approach” to political engagement. “The evangelistic desire to minimize offense to gain a hearing for the gospel can obscure what our political moment requires,” Wood writes.

Wood agrees with Aaron Renn’s assessment of the church now inhabiting the “negative world,” in which society has turned decisively against Christianity’s moral vision. Keller’s strategy worked for the “neutral” but not for the “negative” world, and his pursuit of a “third way” often keeps him “above the fray”—unwilling to get his hands dirty in the rough and tumble world of politics, where pragmatic choices and concessions must take place. (Those who disagree with Wood’s assessment have pointed out that Manhattan at the turn of the century was already “negative,” not just “neutral,” toward Christianity. Those of us who serve in other parts of the country have heard Keller warn, for years, that many of the cultural assumptions of Manhattan are on their way to us.)

In his follow-up, “This Article Is Not About Tim Keller,” Wood clarifies his appreciation for Keller and focuses his critique on how the Keller framework is “appropriated by his disciples,” leading to the impression that, in a noble attempt to avoid tribalism, too many Christian leaders imply a moral equivalency between political options. 

“We need a good dose of Christian realism, I propose. Or, to put it in Bonhoefferian terms, we need to be more attuned to the ‘concrete’ circumstances in which we find ourselves and seek to understand what ‘responsible’ action looks like therein.” 

I placed the second article from Wood in my weekly “Trevin’s Seven” list of links for my newsletter subscribers—not because I agreed with it all, but because I believe it’s good for Christians to look for new ways forward in this cultural moment. What’s more, my interest in and openness to this sort of conversation is because of Tim Keller’s influence on my thinking, not in spite of it.

So, I hope this column will be given fair consideration and evaluation by two types of people: (1) those who now mock and deride Tim Keller as representative of an outdated, old-fashioned (perhaps even closet-progressive!) approach to culture, and (2) those who believe Tim Keller is sacrosanct, above and beyond critique, so that anyone who questions aspects of his public theology must be driven by hate, fear, or unrighteousness.

Justification and Defensiveness

First, if there’s anything Tim Keller has emphasized in his decades of ministry, it is the gospel of Jesus Christ and, particularly, the transformative power of being justified by faith alone.

When the truth of our being declared righteous because of the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ seeps into our hearts, we’re no longer as apt to react defensively and self-righteously when criticized. We expect others to reveal the lingering flaws in our character and outlook. We’re not to look down on others, and whenever we do succumb to snobbery, we seek the Lord’s forgiveness and pray his grace will flow through us to others. A disciple of Keller who sneers at people whose political calculus or public posture may differ betrays the emphasis Keller himself puts on grace and its power.

Examining Ministry Models

Second, all ministry models wind up being inspected, altered, and sometimes rejected by leaders in subsequent generations.

Keller himself has written about various models of ministry and has critiqued the excesses he sees in different ministry philosophies. All ministry models have strengths and weaknesses, and no one is better than Keller at pointing them out. Nobody’s model of ministry is above critique.

Therefore, we should not be surprised when Keller’s own way of approaching politics and culture receives criticism from younger evangelicals. It’s the upholding of one method to the exclusion of the insights from all others that Keller warns against, which means the last thing people should assume is that Keller has written “the last word” on these matters and now his way is to be enshrined as the only faithful approach in our day.

Contextualization and Ministry

Third, Keller emphasizes the importance of contextualization and the need to adapt our posture, approach, and practices in response to a community’s needs. He writes,

“Contextualization is not—as is often argued—“giving people what they want to hear.” Rather, it is giving people the Bible’s answers, which they may not at all want to hear, to questions about life that people in their particular time and place are asking, in language and forms they can comprehend, and through appeals and arguments with force they can feel, even if they reject them.”

A couple years ago, I was in a group that spent a couple hours with Tim discussing topics like apologetics, the need for catechesis, and culture shifts and ministry responses. Near the end of our time together, he surprised us by saying he doesn’t think his past preaching is a great model of what we’d been talking about all day. The next generation will need to do something different than what he did, he told us.

To be clear, Tim wasn’t expressing regret for how he’d preached. What he meant was this: what will be needed in the next generation is preaching that doesn’t just model his method or approach but that takes into consideration the new cultural moment and responds in all the ways we’ve been discussing. In other words, contextualization, not just mimicry! 

A Time to Build

Fourth, younger evangelicals will serve the church well if, in looking forward, we don’t cut ourselves off from faithful men and women who have gone before us. Instead, we ought to see our work as building upon their insights, sometimes going beyond their work, and sometimes altering aspects that no longer fit the cultural moment.

Too much of today’s discourse leads to an all-or-nothing approach in which any theologian, writer, leader, pastor, or politician is put in the “good” or “bad” category. This reductionist approach impoverishes us. If we refuse to learn from any pastor or theologian—no matter how personally devout, biblically rooted, or theologically beneficial—who doesn’t line up exactly with the latest theological position or political proposal, we reject the way of wisdom.

In a world dominated by social media flame-throwing, it’s easy to build a platform by tearing down the good work others have constructed. I am often disappointed to see pastors or seminary students online dripping with disdain and contempt toward their “ignorant” or “evil” opponents. Keller has been on the receiving end of this derision, yes, but some who claim Keller as a model treat their opponents in the same way Keller gets treated. This kind of all-or-nothing approach damages our witness and blocks our way forward.

Seasons of Church Life

Finally, a close reading of Tim Keller allows for various conversations about the best political posture, depending on the “season” the church finds herself in. Here’s how Keller describes the seasons:

  • Winter describes a church that is not only in a hostile relationship to a pre-Christian culture but is gaining little traction; seeing little distinctive, vital Christian life and community; and seeing no evangelistic fruit. In many cultures today, the church is embattled and spiritually weak.
  • Spring is a situation in which the church is embattled, even persecuted, by a pre-Christian culture, but it is growing (e.g., the church in China).
  • Summer is what Niebuhr described as an “allied church,” where the church is highly regarded by the public and where we find so many Christians in the centers of cultural production that Christians feel at home in the culture.
  • Autumn is where we find ourselves in the West today, becoming increasingly marginalized in a post-Christian culture and looking for new ways to both strengthen our distinctiveness and reach out winsomely.

He concludes,

“We should inhabit the model that fits our convictions, whose ‘tool kit’ best fits our gifts. Once we know our model, we should be able, depending on the cultural seasons and context, to use tools from the other kits.”

In other words, Keller himself is open to various churches and individuals seeking to best apply their gifts to the current moment.

Be Open to Critique

One of the things I most appreciate about Tim Keller is the way he listens to people who disagree with him.

In a recent episode of Mere Fidelity, Keller claimed that Christianity is not a religion that fits easily into ideological categories. It’s not a middle road but a “patchwork of extremes.” And yet, the search for a “third way” on every issue, something Keller often does, comes from a peacemaking impulse that is as much temperamental as theological. “Sometimes I overdo it,” he admitted.

That self-awareness—the sensibility to recognize that God is at work in many ministry models and through many types of people—comes from a confidence grounded in Christ’s righteousness, unwavering faith in God’s sovereignty, and trust that the Spirit will bring fruit from the faithful preaching of the Word. Whatever parts of Tim Keller’s methods and model survive the next 50 years, I pray those characteristics of openness and curiosity will be evident.

This is the sixth column in an ongoing series. If you would like my future articles sent to your email, as well as a curated list of books, podcasts, and helpful links I find online, enter your address.

1. The Return of the Culture War
2. The Tearing Apart of Convictional Civility
3. Navigating the (New?) Negative World
4. Didn’t I Grow Up in the Negative World?
5. We Need to Complicate the Negative World
6. Let’s Contextualize Tim Keller
7. Encouragement and Caution for Culture Warriors
8. Truthful Witness in the Public Square
9. Five Quick Takes for New Culture Wars