I didn’t expect 2020 to motivate me to listen more closely to Tim Keller. I was already engaging with his thinking.
Then again, none of us anticipated how 2020 would blindside us. Overnight, pastors and spiritual leaders faced the coronavirus pandemic: one of the most disruptive events to the church in the modern period.
In his new booklet How to Reach the West Again (available for free), Keller argues that our late-modern moment requires a new strategy for missions. This isn’t a resource to be skimmed and filed. It’s a call to action.
How to Reach the West Again
Christianity is declining in the West. Churches in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Europe are closing their doors at an accelerating rate.
How will the church respond?
In this short but sweeping manifesto, New York Times bestselling author and pastor Timothy Keller argues that this decline should prompt us to rethink the church’s mission from the ground up. Using the early church as our guide, churches and individual Christians must examine ourselves, our culture, and Scripture to work toward a new missionary encounter with Western culture that will make the gospel both attractive and credible to a new generation.
Call to Action
Proposing a new missionary strategy for Western civilization is an ambitious task for a book of any length, let alone one of 58 pages. To accomplish his objective, Keller must (1) persuasively demonstrate that Christian evangelism faces a set of obstacles unique to our late-modern moment and (2) credibly outline the elements of an effective strategy moving forward.
Where the unique obstacles of our day are concerned, Keller identifies three factors presenting challenges:
- We inhabit a post-Christian world that no longer holds to a transcendent, supernatural dimension of reality that is the ground of moral absolutes and promised life after death.
- The digital culture—Americans spend at least two-and-a-half hours a day on social media—immerses us in secular narratives that shape both what we think and how we form ideas.
- Political polarization results in clashes between the extremes of (1) a populism that pursues restoration to national greatness, and (2) a progressivism that envisions a sharply individualistic future, unhitched from the obligations of the past and bound to the notion of progress.
Some may question whether this combination of factors is so unique that a new missionary strategy is needed. After all, the first factor—a post-Christian world—didn’t develop overnight and isn’t a new idea. Secular forces have been eroding the belief in a transcendent standard throughout the modern period. And as for the third factor, history has witnessed political polarization in many eras. We need only to scan a list of civil wars.
Yet no one can disagree that, in the last 20 years, digital culture has radically changed society on a fundamental level. Smartphones and social media have accelerated, at a dizzying rate, both secularism and political polarization (43). Technology not only conveys the narratives and beliefs of secular modernity, it also changes the way we form ideas (8).
Having established that contemporary challenges demand a new strategy, Keller summarizes six elements of a missionary encounter (Christian High Theory, a truly post-Christendom evangelistic dynamic, a category-defying social vision, counter-catechesis for a digital age, faithful Christian presence in public spheres, and gospel grace).
The strategy the church employs will unfold across decades. Here are six ways we might begin responding to Keller’s call to action.
1. Challenge elders and leadership teams to read and discuss How to Reach the West Again.
Many pastors have been discouraged in the past by a lack of follow-through on reading assignments given to elders or deacons. Doubtless, some of the fault was ours; perhaps it wasn’t reasonable to expect our leaders to read all 14 volumes of Martyn Lloyd-Jones on Romans. But Keller’s book is a bite-sized assignment and is accessible to the average reader.
2. Recognize Keller is spot-on when he argues, “The greatest challenge today is to stimulate a significantly sized percentage of Christians to intentionally adopt ‘missional living’ in their daily lives and relationships” (18).
If we’re to see spiritual formation in our flocks, church elders must envision how we’ll create communities that form people. More than big-stage conferences, we need contexts in which people are more immersed in community than social media.
At the church I serve, motivating people to share life in Christian community is one our highest priorities. We remind our flock that God makes “bricks” with a beautiful building in mind (1 Pet. 2:5). But it’s challenging to see people mortar their lives together.
3. Rediscover the effectiveness of catechetical teaching, and call and sponsor some of our most gifted evangelical thinkers to develop new catechisms.
Keller explains how Reformation-era catechisms not only constructed a worldview, but also dismantled and vaccinated against the dominant alternatives of their time (38).
Likewise, we need a new set of catechisms to counter the false narratives of the late-modern period. But we must recognize that just as the Westminster standards required the collaboration of a large group of gifted theologians over time, the development of a new set of resources will again require such a collaborative, time-intensive effort.
4. Engage with the sources that influenced Keller and that he’s synthesized in outlining a new missionary strategy.
One of the reasons Keller is such a gift to the church is because he has interacted deeply with such a wide range of theologians and thinkers. He knows Calvin but also Charles Taylor; C. S. Lewis but also Robert Bellah; Edmund Clowney but also Philip Rieff; Abraham Kuyper but also James Davison Hunter; Cornelius Van Til but also Alasdair MacIntyre. Keller’s lifetime of study is a precious gift to the cause of Christ.
We need a new generation of Christian thinkers who will devote their lives in the same way. Churches and ministries must give theologians the space to study and read widely.
5. Recast vision for the value of both liberal arts and seminary education.
By all accounts, higher education is in crisis on multiple levels. Colleges are closing and seminary education is often delivered by distance, which will never be as effective as in-person learning. Given the evangelistic obstacles we face in the West, this isn’t the time to downplay the importance of the liberal arts and theological education. We’re engaged in a great battle of ideas, and the cause of Christ needs a new generation of leaders.
And while not every young person should pursue a liberal-arts education, if we’re to see Christians be salt and light in every area, we need people who’ve engaged in the “great conversation” and been given what John Milton called “a complete and generous education that fits a person to perform justly, skillfully, and magnanimously all the offices, both private and public, of peace and war.”
6. Appreciate the strategic need for specialized ministries.
In his book Center Church (368–78), Keller shares the vision for a gospel movement of such a magnitude that it would significantly influence the culture. Such gospel movements will require collaboration between three layers:
(1) a core of gospel-centered churches,
(2) church planting and renewal movements, and
(3) ministries that are a complex set of specialty ministries, institutions, networks, and relationships.
The first two layers are obvious. We need churches planting churches. But the points Keller makes in How to Reach the West Again should also make clear that campus and youth ministries are of particular importance (cf. Center Church, 374). To be salt and light in our late-modern moment will require ministries like the Carver Project in St. Louis, which seeks to make connections between the university and the church, or the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, with its goal of a coach for Christ in every school.
No Time for Handwringing
Keller is right. This is no time to wring our hands about Christianity’s loss of influence in the West.
Rather, this is the time for a wide range of Christians to hear a call to action and enact a new missionary strategy that takes on the obstacles of our day.