Tim Keller’s Comment on Models for the Church Since the Early 80s

In response to Andrew Wilson’s ode to the Emerging Church, Tim Keller posted this brief overview of models for church ministry with the early 80s. This is the time I was coming onto the scene after seminary. I had already been baptized into ministry through years as a staff worker with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.

From 1980-95 – had the Church Growth movement as the Big Thing (and Crusade evangelism as the outreach method)
From 1985-2000 – had the either the Seeker-Church movement or the Cell Church movement as the Big Thing (and lay evangelism training–4 Spiritual Laws; Evangelism Explosion–for the outreach method)
From 1995-2010 – had the Emerging Church movement as the Big Thing (and weekly home meetings–Alpha, Christianity Explored–as the outreach method)

The reality is that each of those movements, though they lost their lustre, left their mark on the evangelical church.

It’s noteworthy that there is nothing like these former movements on the horizon. (At least–that’s how it looks to me. How about you?)

My seminary was critical of the Church Growth Movement and its rootedness in the Homogeneous Unit Principle for ministry, popularized by Donald McGavran. This is simply a way of making the point that people reach people more like them. This seems obvious, but it gave many churches permission to eschew diversity and focus only on their own “people group.” It was theological permission to build churches without feeling guilty about building it around the people who already go there rather than crossing cultural boundaries. Of course, in missions the focus on people groups by such people as Ralph Winter opened up a whole new and positive window on international missions strategy. Instead of looking at reaching the nations as synonymous with geo-political nation states, it sensitized missionaries to the true diversity of peoples and that successful outreach focused on that diversity. Instead of reaching India, for example, the focus now became reaching the “….” people group in India. This released an entire new wave of creative mission strategy and gave new missionaries the power of focus. The prayer book Operation World captures this approach.

The Church Growth Movement rather organically gave birth to the Seeker Church movement, a la Willowcreek. This movement was based on intense sociological analysis of near people groups and building the local church on removing the cultural boundaries that kept new people out. This led to a strategies to sing their kind of music, adopt many of their cultural values, such as convenience, anonymity, excellence, easy parking, and dressing normal. The key word in all these is the word “normal.” The church is to step out of its subculture and mainstream.

In almost a predictable, and once again organic way, there came the Emerging Church movement. This was a reaction to church as an industry, pumping out mega-churches in cookie cutter fashion with its consequent diminishment of the personal. Emergents rejected the cultural values that informed the Seeker movement which, in their mind, too readily accommodated itself to suburban values. Emergents highlighted a more thoughtful, mystical and unique church experience, more like the boutique than the mall. Brian Mclaren, Rob Bell, Donald Miller, and Tony Jones, among others, sought a less dogmatic Christianity, a place for individualism, and demonstrated a distrust of assembly line methods for disciple-making. They also tended to smooth out the rougher lines of traditional Christian teachings – hell, heterosexual marriage, etc. Many would observe that this trend was just mainline denominationalism with its less dogmatic versions of our faith trying to make a comeback. Many of its leaders, who at one time were self-consciously a part of Evangelicalism, have over time drifted away (or been kicked to the curb). Rob Bell is the most famous example of this.

So where are we now? There is no dominant model on the horizon, as Keller observes, or I am just too old to see it. Seeker churches working the formula seem so old and tired as praise teams with 50 year olds try to perform like a new music act. Emergents didn’t emerge, come to find out. They peeked out from the cracks in the church sidewalk and then withered. 

I do think that we are seeing wiser versions of the seeker church popping up – culturally savvy but rooted in historic orthodoxy and orthopraxis. They are putting a choke hold on the more crazy antics of over-the-top seeker churches. 

But that is about as far as I can see, and I haven’t read anything that clearly outlines “next things.” 

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