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.” 

For Those Who Feel Jilted by the Emerging Church

For those still fascinated with church as hip and cool and constantly beat the drum about keeping up with emerging trends, here is a poem for you by Andrew Wilson, whose blog I visit each day. 

Out with the old, and bring in now the new!
Long live the quirky, fresh, emerging church,
Which current trends and popular research
Have shown displacing organ, robe and pew.
They do what older churches cannot do,
And knock denominations off their perch,
By being that for which millennials search:
Authentic, fresh, hip, urban, deep and true.
What future now for draughty liturgists,
Their cassocks out of date, their words arcane?
What hope for seeker-led suburban splurge,
Their baby boomer ranks now on the wane?
Our city culture shows, demography insists,
That any church who would survive must first emerge.

But that was then. Now, in the ten years past,
The fickle fog of fashion has not cleared,
And consequently, as the sceptics feared,
Emergers have not had the depth to last.
As elder statesmen have looked on, aghast,
The leaders’ youthful hubris has appeared:
Rob’s Bell has tolled, Don’s churchmanship gone weird,
And Driscollusionment has set in, fast.
What happened? Was it neoliberal drift?
Did Brian, Doug, Mark, Karen, Don and Rob,
Contextualise themselves out of a job?
Perhaps. But more than that, the trend-obsessed
Were always going to underrate age as a gift.
New wine is good, says Jesus; but old wine is best.

Youth Ministry Destroys Faith

So says David Fitch.

I think youth groups often do things that work against the formation of our youth into life with Christ and His Mission. They also soak up huge time and resources in ways that are a detriment to the community life of the church. I think it would be good for parents seeking churches to think through these issues.

Prototype youth groups are built on the worst of modernist assumptions concerning the way human beings develop as cultural beings. They play into the worse impulses of parents who don’t get what is happening right before their very eyes when their children start to take on the moral formation of the ubiquitous culture at large. (Parents want young hip experts to save their kids – UH THAT DON’T WORK!!). They think the answer is to somehow get their children to a place where the youth culture attracts them and somehow makes Christianity attractive to their age group. All these things, I argue, work against the child growing up into a vital and real relationship with the living God and what He has done in Christ for the world.

I think I pretty much agree with this. Some caveats here and there. But in the main the trajectory of David’s view is correct.

One of the first things a church needs to do is not program for teens but stand up to the parents who demand that extraordinary resources be spent on so few with so little results. Apart from the question of whether or not youth ministry traditionally conceived is effective, there is also the question of stewardship, of whether so much money should be spent on so few.

Once again, see the book The Family Based Youth Ministry published by InterVarsity Press.

For churches with a significant set of sr citizens

Elderly with Cognitive Decline Offer Excellent, Hurtful Advice
According to a posting at The Scientific American, elderly people with loss of executive function–lessening of inhibitions–are more likely to offer useful, but tactless, advice.
You know how grandma’s always criticizing your new haircut or choice of clothing? Well, it might not hurt to listen. Because old folks who can’t hold their tongues may give the best advice. That’s according to a study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
Researchers recruited 19 undergrads and 32 adults in their 60s and 70s. They split the older adults into two groups, based on the adults’ abilities to control their behaviors and impulses—called executive function, which naturally declines with age. Then the researchers showed all three groups a photo of a visibly obese teen, along with a list of her complaints, like trouble sleeping and lack of energy—symptoms associated with childhood obesity.
What advice could they offer this girl? Well, only half of the higher functioning adults and a third of the college kids brought up the girl’s weight as the possible source for her problems. But 80 percent of the adults with cognitive declines mentioned weight. They also gave twice as many helpful tips, like more exercise, a better diet, and delivered them with more empathy. So next time you need advice, try grandma or grandpa. But be prepared for brutal honesty.
—Christopher Intagliata

Can we “overrepent?”

Ted Haggard says he did and I agree that we can. Click here for article.

I am not talking about whether or not Haggard should now be a pastor. That’s a whole other discussion. I am talking about whether or not he groveled enough to convince the powers that be he was sincere.

Ted Haggard is not the only pastor I have seen go through this. In fact, I have seen a multitude go through this experience. They have to measure up to someone’s idea of when repentance is sincere, and that can end up with the repentant “overrepenting.” It’s not a pretty sight.

Of course, no amount of sorrow in the world can go deep enough to express awareness of the damage done. But when others begin to define what another’s repentance should look like, then we begin to wade into very muddy waters. Repentance can then begin to look a lot like penitence. And then it’s a matter of how many Hail Mary’s and sayings of the Rosary before one is back in the state of grace. I have seen churches almost enjoy the process, particularly those in the church who had previously been the pastor’s detractors. There is a dark delight in the tables being turned. It can be very ugly.

So churches that preach grace need to be careful of the “penitence model”.

By the way, Haggard reports the same experience Gordon MacDonald found. After the fall and return to ministry, the number of stories that started tumbling out of parishioners increased exponentially. People began to view the pastor as safe, one who would understand and who would not be harsh. Their sheer numbers stunned MacDonald.

Church Services and My Longings for Christ

My observation is that it is increasingly difficult to locate a church which offers worship centered on Christ. Christ “hangs around” the service but can be more of an upgrade than the basic offering.

Sustained attention to Christ – His person, His glory, His work, His reward, His Trinitarian sonship, His incarnational manifestation, His sacrificial work – based on concentrated attention to a biblical text is a rare thing. Not only is it not being done in any general way, it is being taught that it should not be done. We must see Christ only through our own need with the emphasis being placed on our need – to overcome our habits, hurts and hangups, etc.

I certainly affirm that there must be sustained attention to how Christ’s work impacts how I live my life. I must grow in skill in righteous and wise living. Christ shows me how.

But it is not just my needs I bring to Christ. I also bring my desire to adore Him, worship Him, explore Him, grasp Him with the love of my heart and mind. I am of the impression that when these drives are at work strongly in my life I most experience the shortcoming of sermon paradigms operative in church life.

Why is this the case? I think it is more challenging to prepare such sermons. The amount of textual work, the richness of the materials, the intersect with systematic theology and church history all make for longer and harder work in the study. The bait of sociological richness in our sermons is too tempting, the hook too attractive. No doubt, there is some immediate attention by the audience (congregation?), but I am not sure the transaction between pulpit and pew is rich in soul work.

As I am on sabbatical and look on as the church does its work, there seems to be little of a Christ-enraptured taste to our offerings. The empty hole inside of us is not filled only by wise and successful living. All the best that holy and righteous living offers us in this world still pales in comparison to the Pearl itself – Christ.

However God leads in my future, it is this which I want I want to give, this hunger I want to feed, this drive I want to direct.

The sin of in

Heard this phrase from Bill Moyers describing his time as press secretary for President Johnson during the Vietnam War. The “sin of in” is the privileges those on the inside grant to themselves – the right to secrecy, failure of transparency, to keep what is true from being known, to grant oneself an exception from the rules.

I have been a leader and know this sin first hand, not through others but from self-reflection. Leadership is hard enough all of its own. The desire to make it easier than it is leads to dark choices. Very nice people in the church let leaders get away with it because they are, well, nice. But, in fact, I am not sure you can be suspicious enough of a leader. Not meanly suspicious. Just aware that a lot of stuff needs to come to light, and we are all better off when it does so.

While a person might be invited into a position of leadership because of past achievement and evidence of character, as a leader he or she will face a whole other level of ethical decisions, the primary one being a life of transparency. Leaders hide. It is their chief vulnerability. And in that hiding things go on that would otherwise be unacceptable.

Of course, I haven’t only seen this in myself. I have been in church long enough to see “first families” give themselves certain rights to control, which gives them a “suspension of the ethical.” They have served longer, given more money, sacrificed more time, etc. This gives them not only the right to have more things go their way but also gives them the privilege of not having to play by the rules. I have seen certain charismatic figures give themselves a pass on ethical behavior because their influence convinces them they are above the ethical demands others have to submit to.

Utlimately the “sin of in” is the sin of  “us versus them.” Once that mindset is in place, no one is safe. It takes a lot of soul work to root this out of the core of the church. It is so much work that it rarely happens.