Since I wrote on James’ article on First Things there’s been some additional commentary, which I think deserves a response.
Tim Keller has never applied his “third way” towards partisan politics as such, but to the essence of church fellowship. This article on the whole brouhaha by Brian Mattson is good, but misses what Keller is doing:
Keller absolutely affirms that abortion is a great evil—he is a conservative Presbyterian pastor, after all. But then he follows up with the idea that the best way to reduce abortion isn’t exactly clear, and maybe the left has ideas as good as those on the right. This is where the missing priorities problem is at its greatest. If it is a great evil, if it is the unjust taking of human life, at the very least it should be illegal. At the least.
Except, as I pointed out in my last post, Keller very strongly and publicly opposes legal abortion. He even publicly committed to civil disobedience if compelled to support it! Keller is saying that those who adopt different political strategies for addressing abortion (or pick your political topic) than him should not be barred or cast out of church. That’s what his recent tweet thread was about, that’s what his articles that James and Mattson cite are about.
That’s what makes James’ followup so frustrating: “I am largely concerned about the way [Keller’s] framework is broadly appropriated by his disciples, many of whom populate leadership positions in churches and other Christian ministries.” He should have said that in his first essay. James is at pains to say he appreciates Keller, even his approach, but thinks a) inadequate Keller’s winsomeness applied to politics and b) inappropriate the way Keller’s framework has been misused by his disciples. Then say that. Writing an article about how he has moved on from Keller, rather than one about how Keller has been misapplied and there needs to be a recalibration, strikes me as unfortunately cynical.
James Wood’s First Things article, “How I Evolved on Tim Keller” has prompted a significant response from a variety of quarters. He struck a nerve and resonated with a number of people. James and I were in the same graduating class at Redeemer Seminary and shared similar church backgrounds at the time, as he detailed in his essay. Our school also prominently advertised that we were the first to teach a class built around Keller’s then-recently published Center Church – one of the few gimmicky moments in my education. So I have an appreciation for where James is coming from.
But I think he misread Keller in the neutral world and Keller now. I have my differences with Keller, but he is still a man to be appreciated for this season…
Turning Everyday Conversations into Gospel Conversations (Three Circles) by Jimmy Scroggins and Steve Wright has become a favorite evangelistic tool in Baptist circles. The North American Mission Board (the domestic mission arm of the Southern Baptist Convention) has adopted it and even created a companion website and app.
Scroggins and Wright are motivated to share the gospel with as many people as possible, and to equip the people of the church to this. A laudable motivation, to be sure. Thy are driven by a desire to see a multiplying church, especially in their unchurched South Florida context.
Now, a word needs to be said about whether South Florida (the authors are in West Palm Beach) is unchurched. They assert that 96% of the 1.4 million people in Florida are unreached and that West Palm Beach is an unreached city (pg. 17), something that is repeated regularly throughout the book. This, to put it bluntly, is inaccurate. The 96% unreached number comes from NAMB, which provides no data to back up their claim. Yes, the cited 2015 Barna data says that West Palm Beach is the city with the highest percentage of “never-churched” people in the United States (17%), but that means 83% of West Palm Beach has been churched at one time. That very same Barna report states that West Palm Beach is currently 52% churched, 48% unchurched, the 11th least-churched city in the country, but hardly unchurched or unreached. The Association of Religious Data states that in 2010 (most recent year for their data) Palm Beach County had a rate of 36.6% regular attending Christian adherents, with 10.9% of the population regularly attending an Evangelical Protestant church. No matter how you massage the numbers, South Florida is not unreached. That does not mean that sharing the gospel should be a lower priority, but that does mean Scroggins and Wright made me skeptical of their work. Misleading the reader on one point, intentionally or through unintentional sloppiness, means you’re untrustworthy on the others…
“After this [the sealing of the 144,000] I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!'” Revelation 7:9-10.
It has become fashionable lately in the Reformed world to cite these verses to argue for ecclesial pursuit of multiculturalism, or as the terminus for the church’s mission in such a way as to define its strategies.
Here’s what these verses are doing…
One of the great concerns of missional theology is the translation of theological language and practice across cultures. While the truth of the gospel does not change, the mode of communicating it can and must depending upon location. This was one of the arguments for the adaptation of rock and pop music in worship. Every musical style and genre will eventually run into the same problem: diminishing returns crossing cultures. A seminary professor of mine once told a story of visiting an evangelical church in Japan that was a slavish copy of American churches. The church had a praise team that dressed like a caricature of American worship leaders and played translated CCM. And it didn’t work, because it failed to account for the differences in American and Japanese culture.
As American and western culture changes, the use of rock music in worship stops meeting the needs that lead to its employment in the first place…