Wednesday, January 31, 2018

A Biblical Critique of Keller's 'Center Church' (pt. 2)

Evaluation of Center Church
There are three areas where I consider CC to be unbiblical/lacking:
      1) Contextualization—this immediately shapes our view on the methods of evangelism and equipping, how the church is built, who gets the credit for building the church, and how we evaluate ministry efforts
·        2)Common Grace—this immediately shapes our view on the cultural mandate of the church and the goal of the church in the world
·        3) The Church—the definition of who makes up the church has an immediate impact on how the gospel is manifested to the world

Contextualization- Keller promotes a contextualization that takes the transcendent truth of the gospel and adapts it to the culture so that the culture can understand it and find it attractive.  The pursuit of clarity with the gospel is necessary, but the idea that the way the gospel is packaged can make it attractive to the world is theologically aberrant.  For Keller, the effectiveness of one’s theological vision is based on how well a church leader adapts himself to culture.  This type of contextualization empties the cross of its power (1 Cor. 1:17b) and gives the credit for fruitfulness to the power of man (1 Cor. 2:4-5).  The Lord calls His servants to reject the attractive methodology of the world (1 Cor. 1:17a; 2:2) in order that the fruit might be based on divinely-given faith (1 Cor. 2:5).

The American church seems to be going through a mid-life crisis.  Instead of being confident in the allure of her bridegroom to woo the world, the church often sounds like a middle-aged wife, perversely adorning herself for other suitors.  Let me say it this way—the power of the gospel is entirely and only in the Spirit’s working through the proclamation of Christ and His cross.  However, to read CC would make one think that the greatest danger threatening the church is that we would fail to be attractive to unbelievers.  For instance, phrases like “The most important way to gain a hearing from postmodern people…” (66), “making this distinction may be the only way to reach them” (66), “They will be turned off if…” (178), “If you care about having an influence on society, evangelism is not enough,” (185), and “New churches… attract and harness many people in the city whose gifts wouldn’t otherwise be used in the body’s ministry,” (360) occur regularly throughout the book.

In fact, for Keller, what is at stake in our ability to impress the world is the very foundation of our being heard.  He says, “Yet we could also argue that the greatest problem for the church today is our inability to connect with nonbelievers in a way that they understand” (224).  Of course every true Christian is concerned about gospel clarity so that nonbelievers can understand the gospel.  However, Keller says we are losing our voice with unbelievers, and the solution lies in our ability to adapt to their tastes and preferences.  Note the focus on attraction and appeal to the world in the following quotes:

Those who lean toward a conservative theology may say (as I would) that while the mission of the church qua church (the institutional church) is to evangelize and make disciples, individual Christians must be well-known for their sacrificial service to the poor and common good if a society is going to give the gospel a hearing. (263, fn. 37)  

This church’s worship is missional in that it makes sense to nonbelievers in that culture…  The members of a missional church also know how to contextualize the gospel, carefully challenging yet also appealing to the baseline cultural narratives of the society around them. (265)

If the latter [the church dispersed] does not minister in both word and deed[1], no one will listen to the gospel preached by the former [the church gathered]. (274)

This striking way of laying out the early church’s social situation forces us to realize that the church must have grown because it was attractive. (285, italics are Keller’s)

Excellent aesthetics includes outsiders [nonbelievers[2]], while mediocre aesthetics excludes.  The low level of artistic quality in many churches guarantees that only insiders will continue to come. (305)

I am concerned that philanthropy, urban renewal, artistic expression and social justice have become an alternative methodology for presenting the message of the cross.  These functions and projects are highly esteemed and praised by an ungodly American culture.  That doesn’t mean that Christians should never take part in something like painting over graffiti in the center of town, but it would be a tragic mistake to believe that the popularity of social work has the power to make the gospel more attractive to unbelievers.

Faithful, Successful, or Fruitful?

The theological vision of CC is consistently built on this principle that ministry can and must be attractive to the culture or it will never have impact and influence.  In fact, the very first page of the Introduction Keller evaluates a ministry on the basis of the culture’s attraction to it.  Many would evaluate a ministry on the basis of its faithfulness, which means “sound in doctrine, godly in character, and faithful in preaching and pastoring people” (13).  Others would evaluate it on the basis of success: “Many say that if your church is growing in conversions, members, and giving, your ministry is effective” (13).  However, Keller declares that neither is sufficient.  He says, “As I read, reflected, and taught, I came to the conclusion that a more biblical theme for ministerial evaluation than either success or faithfulness is fruitfulness” (13).  He bases that conclusion on John 15:8.  Examples of fruit would include conversions, godly character, and mercy done to the poor. 

However, throughout the book the fruitfulness being discussed seems to shift from those three types to numbers.  In fact, on page 14, Keller talks about the increased attention Redeemer Presbyterian Church was receiving because what they were doing was “working so well in Manhattan” and “what we were doing was bearing fruit in city.”  Even more explicitly, he writes, “At Redeemer… we had thousands of the very kind of secular, sophisticated young adults the church was not reaching” (15).[3]  Quite honestly, I’m not sure how this is any different than evaluating a ministry on success.   

Regardless of terms, Paul is very clear on how a ministry is to be evaluated.  Christian laborers will be rewarded, not according to fruit, but according to their labor and quality of their work—“Now he who plants and he who waters are one; but each will receive his own reward according to his own labor” (1 Cor. 3:8).  That reward will come from the evaluation of quality of one’s labor, not the quantity of fruit. 

Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work.  If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. (1 Cor. 3:12-14)

Every Christian (let alone every church leader) must give constant and solemn watchfulness to the materials with which they are building.  Imagine the irretrievable loss of those who labored passionately in a direction that God never commanded, with methods that He prohibited, and yet produced the ‘fruitfulness’ of thousands of followers.  On that day, their work will ride the conveyer belt through an incinerator in order to be tested by Christ’s holy gaze.  The wood, hay, and straw of those who built on the one foundation of Christ (right message) with flammable materials (wrong methodology) will not stand the test.  What a tragic loss of potential reward in the next life, and what danger for the church in this one!

Human Power or Divine Power?

It may be helpful to put Keller’s doctrine of contextualization and its implications into a syllogism.

            Premise #1: Theological vision is based, not on doctrinal theology, but on how you approach the question of cultural engagement.[4]

Premise #2: Theological vision should be evaluated, not on faithfulness, but on fruitfulness (conversions).[5]

Conclusion: Therefore, fruitfulness is the justifying proof of how effectively a minister brings the gospel to his culture.[6]

What concerns me most about Keller’s evaluation of ministry effectiveness is that rather than boasting in the power of the gospel, this approach leaves room for boasting in man’s ability.  Specifically, man’s ability to adapt truth to the culture determines the fruit.  In other words, the unadorned gospel doesn’t contain the power to produce spiritual fruit, but the culturally savvy pastor who dresses up the gospel carries the true power.  Imagine a church that sees conversions, sanctification, and gospel impact through equipped saints, and a church in the next city with identical convictions that doesn’t see the same fruit.  According to Keller’s paradigm, the boast for the church with fruit is not the gospel, but the skill and savvy of that church to approach and adapt to the culture!  Both have the gospel, but for Keller, the second church’s lack of visible fruit indicates neglect.  I don’t know what is worse—ignoring the fact that the gospel is so magnetically powerful that it always attracts and repels, or promoting a scheme of ministry that allows man to boast in his cultural savvy as the basis for spiritual fruit! 

For consider your calling, brethren… God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God.  But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that, just as it is written, “LET HIM WHO BOASTS, BOAST IN THE LORD.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31)

The Scriptures attest that the power to effect spiritual fruit comes only from the Lord.[7]  What compels unbelievers that the gospel is supernatural is the legitimate power of the holiness and purity of the church.  After Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead for lying (Acts 5:1-11) while trying to gain notoriety equal to Barnabas (Acts 4:32-37), the unbelievers wouldn’t dare join the church for superficial reasons like having the benevolence of the church which met the needs of insiders. 

At the hands of the apostles many signs and wonders were taking place among the people; and they were all with one accord in Solomon’s portico.  But none of the rest dared to associate with them; however, the people held them in high esteem.  And all the more believers in the Lord, multitudes of men and women, were constantly added to their number. (Acts 5:12-14)

This is entirely opposite to the theological vision of CC.  Holiness and purity must be powerfully lived out by the church so that superficial association with the church will be unattractive.  Then, and only then, will those who begin to associate with the church be rightly labeled believers, because what is attractive to them is the power and purity of the church.  When the church is uncomfortable to unrepentant believers (“those who are perishing,” 1 Cor. 1:18), conversion can only be a work of the God who sovereignly transforms the heart to hunger and thirst for righteousness.  The true church can only be built by divine power.  The true church can only be harmed by the fruit of human power when it attempts to make herself attractive to an unbelieving culture.  TO BE CONTINUED

Article written by Pastor Jon Anderson.  Jon is a pastor at Grace Immanuel Bible Church and a PhD student at Southern Seminary. His future dissertation will be on presuppositional hermeneutics.

[1] This is referring to argumentation from a previous work, Generous Justice, as well as argumentation from CC.  Keller has been using the word ‘word,’ to refer to teaching the Scripture, discipleship and evangelism.  ‘Deed’ refers to the mercy ministries and social work necessary for winning a hearing with the world.
[2] “Outsiders” are “nonbelievers” in Keller’s discussion here.  This quote comes from a section titled, “Make Worship Comprehensible to Nonbelievers.”  There is a fundamental ecclesiological problem here, which I take up in the third section of evaluation on “The Church” (pp. 23ff).  Here, I’m pointing out the drive to attract and appeal to nonbelievers as a theological vision. 
[3] The examples could be multiplied.  For instance on page 89, Keller describes leaders in the Dutch church who had thriving churches in rural areas requesting his help with getting the church in cities to flourish numerically. 
[4] He writes: “…churches with the same basic doctrine are shaped by different theological visions because they are answering these questions about culture, tradition, and rationality differently.” (Keller, Center Church, 19; italics mine)  This very statement begs the question, “Why describe this vision as ‘theological’ in the first place?”
[5] He writes: “…a more biblical theme for ministerial evaluation than either success or faithfulness is fruitfulness… [Paul] spoke of conversions as ‘fruit’ when he desired to preach in Rome… (Rom 1:13).” (Ibid., 13)
[6] And again, he writes: “…the quality of the theological vision often determines the vitality of the ministry, particularly in urban settings.” (Ibid., 20-21)
[7] John 15:4-8; James 1:18