December 1, 2008 Volume 22, Number 18
We need a theology of revival
An interview with Tim Kellar
By Darryl Dash | ChristianWeek Columnist
Few people have influenced my ministry more than Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York. Keller is author of the New York Times bestseller The Reason for God and a newly released book, The Prodigal God. He is also cofounder of The Gospel Coalition.
Keller pastors in a post-Christian setting and shares some insights into some of the challenges we face in the Canadian context.
You've said that we need to change significantlybeyond ordinary approaches like new programs or staffin order to meet the challenges of a post-Christian culture. What are some of the deeper issues the Church needs to face?
The first "deeper" issue is the one that Lloyd-Jones spoke of in his lectures on revivals. He heard people saying, in London in the 1950s, that the solution to the decreasing church attendance and Christian influence in society was better apologetics, more emphasis on church growth or, in the case of the mainline, adapting theology more to the modern mood.
But Lloyd-Jones, of course, believed the need was for spiritual revival. The trouble with naming this is that, unfortunately, in many evangelical circles, especially charismatic ones, "revival" is always said to be the cure-all for our ills. But Lloyd-Jones was thinking of the historic revivals and of a theology of revival of Jonathan Edwards. This means we must, as in all the revivals, recover the gospel of grace.
I agree with Lloyd-Jones on this, but this is a very unpopular view right now in much of the evangelical world. In parts of the Reformed world, Edwards' view of revival is under attack as individualistic and inimical to the importance of the Church. Oddly, in the emerging church Edwards' view of revival is unpopular for the same reasons, because of its emphasis on the "individualistic" views of substitutionary atonement, forensic justification and so on.
I think these attacks on (or indifference to) the importance of revival are very wrong. We live in a society in which revival is necessary. As Peter Berger shows in The Heretical Imperative in contemporary pluralistic societies, everyone who believes a faith has to make an individual choice to believe it. There are no longer inherited, authoritative faith traditions. Whether you raise a child Lutheran, Muslim or Baptist the child at some point will have to choose to make the faith of his parents his or her own. In other words, they will have to have a conversion experience.
When revival breaks out through a recovery of the gospel, three things happen: 1) nominal church members realize they'd never been converted; 2) sleepy, lethargic Christians are energized and renewed; 3) outsider non-Christians are attracted into the beautified worship, community and lives of the converted and renewed church members. That's how it works. We need it.
The second deeper issue is the relationship of Christ to culture. The old Niebuhr book shows how the Church has never come to consensus on how it should relate to a culture that is sharply non- or anti-Christian. The evangelical Church is bitterly divided into groups that say, either we should change the culture "one heart at a time" by evangelizing individuals, or we should change the culture by penetrating the cultural institutions with Christians operating out of a biblical world-view.
Others say we will only affect the culture if the Church contextualizesconnects to people's needs and concerns and serves the poor and needywhile still others say we shouldn't be trying to change culture at all; we should just "be the Church," because trying to change the culture inevitably corrupts the Church into the image of the culture.
Until we can break through these warring views and factions we are in trouble. Don Carson's recent book Christ and Culture Revisited is a good starting point because he shows that each approach has a lot of biblical warrant, but each approach, taken as the exclusive one, is seriously imbalanced. I believe the different approaches are actually responding more to other parts of the Christian Church than they are to the world. They are defining themselves as being "not like those Christians over there" and so are falling into what Don calls "reductionisms."
Some seem to have risen to the challenge of effective ministry in a changing culture. Who can we learn from?
I am actually a bit reluctant to lift anyone up high as a shining exampleincluding Redeemer Presbyterian. Let me put it like this: John Stott at All Souls Church in London pioneered a new kind of church that united vigorous gospel evangelism, concern for the needs of the neighborhood and the city, discipling people to integrate their faith and their secular vocation, a high regard for the arts and a high regard for expository preaching. This is a very remarkable balance. Most churches tend to major in just one or at most two of theseeither evangelism/church growth or social justice issues or arts and culture or sound doctrine and exposition, and so on.
All Souls and other traditional "city-centre" churches (like Tenth Presbyterian in Philadelphia) in the last generation found ways of balancing these ministries and keeping them inter-dependent and inter-related.
Today, I see a whole lot of younger ministers, especially in cities, starting churches that aren't marked by the "venerable" cultural conservatism that often went with older downtown "cathedrals," and yet are still solidly biblical and keep this same broad range and balance. This is a great trend. Richard Lovelace in his Dynamics of Spiritual Life said the mark of a revived church was this same breadth and balance.
It's easy to get overwhelmed by the challenges that the North American Church is facing. What keeps you encouraged?
Prayer. Meeting God in prayer. Sorry to sound so trite. Prayer and meditation brings joy. God is on His throneeverything's going to be fine in the end. The new heavens and new Earth are coming in which "everything sad is going to come untrue." Don't get too bent out of shape because your church didn't grow this year.
How do we change in order to contextualize without changing the gospel?
That is the practical question in ministry. If you under-contextualize your ministry and message, no one's life will be changed because they'll be too confused about what you are saying. But if you over-contextualize your ministry and your message, no one's life will be changed because you won't really be confronting them and calling them to make deep change.
If this scares you and you say, "Well then let's not even try it," then you have to remember something: to over-contextualize to a new generation means you can make an idol out of their culture, but to under-contextualize to a new generation means you can make an idol out of the culture you come from. So there's no avoiding it.
There's far more to say about this subject, but I'll just give you one bit of advice. The gospel is the key. If you don't have a deep grasp on the gospel of grace, you will either over-contextualize because you want so desperately to be liked and popular, or you will under-contextualize because you are self-righteous and proud and so sure you are right about everything. The gospel makes you humble enough to listen and adapt to non-believers, but confident and happy enough that you don't need their approval.
Please tell us about why you've written The Prodigal God, and if you have more books planned after that.
Probably the single sermon in which (I feel) I get the gospel across most clearly is the sermon I have preached several times over the years on the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15. So I decided to turn it into a short book.
I chose the name The Prodigal God for the book. For years I've publicly prayed to God "thank you for your prodigal grace" and I've heard other people pray that way too. Most folks know that "prodigality" and "prodigious" mean abundant and generous. It can also mean recklessly and irresponsibly extravagant. Spurgeon once preached a sermon titled "Prodigal Love for the Prodigal Son."
I have noticed in the past few years that the negative aspect of the word's lexical range seems to be getting more dominant. That is, more and more people think of the term as meaning only "wayward." So I was trying to do a little philological rescue and recovery project! And the title helps people realize the only way God can deal with our sin is through a kind of grace that appears irresponsibly extravagant to Pharisaical "elder brothers."
Yes, I'm working on another book now on what the Bible says about "doing justice."
Darryl Dash is the senior pastor of Richview Baptist Church in Etobicoke, Ontario.