Trevin Wax, “Gospel, Culture, and Mission: An Interview with Tim Keller,” Kingdom People: Living on Earth as Citizens of Heaven Blog (October 10, 2012)
Tim Keller has published numerous works the past few years that have been very helpful to the church. He has just published another book, probably his most significant up to this point: Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012). It is certainly his most substantive. In this book, Keller writes of his theological vision that has been worked out over many years of pastoral ministry. In essence, it is a ministry that is rooted in the truth of the gospel and gives functional priority to the gospel in ministry.
Wax interviews Keller about his book. Here are a few excerpts including questions about the gospel, how Christians relate to culture, being missional, and the mission of the church and making disciples:
Trevin Wax: [Scot McKnight critiqued Keller’s understanding of the gospel as being too “soterian,” i.e. individualistic.]Why is it important to keep individual salvation at the center of our thinking about the gospel? And do you sense a tension between a focus on individual salvation and the resurrection-centered, kingship-focused sermons we see in Acts?
Tim Keller: Scot and I disagree on this. But yes, I do think individual salvation needs to be kept central.
In Romans 8 Paul speaks of the renewal of creation—its liberation from decay—something that shows that ultimately God’s salvation means the renewal of the whole world, not just the salvation of individual souls. Yet in verse 21 Paul says that the creation will be brought into our freedom and glory as children of God—the glory that we as individuals have received through faith in Jesus Christ.
So rather than saying—as many do—that the main point of the gospel is cosmic salvation, and our individual salvation(s) are just part of that, it might be more accurate to say it’s the other way around. It may be that cosmic renewal is a fruit of our individual, personal salvation.
Because I read Romans 8 the way I do—I see substitutionary atonement and justification as not something that comes along with the bigger story but as the point of the spear of the Big Story.
Trevin Wax:I benefited from the balance on display in your explanation of four common ways many Christians relate to culture (Transformationists, Relevants, Counterculturalists, Two Kingdoms). At the end of this section, you left the question open-ended, advocating for different strategies based on cultural context and personal giftings. How did you come to the conclusion that all four views have strengths and weaknesses that need to be held in tension with the others?
Tim Keller: Don Carson’s book Christ and Culture Revisited looks at the 5 models of Christ-and-culture laid out by Niebuhr. They don’t perfectly line up with my four, but Don’s argument was that outside of the “Christ of Culture” model (the view of older Liberal Christianity) all the models had biblical warrant, yet that meant that any of the models taken too exclusively would be leaving out the biblical insights of the other models.
So in the end I say that you should choose the model that seems to best fit your time, place, and personal affinities, but be very careful to use the insights and tools of the other models to keep yourself from imbalance.
Trevin Wax:The term “missional” is often used today in a variety of ways – some of which contradict each other. You maintain a place for the word “missional,” but want to be specific about what it means and does not mean. How would you define “missional?”
Tim Keller: I think that the word “missional” is useful because it means something more (though not less) than being very evangelistic. It means recognizing the post-Christian character of our Western society, and revamping everything we do in accord with that.
We no longer have cultural institutions imparting respect for the Bible and the church in the general population so that the average person:
- pays attention to the church,
- seeks it out for milestone moments like baptisms, weddings, funerals, and
- understands what you mean by terms like God, sin, heaven, hell, right and wrong.
This means revamping how you preach, how you instruct, how you evangelize—everything. Notice how differently Paul (in Acts) preached to pagans than he did in synagogues where people were steeped in the Scripture.
So I’m not ready to abandon the term missional. There are very different views of how to be the church now in our post-Christian culture, but we should be making the effort rather than simply doing business as usual.
Trevin Wax:There is a current discussion going on in gospel-centered circles about the “mission of the church,” and particularly, the nature of “making disciples.” What aspects of this discussion have encouraged you? How would you weigh in and speak to some of the deficiencies you see in this discussion?
Tim Keller: I’m good with saying that the mission of the church is basically to “make disciples.” I like it because it safeguards the centrality of what the church alone can really do—bring people to faith in Christ. But I might differ with others on what those disciples look like.
I’d say you haven’t discipled someone if they only have been equipped to evangelize and bring people to church. If they are truly discipled, they must be motivated and equipped to love their neighbors, to do justice and mercy. And they also must be equipped to integrate their faith with their work, namely, to engage culture.
One problem I see is that many churches that insist that the church’s job is to only to make disciples do virtually nothing to help disciples grow in these areas, even though it is clearly part of the biblical job description for individual believers. Put another way—the job of the institutional church gathered is not to change social structures/culture, but to create disciples (who comprise the ‘organic’ church dispersed) who will change social structures and the culture.
Here are a few concluding thoughts. First, Keller’s assessment that the gospel first affects individuals and then expands to the whole is right. My concern is that when you start with the big picture, it is often the focus on the gospel’s effects on the individual which gets lost. History has born this out.
Second, Keller’s perceptive analysis of culture, rooted in Carson’s Christ and Culture Revisited, in four different responses is perceptive and helpful: Transformationists, Relevants, Counterculturalists, Two Kingdoms. Beyond this helpful spectrum, he also wisely notes that there is blending and bleeding between categories based on time, place, etc.
Third, Keller continues to use the term “missional” and finds it helpful, but he carefully defines the way in which he finds the word/concept both helpful and important, viz. we live in a different day that requires we, as the people of God, engage in the culture in a new and different way than 25 years ago.
Finally, Keller’s conclusion regarding the primary purpose of the church is extremely important today. Many conclude that the church is to be doing the transforming of society and societal structures, when in reality that moves the church away from its primary purpose for being, that is the proclamation of the gospel for the transformation of lives. Full stop. But intimately and organically connected to this is that those transformed individuals change the culture, society and societal structures. As Keller points out, many churches do not understand this and their ministries are not reflective of this. In other words, the church’s discipling strategies are too narrowly understood and focused, so that they do nothing to help disciples grow in this area. But the answer is not to shift the role of the church as church to do what Christians are to be and do. By doing that, the church is misdirected and misaligned so that she is distracted from her primary calling. That, by the way, is the modus operandi of the liberal church.