even Keller can’t break through

Tim Keller is a masterful preacher and I’m a big fan. Keller is even touted as a modern day Martin Luther and almost a rockstar. Fan clubs are showing up via Facebook Groups like I can’t stop listening to Tim Keller and this one too. Yet he’s evaded the Reformed superstar conference circuit — not a mention in 50+ comments over at Are We Creating a Reformed Celebrity Culture?, but then again, a little surprised to see Keller in the midst of forming the Gospel Coalition.

Keller argued that the ultimate purpose of preaching is to make the truth real, not just clear. “The business of preaching is to make knowledge live.” Most other Reformed pastors seem to speak to the already convinced and/or come across abrasively to those who have differing convictions. Can you name one other Reformed type that comes across to the masses as reasonable, tolerant, and gracious?

But as good a preacher as Keller is, he can’t break through and create life transformation. I know first-hand of avid Keller listeners who don’t seem to have totally changed lives. They listen to Keller probably more than I do, many listen to him live and person week in week out, quote him, promote him, and yet something’s missing. 3 (artificial) categories of people come to mind:

Could this be related to what Nietzsche calls the “mere appearance of mere appearance”? Well, I don’t know. I think what I wanted to rant and vent about is that even with the best of preaching, that still doesn’t change lives. Relationships can help change lives, but people in the above categories usually don’t like showing their brokenness or weaknesses, and don’t have relationships close enough to speak into their lives. Ultimately, it’s the Spirit of God that transforms lives.

Oh, by the way, the Redeemer Presbyterian Church website gets a beautiful redesign. I’d imagine it’ll get better integrated with other Redeemer related websites (store, RCPC newsletter) soon. And, I’ll have to go fix all my broken permalinks.

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15 Responses

  1. Reyes-Chow says:

    Man, solid thought-proving stuff. I am not a big Keller fan just because of where he lands on some issues, but ya can’t argue the impact of Redeemer and his ministry. Still, i think you raise some REALLY good points. I too think it will be in the “long-tail” types of church experience where most meaningful, relationship-based transformation happens.

  2. Bumble says:

    Hah, right on!

    Yesterday over breakfast my elderly mentor lean over and asked me, “Do you think that if you have someone like Tim Keller over and pastor your church, everything would be solved?”

    “No, God had all sorts of tools for all sorts of work.” He concluded.

  3. Tim Keller says:

    Good post DJ. Here’s a way to (perhaps) even sharpen your point. Listening to sermons and reading books–even very good ones–doesn’t really change character. It’s community that does that. You mainly become like those you hang out with, not those you listen to in a mass audience. For years I’ve seen this–‘fans’ who love the message but don’t get deeply involved in community don’t really change. They talk about the gospel but it doesn’t effect their lives. I’m glad you point this out. Yes, even if you like my sermons (and I’m humbled that you do)–preaching alone can’t ‘break through.’

    By the way, the ‘Gospel Coalition’ is a group of about 50-60 pastors, most of whom are younger, non-famous, and many of whom are also non-white. Somebody called us ‘Less Famous Pastors Together for the Gospel’. There are a handfull of well-known figures involved, but I’ve been impressed that they are so willing to sit around around with dozens of younger leaders who also have a place at the table. That’s been one of the main purposes of this thing–a way of encouraging the next generation of younger, multi-ethnic leaders. I know that’s important to you, too.

  4. Bob K says:

    Very good points made, DJ. I think the temptation to slide down this path of dependence on personalities as a means of transformation is very real all over. And a hat tip to Tim Keller himself for sharing his brief thoughts on the Gospel Coalition. The optimism for this initiative is well placed.

  5. Kevin Friedman says:

    DJ, great post. I wanted to comment on this post as a former* long time Redeemer member (who was also involved in church leadership) and someone who became a Christian at Redeemer — with the help of Tim Keller’s preaching I might add.

    It’s funny because my wife and I were just talking about this very issue today. I guess I have looked at this issue through the paradigm of seeker friendliness vs. discipleship. I think it would be hard to argue that there are few churches that are more seeker-friendly and do a more effective job of reaching seekers than Redeemer. I would also venture to guess (though I do not know any statistics, only anecdotal information) that Redeemer has produced an amazing number of new converts through Keller’s preaching and the atmosphere that Keller created from the very start of Redeemer (i.e. “a church for others and not for ourselves”). For these reasons I have a tremendous amount of respect for Keller and for Redeemer and I am sure there is much rejoicing in Heaven because of this work.

    However, after being at Redeemer for many years, I began to notice there was no methodical approach towards helping believers to progress on their spiritual journey. Yes, Keller emphasized the need to join a small (i.e. “if you are not in a small group, you are not really in the church”) but many members after participating in small group felt as though there was no other place to go and grow at Redeemer — perhaps stalling their spiritual growth. In addition, small group leaders were not really trained to do more than lead a small group and were not definitely trained in how to help lead people onto their next level of spiritual growth (nor were they really supported to reach this next level either). It is my hunch that Redeemer leadership has recognized these deficiencies and has made efforts to correct these problems (e.g. better training, Gospel and Community Conference, etc.) and Keller has offered great resources in leadership training (his “Prayer” series comes to mind) but it seems as though discipleship was not the DNA of Redeemer.

    I guess that begs the question: is this something that can be “added” to Redeemer? Is it too late? Or, perhaps, is it impossible to create a truly seeker-friendly church that is also effective at helping disciple believers. Anyway, these are the questions that I often ponder about and my wife and I love to discuss.

    * My wife and I currently live in North Carolina so we no longer attend Redeemer. We still listen to Tim Keller sermons and “checkup” on Redeemer frequently.

  6. Kevin Friedman says:

    I also wanted to add — and I could go on about this topic forever 🙂 — that Keller and Redeemer does an amazing job in understanding and communicating the centrality of the Gospel in creating the transformation that DJ talks about. Knowing the Gospel, and I mean, KNOWING, the Gospel and Jesus is how true transformation takes place. I believe this teaching is central at Redeemer (and this is what attracts people to Keller’s preaching) and amazingly lacking in other churches that I have attended. Now, if we could use Keller’s brain to figure out how this would work out in a practical model of discipleship and how to implement this in a church like Redeemer, that would be… well, amazing.

  7. djchuang says:

    Bruce, Bumble: I don’t know how you commented so quickly after I posted. 🙂

    Tim, thanks for your prompt comments. I would add that God has uniquely gifted you to gain access to elites who otherwise wouldn’t listen to anyone. And the Bible does say something about faith coming by hearing. And, some intellectuals & other people do hear the Word preached well and do respond, and for that we all do rejoice. I do hope to learn more about the less famous pastors, and hope to find some who may even be graciously Reformed.

    Kevin, thanks for sharing your personal story and how the Gospel has indeed transformed your life. I had previewed a copy of a forthcoming book titled Megachurch Myths, and one of the chapters talks about how to connect people into discipleship at a large church where anonymity makes it seeker-friendly, and if I remember correctly, it takes a very diligent effort to provide well-defined structure and infrastructure to move people along the process of discipleship. Making an invitation is good, making it often is good, but does take people, beyond the preacher, to actively help them along the road of spiritual maturity. The book cites more examples then I can remember here, but just wanted to mention that it is more than possible for a seeker-friendly church to be effective at discipleship too.

  8. joseph tsang says:

    reading your post made me think of the comic book subculture that i dabble in. one time, i brought my wife theresa to one of the big comic conventions in nyc and we went to one of the screenings for battlestar galactica. during the viewing, the people around us kept making weird and awkward comments. theresa asked me why they were talking like that? i explained to her that these are nerds and this is what happens when there is no predator around to put some fear into them. in school or other social settings, there was someone to keep them from expressing their inner nerd. unchecked, this is the nonsense they spew. remember william shatner’s snl comic con sketch: “have any of you ever even kissed a girl before???”

    these are bible nerds you speak of, dj.

    i asked my youth pastor last night how he got saved from his fundamentalist background because he was still pretty fundie when i was in high school. he said a few years ministering in a third world country took care of that. i would add that he also has a beautiful wife.

  9. djchuang says:

    Kevin, another thought. It’s more than “knowing” the Gospel, b/c over-intellectuals and over-theologians “know” it; it’s the doing and being of the Gospel, which is what I think you were saying and what you probably meant by “knowing”. Or, to use Keller’s clever phraseology, it’s the working out the implications of the Gospel.

    Joseph, a beautiful wife, huh? I didn’t hear anything else you said. 🙂

  10. Bo says:

    Great post DJ. I have a great appreciation for Tim Keller b/c I believe his preaching has literally prevented a whole generation of young adults who went off to study or work in NY from falling into apostasy. I can think of many Asian Americans who grew up in an ethnic church, who perhaps possessed a sincere devotion to Christ but were completely ill equipped to handle the intellectual, social, cultural and economic challenges of NY were mentored week in and week out on how to be Christian and still be a New Yorker at the same time. I have heard many Tim Keller impersonators (whether consciously or sub-consciously) and what they lack is Keller’s pastoral wisdom. I believe beyond his intellectual and cultural exegesis it is his pastoral insight that his imitators neglect to consider.

    Having said that I do agree with the post by The Cutting Truth that you have cited. I understand why they constantly promote the city esp in their efforts to get families to stay. But in doing so I believe the leadership perpetuates this sense of elitism. One gets the sense that God believes if Christians can win New York they can win the world. What history has clearly demonstrated to us is that the movers and shakers of this world are no longer found in the West but in the Global South and East. This is where the action is in the kingdom of God in spite of its (lack of) connection to Wall Street, Washington DC, or Hollywood. Even in the US, it is not the blue states that are winning elections. The church needs to be in places like NY and it is quite commendable that Keller went into the city at a time when Christians were leaving. Mind you now Urban Ministry is popular with church planters today – not so when he started Redeemer (In fact I think Keller is one reason why it is so popular today). I would just say that it is important to remember that although NY may be the center of the Kingdom of this world, it may not be the center of the kingdom of God.

  11. Job says:

    Your ramblings are farcical. Thanks for judging from atop your spiritual pedestal.

  12. yeah I agree with this post.

  1. June 4, 2007

    […] DJ Chaung has written an excellent post about looking to great preachers like Tim Keller to provide us with the “spiritual breakthrough” for which, it seems to me, Christians are too often desperate. The danger is, I believe, that we unintentionally exchange Tim Keller’s preaching of the gospel (or whoever’s) for the gospel itself, that is, we unwittingly exchange the insightful, penetrating preaching of Keller for the actual historical achievement of God in Jesus. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who appreciates Tim Keller’s preaching more than I do, but we’re not justified, sanctified, or glorified by the preaching of Keller or any other man no matter how insightful it may be. It’s not the preaching of Piper or Keller or whoever that is the power of God unto salvation. It’s the gospel alone that is the power of God to justify, sanctify, and glorify us. Now I realize that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ (Romans 10:17). So I’m not trying to minimize the importance of preaching at all. The preaching of the gospel is essential, but it’s not the preachingthat saves us. It’s the preaching of the gospel. […]

  2. June 12, 2007

    […] DJ Chuang has a great post on why Tim Keller’s preaching can’t break through to many, even though they listen to and admire his preaching religiously (sorry for the pun). DJ notes: But as good a preacher as Keller is, he can’t break through and create life transformation. I know first-hand of avid Keller listeners who don’t seem to have totally changed lives. They listen to Keller probably more than I do, many listen to him live and person week in week out, quote him, promote him, and yet something’s missing. 3 (artificial) categories of people come to mind: […]

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