Tim Keller’s “Gospel Ecosystem”: 3 Dangers In a Noble Idea

In the last year or so, Tim Keller has put forth a bold theory of engaging the city which he calls the Gospel Ecosystem (you can read about it here, here and here). I applaud his effort!! Basically he calls for several elements to work in concert with one another to eventually reach/change an entire city. This is a model of church engaging culture worth paying attention to. These elements include:

1.) A kingdom-centered, city-wide prayer movement that is clearly not the turf of any particular church or network.
2.) Specialty evangelistic ministries, especially university campus and youth ministries.
3.) Justice & mercy initiatives, e.g. Christian involvement in local government, development of specialized nonprofits.
4.) Faith & work initiatives, particularly Gospel-centered fellowships for people with similar vocations, e.g. a regular fellowship of Christian artists.
5.) Educational and family-support organizations.
6.) Leadership development systems.
7.) Influential leaders from varied disciplines collaborating for city transformation, e.g. industry, media, government, church, education.

I’m a fan of Tim Keller. He has a heart and vision for reaching cities. I like that he is provoking a church based strategy for engaging the whole city. I like that he is pushing churches and para-church organizations to work together for the justice of the city. I like the bigness of the vision. I like his “tipping point” idea (learned from Charles Colson) that once we achieve a 10% presence, the entire culture becomes affected on a broad scale towards the gospel. I just think (and here’s the rub) that the way we get to that 10% is from the ground-up as opposed to (what might come off as) a totalist strategy implemented from above.

So I have my qualms (this is a permanent state of discomfort for Ana-baptists in order to maintain their status as Anabaptists). There are some dangers here. I pose them as questions to Tim Keller and the neo-Reformed fans of the Gospel Ecosystem. I mean this post to provoke conversation to further the cause, not as an indictment.

1.) A REDUCED GOSPEL: Is there an agreement on what the gospel is in this ecosystem? This of course is a gospel ecosystem. But is there a singular understanding of the gospel in this Gospel Ecosystem that is focused around the justification of the individual believer in Christ? Not that I don’t believe in this part of God’s salvation, but I don’t believe one can enforce a single understanding of God’s salvation in the world across an entire spectrum as large as a metroplitan city. Yet the fact that Keller calls for the use of specialty evangelistic ministries in no. 2.) and seems to separate this evangelism from justice ministry in no. 3) suggests Keller’s Gospel Ecosystem might be susceptible to a reduction/focus on this one part of the gospel (justification by faith). This could become the singular focus of church plants whereby we miss numerous other entrance points in each local context for the gospel. A reduced gospel proclamation installed theologically across the board limits the power of the gospel in Christ to transform whole structures. Over against this approach, I strongly suggest that the gospel proclamation take shape on the ground out of each specific context. Here we proclaim the victory of God over oppression, the forgiveness of sin and reconciliation with God and the many other aspects of God’s reign in Christ as makes sense (and is compelled by) each local context. I don’t see Keller reducing the gospel, yet I intuit that Keller’s Gospel Ecosystem could be used in this way. Am I intuiting wrong? Is there the danger that this system could promote a bunch of individuals being saved from hell only to go on living comfortably within the existing unjust systems?     

2.)AN IMPERIALIST IMPULSE?: Is there an imperialist impulse here that could derail the whole project? This vision of the Gospel Ecosystem is a grand vision. It imagines Christians infesting every area of life in the city. The goal of item no. 7.) is to put key influential leaders in every institution of cultural power including the arts, media, business, government, education. My problem with this is it reads like a “blueprint to takeover the city.” It approaches the city from a position above the city, as one in power. But this is not the way of Jesus. Indeed Jesus is Lord, we are not. So we enter humbly, asking what is God doing. Locally we inhabit each space. There will be times to join in seeing God at work in gov’t. There will be times to withdraw and subvert because “the powers” have taken over. We discern these things humbly as a local infestation of the Kingdom. We allow the politics of Kingdom righteousness to be made manifest and birth the Kingdom in contagion into the city. Now I know from reading Keller’s Lausanne speech on Gospel Ecosystems, that he knows the theology of “Resident Aliens” (1 Pet 2) well. But is there not a potential for some unhealthy triumphalism here in the Gospel Ecosystem? Are there the seeds of another Jerry Falwell movement here of another kind? Just asking?

A byproduct of this approach is that it subconsciously assumes these systems are in themselves good. They just need to be reformed by good Christians. That by changing leadership these structures can be directed to their God ordained purposes. In fact these structures may have to be done away with entirely. Maybe the large City gov’t system does not need to be redeemed. Maybe it needs to be dismantled entirely. It is so corrupt, taken over by the evil powers, that it must come down. It may be heresy to say, but maybe the public schools just need to end. A new system of local schooling, church schooling, home schooling would be God’s answer to the city. On the other hand, maybe pubic education can be redeemed!! Of course, these calls are not our calls. Jesus is Lord of all. But putting people in positions of power tends to assume the existing structures are from God and we just need to transform them. This is the “tell” that the Gospel Ecosystem is Reformed in impulse (Kuyperian).  Such a Kuyperianism can be blind to when the structures in power have in fact become given over to the powers. We then might have to subvert them instead of participating in them.

3.) INDIVIDUALISM: Is there an individualism here that does not recognize “the principalities and powers”? There seems to be an assumption in Keller’s Ecosystem (from no. 7.) that if we send individuals into the various spheres of power, e.g. arts, industry, media, government, church, education, that they shall become influencers instead of being influenced. But this is anathema to an Ana-baptist like moi. For we know that power corrupts. That indeed some systems (NOT ALL!!) are too far gone. That sometimes (NOT ALL THE TIME!) participation in them at all is participation in its sin and the corruption thereby.  How shall individuals not be absorbed into the systems that have become the very enfleshment of the unjust powers. Some of us are literally asking this about some of the structures of U.S. society. For sure this is an extreme, but it is becoming less and less of an aberration. Many of our systems (including church systems) corrupt us with money/salary and make any resistance from inside almost impossible. Is there a healthy awareness of this dynamic in the Gospel Ecosystem? Or will we see more Christians ala George Bush enter the system only to look more like the system 8 years later?

IN SUMMARY, I urge caution in a church’s strategy for the city. Let the words “seek the welfare of the city” (said from Exile Jer 29:7) drive us to cultivate the Kingdom humbly in each neighborhood – a local expression of the gospel on-the-ground in people’s everyday lives or work, family, government, education. These expressions, by their presence, shall then be able to call into question the unjust powers, as well as cooperate with the structures and bring life to them when they are of God and His Mission. Let us pay attention to Bryan Stone’s exhortation that ?”the evangelism of Jesus … is unintelligible apart from the announcement of a new government to which we are called to convert, embodied in such concrete practices as the rejection of violence, justice for the poor, love to enemies, economic sharing and the relativizing of national and family allegiances”(p.149) By infesting society on the ground in this fashion, God will surely bring in His Kingdom to the city.

I am sure Tim Keller’s speech at Lausanne could be seen as just this kind of strategy. Yet there lies within it, some seeds for undermining the Kingdom.  So I offer these questions with the hope of furthering the work of Tim Keller, and the idea of the Gospel Ecosystem.

BTW: I think the Gospel Ecosystem should be in conversation with CCDA. I like the way CCDA a.) centers their efforts in a wholistic gospel of Jesus Christ, a.) emphasize entering humbly within a locale, and c.) seek God’s justice in and through Christ as a communal development under the Lordship of Christ.

What say you? Over paranoid ana-baptist? Am I misreading the Gospel Ecosystem?

Posted in Neo-Anabaptist, Neo-Reformed, Post-Christendom, Uncategorized
11 comments on “Tim Keller’s “Gospel Ecosystem”: 3 Dangers In a Noble Idea
  1. dgermer says:

    Thanks for this post, David! Very much hoping to see some discussion with Keller (and others) about the points you raise in your questions…
    I am especially thankful for your mention of the CCDA. Having participated in a number of their conferences, I have been bemused by the lack of attention that group and those conferences get from Keller and others who are so wonderfully doing very similar things in implementing a vision for the gospel in the city.

  2. Tim says:

    The law of where your heart will go: “… for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

    As long as believers devote 75 – 86% of their “giving” to buy special buildings and hired experts for their institutionalized version of gathered church life, their hearts will be chained to the inside of those buildings and little vision or heart to bring Christ onto the turf of the lost.

    As long as believers continue in their institutionalized version of church, they will only vision work on unbelievers turf as institutional with power pyramids and energy only flowing from hired workers. There will be little vision that a larger partnership of volunteers can do far more than a few hired experts.

    As long as believers maintain distinct institutional brand names to differentiate themselves from from other believers of slightly different faith styles and overtly compete with each other for bodies and money, there will be little ability to be unified in spiritual work that must be driven by the Holy Spirit and the head of the church, not by well intentioned saints walking in the flesh.

  3. David, I think your intuition on Keller’s project is spot on. I think it stems from the Reformed idea of “cultural mandate,” and it is very much top-down, power-centered in its theology and practical orientations. That’s why, while I respect much of what Keller does, I’m always uncomfortable with his projects (and projects like his) that require Christians taking the reins of power in order to faithfully fulfill the gospel. It’s at least marginally authoritarian, and suggests a rather paternalistic attitude of “We know what’s best for you who are oppressed and suffering,” rather than working to activate their own agency and to learn something from them that might actually correct our own belief and practice. As you note here – and I’d word it even more strongly – that approach itself demonstrates a theology that does not sit well with the gospel.

  4. David Fitch says:

    Hey Brad,
    I’ll just add, to be generous, most Kuyperians, IMO, don’t see/are blind to the Christendom assumptions inherent to the way they view the church’s engagement with society. By Christendom, I don’t mean the simplistic church-culture-state relation that is subject to the typical anabaptist rant. For I think (we) anabaptists should be more open to the idea that God comes to reign over the city. What I don’t think they see is the ennsconced assumptions about the way they engage society for a pre-determined outcome based on what they see as “the cultural mandate.” They don’t see that God could be at work to bring in a totally heretofore unknown form of government and way of living together that can best be modeled locally before engaging larger spheres of influence. Thanks for your words.

  5. Thanks for your provocative post, Dr. Fitch. I’m in the midst of writing/editing practical how-to processes and procedures for profiling paradigms, so all of this is very relevant. I’ll plan on responding when I can to your add-on question about CCDA and comparing the two approaches.

    But for now, my short-version answers to your three questions about Pastor Keller’s “gospel ecosystems” are: (1) Yes (probably). It appears to be incomplete and not fully interconnected. (2) Yes (potentially). Anytime you talk about influencing culture, and you don’t talk about the wisest and worst ways to do that, you leave the way open for horrific misapplications. And (3) I don’t have a yes or no due to insufficient information. But I do believe this is a particularly crucial issue. Some theologies don’t believe in Satan as a personal force of evil and that means social action is merely based on enlightened decisions by people instead of also spiritual warfare against an enemy who would rather see us enslaved or dead. Other theologies give principalities and powers too much purchase, and therefore overfocus on spiritual warfare in their attempts at solutions for social transformation.

    The detailed version is even longer than your post, so I put it on my blog instead of clogging yours here. I have specific concerns about Pastor Keller’s apparent epistemology, assumptions about what “ecosystems” do and don’t include, his views on “unity” and collaboration, and other unspoken assumptions about resources from the last decade of the postmodern cultural era as he only references items from 1990-2001.

    As far as Anabaptist paranoia, I have to wonder if Anabaptists are more in tune with “differential diagnosis” and looking to analyze symptoms for underlying problems than are those more likely to be ecumenical, who would tend to do “appreciative inquiry” to analyze the assets and benefits that a particular organization or denomination brings to the table. I try to conduct both processes, and hopefully will find better information with a paradoxical approach that could lead to wiser discernment.

  6. Nate says:

    FWIW (since I haven’t read Keller’s strategy), your questions might be useful to have on hand as a caution against an individualized, imperialist, segmented gospel. But I don’t see how this system inherently encourages those things any more than any other system. Or at least, I see the value of cooperation–which seems the central value of Keller’s strategy–as itself a manifestation of the gospel. A fragmented each-church-on-its-own approach may not run the risk of being imperialist, but it carries another risk, of failing to witness to the unity of the Body, of failing to faithfully inhabit cultural centers of power.

    In an admittedly different cultural context: my good friends who work in Port-au-Prince lament (but have largely resigned themselves) to the disunity and infighting that plagues Christian missionaries, organizations and local churches. There are many efforts toward compassionate mercy, but their lack of cooperation (even efforts that work against one another) mean that few of the systems of injustice are addressed at a large-scale systemic level.

    • David Fitch says:

      Nate,
      wow, that’s a good observation. I guess I never saw the strategy put forth by me – call it grass roots Christian communities working on the ground level for community development – would ever imply that Christian churches would not work together. I guess inherently I suggest that any church – especially a church plant community – would make it first priority to meet leaders in all the commuinity’s churches and ask/listen see how to cooperate in witnessing to the gospel. I certainly have no objection with Pastor Keller on that score. I am merely asking if the overall Gospel Ecosystem, for several important reasons, is not assuming too much when it comes to alignment with existing social systems.
      peace… thanks for coming on the blog

  7. Julie Roys says:

    I can’t help but think of Chesterton’s quote, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” I think the caution about imperialism — call to humility? — is worthwhile. It seems to me, though, that Keller is pretty much on target. I’d rather see 100 Christians doing what he challenges us to do imperfectly than 100 Christians immobilized by arguing about how to do it perfectly. When I was at Vineyard, the pastors used to talk about their commitment to being a messy church. Perhaps they erred too much at times. At the same time, they certainly released and encouraged an awful lot of people to do ministry and to clean it up as they go.

  8. len says:

    Helpful Dave!
    Link to Keller’s talk at Lausanne – good missiological summary here
    http://www.vergenetwork.org/2010/11/17/tim-keller-what-is-gods-global-urban-mission/

    Haven’t found the link to his paper yet?

  9. dgermer says:

    This doesn’t effect the conversation or have much to to with your questions, David, but I just had to correct myself (from the first comment)… I am currently reading Keller’s Generous Justice, and I was completely off-base in suggesting a lack of attention given to CCDA by Keller- a significant section of that book is devoted to celebrating and commending the work of CCDA and ‘CCDA-type’ folks. I had just never heard him speak about CCDA in the dozens or hundreds of his sermons I’ve listened to. Glad to know he is such a supporter of CCDA and a fan of John Perkins…

  10. davidfitch says:

    dgermer,
    Thanks for the heads-up. I think Keller (and Redeemer City to City) and those from CCDA would be mutual admirers. No question about that. What I find interesting are the assumptions that drive each articulation of the church’s social engagement, as well as the places and peoples that each group ends up ministering among. The differences I think reveal alot and help us see each one’s appropriateness for respective contexts. Thanx for that correction!

5 Pings/Trackbacks for "Tim Keller’s “Gospel Ecosystem”: 3 Dangers In a Noble Idea"
  1. [...] David Fitch recently posted Tim Keller’s “Gospel Ecosystem”: 3 Dangers In a Noble Idea. He invited feedback on the accuracy/validity of his take on Pastor Keller’s approach to urban [...]

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David Fitch
Betty R. Lindner Professor of Theology
Northern Seminary
DMin in Missional Leadership
Prodigal Christianity
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