Tim Keller is What Carl Henry Had in Mind

In the late 1940s Carl Henry famously called fundamentalists out of the churches and into the public forums and those who followed his call were the neo-evangelicals. They were to be marked by less stridency, more compassion, a coalition of evangelical diversity, a commitment to top level intellectual rigor, and a revival of social activism in all its dimensions. Henry’s proposal also famously lacked concrete details, so the 1950s through the 1980s were various attempts to put his vision into practice. I have been sketching one voice in that movement, called the moral minority by David Swartz (in The Moral Minority), but today I have another contention.

I’m not convinced Henry was convinced of the Moral Majority, led by Francis Schaeffer, Jerry Falwell, James Kennedy, and eventually James Dobson, but I’m convinced that Henry would see an exceptional example of what he had in mind in the ministries of Tim Keller at Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan. So today I want to sketch one significant element of Keller’s book, Center Church.

He contends — after years of working this out — that the gospel is for the city. There is a generosity of spirit, a commitment to theological and intellectual rigor, an unflinching commitment to his Reformed local church, and a hermeneutic at work to make sense of the gospel in context. Keller and I do not agree on all things, but his approach is for me a great example of what Henry had in mind. We will get to this in a future post, but Keller’s posture is a “transformationalist” approach. I see his approach to be a soft transformationalist, not unlike James Davison Hunter’s “faithful witness,” vs. the hard transformationalist approach of active support and caucusing for a candidate, as one found in folks like Falwell and which one is now seeing too much of in Billy and Franklin Graham.

What are the two best things one can do to participate in one’s community? city? 

Now to Keller’s proposal. The theory of agglomeration means city folks encounter more people both like them and unlike them. What to do? Keller proposes:

1. We should develop appreciative attitudes toward the city.
2. We should become a dynamic counterculture where we live.
3. We should be a community radically committed to the good of our city as a whole.

Which leads Keller to seven features of a church for the city:

1. Respect for urban sensibility.
2. Unusual sensitivity to cultural differences.
3. Commitment to neighborhood and justice.
4. Integration of faith and work.
5. Bias for complex evangelism.
6. Preaching that both attracts and challenges urban people.
7. Commitment to artistry and creativity.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • phil_style

    Can someone elaborate on “respect for urban sensibility”?

    Are we talking about recognising the particular (diverse/ fluid?) social environment of cities? Or is that part of (2) – unusual sensitivity to cultural differences?

    I’m a firm believer that just as people make places, places make people also. Is there a specific role for Christians with respect to geographies of development, or is that purely a secular activity?

  • Chris

    Here’s a problem selling this to the masses of evangelicals…If our theology keeps insisting that the vast majority of the people in the city are going to “hell” because they are not part of the people of God, church members will not see the purpose of doing these things.

  • Jerry

    This applies not just in the city, but anywhere the church is found. We have lost the sense of a church “parish”–being the presense of Christ in time and space–in a particular location. How many people do we drive past on our way to the megachurch megaplex. I’ve just moved to a new location (my military profession keeps me on the go) and there is a Baptist church down the street from my house. I’m not Baptist so I won’t worship there on a regular basis, but I intend to visit the pastor and offer my support in the local neighborhood.

  • Jason F

    I understand these features to be Keller’s initiatives for transformation and I see them being highly effective in his context (and many others). I don’t think I’m comfortable calling it soft if the main distinction is that it doesn’t specifically call for political action. Does “harder” mean better and is better realized through governmental leadership and/or legislation?

  • http://www.godhungry.org Jim Martin

    Very interesting post, Scot! I like this reminder of Carl Henry’s vision. It makes perfect sense that T. Keller is one who closely model’s that vision today. I have much respect for him.

  • Frank Viola

    Henry’s “Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism” is a classic. I agree with your analysis of Keller on this score (and I’d add John Stott to the mix). Though I think Hal Miller’s “The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Evangelicalism” goes much further and is one of the most important articles of our time.

  • MatthewS

    Nice connection. I appreciate Keller’s spirit.

    I would add that hanging out here at JesusCreed has been a good influence on me in my own interactions in this regard.

  • Jeremy

    Nice try Chris. It can depend on one’s eschatological views (Keller’s approach might not work well in a dispensational church), but Redeemer’s approach (despite his conservative view on hell which you hate) has worked. Think they are showing and have been for some time that just because you have conservative views on hell, the people of God can still be concerned to alleviate suffering in this life and the life to come.

  • Val

    So, does this soft approach involve not mentioning that women cannot be leaders, equals, etc.? As not many women are happy about being told all the silliness the gospel coalition spouts at wives. And non-christians are even less interested in their lame justifications. I feel he deceptively hides women’s subordinate role from view in order to bring in the numbers. I remember him (someone else?) saying that on one of the Gospel Coalition panels. Love the way they bring people in with the pretence everyone is equal, then, like the gnostics, reveal to them the truth about that definition of equality as they become more involved.

    The Gospel Coalition’s stance on women is untenable in modern urban societies (especially outside of the US) and as long as Keller is part of that circus, it is hard to see any of his urban outreach movements being anything other than highly deceptive.

    I will predict this will last for one generation, then, the kids raised in this patriarchal environment will begin to question, walk or demand change. Outreach churches tend to grow big for a season, then fade. I will be interested to see if his church is about him, or the doctrine.


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