Tim Keller’s Genius (by Jonathan Storment)

Jonathan SLast week I started a series about Tim Keller’s new book Preaching, and today I would like to talk about what I considered the best part of not just his book, but of Keller’s actual ministry.  Tim Keller’s genius is that he takes the context he lives in seriously.  He has preached in Manhattan for several decades and no matter what you think about his theology, he has been, in my estimation, one of the best missionaries of evangelical Christianity.

In the second part of his book, Keller gives some of the best advice on how he approaches preaching to a particular context and this section alone is worth the price of admission.  Keller offers 6 Sound Practices for preaching to and reaching a culture. They are:

1.     Use accessible or well-explained vocabulary

2.     Employ respected authorities to strengthen your theses.

3.     Demonstrate an understanding of doubts and objections.

4.     Affirm, in order to challenge baseline cultural narratives

5.     Make gospel offers that push on the culture’s pressure points

6.     Call for Gospel motivation

First, Keller argues convincingly that we must choose our words wisely.  Everything from how we talk about other branches of Christianity (“Show yourself to be a member of the whole body of Christ by speaking generously of those in different denominations”) to praying for the needs of your city and neighborhood, and for the people who are serving it, no matter who they are.

He encourages the preacher to “Be a critic of unbelief, but not an unsympathetic one.” Keller wants us to ask ourselves if doubters come away feeling that you are indifferent, high-handed, or dismissive of their views, or are they surprised, even shocked, at how accurately and fairly you represent their own problems with Christianity?  Do they think that you can express their skeptical views as well as, or even better than, they can themselves?  Christian communicators must show that they remember (or at least understand) very well, what it is like not to believe.  This is why I like Keller so much even while disagreeing with him in some areas.  He is never dismissive of views with which he disagrees.  He takes opposing opinions seriously even while challenging them, and in doing so, he has built up good will.

His second through fifth points all are related.  This is where Keller gets into “thinking like a missionary 101”.  In this book he suggests that preachers should read everything from the NY Times, to the Atlantic, to the books on the London Review of books (he even tells you what audiences for which those sources will be authoritative, by ranking them from very conservative to very progressive).  His point in suggesting we read these materials is not just to stay relevant with catchphrases we captured from respected journalists.  Rather, Keller believes the job of a preacher is to listen to esteemed sources in culture for what the baseline narratives of the culture to which we are preaching actually is, so that we can make those narratives visible to the listeners, and affirm them where we can and challenge them where we must.

In order to do this we must use the culture’s own respected sources (e.g. the atheist author David Foster Wallace talking about how everyone is worshiping something, or the secular humanist Andrew Delbanco talking about secularism’s problem with dealing with evil), and be able to show how the Christian faith overlaps with the problems that even people who are not Christians have named.

Here’s a sample of Keller’s logic:

By drawing out the implicit way that people in a culture view the world, we’re able to reveal that most people outside of our given culture do not consider this belief to be self-evident. To act as if “everyone believes this” is therefore ethnocentric. We must also show [when the] narrative is too simplistic, that it does not account for the complexities of real life, and that it requires leaps of faith as great as or greater than those called for by religion.

To this end, Keller, both in his book and in his regular preaching, regularly draws on secular, respected sources to talk about everything from their disappointment of living in a disenchanted world, to human rights experts who are also atheists, talking about how human rights actually aren’t self-evident apart from the Jewish-Christian ethic.

Keller likens preaching today to Paul preaching on Mars Hill, the only difference is that unlike in previous ages, the Western modern worldview presents itself not as a religion but as a self-evident truth, based on scientific discovery/empirical research, and not what it actually is, a form of a leap of faith.

Throughout this section, Keller often relies on the philosopher Charles Taylor’s impressive work in his book “A Secular Age’ to show how Western culture has developed, not by slowly subtracting God from the story, but by constructing a new religion in the place of the Judeo-Christian one.  Taylor believes that Western culture today is not more objective, but instead has embraced a new, constructed web of alternative beliefs about the nature of things that are not self-evident to all, no more empirically provable than any other religious beliefs, require enormous leaps of faith, and are subject to their own array of serious problems and objections.  It is not natural to disbelieve in God.  To most human beings, deep interest in the supernatural, the afterlife, transcendence, and God “comes naturally – it is indifference to them that must be learned.”

I can’t summarize all of this part of the book, but if you are a preacher who is trying to communicate the story of God to people where they actually live, I can’t recommend this section of the book highly enough.  Tim Keller has done the hard work of living in a pluralistic post-Christian society without talking past the people he disagrees with. He has done the hard work of learning to think like a missionary in his context.

And if any preaching book can just get more preachers to consider doing ministry like that, then I think it has done its job.

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