Here Comes the City!

Here Comes the City! September 24, 2012

The world is on its way to becoming 70% urban so even if you don’t get called to minister in the city, the city is coming to you! At the heart of Tim Keller’s ministry at Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan is a vision of the city, so at the heart of that ministry is an understanding of “contextualization.” You can find his most recent summary of his thoughts in Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City. His discussions are in Parts 3-5 in the book.

This discussion is rooted 100% in one’s view of the relationship of kingdom and church, as well as the relation of church to state and culture. His approach is the Reformed model, which is a hopeful but realistic conviction that the gospel can influence and even transform society and culture. The origins of this view in America is probably John Winthrop and the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and the most successful model — perhaps — was worked out by Abraham Kuyper in the Netherlands.

What do you think of Keller’s definition of contextualization and his understanding of contextualizing? What about that list of motives for responding to the gospel: Thoughts? Observations? Additions?

When it comes to contextualization, my ear first gravitates to pastors and parents. Since Keller has “succeeded” in speaking into the City culture, I’m keen on our all listening to his ideas.

Keller goes where few are willing to go: he defines contextualization. Here it is: Contextualization “is giving people the Bible’s answers … to questions about life … in language and forms they can comprehend, and through appeals and arguments with force they can feel” (89). I reduced a few expressions: people may not want the Bible’s answers but the Bible does speak to questions people are asking.

Contextualizing then believes the baseline narratives of our culture find resolution in the Jesus. He understands culture broadly and the gospel comes to expression in a culture in a way that it makes sense of culture and is faithful to the gospel. He sees two seemingly completely separable factors at work: gospel and culture.  Many would say the two, while distinguishable, are not completely separable. His concern is not permitting gospel to be swallowed by culture, and he points to universalism, liberation theology and Protestant liberalism. Syncretism most often occurs in the church when not all of the Bible is being taught.

This of course raises the issue again of how cultural the Bible is. He relies on Carson here: “While no truth which humans beings may articulate can ever be articulated in a culture-transcending way … that does not mean that the truth thus articulated does not transcend culture” (93). All expressions of the gospel are cultural expressions but the truth of that gospel can transcend the culture.

Keller explores John Stott’s famous bridge model for contextualization: one side is the Bible, the other side is culture, and the preacher/preaching/communication is the bridge from the Bible to culture. Keller sees help in this but thinks it makes the two sides too equal. The Bible is authoritative. He prefers the spiral over the bridge. I’m not sure there is anything in the spiral image that gives the Bible more authority than the bridge model.

Finally, perhaps this is clear from seeing how Romans 1 shows us that culture is a mixed bag of good and bad, that our motive (1 Cor 9:19-23) is gospeling but it can be full of adaptations, but that we are to preach the gospel (1 Cor 1). He sees Paul speaking to various audiences in Acts to be a good example of all three of these elements. Three elements in each: epistemology about God, personal challenge as a result of sin, and proclamation of Christ. Truth about God, self/sin and Christ.

Folks respond to the gospel, then, for a variety of motives:

1. Fear of judgment and death.
2. Desire to be released from guilt and judgment.
3. The attractiveness of truth.
4. Satisfy existential longings.
5. For help with a problem.
6. Desire to be loved.

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  • Mick Porter

    Keller’s thinking on these issues of engaging the city is really helpful, he’s been thinking and practising this stuff for a long time.

    What I find a bit concerning is his view that seems to see urbanisation as the biblical trajectory (start in a garden, end in a city) and therefore the will of God. But for a lot of countries, urbanisation is a concerning tend that could end very badly. I know that is slightly off topic, but it does seem to underpin his thinking in some ways and TK often highlights biblical mentions of cities and plays down the vast amount of rural/agricultural content.

  • Mike H

    #1. Mick… even though I agree with him on a lot of the issues regarding cities, I definitely see your concern. I think he’s doing what a lot of theologians and sometimes Biblical Scholars do. They see a weakness or fear and maybe overcompensate in the other direction. He believes that the city is an important place for Christians to be, and has seen some pushback from families in New York that feel a city is a bad place to raise a family. So he wants more Christians in the cultural center. Whether they are singles, couples, or full families… he wants Christians there. I think there is a valid point to this, and maybe he pushes that point a little too much. I’m not excusing it, but it might explain why the rural/agricultural content is played down.

  • A messy piece is what we mean by “urban” and “city.” For the Census, a community of 2,500 to 50,000 can be an urban cluster and 50,000 an urban area.

    Where I live, I know people who move to contiguous suburban cities of 35,000 people to escape “the city” (near downtown Kansas City, MO). Other people are moving from those suburban locales into downtown lofts because they like “urban/city” living. I suspect Keller is using the term “city” to refer to large metropolitan areas (but I haven’t read what his book.) If so, then “city” would include all the above.

  • @Michael (3) I haven’t read it either (yet… it’s on my list) and that would be helpful having the term “city” defined. He very well could mean major metropolitan area. I live just outside of Washington DC, and the metro area’s population is much larger than the city’s with many ‘suburbanites’ commuting and working in DC.

    My one issue in broadening the defition a city, is that surburban life (even if you’re 7 miles outside of a city) is still drastically different than the life inside. The communities, lifestyles, and thought process is just different.

  • #4 Mike H

    I agree that there are differences in suburb vs major city but not as drastic as the difference between either of these places and rural life. I also think we need to be careful not to project American circumstances on to urbanization. The post is talking about global urbanization and the factors involved are much different than our Western experience today.

    In demography, they talk about migration in terms of push and pull. Some things push us from where we are at and other things pull us toward another location. Except in extreme circumstances, it is rarely all one or the other. My perception is that urbanization in most emerging nations is pull driven. People, especially young people, want to escape rural culture and circumstances for the opportunities of the city. In China, city population is limited. People are trying to get into cities, not get out of them. The government tightly controls residency.

    I sense that sometimes our ministry with populations in emerging nations is done with a mindset that the people we are working with are victims who have been dispossessed and long to return home … in exile, as it were. That clearly is the case in some instances but much more often I think people are there, looking for new lives and not looking back. Almost one hundred years ago, during World War I, we had the song, “How are you gonna keep ’em down on the farm, once they’ve seen Paree.” Much of the rest of the world has been entering the same trend we entered more than 100 years ago.

    I’ll also add that deeply entwined with our city and suburban dynamic over the past sixty years has been racism. It is hardly the only dynamic involved but I think it has to be acknowledged.

  • Marshall

    “All expressions of the gospel are cultural expressions but the truth of that gospel can transcend the culture.” … an excellent expression of good post-modernism. “…people may not want the Bible’s answers but the Bible does speak to questions people are asking.” Whereas accomodationism, or bad post-modernism, consists in giving the people only the answers they want.

    Not sure what that 70% number refers to … urban population? There’s still lots and lots of land outside the cities for anyone who cares to go look for it, and it will always be true that the countryside preceeds the city. Not that anything here seems to me specifically urban; the rural culture needs to be spoken into no less. It’s just that the city (reversing an old trope) don’t go too far but it goes pretty fast.

  • John Inglis

    “and the most successful model — perhaps — was worked out by Abraham Kuyper in the Netherlands”

    Let’s see how well that worked out for the Dutch:

    -A study by the Free University of Amsterdam found that one-in-six clergy in the PKN and six other smaller denominations was either agnostic or atheist.

    -Amsterdam prof: “In our society it’s called ‘somethingism’,” he says. “There must be ‘something’ between heaven and earth, but to call it ‘God’, and even ‘a personal God’, for the majority of Dutch is a bridge too far.”

    -Description by the ECM mission: “The Reformation had a significant influence on Dutch society, but during the last century the effects have rapidly dwindled. The influence of the Christian Church on society steeply declined in the last century, and although the evangelical movement showed rapid growth, this did not prevent the decline in overall church affiliation. According to research by the Central Statistics Bureau 42% of the population do not consider themselves followers of any religion.

    Although the Netherlands can look back on a long tradition of Christianity, the country is now known world-wide for its free opinions on euthanasia, prostitution and drugs. In larger cities, many churches have closed after many years of struggling with dwindling congregations.”

    -Even oft inaccurate Wikipedia notes: The Netherlands is one of the most secular countries in Western Europe, with only 39% being religiously affiliated (31% for those aged under 35), and fewer than 20% visiting church regularly. According to the most recent Eurobarometer poll 2005, 34% of the Dutch citizens responded that “they believe there is a God”, whereas 37% answered that “they believe there is some sort of spirit or life force”, and 27% that “they do not believe there is any sort of spirit, god, or life force”.

    Kuyper’s approach was only successful during the time when christianity was successful almost everywhere in Europe, and no more successful than any other approach. Kuyper’s approach did not lead to any long lasting results either (except as material for dissertations and wishful thinking). Indeed, his approach led to a nation that is more nonreligious than any other.

  • RJS


    I don’t think that analysis is fair to Kuyper. I am far from an expert here – so I stand to be corrected by anyone with better information.

    Don’t you think events of the 20th century including two world wars played a big part in the move away from Christianity in Europe including the Netherlands? Most of this long after Kuyper?

    I think, quite frankly, that the US is on the same trajectory. We are just a century behind, probably because we were not devastated by war on our own shores. I also think the church is asking the wrong questions today, and getting the wrong answers, because the leadership doesn’t realize how deep the problems are. I disagree with some of Keller’s thrust (the separation of religion and gospel for example), but I think he gets it when it comes to trends in society.

    To get to Scot’s question … I don’t think our culture is asking many questions about judgment, death and guilt though. An approach that starts here (and I don’t think Kellers does – at least not in his book The Reason for God) won’t get through.

  • John Inglis

    I think its entirely fair. He left no lasting legacy in his country beyond his death as regards the Dutch having a vibrant faith, and the Dutch are worse off (faith-wise) for having had him as a leader, professor, and thinker. Now part of the reason for the slide in faith has to do with pan-European factors, but those same factors affected all Europe. My point is that neither his approach–nor any other approach–will bring about better (or worse) results. We shouldn’t rely on any particular “model” to contextualization and the relation of church to state and culture, as no one model is any more successful than another. Certainly in face of the issues facing Europe, Kuyper’s model fared worse than other models, and left a smaller impact on his native population than other models did vis a vis other populations. His material reads nice and impressive and intellectual and highbrow and “deep”, but that’s it (i.e., it is just a nice read). I don’t see Kuyper as providing much useful guidance for the way forward in either North America, nor in the growing urban areas.

  • John I.

    RJS: “I also think the church is asking the wrong questions today, and getting the wrong answers, because the leadership doesn’t realize how deep the problems are.”

    I agree entirely.