In November, Christ Over All published a series of article on evangelicalism and its history over the last century. If you didn’t see those articles, I would encourage you to check them out. They will give you a solid introduction to the key doctrines, debate, and debaters over the last one hundred years. This month, in an encore piece, we have just published a two-part consideration of Tim Keller and his impact on evangelicalism.
In many ways, I am thankful for Keller’s ministry, his heart for evangelism, and his faithfulness to the Lord. On occasion I have cited his works on this cite, and I recommended this evergreen article on church size dynamics to some men today. At the same time, Keller’s method of ministry bears careful observation. And in these two pieces, you get a sense of how Keller’s Third Way-ism has negatively impacted evangelicals. In what follows, I offer the concluding paragraphs of Mark DeVine’s analysis. Take a look and then go back and read his full argument here and here.
A Politically-Subtle, Seeker Sensitive Movement
Between 1994 and 2006 Reformed theologian David Wells published four volumes that track and analyze how church growth movements, despite their formal assent to orthodox, evangelical doctrinal statements, have nevertheless compromised the faith. Unfortunately, Keller’s Third Way, despite its stated determination not to do so, has often done just this, producing terrible ethical fruit.
What most distinguishes the Keller-led Reformed resurgence from the other major church growth movements among evangelicals over the last half century? Is it theology, or something else? The “seeker,” “church growth,” and “purpose-driven life” movements targeted predominantly white suburban communities. Comparatively, the Keller movement aimed to reach the more ethnically diverse blue communities located in urban centers. Each movement labored to remove as many stumbling blocks to the gospel in order the reach their respective targeted communities.
Measured in buildings, bucks, and bodies, each movement was successful, at least for a time. Yet, looking over the last twenty years, it becomes clear that Keller-movement Evangelicals built platforms, brands, and messages in order to be found winsome by the blue communities they sought to reach. As with the old-line liberalism of Friedrich Schleiermacher, exquisite sensitivity to target audiences will shape the message delivered far more than its deliverers intended. Only in this case, winsomeness has elicited complaints and thoughtful retractions from Reformed evangelicals who once flew the Keller flag. All of this suggests that once again, the gospel once has suffered distortion in the otherwise laudable quest to avoid unnecessary violation of unbelievers’ sensibilities.
Such a result of Keller’s Third Way is disheartening, but not surprising. The message of the cross is foolishness to the world, and yet it is the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:18–25). Doctrinally sound evangelicals have too often been enticed to package the product of the gospel in cellophane for the consumer, yet wisdom, or its opposite, is proven by her children. Over the last decade, many children of Tim Keller’s Third Way have imagined that formal adherence to an orthodox confession is sufficient to protect the gospel message from distortion. But it’s not.
As the seeker-senstive and purpose-driven movements of the 1980s taught us, branding and ongoing messaging exert powerful influence on how that confession is received. And now the same is being seen with Keller’s politically-subtle, blue-community-sensitive seeker model. In each of these iterations, the fruit of these sincere efforts to advance the gospel have found themselves making friends with the world at the expense of the intrinsically offensive gospel that the world so desperately needs.
May the Lord help us to see this clearly, and to walk in his light accordingly.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds
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