How are we as members, churches, and presbyteries of the PCA to engage our “cultural moment”?
That was the question Dr. Ligon Duncan III, pastor of First Presbyterian Church (Jackson, Miss.), posed to Tim Keller, popular author and pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (New York City), in an overflowing conference room on the last day of the 41st General Assembly.
Although Duncan and Keller are sometimes viewed as representing two ends of the PCA cultural spectrum, when it comes to this question they are in utter agreement.
“We both believe that we are in a new cultural moment,” said Duncan. “We need to know where we are, how we’ve gotten here, and how we can forge a biblical, faithful consensus on how we’re going to address that together.”
Keller picked up the conversation by painting a bleak picture of where America is as a culture: “This is an unprecedented time in human history. There have always been relativists. There have always been doubters of God. There have always been atheists. What’s new is the breadth of conviction that there is no such thing as truth. There have never been whole societies built on that idea. Never.”
He explained that the fallout from this conviction is seen in myriad ways: from the collapse of popular opposition to same-sex marriage to the increasing hostility to Christianity in cultural institutions (academia, the arts, etc.) to what Keller likes to call the rise of “the nones,” a reference to a recent Gallup survey reporting on religious affiliation.
“For many, many years in America, a very small percentage of people said ‘no religious preference.’ Now it’s up to 20 percent.”
Humanistic perspectives such as rationalism, individualism, relativism, and pragmatism have all contributed to this religious indifference. As well, perhaps, the seeming irrelevance of various evangelical movements has done little to draw the “nones” back into the fold.
“After a generation of ‘seeker churches,’ half a generation of ‘emerging churches,’ everyone knows that younger people are far less religious than the generation before … and despite all the things that we’ve been doing for the last 30 years, we’re losing them.”
Because of this, Keller explained, America is facing crises in almost every sphere: “Global capitalism is sick. … There’s a crisis in education; nobody knows what we’re producing. … There’s a crisis in politics, crisis in the academy, crisis in the arts, crisis in the middle class, crisis in the family.”
And for Christians, the crisis could increasingly look like decreasing religious freedom, especially if courts decide that “freedom of association and religious exemptions really aren’t compatible” with the increasing spirit of “inclusiveness.”
“It could be very wintery for Christians,” Keller said.
At least in America it could be. But in the church globally, Keller explained, there are “spring breezes” of Christianity flowing across Asia, Africa, and South America.
“Whenever people say to me, ‘We’re getting more secular,’ I say ‘No, only white people are getting more secular.’”
So what does this mean for the PCA?
It starts by waking up to who might be coming through the doors of our churches, Keller said.
“I think one of our biggest problems as a denomination or as Reformed people and evangelicals is that we don’t really know how to talk to late modern culture.” — Tim Keller
“I think one of our biggest problems as a denomination or as Reformed people and evangelicals is that we don’t really know how to talk to late modern culture. When I hear the average PCA pastor, it is very clear to me that they are preaching to the person who feels like they ought to be in church somewhere. Most of us have been conditioned to speak to people who don’t have one foot out the door. … You’re not used to preaching to people who do have one foot out the door, and when they do leave, they’ll never come back to any kind of church at all. … The relativism, the individualism, the pragmatism which is late modern culture — most pastors don’t have that in mind.”
That’s why we need to grow and strengthen groups such as Reformed University Fellowship (RUF), he explained.
If you’re on a college campus, you’re on the culture’s cutting edge. [The campus] is our best leadership development pipeline. By exposing people to the cutting edge of culture where they have to deal with the modern mindset, where they have to deal with non-Christians — that is the best way to develop pastors and lay leaders.
According to Keller, if you’re on a college campus, you’re on the culture’s cutting edge. It is, he says, our best leadership development pipeline. By exposing people to the cutting edge of culture where they have to deal with the modern mindset, where they have to deal with non-Christians — that, in Keller’s opinion, is the best way to develop pastors and lay leaders.
Similarly, Keller pointed out that we as a denomination can grow in helping people better integrate their private life and their public work.
“We have to make sure people aren’t sealing off their faith from their work, only being Christians inside the church. Reformed people have more resources for that than any other group,” he says. “But the ways to support people out there right now are pretty weak. We need to be better about supporting nonclergy in their work. We need to be commissioning them and praying over them, and not just over pastors and missionaries.”
Lastly, if the PCA really wants to have a cultural impact, we can’t ignore the good work of other Gospel-spreading movements, Keller added.
“As Reformed people, we tend to be dismissive of the charismatic movement,” Keller said. He pointed out that there’s a lot of “unfortunate and bad theology there,” including the “prosperity gospel,” which is often integrated into charismatic teaching. But Keller points out that Pentecostalism is the most vital, fastest growing, and most multiracial, multiethnic movement in the world. It is, he said, now bigger than the rest of Protestantism combined. And we [need to] know how in a nonpaternalistic to way reach out and season that movement and help. Ecumenical relationships are important, Keller believes, and that is a weak spot for PCA. “That’s one we’ve got to figure out,” he said.