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. 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.

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.

30 Responses to Keller and Duncan: A More Relevant PCA?

  1. Dan Porter says:

    Good article/interview. We need to learn more of this and become adept at engaging this rising generation. Three more important characteristics to note:
    1. Most under 30 believe they can operate without a position, that to hold a position is silly. Of course this is impossible, but they believe it
    2. This generation believes the only reality is in their mind, everything else is deniable/unreliable
    3. What the moderns did to the personal God of the Bible (replaced Him with Self), this generation is doing to the Impersonal Divine Force of Eastern religion (Self is the All, the Force, and everything else just an extension)

  2. Stephen Leonard says:

    I agree with Keller when he says white people are becoming more secular in America and the West. What his statement fails to acknowledge is the widespread secularization of African Americans in the last decade particularly the last 5.

    • Judy Kovacs says:

      I’m in the Chicago area and I find the African-American to be the most religious people in the area. Of course, their doctrine is not always “kosher” but I think it is sincere.

  3. Phillip Shroyer says:

    Keller quote: “We have to make sure people aren’t sealing off their faith from their work, only being Christians inside the church.”
    Anyone need further clarification of the proclamation?

    • John Hendrickson says:

      Exactly the quote I was going to cite and comment on.

      What can one expect when they church has taught an irrelevant Gospel message that is no wider than be good boys and girls and hang in there until you die and finally get to Heaven.

      It is a shame that the Reformed community has not led the way on the pre-death, pre-Heaven responsibility of believers to live in this world as if God has really created and given meaning to all things. As Nancy Pearcey so clearly lays it out in Total Truth, Christians have been living with a two story understanding. That is, they have been taught to live as practical atheists.

      One major indicator that this is true is seen in that the vast majority of Christian children attend public schools.

    • Judy Kovacs says:

      I agree with Keller. It is hard in the secular, anti-Christian climate to proclaim your faith. I think we’re afraid that we will be confronted with questions that we are not equipped to address.

  4. Felipe Diez says:

    “Tim 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.”

    We wonder about the term “vital.” Pentecostalism has been historically problematic considering its roots in the second great awakening which helped to give rise to many unbiblical doctrines and practices, and is currently a thorn on the Christian church’s side. While he articulates some helpful points, I am a bit disappointed with what Keller…

    • Judy Kovacs says:

      We can’t generalize about “Pentecostals” like that. Not all of them are un-biblical, but they may emphasize some tenets of the faith that we Calvinists would not emphasize.

    • Ethan Smith says:

      By “vital,” it seems that Keller means “alive” rather than “essential.”

    • Neil Eaton says:

      I think his point is that the PCA should “help” through building relationships so that people off track theologically can be influenced by the reformed community rather than the reformed community looking down on them. I was refreshed by this article. I was raised in pentecostal circles (and turned off in many ways) but desperately wanted to be faithful to scripture interpretation. My reformed friends have helped me tremendously there. Build bridges!

  5. Lin Crowe says:

    Tim Keller is spot on with his comment about the growth of Pentecostalism. In the context of this article, it seemed to reference that growth only in Asia, Africa & Latin America. But if the PCA is serious about impacting cities we must recognize that many of the most authentic expressions of Gospel witness in our own cities in America come from faithful Pentecostal leaders. We must seek out partnerships with them, not to change them, but to join with them in ministry to turn back the “cultural winter” that Keller predicts. I have had a close partnership with a wonderful African American Pentecostal bishop in Philadelphia for more than a decade and we have stood shoulder-to-shoulder in public Gospel work as true brothers in Christ.

    • Judy Kovacs says:

      I agree we could work together very successfully.

    • Charles Stanley says:

      As a Pentecostal/Charismatic who has come to a PCA church near Westminster Seminary in California, I couldn’t agree more with Tim Keller. I ache for my many Penetcostal brothers to have the sound teaching I have found at New Life PCA. And I ache for my Reformed brothers to have the vitality of my Pentecostal brothers. Shared ministry would be of great value to the Body of Christ, in my opinion.

  6. Tom Renick says:

    Eph 6/12 (Weymouth)….For ours is not a conflict with mere flesh and blood, but with the despotisms, the empires, the forces that control and govern this dark world–the spiritual hosts of evil arrayed against us in the heavenly warfare….. In my humble opinion God is punishing the USA and he is not done yet. Many of our nations leaders support the killing of unborn babies, homosexual marriage and removing any mention of God in our schools and Military. Christians must become more involved in our local, State and National Government. We need to live by Paul’s words in 1 Cor 1/23…..23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.

  7. Robert Persons says:

    Tim Keller is right on many things, but wrong on this: “There’s a crisis in education; nobody knows what we’re producing. …”. I say the Left knows exactly what we’ve producing, and their plan of the past 50 years has produced what they wanted and what we are seeing now!

    • Mary Gray Moser says:

      Amen, Robert Persons!

      • Greg Beaty says:

        Unfortunately, by “nobody,” I think he may be referring to most TE’s and RE’s in the PCA since that is the context of his appearance for these remarks.

        If you know of some notable congregations whose leadership is not blind on this issue, please feel free to exempt them from the criticism and encourage them wholeheartedly. Otherwise, that’s a battlefront to earnestly engage with all wisdom.

  8. Greg Kern says:

    It’s not complicated to understand why the current generation is leaving the Church: The traction of the 20th century “revival” era — which featured notable figures like Charles Spurgeon and Billy Graham — has finally fizzled out in modern times. Today’s generation of young people seem to be saying these things:

    1) The Church isn’t listening to us.
    2) Christianity isn’t as intellectually compelling as Secularism.
    3) We have absolutely no interest in Religion.
    4) We don’t have to be Christians to do good things.
    5) God and politics are a volatile mixture.

    To the extent that churches have failed in these 5 areas, the “Nones” are finding meaning and fulfillment elsewhere. What to do about it is indeed an urgent…

    • Greg Beaty says:

      Maybe we could examine the definition of the word?

      Relevant – having significant and demonstrable bearing on the matter at hand.

      If the “matter at hand” for secular individuals is composed of all that pertains to life and the living of it, what bearing does the church have on the life of the average person? What value?

      For that matter, what bearing does it have for most regular attenders? And, does membership really offer value? Are we focused on the wrong goals?

      If there is no after life, no truth, obviously any thinking person would know better than to waste their time. But if there is, relevance can be shown pretty quick if you have a capable Minister of the Word. That, I fear, is the rub.

  9. Phillip Shroyer says:

    Greg: The “current generation,” finds its satisfaction in defining things on its own terms.

    • Mary Gray Moser says:

      Philip Shroyer: Is that not as the society described in Judges, where everyone did as he thought best? Well, really isn’t that how it was in Eden?

    • Greg Kern says:

      Phillip, that may very well be true, although that is the very nature of our sinful hearts, going all the way back to Eden, yes? The leadership of the PCA is right to be deeply concerned about “the Nones”, and about what those 5 points that I outlined, above, mean. Those points are not anti- anything or anyone; they are simple statements that reveal a fundamental *disinterest* in what the “revival era” was all about.

      To start with, the church should learn how to LISTEN to the folks in the local community, especially within the ranks of the congregation (including visitors).

  10. Cindy Rearick says:

    As a staff person in public education policy for 13 years for a major org in that arena, I am delighted to report we have a disproportionately large group of committed Christian brothers and sisters faithfully living their witness of Jesus, praying together, encouraging each other, and reaching out to unbelievers on staff and its statewide members. As the admin to the exec, I attend all statewide board meetings and write the minutes. Many of my fellow staff Christians are Penecostal but The Lord has added a wonderful fellow PCA believer to the senior staff. Nearly half our senior staff are believers! Please be assured The Lord is at work and we covet your prayers. Eighty percent of children are in public schools. We cannot desert them.

    • Katie Maddox says:

      Speaking of children, this is one reason why the ministry of Fathers in the Field is so very relevant to shaping our culture, with 40% of American children living in fatherless homes. This dynamic ministry was founded by a PCA pastor and layman, yet is supported by only a small handful of PCA churches. I for one am working to change that. (See recent article on Defending the Fatherless.)

  11. Jeanne Smith says:

    I believe that the church in America is becoming irrelevant because it seeks to become relevant. That’s the whole problem. We try to marry away the bride of Christ to another bridegroom thus making her a prostitute. Instead of going out to the world that cares nothing for the church nor her message and try to find ways to change the gospel message to suit them, we should go back to the original reason why we are here. Paul told Timothy to preach the Word even when it was not popular. In case you haven’t noticed, the true G-d is not hip and cool and never will be. Instead of being glorified god- pimps, I think a good dose of realism will do us all good. Don’t drag the Bide of Christ from john to john. Get back to the five solas. That’s…

  12. Greg Kern says:

    To put it more simply, maybe this generation sees very little True Love being practiced in and by the typical local church, and they simply have no motivation to participate in the “talk the talk but ignore the walk” charade…

  13. Steve Dornan says:

    Sorry, but if we wait until they are in our pagan Universities to reach them we have failed. The family is the best place to impact our youth and then the local community when they are young. If we who are Churchmen lead our families biblically we can at least count on our own children to carry the gospel but as it is now we are failing in that duty. If we teach our children well and welcome their friends and families into our homes we have vast opportunity to impact our society. This is not something that can be accomplished quickly at a macro level but must be changed by individual families and churches at a micro level.

  14. Mark Oh says:

    Crossing the cultural barriers for the entire PCA will require serious efforts to train Pastors (TEs) in cross cultural skills and methods. PCA TEs tends to have great deal of theological training and thus able to do theology pretty well. Same is true with Cross-Cultural ministry as well.

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