It’s been quite a back and forth between First Things James R. Wood and Tim Keller on the latter’s evangelistic idea and the effect that it has on whether he’s stuck with the Gospel or not. Wood’s basic premise is that Keller’s method is past its sell date due to changes in the culture; Keller’s response is that the Northeast wasn’t a “neutral” culture to Christianity to start with.
As a South Floridian, I’m very much aware of the hostility of that culture (which in turn was brought there by people from the Northeast) to Evangelical Christianity. It’s been that way long before Keller showed up in New York and will continue in that way for the foreseeable future. On the other hand I think that, while Wood is probably right about the shifts in culture vs. the potential to evangelise same, both are blind to the key point of the whole debate: who are we actually reaching out to?
When I worked for the Church of God, I spent some time with our church people in the Northeast and specifically in the New York City area. We have some really great people there, but the vast majority of them are not white. By New York standards they’re not wealthy either, but they’ve accomplished more in the short time they’ve been in this country than their Scots-Irish counterparts have done in three centuries. Their success in life was one of the major inspirations for my piece What Working for the Church of God Taught Me About Race, which would, if taken to heart, blow a great deal of the political and ecclesiastical paradigm we’re wrestling with in this country out of the water.
It’s fair to say that Keller, being the Reformed type that he is, had a “higher” demographic (at least in terms of AGI) than the Churches of God were reaching. The problem with this, however, is exactly the same as the Anglicans are struggling with: the higher you go in this society, the more your parishioners are expected to conform–and will if their careers depend upon it–to what the world’s idea happens to be. If you’re trying to be “winsome,” you will adapt, but sooner or later you’ll either realise that you’re in a no-win game or you’ll cross the line.
It’s a similar (but not identical problem) I discussed in my piece Squaring the Circle of Anglican/Episcopal Ministry. Ministering to an elevated demographic, Anglican/Episcopal churches have not, IMHO, figured out how to break the cycle of elevation/liberalisation/apostasy, and something tells me that Keller hasn’t either. The obvious solution is for us to focus our efforts on the “poor in spirit,” to use Our Lord’s expressive phrase, but a great deal of Evanglicalism isn’t prepared to do that. (One group that has done so successfully is the Assemblies of God, but the way they vote doesn’t appeal to our elite wannabees.)
It’s a hard pill to swallow, Tim (and James for that matter,) but the sooner we take the medicine, the better we will feel in the long run.