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Tim Keller’s “Gospel Ecosystem”: 3 Dangers In a Noble Idea

In the last year or so, Tim Keller has put forth a bold theory of engaging the city which he calls the Gospel Ecosystem (you can read about it here, here and here). I applaud his effort!! Basically he calls for several elements to work in concert with one another to eventually reach/change an entire city. This is a model of church engaging culture worth paying attention to. These elements include:

1.) A kingdom-centered, city-wide prayer movement that is clearly not the turf of any particular church or network.
2.) Specialty evangelistic ministries, especially university campus and youth ministries.
3.) Justice & mercy initiatives, e.g. Christian involvement in local government, development of specialized nonprofits.
4.) Faith & work initiatives, particularly Gospel-centered fellowships for people with similar vocations, e.g. a regular fellowship of Christian artists.
5.) Educational and family-support organizations.
6.) Leadership development systems.
7.) Influential leaders from varied disciplines collaborating for city transformation, e.g. industry, media, government, church, education.

I’m a fan of Tim Keller. He has a heart and vision for reaching cities. I like that he is provoking a church based strategy for engaging the whole city. I like that he is pushing churches and para-church organizations to work together for the justice of the city. I like the bigness of the vision. I like his “tipping point” idea (learned from Charles Colson) that once we achieve a 10% presence, the entire culture becomes affected on a broad scale towards the gospel. I just think (and here’s the rub) that the way we get to that 10% is from the ground-up as opposed to (what might come off as) a totalist strategy implemented from above.

So I have my qualms (this is a permanent state of discomfort for Ana-baptists in order to maintain their status as Anabaptists). There are some dangers here. I pose them as questions to Tim Keller and the neo-Reformed fans of the Gospel Ecosystem. I mean this post to provoke conversation to further the cause, not as an indictment.

1.) A REDUCED GOSPEL: Is there an agreement on what the gospel is in this ecosystem? This of course is a gospel ecosystem. But is there a singular understanding of the gospel in this Gospel Ecosystem that is focused around the justification of the individual believer in Christ? Not that I don’t believe in this part of God’s salvation, but I don’t believe one can enforce a single understanding of God’s salvation in the world across an entire spectrum as large as a metroplitan city. Yet the fact that Keller calls for the use of specialty evangelistic ministries in no. 2.) and seems to separate this evangelism from justice ministry in no. 3) suggests Keller’s Gospel Ecosystem might be susceptible to a reduction/focus on this one part of the gospel (justification by faith). This could become the singular focus of church plants whereby we miss numerous other entrance points in each local context for the gospel. A reduced gospel proclamation installed theologically across the board limits the power of the gospel in Christ to transform whole structures. Over against this approach, I strongly suggest that the gospel proclamation take shape on the ground out of each specific context. Here we proclaim the victory of God over oppression, the forgiveness of sin and reconciliation with God and the many other aspects of God’s reign in Christ as makes sense (and is compelled by) each local context. I don’t see Keller reducing the gospel, yet I intuit that Keller’s Gospel Ecosystem could be used in this way. Am I intuiting wrong? Is there the danger that this system could promote a bunch of individuals being saved from hell only to go on living comfortably within the existing unjust systems?     

2.)AN IMPERIALIST IMPULSE?: Is there an imperialist impulse here that could derail the whole project? This vision of the Gospel Ecosystem is a grand vision. It imagines Christians infesting every area of life in the city. The goal of item no. 7.) is to put key influential leaders in every institution of cultural power including the arts, media, business, government, education. My problem with this is it reads like a “blueprint to takeover the city.” It approaches the city from a position above the city, as one in power. But this is not the way of Jesus. Indeed Jesus is Lord, we are not. So we enter humbly, asking what is God doing. Locally we inhabit each space. There will be times to join in seeing God at work in gov’t. There will be times to withdraw and subvert because “the powers” have taken over. We discern these things humbly as a local infestation of the Kingdom. We allow the politics of Kingdom righteousness to be made manifest and birth the Kingdom in contagion into the city. Now I know from reading Keller’s Lausanne speech on Gospel Ecosystems, that he knows the theology of “Resident Aliens” (1 Pet 2) well. But is there not a potential for some unhealthy triumphalism here in the Gospel Ecosystem? Are there the seeds of another Jerry Falwell movement here of another kind? Just asking?

A byproduct of this approach is that it subconsciously assumes these systems are in themselves good. They just need to be reformed by good Christians. That by changing leadership these structures can be directed to their God ordained purposes. In fact these structures may have to be done away with entirely. Maybe the large City gov’t system does not need to be redeemed. Maybe it needs to be dismantled entirely. It is so corrupt, taken over by the evil powers, that it must come down. It may be heresy to say, but maybe the public schools just need to end. A new system of local schooling, church schooling, home schooling would be God’s answer to the city. On the other hand, maybe pubic education can be redeemed!! Of course, these calls are not our calls. Jesus is Lord of all. But putting people in positions of power tends to assume the existing structures are from God and we just need to transform them. This is the “tell” that the Gospel Ecosystem is Reformed in impulse (Kuyperian).  Such a Kuyperianism can be blind to when the structures in power have in fact become given over to the powers. We then might have to subvert them instead of participating in them.

3.) INDIVIDUALISM: Is there an individualism here that does not recognize “the principalities and powers”? There seems to be an assumption in Keller’s Ecosystem (from no. 7.) that if we send individuals into the various spheres of power, e.g. arts, industry, media, government, church, education, that they shall become influencers instead of being influenced. But this is anathema to an Ana-baptist like moi. For we know that power corrupts. That indeed some systems (NOT ALL!!) are too far gone. That sometimes (NOT ALL THE TIME!) participation in them at all is participation in its sin and the corruption thereby.  How shall individuals not be absorbed into the systems that have become the very enfleshment of the unjust powers. Some of us are literally asking this about some of the structures of U.S. society. For sure this is an extreme, but it is becoming less and less of an aberration. Many of our systems (including church systems) corrupt us with money/salary and make any resistance from inside almost impossible. Is there a healthy awareness of this dynamic in the Gospel Ecosystem? Or will we see more Christians ala George Bush enter the system only to look more like the system 8 years later?

IN SUMMARY, I urge caution in a church’s strategy for the city. Let the words “seek the welfare of the city” (said from Exile Jer 29:7) drive us to cultivate the Kingdom humbly in each neighborhood – a local expression of the gospel on-the-ground in people’s everyday lives or work, family, government, education. These expressions, by their presence, shall then be able to call into question the unjust powers, as well as cooperate with the structures and bring life to them when they are of God and His Mission. Let us pay attention to Bryan Stone’s exhortation that ?”the evangelism of Jesus … is unintelligible apart from the announcement of a new government to which we are called to convert, embodied in such concrete practices as the rejection of violence, justice for the poor, love to enemies, economic sharing and the relativizing of national and family allegiances”(p.149) By infesting society on the ground in this fashion, God will surely bring in His Kingdom to the city.

I am sure Tim Keller’s speech at Lausanne could be seen as just this kind of strategy. Yet there lies within it, some seeds for undermining the Kingdom.  So I offer these questions with the hope of furthering the work of Tim Keller, and the idea of the Gospel Ecosystem.

BTW: I think the Gospel Ecosystem should be in conversation with CCDA. I like the way CCDA a.) centers their efforts in a wholistic gospel of Jesus Christ, a.) emphasize entering humbly within a locale, and c.) seek God’s justice in and through Christ as a communal development under the Lordship of Christ.

What say you? Over paranoid ana-baptist? Am I misreading the Gospel Ecosystem?

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