A Non-Negotiable for the Young, Restless, and Reformed Movement
Editor’s Note: This is a slightly modified excerpt from the forthcoming Young, Restless, and Reformed: Remembrance and Lament (Founders Press).
After eight years and almost three dozen articles that include critiques of the movement led by Timothy Keller, I welcomed the Federalist’s invitation to write a largely laudatory obituary for this superstar pastor and author evangelicals lost on May 19th. That obituary concludes with these words—“Defender of the gospel, servant of the church, gentle teacher, follower of Jesus Christ — Rest in Peace.” How much critique might one worthy of such words merit? A fair bit, I believe. Unwittingly perhaps, but nevertheless in fact, the young, restless, and reformed movement (YRR) associated with Keller fostered distrust and division among formerly united reformed evangelicals.
. . .on the other side of Ferguson (2014), Trump (2016), MLK50 (2018), coronavirus (2020–2021), George Floyd (2020), and more Trump (2020–2021), the remarkable coming together [of reformed evangelicals] seems to be all but torn apart. . . . We won’t be able to put all the pieces of Humpty Dumpty back together again . . .
For more than a decade Keller contended that relationships between believers bonded by the gospel need not and ought not break apart on the jagged rocks of political differences. Keller’s “third way” approach to political diversity (nomenclature fellow Presbyterian pastor DeYoung never warmed to) meant to prevent exactly the sort of fragmentation DeYoung laments.
Unveiled in his 2008 bestseller, The Reason For God, Keller contends that, from a Christian perspective, each of the two major political parties get some things right and others wrong. But the church, not least in order to avoid making an idol of political loyalties, but especially in order to maintain unity among believers, should follow a “third way” beyond and above partisan political passions. Yet DeYoung accounts for the coming apart of the “remarkable coming together” in just such political terms.
For almost fifteen years, I welcomed, celebrated, defended in print, and participated in the young, restless, and reformed movement.1 But after Russell Moore said in the New York Times that evangelicals who vote for Trump must deny everything they believe in order to do so, I started examining more closely the movement I’d been so happy to champion and serve. I discovered that the theologically reformed, black Southern Baptist pastor, preacher extraordinaire, theological educator, and one-time darling of the YRR, Voddie Baucham, seemed to have disappeared. Having refused to embrace racist readings of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, Baucham had been canceled by what Skye Jethani once dubbed the evangelical industrial complex (EIC), including the institutions of the Southern Baptist Convention, Keller’s and DeYoung’s own Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), the Acts29 church planting network, and The Gospel Coalition. Handwringing over the ostensible “anti-intellectualism” of the Deplorables proceeded hand-in-hand with conspicuous fear of the most learned and experienced un-woke African-American voices by the white men in charge.
However variously these developments and DeYoung’s findings might be interpreted, they surely demonstrate that formally shared doctrinal convictions failed to secure bonds of trust sufficient to sustain enduring unity and ministry partnership in the reformed resurgence. Was not doctrine, or “the gospel,” expected to hold the “remarkable coming together” together? Yet Humpty Dumpty fell and fractured with the robust formal doctrinal consensus intact.
The suggestion that what best accounts for the coming apart reduces to “politics,” is not so much wrong as it is incomplete. And this answer also subtly but wrongly serves elite YRR efforts to point an accusing finger of blame for Humpty Dumpty’s fall away from themselves toward those who, ostensibly unlike them, made an idol of politics—namely “about half of Trump supporters” Hilary Clinton located in that “basket of deplorables.” Those people Barak Obama said “get bitter and they cling to their guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them.”
Did partisan politics play a significant central role in the evangelical crack-up? It did. But we need the answer to a different question to gain more clarity about that role: what conditions rendered partisan political loyalties capable of shattering the unity in ministry partnership once enjoyed among these doctrinally unified believers? Answers require a look back not only to the 2008 unveiling of Keller’s third way and, following DeYoung, to the rise of Trump, the death of Floyd, and the spread of Covid, but also to another church growth strategy birthed in 1799 with the publication of Friedrich Schleiermacher’s Speeches on Religion to its Cultured Despisers.
Keller and other YRR influencers repeatedly repudiated the Protestant liberalism of which Schleiermacher was the great progenitor. Perusal of the confessions of faith embraced within the movement provides strong, some would say conclusive, evidence that such repudiation stands unchallenged. But examination of the branding, messaging, and platform gate-keeping of the YRR uncovers practical, market-driven, as opposed to explicitly political, precipitating causes of Humpty Dumpty’s fall. Those practical, market-driven commitments reflect classic Protestant liberal efforts to salvage portions of an Enlightenment-challenged Christian inheritance deemed believable and meaningful to its cultured despisers.
In What Way Not Liberal?
Both the Mark Driscoll (Mars Hill Church, Seattle) and Keller iterations of the YRR movement put in place arguably the most effective protective bulwark against lapse into liberalism—formal affirmation of fully-orbed doctrinal statements boasting impeccable historic, orthodox, Protestant roots; in Keller’s case, the 1647 Westminster Confession of Faith.
In contrast, the great liberals abandoned both the authority of Scripture and doctrine after doctrine long embraced as faithful to the Bible and essential to Christian authenticity and unity. From Schleiermacher (d. 1834) to Adolf von Harnack (d. 1930) and beyond, liberals have stood unapologetically above the Scriptures from which they draw only teachings deemed meaningful and relevant to contemporary audiences. The result was an array of pieced together, freshly concocted, seeker-sensitive “gospels.”
(1) Christian “good news” now affirms the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man (Harnack). (2) The religious self-consciousness of Jesus, namely the feeling of absolute dependence, is transmitted down the ages through the church (Schleiermacher). (3) Since Jesus lived a fully authentic life, we too, through faith in the preached kerygma, itself illuminated by existentialist philosophy, may as well (Bultmann). (4) Previous generations found a correlation between their deepest questions of being and answers provided in the Christian revelation. Ancient man raised the question of death and found the answer of resurrection. Medieval man (epitomized by Martin Luther) struggled with the question of guilt and so welcomed the good news of divine forgiveness (Tillich). In each version of the gospel, Jesus Christ exemplified humanity as transformed by the new good news tailored specifically to satisfy the questions ostensibly posed by sinners embedded within distinct cultural settings. Tillich said that modern men and women pose the question not about death or guilt but about meaning. Eventually Rick Warren who, like Keller, was a doctrinal conservative, would respond with his The Purpose Driven Life. Could theological orthodoxy long survive the adoption of such liberal strategies for the advance of the gospel; strategies so decisively shaped by ongoing discernment of “felt-relevance” within targeted unbelieving communities?
The theological and homiletical fruit produced by such felt-relevance-seeking liberals bore little resemblance to anything historically or biblically recognizable as Christian. No miracles, no heaven or hell, no substitutionary atonement, little or no use for the trinity. The jackass did not speak; the axe head did not float; the walls of Jericho did not fall; the Red Sea did not part; Jesus did not rise from the dead, and neither shall you or anyone else.
The liberal quest yielded, according to H. Richard Niebuhr, a “God without wrath who brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.” They served up, according to Timothy George,
“ . . ., a Jesus without miracles, a Jesus who bore a striking resemblance to a late Victorian gentleman out for a walk with his dog on a Sunday afternoon, a Jesus who (as Feuerbach had already warned, if we had only listened) was little more than the sum total of our dreams, fantasies, and self-projections ( Dogma Beyond Anathema: Historical Theology in the Service of the Church, Review and Expositor: An International Baptist Journal, December 1987, Vol. 84 Issue: 4, p. 698.)
Furthermore, does not liberalism kill church growth? Just look at the hollowed-out churches of mainline Christianity. Surely liberal methods for gospel advance, like Marxist revolutionary attempt to build utopia, stand utterly and universally discredited, right? The answer is no. What might not prove viable over time often does for long enough to dazzle and do much damage. As John Kenneth Galbraith liked to remind William F. Buckley in disputes over economic policy—“in the long run, we’re all dead.” On both sides of the Atlantic, Protestant liberalism boasts long periods of “success” measured in buildings, bodies, and bucks and its greatest stars have garnered widespread influence, loyalty, and affection. The wrongheadedness and failure of their projects find widespread recognition only later, after the damage is done.
The city of Berlin involuntarily shut down in February of 1834 as the news of Schleiermacher’s death spread. Mourners by the thousands poured into the streets in a spontaneous outpouring of grief and gratitude to bid farewell to their beloved pastor and friend. Fifty and a hundred years later, Henry Ward Beecher (d. 1887) and Harry Emerson Fosdick (d. 1969) captured the spiritual psyche of America in turn. The title of Debby Applegate’s biography of Beecher does not exaggerate—he was “The Most Famous Man in America.”
Unable to discern the gospel in Fosdick’s sermons at Riverside in Manhattan, Dietrich Bonhoeffer made his way to Harlem and Adam Clayton Powel Sr.’s Abyssinian Baptist Church. But the elites of the nation liked Fosdick just fine. They, like Keller, viewed conservative evangelicals with suspicion and fear. Fosdick’s most famous sermon expresses a sentiment repeatedly echoed by Keller, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” Though Timothy Keller’s star never rose to the heights reached by Beecher’s and Fosdick’s, we can still say of the evangelical YRR, seeker, and purpose-driven movements, measured in buildings, bodies, and bucks, “they worked.”
The YRR evidenced absorption of the critical assessments and warnings regarding seeker sensitive and felt-relevance-fixated church growth movements delivered by David Wells in four volumes between the 1993 publication of his No Place For Truth and Above All Earthly Powers in 2005. But did the Keller iteration of the YRR make good on its intentions to steer clear of the Wells-identified penetration of Protestant liberalism into evangelicalism?
Un-Winsomeness Beats Winsomeness
Mark Driscoll, not Timothy Keller, led the young, restless, and reformed movement for more than a decade through wide distribution of his sermons and books, his leadership of Mars Hill Church and of the ACTS 29 church-planting network, and the sheer force of his stage presence. The displacement of Driscoll by Timothy Keller as the standard bearer of the movement took place between the 2008 publication of Keller’s bestseller, The Reason For God, and the scandal-ridden fall of Driscoll and the collapse of Mars Hill in 2014. Both men bedazzled elite evangelical psyches as the congregations they led grew exponentially among arguably the most gospel-resistant, even hostile populations anywhere to be found—the blue communities comprised of college-educated, Democrat voting denizens of the nation’s great cities, and increasingly, wherever colleges and universities pump out their progressive human products into the populace.
The earliest rumblings of the YRR movement reach back to the so-called emergent or emerging church movement associated with figures far apart in their doctrinal views and even in their understanding of whether and how doctrine ought to function in church life. Brian McLaren talked about “belonging before believing” as a viable accommodation for spiritual seekers. By contrast, Mark Driscoll assaulted large and growing skinny jean Seattle audiences with calls for repentance, talk of demons and the fires of hell, and salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone according to the witness of Holy Scripture alone with no ifs, ands, or buts.
What drew these conversation partners together turned far less on what either did or did not count as non-negotiable components of the gospel message than on shared interests in reaching urban populations. The rock music, skinny torn jeans, coffee shops, pulpit profanity, and pyrotechnics of doctrine-friendly Mars Hill reflected hip, urban, blue-community tastes. But in its branding and messaging, Mars Hill not only did not prioritize winsomeness, as would Keller, but Driscoll unleashed verbal assaults upon his hearers and challenged believers and unbelievers alike in Marine Drill Seargent fashion to obey God or buckle up for unhappy consequences down the line.
This contrast in approach between Driscoll and Keller seems significant given that the efforts of both men—measured in buildings, bodies, and bucks—yielded spectacular results in two of America’s great coastal cities. Gauged according to political conviction and historic dearth of Christian influence, Driscoll planted Mars Hill Church in arguably the bluest of the largest cities in the nation. Does Driscoll’s winsome-deprived success undercut supposed lessons to be drawn from Keller’s application of insight gained from the one subject in which he sought expertise—cultural exegesis that commended his brand of winsomeness in blue contexts? That the founding pastors of the two paradigmatic blue community mega-churches of the two iterations of the movement took opposite paths vis-à-vis winsomeness seems important. It also seems noteworthy that Driscoll was himself far more culturally indigenous to Seattle than was Keller to Manhattan and that Mars Hill grew to triple the size of Redeemer Presbyterian.
In What Way Liberal?
Karl Barth famously assessed Schleiermacher’s attempt to salvage Christianity in the face of an enlightenment critique by her cultured despisers as a “Copernican revolution” in theological methodology. The Enlightenment’s proudest son, Immanuel Kant, declared that the mind, at least along the path of pure reason, cannot gain direct knowledge of metaphysical referents such as God. For Schleiermacher, who as a young student at a Moravian secondary school smuggled in and read Kant’s banned books under the covers by candlelight, that meant that neither preachers nor the Biblical authors could make direct statements about God. God remained inaccessible to both.
Since the Christian self-consciousness was accessible, it supplanted God and the Bible as the subject matter of theology and source of doctrine. Anthropology supplants theology and the Feuerbachian projection noted by Timothy George results.
But the seeker, purpose-driven, and Keller movements do not make this Copernican move. Or do they, sort of? The YRR affirms the great historic creeds and the robust Protestant confessions of faith. They call abortion the taking of a human life, contend for traditional marriage, and call homosexual behavior sin on biblical grounds. Pretty non-liberal, wouldn’t you say? Right, but not so fast. Discernment of the sensibilities of targeted audiences did not alter the formally articulated doctrinal and moral convictions for the YRR as it had for the great liberals. But such ongoing discernment did shape their branding, messaging, and platform gatekeeping. The Keller movement adopted the “truth stays the same, but methods change” rhetoric of the earlier seeker and purpose-driven movements to justify its own blue community seeker-sensitive strategy. They agree with liberals that the sensibilities of targeted populations should inform how the gospel is presented. The selection, sequencing, and timing of the subject matter broached as well as the tone of Christian communication should labor to avoid unnecessary stumbling blocks to the gospel. Evangelists, preachers, pastors, and personal witnesses should look for and lead with features of the gospel deemed more likely to find welcome and less likely to offend within blue communities.
But is not such attention to audience sensibility the prudent practice of the church down the centuries? Have not the patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and early Christian apologists including Jesus and Paul modeled such approaches? Are not attempts to convey deep, essential, spiritual truth with disregard for the history, culture, language, customs, and morés of those we wish to influence foolish and doomed to fail? Did not New Tribes Missions adopt seeker-sensitive strategies with impressive results when they insisted that fundamental teaching about creation, fall, and the need for forgiveness had to precede direct conversion-seeking evangelism among most isolated tribal peoples? Indeed, are not sensibility-aware and sensibility-responsive approaches prudent wherever influence and persuasion are sought?
The answer is yes, yes, a thousand times yes. But ought not the goal of clear communication be distinguished from that of being found winsome? The same Jesus who handled numerous sinners gently and kindly in myriad contexts also drove money changers from the Temple, called people snakes and vipers, and repeatedly spoiled folks’ might-have-been happy get-togethers by broaching one of his favorite but typically un-welcome subjects—hell fire. Jesus was left alone before he was crucified outside the gates of Jerusalem and tradition tells us Paul was martyred, likely by beheading. If winsomeness per se was a non-negotiable strategic goal of either Paul or Jesus, both failed miserably. Need we to be reminded of the harsh un-winsome harangues of the prophets to warn the people of God and her enemies?
No critic of the Keller-inspired winsomeness agenda of whom I am aware believes that quickly being found obnoxious by unbelievers proves the faithfulness of their witness. But some do seem to take Jesus’s warnings that the world would hate his followers more seriously than a winsomeness-to-the-left fixated posture seems capable.
The parallel between the YRR movement and classical liberalism remains hidden if we restrict our examination to their formal doctrinal and moral statements. On that score, the movement has mainly held true to orthodox, evangelical, and reformational confessional integrity and moral rectitude in the face of the LBGTQ+ insanity. But as soon as we reckon seriously with the consequences of the movement’s winsomeness-to-blue-community fixated branding, messaging, and platform gatekeeping, the parallels with liberal compromise emerge unmistakably and account for the ever-increasing felt need to publicly deplore the deplorables.
The Pharisee Bogeyman
Two of Keller’s most enduring preoccupations served to separate the reformed resurgence from the deplorables. His third-way protection against the temptation to make political loyalty an idol eventually prompted perhaps the most absurd statement Keller left with us. Between Presidents Bill Clinton and Joe Biden, Democratic party rhetoric shifted from the quest to make abortion “legal, safe, and rare,” to threats to punish all (including two Supreme Court Justices, Kavanaugh and Gorsuch) who refuse to celebrate abortion at every stage of pregnancy. Nevertheless, commitment to blue-community winsomeness yielded this from Keller: “The Bible tells me that abortion is a sin and great evil, but it doesn’t tell me the best way to decrease or end abortion in this country, nor which policies are most effective.”
The most prominent and repeated jabs at the deplorables belong to one of Keller’s favorite themes—avoidance of Pharisaism. Long before Keller arrived in Manhattan, he’d identified the Pharisees Jesus targeted as the epitome of gospel-devoid legalism and self-righteousness. It is not an exaggeration to say that, for Keller, the number one religious enemy of Jesus Christ and his gospel, is the legalistic, self-righteous Pharisee. As such, it would be difficult to exaggerate the significance of the fact that for Keller, in keeping with widespread default blue-community sensibilities, fundamentalists and evangelicals tend to exhibit just this sort of poisonous religiosity.
By his own acknowledgment, Keller learned to see many conservative evangelicals this way from the highly respected historians Nathan Hatch, Mark Noll, and George Marsden. Add anti-intellectualism to legalism and self-righteousness and you have the contemporary Pharisee Keller’s Hatch/Noll/Marsden-derived radar that is tuned to detect and repudiate. One problem—the Hatch/Noll/Marsden Pharisees flourished on the frontier of an expanding America in the 19th century and among a certain stream of attitudinal fundamentalists in the first three decades of the twentieth century.
Keller’s reflexive charge of 21st-century evangelicals with such Pharisaism needs substantiation but never finds it. Warrant for the charge is assumed, not established. Legalism and self-righteousness are, indeed, perennial enemies of the gospel, but, given the widespread influence within evangelicalism of the seeker, purpose-driven, and Keller movements themselves, might not the more pressing threat to the gospel come from the opposite direction, namely, antinomianism, libertinism, cheap grace, accommodation to the culture of death promoted by the Democrat party. Or have cultural and political conditions happily developed such that the great threats to the gospel in our time derive mainly from pathologies churning within the red communities untargeted by the Keller movement?
It is noteworthy that the third of David Wells’ five volumes of cultural exegesis and theological assessment was entitled Losing Our Virtue: Why The Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision. Wells’ final volume that sought to point the way forward out of evangelicalism’s characteristic seeker-sensitive pathologies was entitled God in the Whirlwind: How the Holy Love of God Reorients Our World. Keller endorsed this final volume, but clearly these two reformed evangelical cultural exegetes provided diagnoses and prescriptions for what ails the culture and the evangelical church that move in opposite directions. The word “winsome” does not occur in Wells but many calls for the pursuit of biblical holiness do. Meanwhile, Keller’s career was obsessed with the threat of legalism and eventually with the claimed but unsubstantiated widespread anti-intellectual fundamentalism of conservative evangelicals.
However deplorable-like was Keller’s formally articulated opposition to abortion and homosexuality, does that opposition find prominence in his or the YRR movement’s branding and messaging? Were pro-abortion, pro-homosexuality attenders at Redeemer confronted with such deplorable-like views in the weekly messages and Bible studies provided? Or did Redeemer provide a safe space, a refuge for congregants from the sort of “legalism” or holiness-fixation that might deploy the pulpit and small-group Bible studies to warn of the wrath of God against homosexuality and the Democrat party-defended murder of the unborn by the tens of millions?
If we wish to account for the Humpty Dumpty fall, we must distinguish between convictions formally stated and the content of the Keller movement’s ongoing branding, messaging, and platform gatekeeping. The former may teach us something about what elites within the movement believed. But the latter offers a better indication of what they and their ministries ultimately delivered. These are not the same. We know what they said they believed. But what did they deliver?
The Remarkable Testimony of Kirsten Powers
Kirsten Powers’ remembrance of Keller in the wake of his recent passing might help us here. Powers was a New Yorker, lifelong liberal Democrat, journalist, author, and by her own testimony a former long-time “committed atheist.” She surely epitomizes the sort of blue-community denizen Redeemer Presbyterian sought to reach on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. And reach her they did. Reeling from the sudden heart attack-induced death of her father a year earlier, Powers’ boyfriend prevailed upon her to visit Redeemer which she describes as “an evangelical church that sought to be seeker friendly.” “[T]hey led with the good stuff: Jesus was an immigrant; a radical when it came to treating women equally and a champion of the downtrodden. It was an intellectually stimulating format, including sermons that were laced with poetry, art references, philosophy and pop culture. I was intrigued, to say the least.”
Powers dove in headfirst, not only sat under the preaching of Timothy Keller, but settled into the Bible study group led by his wife Kathy and became one of the more well-known converts at Redeemer. Powers’ presence showcased the effectiveness of doctrinally sound, winsome-to-blue community evangelism and discipleship. That is, until Kirsten the journalist reached the conclusion not only that Redeemer and the Kellers had deceived and betrayed her, but that the seeker-friendly evangelical movement writ large depends upon slick deceptive marketing and strategic silences—“the secretiveness is a red flag”—in order to draw political liberals into the fold and, eventually, “away from their most deeply held moral convictions.” Though “all-in . . . for years . . . [A]bortion was never addressed from the pulpit (at least to my knowledge)” “If the day I walked into that Upper East Side church service, the pastor had given a sermon calling homosexuality a sin or said that women should submit to their husbands, I would have gotten up and walked out.”
Eventually, Powers found that she was not alone—the problem of the lack of up-front honesty about theological beliefs in evangelical churches led to the creation of the organization Church Clarity. “My story is not a one-off. It happens all the time.” How long might seeker-sensitive, theologically conservative evangelical pastors tolerate with a clear conscience ignorance in blue-community converts about their politically incorrect views on abortion, homosexuality, and marriage—views absented from their branding and messaging precisely in order to draw in the unsuspecting?
According to Powers, seeker-friendly evangelicals deploy the language of their target audience deceptively. Jesus the border-crossing immigrant. Jesus the social justice warrior. But perhaps the least defensible tactic of the Keller movement has been its relentless post-Trump, post-Floyd, and post-Covid virtue signaling to the Kirsten Powers of the world. As the nation’s political division deepened precipitously, the Keller movement delivered two messages to signal to blue communities what side they were not on. First, they made it clear that they share the deploring of the deplorables Barak Obama and Hilary Clinton identified as fair game for all manner of opprobrium. Second, they desperately tried to get the word out that voting Democrat while following Jesus is A-OK.
As the Overton Window lurched repeatedly left, minimum blue-community moral bona fides moved with it. Gestures of friendliness toward a few key progressive social and political ideals were no longer deemed sufficient to draw and retain the Kirsten Powers of the world. Public recoil from the deplorables seemed necessary. Thus, key YRR pastors and elites who stayed mum at the violence of 2020’s Summer of Love, rushed to be seen at BLM marches and wrung their hands over January 6th about which so little was known.
Most telling though was that nothing appeared more urgent than the public sanctification of Christian votes for the Democrat party. The long publicly a-political John Piper rushed out a blog post to offer absolution to any Christians contemplating not voting for Trump. Mark Dever appealed to white pastors to “make room in your churches” for the “multi-issue voting,” of African Americans who realize that “nothing much is going to be done anyway” about abortion. A few months later, thanks to Trump’s SCOTUS appointees, Roe was overturned. The movement repeatedly platforms same-sex-attracted but non-practicing homosexual Anglican Priest Sam Allberry who calls for churches to provide safe places for gays to tell their stories. Compliance with one after another draconian government COVID mandate drew YRR praise for “loving of one’s neighbor” while resistance drew the charge of not having done so. Numerous blue-community and NeverTrump-driven cancelations followed that of Voddie Baucham, including that of Wayne Grudem, Carol Swain, Os Guinness, Doug Wilson, Eric Metaxas, Tom Ascol, and Lee Brand, Jr.
The apostle Paul labored to become a Jew to the Jews and a Greek to the Greeks in order that he might “win some”? Has the Keller movement applied the Apostle Paul’s evangelistic strategy thusly?—“[T]o the deplorer of deplorables, I became like a deplorer of deplorables in order that I might win some.” The explanatory power of that application 2 Corinthians 9:20 exceeds that of simplistic appeals to “politics” as the precipitating cause of Humpty Dumpty’s fall. Politics figures in heavily not because red communities treated Trump or the GOP like a god, but because the Keller evangelistic strategy treats blue-community sensibility as virtually inviolable. How much of the “success” of the Keller movement in urban settings came to benefit from a sub-Christian evangelicalism-dividing “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” overture to blue communities? Or, contrariwise, could it be that the deploring of the deplorables Clinton and Obama modeled for the blue communities required little or no adjustment by many or most of the YRR influencers? In 2017 Keller wrote this in The New Yorker—“People who once called themselves the ‘Moral Majority’ are now seemingly willing to vote for anyone, however immoral, who supports their political positions.”
Keller’s remarkable gifts of communication and winsomeness to blue communities were on full display in a 2008 talk he gave at Harvard to skeptical students. So were Keller’s ever-holstered broadsides against conservative evangelicals. Note this exchange between Keller and Crystal in the Q&A following the talk:
Crystal: What if we don’t take so much offense or disagreement with Christianity itself, you know, but with Christians? . . . I moved to Virginia, a place that is overwhelmingly Christian. . . . it’s more the missionary aspect of it that I think is a little bit . . .
(Crystal hesitates for a second or two as she searches for the right word until Keller interrupts and provides the word himself)
No follow-up questions to Crystal such as “off-putting how or why?” Nor did Keller say, as he had earlier in the talk about social justice, that, as Christians, the missionary aspect—“it’s our job.” Nor did Keller inform his audience that Jesus received hostile responses from his auditors and interlocutors. Nor did he note that Jesus warned his followers that they should expect such hostile reception by unbelievers. Instead, with the slenderest of accountings from Crystal of the problematic Virginians and their “missionary aspect,” Keller let loose with this:
Keller: “There’s two kinds of missionaries, you know Jesus said to the Pharisees you traverse heaven and earth to find a convert. He says you scour heaven and earth to find a convert just to make him as miserable as yourself. And the Pharisees were burdened down with legalism and self-righteousness and they did everything they could to make other people convert to be as miserable as them and there is a very kind of self-righteous, very coercive, form of mission work . . . but the form [of missionary aspect] you’ve got there in a lot of cases is Pharisaical . . . an awful lot of what you’ve seen its fair for you to hate it, frankly, sorry.
Yes, Keller was a defender of the gospel, servant of the church, gentle teacher, and follower of Jesus Christ who, for a time, won the trust of many conservative evangelicals and exerted great influence in the largest conservative denominations in America and beyond. But, Keller’s cooperation with blue community antipathy for red communities, both believers and unbelievers, finds no justification in Holy Scripture and could hardly be less winsome. As happens to many of us, Keller violated his own strictures, fell into the very pit he was determined to avoid. Keller warned — “if we are not deliberately thinking about our culture, we will simply be conformed to it without ever knowing it is happening.” Wittingly or not, the Keller movement sowed the disunity DeYoung and the rest of us lament.
Image Credit: Unsplash
- See, for example my, ““Can the Church Emerge Without or With Only the Nicene Creed?” in Evangelicals and the Nicene Faith, Timothy George, ed. Baker Academic, 2011, pp. 179-195; “Emerging or Emergent?: Questions for Southern Baptists and North American Evangelicals.” in Southern Baptists, Evangelicals, and the Future of Evangelicalism. David S. Dockery and Ray Van Neste, eds. B&H Academic. 2011, pp. 171-190; and “The Emerging Church: One Movement – Two Streams.” In Evangelicals Engaging Emergent: A Discussion of the Emergent Church Movement. William D. Henard and Adam W. Greenway, eds. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2009, pp. 4-46. ↩