Tim Keller on Gospel Ecosystems

Tim Keller gave this talk in Miami this in March (HT to DashHouse). It thought I’d summarize for the benefit of people who don’t have 25 minutes to sit through the audio. Let me preface by saying that this is big picture thinking combined with practical help. Thank God for TK. I will outline this talk (he gave more at the event), and add Providence-specific comments.

Keller says that what cities need is not just strong or growing churches but actual “Gospel Ecosystems,” which he defines as dynamic sets of forces that sustain and balance each other. The goal is not just reconfiguration of the Christian people of a city (which is what usually happens when a city has some big, successful churches) – not shuffling Christians from one church to another (though that can be beneficial) – but the actual growth of Christians as a percentage of the city population.

The necessary components of a Gospel Ecosystem can be visualized as a core and two outer rings (from the inside, A, B, and C).

At the core (A) is an effective, contextualized way of embodying the Gospel for center-city residents. Several of the new churches in our area are working hard on this: Trinity PCA, DownCity, and GraceHarbor come to mind immediately.

Surrounding this, (B) must be a series of church planting movements spanning many different denominations and traditions, working from the core of their own ways of “doing church.” In other words, it’s not enough if Presbyterians are planting churches, or Baptists, or whoever. What counts as a church planting movement? Keller’s rough definition is that if half to two-thirds of the churches of a specific denomination or network are planting daughter churches within 5-6 years, and then half to two-thirds of them are doing the same (church multiplication), that’s a movement. Further, these churches must share a common vision for reaching the city and generosity toward one another. In other words, they are working together and not against one another. (At this point I was a little unclear whether Keller was saying that this attitude should be in place within each church planting movement or between church planting movements. I think the former. That would fit, on the negative end, with what I have seen in other geographical areas. Where my own denomination has three or more churches within an hour’s drive there is often non-geographical self-selection by the members: this church is too touchy-feely, that pastor is not an awesome enough preacher, those people are mean-spirited. That’s not a church planting movement.)

Surrounding both must be (C) seven different varieties of institutions, practices, events:

C1) Kingdom-centered united prayer, across the churches and the city. This cannot (appear to) be one church’s initiative, or it will appear to be a tribal project of that church or pastor. It must genuinely span different congregations and the city as a whole.

C2) Lots of specialty evangelistic ministries (e.g. to Muslims or Cape Verdeans). Especially, campus and youth ministries are important because without lots of university and high school students becoming disciples of Christ, Christianity in the city is not going anywhere.

C3) Justice and mercy initiatives. The local churches certainly have to pursue these things in their own neighborhoods. That is being good neighbors, and is indispensable. But there is a limit to what they can do. Christians have to band together in 501(c)3s and community development corporations, for specific causes or purposes (e.g. “raise all the test student test scores in this high school”). As historical background Keller cited the 1830s “benevolent empire” constructed by American evangelicals, the positive effects of which molded the 19th century on.

C4) Faith and work initiatives. For example, artists need to get to know each other. These connections have to be forged for the benefit of the churches and the city. (Already small institutions like West Side Arts are doing this in Providence. I wonder who else?)

C5) Educational and family support institutions. Living in cities can be very hard on families. Schools, counseling centers, etc. can go a long way toward making it work. In my mind Boston Trinity Academy remains the single best example of this in the United States.

C6) A leadership development system – usually organic – to attract and identify potential leaders for the churches and the community. Keller gives the example of the mid-20th century Church of Scotland, where 2-3 strategically placed pastors in university towns were used by God to inspire and raise up 40-50 new pastors a year, leading to renewal in the denomination as a whole.

C7) Overlapping leaders – from areas like the arts, business, technology, and pastoral ministry – who come together with a heart for the whole city.

With these elements in place, the a Gospel Ecosystem is up and running. You will know that it is working when you see two tipping points pass.

The first is a tipping point in the churches. That is when you see growth happening all over the city spontaneously, not just in one or two churches or movements. That is when you will start to see the percentage of Christians in the city grow (and not simply move around).

The second is a tipping point in the city. That is when, at some point, the percentage of Christians in the city actually gets big enough to make the cities look different. (Maybe 10%, as Chuck Colson suggested is the tipping point in prisons.) At this point the change is unmistakable, and even those who don’t like the Gospel message like what the Christians are doing in the city.

Keller closed the talk by making an important point for church planters. He said that he wants to “raise your eyes beyond the current horizon.” The first horizon for a church planter, he noted, is usually simple: he doesn’t want to be a failure! The second horizon is when the church planter has succeeded long enough that he wants to start another church, or a network or movement. The true horizon for our work, Keller says, should be the existence of Gospel Ecosystems in our cities.