A New Kind of Urban Christian
His speaking style is disarmingly low-key, almost professorial, but only the rarest professors make every word count the way Tim Keller does. For 16 years, he has been preaching at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, distilling biblical teaching into arrestingly simple phrases that convey the radical surprise and gracious truth of Christian faith. One such typically piquant phrase is the source of the Christian Vision Project's big question for 2006: How can followers of Christ be a counterculture for the common good? Keller's vision of a church keenly committed to the welfare of its city attracts 4,000 worshipers each week to Redeemer's four rented locations, sends them out into many forms of charitable service through the church's ministry Hope for New York, and fuels a church-planting effort that embraces Baptists and Pentecostals as well as Presbyterians, immigrant neighborhoods as well as Manhattan. Fifty years from now, if evangelical Christians are widely known for their love of cities, their commitment to mercy and justice, and their love of their neighbors, Tim Keller will be remembered as a pioneer of the new urban Christians.
In the winter of 2006, two movies mirrored the fractured and confusing relationship between Christians and culture. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe struck fear in many secular hearts. Some journalists saw it as an ominous sign of growing right-wing power that a company like Disney would make a movie that had such profound evangelical appeal (and, arguably, content). And why did Disney pull the plug on the gay-friendly TV reality series Welcome to the Neighborhood? Isn't this, the pundits asked, what happens when you let Christians influence culture?
At the same time, The End of the Spear, the account of five evangelical missionaries martyred in Ecuador, upset some Christians when it was discovered that an active gay man was playing Nate Saint, the lead role in the movie. Conservative cultural commentators were divided. Some, like Eugene Veith of World magazine, urged Christians to see the movie and judge it on its artistic merits, not on the morals of its actors off screen. Others urged a boycott. Major questions about Christianity and culture were raised on hundreds of websites. What makes a movie "Christian"? Do all the actors have to be Christians? If not, which kinds of sinners are allowed, and which are not? Is spiritual compromise inevitable when Christians try to enter mainstream cultural production?
The relationship of Christians to culture is the singular current crisis point for the church. Evangelicals are deeply divided over how to interact with a social order that is growing increasingly post-Christian. Some advise a reemphasis on tradition and on "letting the church be the church," rejecting any direct attempt to influence society as a whole. Others are hostile to culture, but hopeful that they can change it through aggressive action, often of a political sort. Still others believe that "you change culture one heart at a time." Finally, many are attracted to the new culture and want to reengineer the church to modify its adversarial relationship with culture. Many in the "one heart at a time" party play down doctrine and stress experience, while some in the reengineering group are changing distinctives of evangelical doctrine in the name of cultural engagement. That is fueling much theological controversy, but even people who agree on the need for change disagree over what to do to our doctrine to reach the culture.