Tim Keller is the Chairman and co-Founder of Redeemer City to City, which trains pastors for ministry in global cities. He is also the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and the author of New York Times bestselling books The Reason for God, The Prodigal God, and Prayer.
I’m excited to hear that you’re going to be supporting this year—The Well—which helps victims of sex trafficking. And I think that’s going to fit in very well with what I’m about to talk to you about.
I would like to draw some lessons from the early Church. For us today and what we’re facing in our own culture. It’s not news to anybody, but maybe we ought to just call it to mind, that in North America the Church is declining. I’m old enough to know that we’ve at every decade, everybody always … and they always have said, you know, is our Church, is the Church doing well? It’s not doing well. However, we really are in a different situation. Today we know that at least two thirds of all Churches in this country are declining … In decline.
Two-thirds of all congregations are actually in decline. We know that probably people under the age of 30, from 30 down to maybe the mid-teens. We’re looking at probably the first generation in [the] history of North America that there will probably be more people saying they’re not Christians then there will be people saying they’re Christians. If you look at the youngest generation, Gen Z it’s called sometimes, or iGen. The sociologists are fighting who gets to name the next generation. But we’re talking about people, say, under the age of 24 and younger.
Historically, there’s always been 2 or 3% of the population that’s said they’re atheists. In that generation it looks like there’s about 15% [who] are saying they’re atheist. So, there’s tremendous decline coming. It’s already happening and it’s coming. And the biggest difference, I think, there’s a number of differences. For the last thousand years in both North America and Europe, the church could assume that 90% of the people in the population had some idea, had basically believed in God, basically believed that there was a moral law, basically believed that we needed to live right and be right with God if we were going to go to Heaven when we died. That 80, 90% of the people believed these things. So, when they showed up in your church, and they often showed up in your church, because the culture pressured them, the culture said, “Hey, it’s a good thing for people to go to church.” And most people even who didn’t go to church thought it was a good thing for people to go to church. Even people who didn’t believe in God said, “I know for most people, belief in God’s a good thing.” That’s changing.
And increasingly, you have people out there who actually, who not only don’t believe in God or don’t believe in Christianity, but actually think Christianity is bad for people. And religion is bad for people. And religious people are a threat to our democracy and a threat to our social order. And we’ve never faced anything like that, but the early Christians certainly did. And what I want to draw out is basically there’s been a number of books recently in the last four or five years that have looked at the early Christians and asked a very important question. And there was one man named Larry Hurtado, he was a professor of New Testament at University of Edinburgh in Scotland some years ago. But he recently wrote a little book and the book’s… it was… here’s the title. The title is Why on Earth did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries?
Why on Earth did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries? And he starts off by saying, I don’t know that why historians haven’t been asking this question because he says, “Christianity was the most persecuted of all the churches.” Of all the religions in the Roman empire. It was more persecuted than any other religion. I’m going to explain to you why in a second. And therefore, there was no social benefit to being a Christian. There was no benefit at all.
If you became a Christian, you might be, you would be persecuted, you might be killed, you certainly would … It would certainly hurt your chances in business or in any of your pursuits. So, there was like no upside to being Christian. There was no benefit at all to being a Christian.
So, then the real question is why did so many people become Christians then in the first three centuries when Christianity was so persecuted? Why would anybody want to become a Christian? What would the incentive be? And Larry Hurtado says he doesn’t quite know why more historians haven’t asked that question. And of course, one of the reasons, and he even says so, one of the reasons is if you asked that question, you’re likely to get answers that you don’t want to hear. Which means there must have been something really great about the early Christians, something really great. Because why would people become Christians when they knew they were just going to have a terrible life if they did?
Now the answer is, and you actually see this in the book of Acts, but I’m not going to go down into … I’m not going to do a Bible study here; I’m giving you an overall talk. What Larry Hurtado, as a New Testament scholar and a historian of early Christianity, says is the reason why the early Church thrived and why people became Christians were because of basically two things which I’m going to break down into seven things, okay?
But he says there was a unique social project and there were unique offers. There was a unique social project and what he meant by that was the Christian Church itself was a society or a community the likes of which no one had ever seen before. And he said there were five things, five marks of that unique social project.
And then secondly, we have two unique offers. So, the reason Christianity thrived and grew was because of these five things that were unique about their community and two offers that they gave to the world that no one had ever heard before. So, here’s what they are, I’m just going to go right through them and then we can do some Q and A. The unique social project was this, there were five things that marked the early Church.
Number one, it was a multi-ethnic body. It was a multi-ethnic body. Now the reason for that was… you might say, “well, okay, fine.” You realize how… Here’s why it was so unique. In those days no one chose their religion. If you were born in the city, if you were born in the region of Parthia, you worshiped the Parthian gods because the Parthian gods were the gods of Parthia and you were Parthian. If you were born in Scythia, in the region of Scythia, then you worshiped the Scythian gods because you were Scythian, okay? And of course, your gods were the gods of your people, or of your city, or of your region. Or maybe you were a leather maker. Well, then you worshiped the god of the guild; the leather makers had a god. And not only that every home, especially every large home, usually had their house gods. And when you went into the home you would have to light a candle or pay tribute somehow to the house gods. In other words, nobody chose their gods. Basically, your religion was a function of your culture or your race. You got your gods when you were born.
Christianity though was the second religion to say, “no, no, no, there’s not lots of gods. There’s only one God.” Now, the first religion of course was Judaism. But the Romans could kind of live with the Jews because at least the Jews were a particular racial group. And even though they thought the Jews were really very exclusive and the Romans and the Greeks thought that the Jews were pretty irritating because they believe that their God was the only God and they wouldn’t bow down to any other god. But at least they understood, okay, there’s the Jews and they have their God and we’re the Parthians we have the Parthian god and the Romans, and they have… But here’s what happened when Christianity came along. They said, “no, there’s only one God and we must worship Him, and we can’t worship any other gods.” So that when you became a Christian you got the Christian God and no other God, but you realize what that meant. It meant that whether you’re a Parthian or Scythian or Jewish or whatever. When you were converted to Jesus Christ, suddenly all these people came together to worship Jesus and they were from all the different races.
That had never been seen before. It was a unique Christian… The Christian identity was a unique identity because nobody in those days chose their own religion, nobody. You were born into it, and the idea that you could get converted and choose your own religion and then who you were in Christ was more important than whether you’re Parthian or Scythian or Greek or Roman. And therefore, you all came together as brothers and sisters, no one had ever heard of that. And so, what you had was you had multi-racial, multi-ethnic bodies, which nobody had ever seen before. It was both scary and offensive and attractive. Okay, number one. So, it was a multiethnic body.
Number two, it was committed to justice. It cared about the poor. You know, Jesus Christ when he was asked, “What does it mean to love your neighbor?” He was talking about, you know, love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind; love your neighbor as yourself. And this one man, he says to Jesus, “well, who is my neighbor? What does it mean to love my neighbor?” And to make a long story, but a wonderful story, very short. Jesus Christ looks at this guy and he says, “Sure, I’ll tell you what it means to love your neighbor.”
And he gives them a story, you know the story of the good Samaritan, but here’s the bottom line. The good Samaritan parable is a parable in which a person loves someone of another race and of another religion in the most absolutely practical way. Risking his life to stop on the road even though there were robbers around. Giving him medical help, giving him financial subsidy. So, when Jesus is asked, “what does it mean to love your neighbor?” Jesus gives us an example of very practical help. Helping someone in physical and material need who is of a different race in a different religion.
Christians were the first group like that. We know that in the early Church as the Church was growing there was one of the early Roman emperors named Julian was trying to revive paganism because Christianity was growing so much, and paganism was not it was starting to die out. And we have a letter from Julian to one of the pagan priests and he says, “maybe you need to start helping the poor.” This is how the letter goes, he says, “the impious Galileans.” That’s his way of talking about the Christians. It was an insult, okay? He says, “the impious Galileans,” the Christians, he says, “they’re popular because they don’t only take care of their own poor, they take care of ours as well.”
You see, the Parthians would take care of the Parthian poor and the Scythians of the Scythian poor and the Romans, the Roman poor and the Greeks, the Greeks poor. But the Christians took care of everybody’s poor. Because their religious identity had changed and they didn’t just see themselves as, “well, I’m just this group.” Oh no, they loved everyone and the way they took care of the poor was radical, totally radical. And it was kind of offensive because the poor were looked down on, but it was kind of attractive.
Third. So, it was the first multi-ethnic body they’d ever seen. Secondly, it was a… It cared about the poor, did justice and was very, very, very concerned about the marginalized. Number three, it was non retaliatory. Christians forgave. If you came and burned down some Christians’ house, they didn’t get together and say, “okay, well we’re going to come down and burn down one of your houses.” They didn’t do that, they forgave. When they were taken into the arena and fed to the lions, or the gladiators or whatever, they sang hymns and they prayed and forgave the people who were wronging them. Nobody had ever seen anything like that either.
Number four, I’ll put it this way, number four. Christians were against abortion and infanticide. Now, in those days there were abortions but as you can imagine abortions were actually very, very, very dangerous. And so generally what people did was they had the babies and they threw them out. They literally threw them out, especially girl babies. And what they would do is they would just put… they would throw them onto the garbage heap. And we actually have a, we have a very blood curdling letter from a Roman businessman. And he was in Alexandria, I guess, on business and he wrote his wife who obviously was pregnant, and he was, at the time, and he was writing about this and that and don’t forget this and this and that. And then he says, “Oh, by the way when the baby is born, if it’s a girl, throw it out.” It’s a blood curdling letter; but just shows what Roman society was like. And Christians were completely against it. And you know, they weren’t politically pro-life, you know, like, “Oh, we’re against abortion or infanticide.” No, no they went out and they found the children. They brought them in, and they raised them.
So, they were multi-ethnic, it’s a multi-ethnic community. It’s a community committed to justice and the poor. It’s non retaliatory, civil, reaches out to people, you know, forgives people, bridge-building. Fourth, pro-life.
Fifth, they were a sexual counter-culture. Now this is a big subject all by itself. But in the Roman world what was the sex ethic? Here’s what the sex ethic was. Romans and the Greeks believed that sex was just an appetite. It was just an appetite and you just needed to fulfill that appetite. And if you were married, of course the wife could not have sex with anybody else, but it was expected that the husband could and did—with male or female. Prostitution was astoundingly… it was a big, big, enormous thing, it was just pervasive. And it was expected that men and young men would have sex all over the place. And when they got married the wives then couldn’t have sex, but the husbands still could, and that was the sex ethic.
And Christianity came along and it was crazy because the Christians brought about the first sexual revolution. Everyone thought they were absolutely crazy because the Christians said sex is only for inside marriage and that marriage needs to be between a man and a woman, that’s the two things. Marriage is—sex is only for inside marriage. No double standards, you know, for men and women, the end of the double standard, and between them it has to be between a male and a female. And again, from the outside, that was offensive, that was incredibly offensive, but it was also attractive. Why?
Well, it was offensive, of course, because most people thought it’s just crazy, it’s unrealistic. Come on, you know, you just can’t do that. But the reason it was also attractive was it was fair, it was just, I mean, you don’t think women were attracted to Christianity? I’ll, yes, they were. But it was also—even though the sex ethic was restrictive, the sex vision—what was sex? Is it just an appetite? You know, you get hungry you have to eat. You feel sexy, you have to have sex. Is that all it is? See, maybe the Christian sex ethic was restrictive, but its vision for sex as something sacred, as something that actually was supposed to be aligned with how God loves us.
Because how does God love us? Through Jesus Christ He unites with us into an exclusive love relationship. He is our only God, He gives himself to us, we give ourselves to Him. And therefore, the vision for sex was we want to have romantic love between a man and woman the way God loves us. So yes, it was restrictive, but it was also sacred. It was a higher view of sex than was in the culture. And people were both offended by it and they were attracted to it.
So, there’s those five things. Multi-ethnic, you know, great equality amongst the races. Powerfully for the poor and the marginalized. A community of forgiveness, civility, compassion, non retaliatory, pro-life, sexual counterculture. And you look at those, if we were that today would that be a liberal or conservative sounding church? The answer is yes.
Because two of those things sound kind of liberal, don’t they? All that emphasis on racial equality and multi-ethnicity. And two of those things sound conservative, right? You know, sexual purity and pro-life. But one of them, by the way, doesn’t sound Democrat or Republican. That’s the nice, non-retaliatory, bridge-building, compassionate, forgiving. That doesn’t sound like anybody today. Because everybody’s so venomous, everybody’s so angry. But what if we were that? Don’t you see that we would be just as attractive and as offensive? On the other hand, there’s always two other things.
The early Christians not only had this unique social project, but number two, the early Christians had—they offered two things unique. No other religion offers these two things, no other religion ever had. The first is they offered a love relationship with God. See, every religion offers some kind of salvation. Every religion says you can get on the right side of God if you do this, if you do that. All those religions in those days you would appease the gods. You would give sacrifices that you’re getting the gods to give you rain if you were a farmer or success if you were in business. And so, you’re always trying to get a good relationship with god, appease them, get right with the god or gods. But Christianity was the first one that came along and said, “no, no. A love relationship, intimate communion, fellowship with God, friendship with God, communion with God.” Nobody had ever offered that before.
And the second thing nobody ever offered was eternal life as a free gift. Salvation by sheer grace. Not something you earned, not something you could deserve. But a sheer gift because of what Jesus Christ had done. Now, here’s what I want you to kind of keep in mind. Not only were those two offers unbelievably unique and when people heard they couldn’t believe it. This is way beyond what any other religion ever offered. The idea that I can know that I’m going to Heaven. The idea I could know that I’m completely loved, eternal life is a free gift. And the idea that I could actually have a love relationship with God. Never before in the history of the world had a religion offered those two things. But guess what everybody? Never since has any religion ever offered those two things, it’s still unique. That’s still the offer that Christians give to the world and there is no other religion that offers those things. You say, “really?” Yes! I’ve been in dialogue with many, many other groups.
Some years ago, when I was in—I lived in Philadelphia for two years. Once a month Muslims and Christians got together. We had a Christian speaker and a Muslim speaker, and they would, we would talk about things to show how different we were and have a—we didn’t call it a dialogue because dialogues were—In a dialogue you’re assuming you’re both wrong and you’re trying to come together. No, no, we were trying to convert each other. It was no dialogue, but we wanted to have a, we wanted a level playing field and so we would get together and there would be a Christian speaker and a Muslim speaker and then we would discuss and that sort of thing. And it was extremely clear it was made to me; it was made very clear.
You don’t have a love relationship with Allah, you don’t do that. Buddhism is all about compassion, but Buddhism actually believes that everything is god and god therefore isn’t a person. God is all things; god is the all soul. You don’t have a love relationship with that god. Hinduism is the same. There isn’t any other religion that offers a love relationship and there isn’t any other religion that offers a free grace salvation. It’s always earned, it’s always something you gotta work and you’ve got to change your consciousness through the, you know, either the five pillars of Islam so you go to paradise or the eight-fold path of Buddhism. It’s still unique.
So, our offers are still unique, but is our community marked by those five things? I don’t know. No, I don’t think it is. And therefore, let’s just—let me just close it up right now. So, I would rather have you ask me questions. There’s a lot of things I could say, but I’d rather make sure I’m saying things you want to know, and we’ll finally figure that out by you’re going to ask me a question.
However, it’s when you go to 1 Peter 2, I’ve already said this three or four times but I want to end on this note. 1 Peter 2:11-12 says this, “dear friends”, Peter says, “I urge you as foreigners and exiles to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans, that though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” Now notice something, on the one hand it says, “you will be accused.” Christians today, for the first time in my lifetime, are being looked at a lot the way Christians were looked at in the Roman empire.
Which is, we’re seen as threats to the social order. We’re seen as bigots; we’re seen as offensive. Just like the early Christians, we’re seen as offensive, a threat to the social order. You’re not worshiping all the gods. You won’t bow down to the gods. You’re a threat to the social or you’re in—you’re not civil, you’re not accepting everybody, you’re too exclusive. We’re in the same situation and yet Peter says, “though, they will accuse your wrongdoing, if you live your lives the way you should some will also see your good deeds and glorify God.” In other words, it assumes some people will be offended and some people will be attracted to us if we’re living as we ought to. If people are only offended, you’re not living like Jesus. If people are only attracted, well you’re not living like Jesus either. Because Jesus was also, he says, “when I am lifted up on the cross, I will draw all to Myself.” And yet, of course, He was reviled and He was vilified.
Are we really, if we have the same social project, if we offer those same two unique offers, we will grow? We will be… we will grow but we will be embattled. We will be offensive, and we will be attractive. So, let’s learn from the early church. But right now, I’m gonna ask Richard to come on up and do the Q and A, however he wants to do it.
Richard: Okay, Dr. Keller, in 2017 the World Health Organization announced that depression is the most widespread illness in the world and the numbers continue to rise. Why do you think this is so?
Keller: I’m sure the answer is, I’m sure the real roots of that depression and anxiety and, by the way as many of you know, in the last five years the number of students on almost all college campuses that are turning themselves into the counseling service with sort of depression, anxiety is just skyrocketing, it’s double, triple.
I think it’s fair to say that we have a more individualistic society and it’s… we have a society where freedom is the big thing so everybody’s gotta be free. So, what that has done is… the idea that as an individual I have to be free and I have to live my life the way I want. That weakens marriages, it weakens families, it weakens communities. People are more likely to move away in order to get a job than they used to be in the past. I wanted to stay near where I grew up, stay near my people, stay near my family. And because we’re uprooted, because we’re, I’ll the put it this way, the individualism of our culture has freed people, yes. But it’s also made them lonely. We need a lot more attachment.
And this isn’t just something that conservative people are saying. Marc Dunkelman, who worked for the Clinton administration, no, the Clinton Foundation wrote a book some years ago called The Vanishing Neighbor. It’s not a Christian book, it’s a, you know, liberal sociology book. But it basically says because we’ve spent so much time working on freedom, we actually don’t have attachment.
Recently I read a book by a woman named Jennifer Senior, I think that’s how you pronounce her name, it’s a book on parenting. And it’s… the name of the book is All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenting. And she has a line in there which is amazing. She says, “the reason why modern people find parenting so hard is because we’ve been told that all our relationships are transactional.” That means that there’s no relationship I have to have if it’s not working out for me.
So, all relationships they’re all negotiable, they’re all transactional, no permanent commitments at all. She says the only problem is you can’t do that with kids. You can’t divorce your children if they’re, if the relationship’s not working out. And so what she said was, she said, one of the reasons why everybody’s freaking… she says all the people her age in places like New York City are freaking out; they either don’t want to have children or if they’re having children they’re just driving them crazy. It’s because they’ve been trained to be individualist. They’ve been trained to say that I should have no permanent commitments. That basically everything I do, it should be… I should do it only as long as it’s benefiting me. And you can’t do that with parenting. But you see what she means is she’s saying all other relationships are eroding. And so, we’re free but we’re lonely. So, I think that’s probably the main reason but there’s, I’m sure there’s others.
Unidentified audience member: So, I think that we live in probably the most prosperous society that has ever lived, you know, in human history, and it seems like we’re more materialistic than ever. We still want more stuff. And on top of that, we live in probably the safest society in human history. We have so much safety. We live in, you know, just relative tranquility compared to past generations and yet we, I think, are gripped by fear and we lack a lot of the courage that, you know, if you look back at history that people had. And so, when I look and remember and I think about, you know, I want to reach out to the first few points that you mentioned about, you know, racial equality and justice for the poor. Those, I think, are major barriers of materialism and fear. And I think, at least for me, I think for our society at large that those really hinder us. So, I kind of wanted to ask if you have any thoughts about how do you start breaking those down in your own heart and move forward with this thing?
Keller: So, you’re saying that those first two, if we’re going to work toward racial, more racial equality and justice for the poor, it does mean us getting out of our comfort zones, is that the idea? Yeah. You may have answered… You know, I love this question because you’ve kind of answered it or it’s… I don’t know. If you’re asking me how do you do it you have to recognize… The question is great because it recognizes the fact that the generosity that comes… if you want to do justice to the poor it doesn’t just mean you have to be generous with your money. Birmingham is one of the most generous places I know. It does mean involvement or proximity. I think that’s the problem and that’s probably a whole lot more threatening than giving, than writing a check. Proximity means you actually have to find the people that you’re trying to help. You have to have some kind of relationship with them. Otherwise, they’re almost like an object. It’s a way to feel better. I’m helping these poor people. There really does need to be some kind of involvement. Otherwise they’re just ways of making yourself feel good, you know. Friedrich Nietzsche, who’s such a remarkable… you know, he was an atheist philosopher and he was… he really hated Christianity. He really hated Christianity. And one of the things he used to make fun of was the charity of Christians because he says, “oh, you write your checks and you feel so… It’s just you’re using the poor people. Because you’re using them to feel good about yourself. Oh, look at how much money we’re giving. Look at all the things we’re doing for these people. And see we really… we love people and we’re so charitable.” And he says, “you’re just using these people to build up your self-esteem.” He says, “you’re not involved with them. You actually don’t like them and you’re not listening to them and you’re not letting them critique you.”
Now how do you do that? That’s… I don’t know, I mean, not in a 15-minute Q and A can I get into all that. But I’m trying to say it’s not just generosity. If you’re going to do justice and you’re going to do these things, you have to have proximity somehow. And that’s what we don’t want to do. And I think at that point then you are being like the good Samaritan. See, the good Samaritan didn’t just, the good Samaritan didn’t come along and see this guy in the road, he’d been beaten up by robbers. He realized it was a dangerous place. He didn’t say, “I just can’t wait to get out of here so I can give money to the local charity that helps, you know, crime victims.” He actually got off of his, you know, whatever he was riding on and he got down, he got the man’s blood on his, you know, his coat and, you know, picked him up and put him on his own donkey or whatever he was riding and brought him out. Jesus is talking about proximity, not just generosity. So, I think that’s enough on that one.
Unidentified audience member: Yes, what do you think the biggest blind spots are in the evangelical Church today in our society [inaudible]?
Keller: Right, okay. Blind spot, okay. Well, I think there’s three. I’ll tell you what the three challenges are and it’s about the same thing. I think that this answers your question. One is we think that we’re going to evangelize people the way we did it 30 years ago. If, you know, they do say, by the way, right that the definition of insanity is when you do the same thing over and over again and you think you’re going to get a new result. The people, I kind of hinted at this, that it used to be that virtually everybody in our society had some belief in God, had some belief in a moral law, some belief in an afterlife.
You know, when I was trained, 100 or 120 years ago, when I was a young man and I was trained in evangelism explosion, the two questions you asked people was to start with, “If you were to die tonight,” in other words, “if you were to die tonight would you be sure of going to Heaven” and, “if you were to die tonight and go before God and he would ask you, why should I let you into Heaven? What would you say?” Those were the two diagnostic questions. And when I was a pastor in Hopewell, Virginia 1975 I went door to door and I never got anybody who said, “oh, I don’t know there’s a Heaven and I don’t believe in God.” Nobody, nobody. Most of them didn’t go to church, but they all had the same belief.
So, you’ve just… now how in the world are you going to evangelize people who don’t have a concept of sin? They say, “well, you know, I find truth in myself and I’m the only person that can decide right or wrong for me.” So how do you do that? So, one blind spot is, I think, we tend to think that evangelism is something that we can do just the way we used to do it. Where you kind of wait for people to show up in church and then you speak to them in ways that assume that they believe in an afterlife and sin and those sorts of things.
I think a second blind spot is I don’t think we realized how much the world is taking hold of our kids through social media. So, what will happen is you take your kid to the youth group or… I mean everybody kind of knows this, but I don’t think we do. That’s… you asked me about blind spots. Social media, you take your kids to school, maybe a Christian school even. Maybe you’d go to church, go to youth group. But meanwhile, through the social media, they are getting catechized, believe it or not. I mean, no, of course nobody uses the word catechism out there. But catechize means you’re instructing people in a faith. So, what your kids are learning are these things: You’ve got to be true to yourself. You must never sacrifice your happiness for somebody else. Nobody has the right to tell anybody else what is right or wrong for them.
Now these things are just coming at these kids every day. It’s coming in the songs, it’s coming in the commercials, it’s coming over and over and over and over again. And by the time they’re 13, or 14, or 15, or 16 they’re going to hear somebody say, “well, you shouldn’t have sex outside of marriage.” And they’re gonna say, “well, that doesn’t make any sense because you have to be true to yourself.” Otherwise what’s happening is the world is catechizing our kids. And we don’t really have any way of talking, we don’t know that, or we don’t recognize it. We just start just taking them and training them and discipling them the way they’ve always been discipled and it’s not going to work either.
I guess the third thing we’re blind to is I do think the church has to be political but not partisan and I don’t know how. I don’t think we know how to do that. At this point, I do see, in general; now, I come from a part of the world in which we have a, I guess a phenomenon. I guess I could call it woke evangelicals. Younger evangelicals who I do think to a great degree are just sort of being caught up by left-wing politics. But I also think there’s plenty of places in the country where Christianity has completely identified with right-wing politics. And there has to be some, it doesn’t mean that Christians, Christians shouldn’t be involved in politics and working in their own conscience. But it’s really, really bad when the Church starts to get connected in people’s minds as just another political arm. So that’s another problem.
And how do you do that? I don’t… I’m not a pietist meaning I don’t believe that Christians say, “well, we just share. We don’t deal with politics because we’re just trying to get people to go to Heaven.” I’m not… I don’t believe that. But how do you avoid pietism and partisanship? How do you do that? And I… when I say blind to it, I think most people realize all three of those areas. I don’t think anybody here is totally blind to the fact that there are problems. But I think we’re blind to the solutions. I mean we kind of know there are problems, but we really have no good way forward on some of these things. And I think that’s a… So those are the three areas that I’ve been lifting up in front of people to say we have to work on these. Richard?
Richard: Here’s a question [inaudible]. Martin Copenhaver said, “the greatest obstacle to faith is not belief’s irrationality, but rather life injustices.” What do you find to be the biggest obstacle to believing in God?
Well, you know, that’s interesting. I would say years ago… Well, I mean, it depends on where you stand. I think life’s injustices is probably bigger than it’s ever been for a lot of people. Meaning 30 years ago if I was talking to people who were struggling with being a Christian, they probably would be asking me rational questions like, “how can you believe in miracles?” Or, “how can you believe…doesn’t science disprove God?” Or, you know, “how could you believe that anybody was raised from the dead?” Today it is more likely that people are going to say, “I can’t believe in a God Who’d let all these bad things happen to me.” So, whoever, I don’t think I know that person who was quoted, but I would agree. And I do think, therefore, there has to be… we have to be willing to… especially those of us who are having relatively comfortable lives, we have to be very careful that we don’t fall into a kind of prosperity gospel, which is giving people the impression that if you raise your children the right way and if you follow the word of God and you come to church every week and you do everything right your life will go fine. Because there’s too many people out there whose lives are not going fine and they struggle with God. The whole idea of whether even there is a God because of that. But they really struggle with Christians that are smug about life and don’t seem to be very sympathetic.
I think the number one thing you do is you have to show deep sympathy. Real… you can’t give people who are suffering pat answers. You can’t just say to them, “well now, if you really trust God”, you know, when someone’s, you know, little baby just died. You don’t say, “well, all things work together for good to those that love God and called according to His purpose.” You don’t do that. That’s cruel, that’s terrible. You’re like a Job’s comforter. You know, at the end of the book of Job, God is angry at Job’s comforters, supposed comforters, his friends who showed up and said, “well Job you just must not be living right or you wouldn’t have all these problems.” And at the end of the book of Job, God is so angry at them that Job has to pray for them so that God won’t smite them.
So, we have to be sympathetic and I think, secondly, we have to point to Jesus. Because, see, the thing about, what you have to say is, “I don’t know why God is allowing evil and suffering. I don’t know why. But I do know He’s not… It’s not because He doesn’t care. Because He’s the only God, of all the religions… We have the only religion who says we have a God Who came to earth and got involved with human suffering and suffered as we do, and so we don’t know why He hasn’t ended it yet.” We say, “eventually He’s going to end evil and suffering.” God hates evil and suffering. And we know that someday it’s all going to be over. He’s going to wipe away every tear. The reason why He hasn’t done it yet, we don’t know. But we do know this, it’s not because He doesn’t love us, or He would never have come and suffered. Jesus Christ, He came into this world, became human, got rid of His invulnerability, became mortal, and suffered with us so that someday that He’d be able to end all suffering without ending us.
And so, I think rather than giving people a rational explanation or trying to be philosophical about suffering, the best thing is be sympathetic, deeply sympathetic. Don’t be like Job’s friends. Sit there and be quiet and listen and just weep with them. And sometimes, at some point, point to Christ and say, “well, our God suffered too. And it’s so that someday suffering can be ended.” So, okay. That’s… There’s more to be said, but that’s enough. Yes, sir.
Unidentified audience member: Do you think that, as you mentioned earlier, some of the judgment that Christians [inaudible] are getting in recent years specifically. What do you think or how do you feel about how the generational divide, the greater generational divide between baby boomers and some of the Gen X, millennials, and Gen Z and how over the past few decades while it has gotten better for a lot of people in this country and yet, objectively, on average it has not gotten better for many people? And the divide that the younger generations see is the baby boomers have been economically and politically in power for the past 30 years. The average has gotten worse. Do you think that that viewpoint then correlates to the Church who, more baby boomers are involved in church levels than the younger generations? Do you think that affects people’s view of the church and why people aren’t as involved from my generation and younger?
Keller: Yeah. I know you’re trying to get me to say something intelligent about it though. I know.
[Inaudible comment from audience]
Yeah, well I was afraid you were gonna say that. I was so hoping you’d just sit down and say, “well thank you.” Well I actually don’t think that the social project, which is not my term but I kind of like it because it makes people say, “what?” The Christian social project of a commitment to multi-ethnic leadership, a multi-racial church. A commitment to justice for the poor. Civility, you might say, is reaching out to people who differ with you, speaking in respectful ways, always forgiving and being kind even when you’re vilified. Pro-life and a sexual counterculture holding onto the Christian understanding of sex ethics and so on. That doesn’t really fit either the more conservative or the liberal narrative.
And I think, I do think that that does help younger people. When they look at that it challenges them in some ways because a lot of younger people want to go the whole way with progressivism and… But that approach actually shows that the Bible is kind of independent of our political categories. And I do think younger people like to see… when they see the church not fitting into the categories, they’re more open to it. Even if they don’t like some of it, they… I think that that helps.
I also think that to some degree the boomers still are living in a world in which people, I mean, obviously I’m, you know, I’m a boomer and I was… I’m a Yankee and we were already going in a kind of liberal direction in my lifetime. But I think that what… so basically, I would have gone into it kind of… one-dimensional liberalism If it wasn’t for Christianity. See, what I mean by one-dimensional… Put it this way, let me give you a quick one; really quick.
Marx said, Karl Marx said the reason people are poor, it’s not their fault. It’s all social forces. It’s just social injustice, okay? John Locke and Immanuel Kant said that everybody is the product of their individual choices and therefore if you’re poor it’s your fault. It’s totally your fault. So that’s conservatism, if you’re poor it’s your fault, work. That’s liberalism, if you’re poor, it’s totally a social injustice.
Is that what the Bible says? Well, you go to the book of Proverbs and you’ll see in Proverbs 10, 11 and 12 whenever it talks about the poor, it says if you don’t work hard, you won’t eat. So, you say, “yeah, all right, if you’re poor, it’s because you’re not working hard.” Then, suddenly, you get to Proverbs 13 and it says, “the field of the poor is filled with grain, but oppression sweeps it away.” Injustice sweeps it away is the term. And you say, “wait a minute now, wait. Now it’s saying that sometimes injustice is the reason why you’re poor. Now, which is it?”
And the answer is the Bible is always more multidimensional than our one-dimensional categories. And I can… there’s a conservatism that says, “just work hard, that’s it. And then you won’t be poor.” And there’s a liberalism that says, “well, we’re just gonna have to change the entire social structure because it has nothing to do with personal responsibility.” And the Bible, no, the Bible is always more complicated. And generally, the rich, you might say, the older, younger divide. People, instead of thinking Biblically, they’re just actually just going along with the secular categories. What I would want to do is I’d want to make… I would want to challenge all the categories from the Bible. And I do think that that means that us older and you younger people will all be challenged together rather than just trying to find a compromise or something like that. So, there’s way more that ought to be said. But let’s pray.
Our Father, thank You so much for giving us again this great number of men in this room to be thinking about You, about ministry, to be thinking about the Gospel, to be thinking about how the Word of God applies to our situation today. I pray, Lord, You will do good things, great things through the people in this room. I pray, Lord, that today we have planted some seeds that will bear a great deal of fruit. Not just in the individual lives but in the lives of people all through the city and through the country. And I pray that You would truly help us become the kind of Church that like our… like the early Church, both confronted and challenged and yet attracted and loved the people around us. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.