Sunday, February 26, 2006

Here is the church

without a steeple
In the twilight of the biggest snowstorm in New York City's history, the pews of a rented Baptist church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan were packed for the Rev. Timothy J. Keller's fourth sermon of the day.

The 600 or so who braved the snow for the evening service got what they had come to expect — a compelling discourse by Dr. Keller, this time on Jesus' healing of the paralytic, that quoted such varied sources as C. S. Lewis, The Village Voice and the George MacDonald fairy tale "The Princess and the Goblin." It was the kind of cogent, literary sermon that has helped turn Dr. Keller, a former seminary professor whose only previous pulpit experience was at a small blue-collar church in rural Virginia, into the pastor many call Manhattan's leading evangelist.

Over the last 16 years, Dr. Keller's church, Redeemer Presbyterian, has swelled to 4,400 attendees, mostly young professionals and artists who do not fit the prototypical evangelical mold, spread out across four different services on Sundays. Although Dr. Keller, 55, is hardly a household name among believers outside New York — in part because he has avoided the Christian speaking circuit — his renown is growing in pastoral circles and in the movement to establish or "plant" new churches, a trend among evangelicals these days.
But take away the pastor, and where are all the people?

A looming question for Redeemer, though, is how much of what Dr. Keller and his team have built can be maintained when he ultimately exits the stage. When he was out for several months in the summer of 2002 while undergoing treatment for thyroid cancer, attendance dipped noticeably.
So, the ecclesiological question, buried until the end of the story is: is this a church? Or a personality cult?

The article focusses on the intellectual preaching of Dr. Keller, and I'm sure he does a fine job.

The Rev. Stephen Um, whose church in Boston, Citylife, began four years ago and now attracts about 500 people every Sunday, said he and other pastors had embraced Dr. Keller's emphasis on delving into the prevailing culture almost as much as into the biblical text. Along these lines, Dr. Um is just as likely to cite a postmodern philosopher like Richard Rorty or Michel Foucault in his sermons, as he is, say, Paul's Letter to the Philippians.
Well, to be honest, I'm as likely to make the same cites. But that's not entirely the issue, is it? John Donne was reportedly a famous preacher. So was Jonathan Edwards.

But is church about the preacher? Or about being a Christian? The latter is what "church growth" is all about, among evangelicals as well as any other Protestant (and probably even Catholic) church (I just saw a sign at a neighborhood Catholic church advertising an evangelizing program, "Alpha," which is now available as "Alpha for Catholics." So I wonder...) .

Believing new churches are the best way to produce new Christians, evangelicals are making a major push to start new churches around the world, said Edmund Gibbs, a professor of church growth at Fuller Theological Seminary outside Los Angeles.
There is still a very legitimate question, though: are we creating Christians, or creating church-goers? Making disciples? Or building up institutions?

The Catholic church grew by being the church of the empire. The Protestant churches grew by being the churches of preachers, but those preachers represented their denominations, not themselves. We live, now, in a post-denominational world. Denominations no longer define us, nor can they. It is the major question of a post-Christian world(i.e., one in which not every member of society is expected to profess the Christian faith): now what do we do? It may be that church growth is nothing more than the blush on the cheek of a dying age.

If so, what then?

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