Went with a couple of buddies to hear Tim Keller speak at Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville last night, and we were incredibly blessed and edified by his message.
Ostensibly a presentation on the meaning of the Prodigal Son parable, as tied to his latest book The Prodigal God, Dr. Keller spoke on a few other things, as well. I was so happy to have braved the cold and the traffic and the crowds to hear it in person.
I was familiar with Keller's expounding of the two brothers in the parable as the libertine and the self-righteous, and with his connection of this to gospel ministry among postmoderns and post-postmoderns, but there were two points of context he made that I had never realized before.
The first is that of the "lost" triptych (sheep, coin, son), the story of the lost son is the only one that does not have a hero. It does not have anyone who goes to look for the lost son. This cliffhanger effect naturally bridges to Jesus' self-referential place as the good older brother.
The other point of context was how the "two ways" connects to the Sermon on the Mount, and how the "two ways to be" (house on sand or stone, etc) concludes a sermon that is not about either being a completely sinful disobedient person or not, but an indictment of two forms of self-worship: license and legalism. This is the older brother: he stays put, he obeys, he does the "right" thing, but he does it all for the wrong reasons.
Keller said most evangelical churches are the older brother, and he said "older brother"-ing predominates his own traditional, Reformed evangelicalism. (Keller is a PCA pastor.)
Keller said some great things about community, and about the connection between church community and family. You can't pick your siblings. Neither when in church community should you pick who you associate with and who you don't. He said that's the inherent problem (and ease) in a big church. You can just go to a different service, or enter down a different aisle.
Keller talked about the difference between covenant relationships and consumer relationships, and he said the majority of our churches, especially the ones in the Bible Belt are consumer relationship built. You pick where you want to go based on the music and speaking, interact with who you want to interact with, quantify your exposure and involvement, and leave when you sense that your needs cease being met. He said that most churches in the South aren't churches, but grocery stores. "Where can I get the most spiritual product for the least cost?"
Related to that, he predicted, in response to someone's question in the Q&A time, that in one generation's time, there won't even be the nominal Christianity in the South that there is now. The megachurches will flounder and people will just stop going. Now they are only going b/c it is somewhat expected, part of the culture, or as some moral exercise to "stay right" or raise "good families" or do what their parents did or to "connect" with other Christian consumers.
I'm not sure if I agree with his prediction. I wonder if he hasn't been away so long that he forgets how ingrained nominal Christianity is in this culture. BUT he's a much, much, much smarter guy than I am and has a lot more experience and wisdom. So I offer my unsure disagreement knowing he's probably right.
He actually said some great, insightful, prophetic things about gospel-centered ministry in a church culture today that is vapid, consumer-driven, etc.
I really wish every pastor in Nashville could have been there to hear it, but then, I know most of them would just be nodding their head in agreement, completely unaware he is speaking against things they are doing or teaching.
Keller told about a family friend of theirs, a gay man who has decided to live celibately because he knows homosexual behavior is sin, who came to Christ at their church (Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan) but who moved and visited an evangelical church in his new town. He finally felt close enough to three different guys to share his ongoing struggle with same sex attraction and his conviction to remain celibate despite it. Keller said his friend got 3 different reactions:
a) "You know God can deliver you of that, right?"
b) "How about them Dodgers?"
c) "Well, that's all right, I don't think those kind of things really matter if we love God."
Three responses, each stunning and deficient in their own ways. The first demonstrates zero understanding or tact or support. The second demonstrates utter discomfort and disinterest. The third demonstrates an utter lack of biblical backbone.
Keller used that story to talk about how utter failures the church is at "gospeling" each other. He then connected to Bonhoeffer's Life Together and shared a great illustration from C.S. Lewis's The Four Loves about the affect on the friendship circle of the Inklings when Charles Williams died.
Dr. Keller said a lot of great things (and I'm emailing the folks at Christ Pres to see if audio will come available, so you can hear them too), but my favorite quote of the night was this:
"To be a repenter you have to be really sure that God loves you."