Discovering Tim Keller in the Sacramento Cluster
I was first introduced to Tim Keller’s work by Roger Greenway in a missions class at Calvin Seminary at the end of the 1980s. He handed out an article by Keller and commented “You’ll hear more from this guy.”
After my time overseas I got involved with church planting in Sacramento and together with my colleagues became more and more interested in his work in New York City. I had grown up in an urban church plant during the racial reconciliation era and by virtue of my father’s relationships with the urban, black and Reformed movement felt comfortable that ethos and its leaders in the 70s and 80s. If you’re familiar with the work of Roger S. Greenway, Harvie Conn you know some of the work I’m talking about. There was even an Urban Missions journal that my parents and I wrote an article for. Westminster Seminary Philadelphia became a center for Reformed urban missionary thought and Tim Keller before he planted Redeemer in NYC was part of this movement.
As a group our CRC cluster in Sacramento were all over the map missiologically. We were increasingly post-seeker. Kevin Adams had planted Granite Springs Church in the early 90s with a seeker methodology but was increasingly critical of the turnkey mentality of that movement. Tim Blackmon and Chuck Dillender planted River Rock Church based on the cell church methodology with a heavy emphasis on the spiritual formation movement led by Dallas Willard. Ron Vanderwell was trying to synthesize some of these movements. Redeemer Presbyterian increasingly came into our conversations. Tim had a relationship with a former Redeemer staffer and was able to arrange some time for us in NYC as a group to visit Redeemer and meet with Keller.
Marc Holland was one of the second generation church planters in our cluster. He was targeting Midtown Sacramento and had seen in City Church San Francisco a paradigm for how he might approach his work. He sought out Scott Sherman, former staffer and church planter with Tim Keller to be his mentor. Marc would go on to mentor Eric Dirksen, bringing him into that network of relationships. David Lindner’s plant would very much be in line with the older urban missions ethos.
The orientation of our group increasingly found Keller’s work a good fit for what we were trying to do as a group church planting in Sacramento. Redeemer was beginning to publish materials for church planting and Keller’s language and vision of the gospel for the city increasingly became our own.
Tim Keller and the Christian Reformed Church
I recently heard two influential CRC pastors complain about the growing public affection for Tim Keller among CRC clergy. After 30 years of brutal church warfare over permitting women to serve in all offices of the church having a broad spectrum of CRC people looking to a complementarian for guidance makes what passes for the left in the CRC nervous.
It is easy to see why Tim Keller is so popular in the CRC. This is a conservative, Reformed preacher successfully growing a megachurch in NYC using off the shelf tools that many in the CRC had thought could not be effectively used for outreach in the 21st century. “If Tim Keller can do it, maybe I can do it too!”
CRC Missions History
It’s also important to understand is that while the CRC was fighting over what women could and couldn’t do it was also, like many other denominations, flailing about looking for a new evangelistic paradigm in order to reverse its numeric slide. The 60s and 70s had brought unprecedented growth and prosperity as it rode the double wave of the baby boom and post WWII Dutch immigration to Canada and California.
Even while the boom was still underway the CRC was trying to come to terms with its ethnic immigrant homogeneity. In a few places like the NY/NJ region, Grand Rapids, Chicago, LA a few pioneers were trying to intentionally plant churches that would embody the racial reconciliation ethos. While white flight was leaving urban centers, some missionaries decided that this was the time to explore incarnational ministry in these places. Some of the many pioneers in this were my father Stan VanderKlay in Paterson NJ, Tony VanZanten in Paterson and Chicago, Dante Venegas, and Earl Marlink. This CRC movement paralleled the Westminster Seminary Urban developments that Keller was a part of.
The next focus of attention would be CRC sons and cousins in the mega church, seeker church movement. The CRC like other denominations faced aging and post-immigrant, post-American-civil-religion downturn and wanted to learn from the church growth school to turn the tide. Christian Reformed Home Missions sent pastors to Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral to learn their program. Schuller was a part of the Reformed Church of America, the long time ecclesiastical sister of the CRC that the CRC had broken away from in the 1860s. Next the CRC would study under Bill Hybels, a son of the denomination who wasn’t pleased by the CRC’s in-house provincialisms and launched the Seeker movement that would transform suburban missions for a generation.
All of these methods, however, were not necessarily distinctly Reformed, something the CRC had embraced as a core value. Even though the CRC would try to put Reformed language on church growth and evangelical methodology the fit was never quite right. CRC conservative confessionalists were rightfully anxious about confessional purity and specificity as increasingly CRC folks suspected that its old confessional identity would need to be left behind if the CRC was to become a missionary church in North America. The CRC they feared not without reason would become more broadly evangelical and less intentionally Reformed.
Making “our” stuff work like we never did
The arrival of Tim Keller on the radar screen seemed to change the picture entirely. Here was a guy who was more conservative than many in the CRC (The PCA was part of a Reformed ecumenical church group NAPARC that kicked out the CRC once it opened the door to full ordination of women), who quoted the Heidelberg Catechism along with CRC intellectuals like Neal Plantinga, Richard Mouw, Alvin Plantinga, Lew Smedes, Nick Woltersdorff and was winning a younger, hipper audience than most CRCs imagined it could attract. He did it with a conservative preaching style (sometimes looking almost like “three its and a poem” similar to the old Volbeda method taught at Calvin Seminary in the mid 20th century) and traditional music done with NYC talent.
Soon CRC ministers would be paying the $2.50 for Tim Keller sermons, something not always easy for cheap Dutchmen, reading his books, and borrowing his sermon illustrations. CRC urban church plants now look more to Keller than Hybels in crafting their strategy and quickly adopt a “gospel approach” and other very Kelleresque language.
Tim Keller is part of the Emergent Reformed Movement
One thing the CRC should have learned earlier was that to study and to copy someone (like Schuller “find a need and meet it”, like Hybels “create a safe space to hear a dangerous message”) is not such an easy thing. Tim Keller is channeling sermons from the 1950s no matter how many Martin Lloyd Jones quotes he drops. He is doing something different. While being able to check off a bunch of conservative shibboleth check boxes Tim Keller has contextualized his message to a postmodern context. He can hang with the traditionalists (look at some in The Gospel Coalition) but he is not simply doing the traditional thing.
I realize that this little narrative is told from the perspective of the CRC. I suspect analogous developments happened in the RCA, the PCUSA and other confessionally Reformed denominations in North America.