I sat next to Dr. Keller once at a conference dinner. It wasn’t planned. We both happened to get stuck at the last table to fill up.
We chatted for a few minutes and then our other table mates chimed in, hoping to talk to the most famous guy in the room. I realize now that I could have said, “you know sir, you’ve influenced my ministry more than any other pastor. My wife and I stayed in Pittsburgh, because of your teaching on the value of the city.”
I wanted to start here because, I want to make it clear, that I have a deep respect for Dr. Keller, and that his teaching has been highly influential in my life and ministry. In fact, it might be fair to say that Dr. Keller is one of the most influential pastors living today.
To date, Amazon.com lists him as the 15th most popular author in their “Religion & Spirituality” category (for comparison Max Lucado is 17th, and Joyce Meyer is 23rd). His most recent book targeted at church leaders is Center Church, according to Amazon it’s ranked as the 6th most popular book in their “Pastoral Resources” category. His style and thoughtfulness have made him accessible and very popular.
Dr. Keller is the Helena of Troy of church planting. He is the mock turtle neck which launched a thousand new churches.
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But it’s his popularity which has caused me to turn a sharper focus towards his teaching. I’d venture that every evangelical church planter (or hopeful church planter) in America has read something by Dr. Keller. Until Center Church came out, Why Plant Churches? was probably his most ubiquitous work on the topic. This six page paper has been downloaded countless times and is available for download on over 290 websites. When I re-read this essay recently, I was surprised to find Dr. Keller’s rationale for church planting is directly tied to his emphasis on urban ministry.
Keller Contra Nemo
In Why Plant Churches and Center Church Dr. Keller goes to great lengths to defend his focus on urban planting. Yet, over the last 25 years since Dr. Keller planted Redeemer, the church’s and the culture’s opinion of the city has changed.
Even Dr. Keller has admitted that Redeemer’s success is, in part, the result of the culture’s re-valuation of the urban core.
“DR. KELLER: Well, no, definitely partly. Somewhere like 1997, I suddenly realized that people who are already Christian and conservative Protestants were moving to New York City. I remember it was a shock, because when I got there in the ‘80s, people from the Midwest and the South didn’t move to New York City. They didn’t want to have anything to do with it.
So what that has done is it has done two things. I would say that Redeemer would be about a third of the size it is if it wasn’t for that move. What happened was Seinfeld and Friends and the crime going down, and suddenly people wanted to live there.
MS. SINDERBRAND: So Seinfeld is responsible for the growth of your church, basically.
DR. KELLER: Well, I would say two out of three. Two out of three new people, yes. And it’s also true of the other new churches.”
As a church planter I often have the opportunity to spend time with other ministry leaders and church planters. Among most of them I don’t see the assumed disgust for the city which Dr. Keller uses as a sparring partner. While many of them are in rural or suburban locations, almost all see urban ministry as vital. In fact, When I talk to current or hopeful church planters, urban ministry is undeniably given preeminence. I was once meeting with a church planter making plans for a move to a new city. He shared with me that he had a small scattering of people interested in working alongside him. Some of these folks were in the suburbs on one side of town, while others, were in the suburbs on the other side of the town. So, I asked him what area he was considering, (someplace close to one of those two areas I assumed). He answered that he was “called to the city”, and so the folks in both areas would have to be willing to move or come closer to him. I really liked this guy, but he had recently moved to his city, and –from what I could tell–expected longstanding residents to move away from existing relationships to pursue his vision of relevancy (maybe it was Christianity’s relevancy, but maybe it was his own).
Of course this is a subjective estimate of the prioritization of urban planting. So lets look at the stats coming from within the PCA. Six of the ten churches organized in the PCA in 2012(the most recent stats) were in cities with populations over 100,000. Of the over 40 church planters placed on the field by the PCA in that same year: 21 were in cities of over 100,000. Nine were in cities between 100,000 and 50,000. Only 12 were in cities below 50,000. A glance at the Acts 29 Network (also admittedly influenced by Dr. Keller) shows that only one of the last ten churches in that network where planted in cities with populations less than 100,000.
Urban ministry(at least as white evangelicals see it) doesn’t need any more defending. But in the 15 years between Why Plant Churches and Center Church, Dr. Keller’s apologetic for cities has remained the same.
Yet, Dr. Keller’s prioritization doesn’t end with just separating cities from suburbs and the countryside, instead he argues that Paul’s biblical pattern of church planting demands a second culling. Ministry needs to be focus on urban places rather than rural ones, but not any urban place will do. He argues that Paul first went to “the largest cities of the region.” According to Dr. Keller, we then need to have further stratification between cities, and Global Cities.
Now I want to make sure that I’m not being uncharitable here, but what seems to become apparent is that in Dr. Keller’s schema, the larger the place the more important the ministry. Twice in Center Church does Dr. Keller put forward the argument that God’s concern for a place is intrinsically tied to its population, or cultural significance.
This line of thinking does three things. First, it inadvertently embeds in the minds of church planters the idea that the most significant thing which they could do in ministry is to start a church in the most populous places.
Second, if significance is the most important metric of ministry, then we are left asking, why bother with the fringes of the city? Wouldn’t it be better for everyone to focus all their attention on those people with the most influence in the city? While Dr. Keller spends time arguing for ministry to the poor, the rest of his argument for “center” ministry makes us ask: Don’t the rich have more influential than the poor? Don’t long standing citizens have more influences that immigrant groups? A focus on influence doesn’t demand that we show partiality, but it potentially clears a wide path for doing so.
Finally, the line of thinking belittles non-urban ministry, and implicitly suggests that ministry in smaller places is less important to God. If one can argue that more images bears means more concern, of course, we could argue that less images bears mean less concern.
Dr. Keller turns to Jonah to argue that God’s concern for Nineveh proves that he cares more for cities than the country side.
This gets at my next concern. Dr. Keller’s argument for cities pushes too much of the Bible through an artificial urban rubric. This rubric down plays Paul’s ministry in the country side of Lycaonia. It tables Jesus’s pursuit of the one at the expense of the 99. I don’t bring this up to argue that Jesus didn’t care about Jerusalem, of course he wept over that city. It’s clear that Paul care about major cities in the Roman empire, but it is impossible to boil down the locations of Paul’s ministry to one easy framework. We could ask: if Paul’s strategy was to go “into the largest cities of the region”, then why did he travel to Lystra several times, while there is no mention of any time spent in Smyrna (Population 90,000) or the even larger Sardis (Population 100,000).
Dr. Keller’s prioritization of important places, potential swells beyond population and ends up reinforcing a view of the world which esteems significance as the highest good.
Instead of challenging the cultures views of importance, Dr. Keller seems to be reinforcing them. In his essay God and Country, Wendell Berry argues that the church in America is already destructively valuing urban life over rural life.
“The country people will be used to educate ministers for the benefit of city people (in wealthier churches) who, obviously, are thought more deserving of educated ministers.”
“The message that country people get from theirs churches, then, is the same message that they get from “the economy”: that, as country people, they do not matter much and do not deserve much consideration. And this inescapably imposes an economic valuation on spiritual things. According to the modern church, as one of my christian friends said to me, ‘the soul of the plowboy ain’t worth as much as the soul of the delivery boy.’ “
While Dr. Keller touches on the thinking of Berry in Center Church, he does not put forward a response to the challenges which Mr. Berry present. In fact, Dr. Keller’s own advice seems to be the exact thinking which Berry is criticizing. 
I don’t bring these things us to simply rage against a problem without being willing to consider how we might participate in a solution. Let me suggest three ways we might move forward. When I say “we” Im first thinking of my denomination the PCA, but this is a wider issue.
We need to detach church planting from the prioritization of urban ministry.
Instead of asking why should we plant churches, and being told why we should plant urban churches, we need a well established apologetic for all church planting endeavors. Regardless of place, “continual planting of new congregations is the single most crucial strategy” for both the growth of the body and the renewal of its members.
We needs to sit before James 2, and ask ourselves, are we showing (and even promoting) partiality?
From the most influential to the least influential, isn’t there value in all people? We need to focus on a theology of all places over and against a specific theology of a specific type of place. There are different people equipped to minister in different parts of the church, and we need to develop a framework which supports and empowers works of ministry in any type of place.
A revaluation of church revitalization. While most of the churches planted in the PCA were in Urban areas, most of the ones we closed were in more rural areas. Of course there are some churches which need to be closed, but our emphasis on urban church planting over and against all other ministry means that we have left too many viable rural ministries to fend for themselves. The full ramifications of this abandonment is made clear when we realize the sheer volume of resources we have abandoned. How tragic would it be for the PCA to realize twenty years too late that we don’t have the resources to plant new churches in rural areas, but we did have the resources necessary to keep scores of churches from closing their doors.
I hope that no one thinks this essay is the first volley of a fire-fight within the PCA. Dr. Keller has masterfully answered the question, “why plant churches (in global cities)?” Now its time for others to take up the task of fleshing out answers to this question in every town, village and hamlet.
“There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” ― Abraham Kuyper