This is the second of two posts comparing Bill Hybels and Tim Keller’s understanding of a vision of a church and its implementation. In Part One I looked at Bill Hybels’ version as outlined in his book Courageous Leadership and some of the problems which could arise from it. In this post I will discuss Tim Keller’s views from his book Center Church (Zondervan, Michigan, 2009).
There are some general similarities between their views. Both believe that the vision has to be implemented in the church. However, Tim Keller uses the term “theological vision” to describe the link between a church’s doctrinal foundation, what it believes, and its ministry expression, the practices and activities of the church.
He writes that “a theological vision is a vision of what you are going to do with your doctrine in a particular time and place.” (Center Church, p 18)
As mentioned in Part One, a church’s passion should not be based on what we plan to do, but on what Jesus has already done. Our knowledge of the Gospel, what Jesus has done, is our doctrinal foundation. If this does not motivate us, we do not understand it well enough. I am sure Bill Hybels and Willow Creek-inspired churches still have a doctrinal foundation …. somewhere, but Courageous Leadership does not emphasize how the Gospel is the foundation of our vision and passion and motivates what we plan to do.
The way you present the gospel in one cultural setting is not necessarily going to be received as well in another cultural setting. A church must understand the culture (or combination of cultures) around it and how to communicate the Gospel effectively to that culture, but contextualizing the Gospel message does not mean changing it.
Both Tim Keller and Bill Hybels agree on the need to understand the wider culture and community around the church and what is going on in their heads. However, Bill Hybels’ approach has been referred to as church marketing. Marketing is about giving consumers what they want. Church marketing can make the mistake of giving people what they want, but not necessarily telling them what they need to hear – about the solution to their problem of being under God’s judgment.
Tim Keller draws a distinction between successful churches and faithful churches. Church marketing inspired mega-churches may appear successful, with lots of people attending and hearing non-threatening messages, which do not challenge or offend them, but one wonders how many of them are really saved or show signs of spiritual growth. The messages tend to consist of good advice on how to improve their lives. The advice is not necessarily wrong, but it is not the good news that their sins are forgiven and they can have a new life, not an improved current life (Center Church, p 29). If they tell them they are sinners who need to repent, many will simply leave.
At the other end are churches which are faithful. They are smaller. Their preaching is more Biblical and deeper. The Gospel is presented, but virtually no one outside the church is coming along or can understand them.
There is not much difference between a church where lots of people come but do not hear the Gospel, and a church where they could hear the Gospel but nobody comes. Both are ineffective. I find it frustrating that so few churches seem interested in achieving the best of both and present the Gospel in a way that the people, who need it, can hear and understand it.
Tim Keller’s third model is churches which are fruitful. ( I suppose there is a fourth model – churches which aren’t even trying). Fruitful churches use their theological vision, which is based on their situation, to present the Gospel, good news, not just good advice, in a way that he people they are trying to reach can understand. The doctrinal foundation will remain the same, but the theological vision will vary and will result in different ministry expressions.
Center Church is not concerned with getting others to go along with the vision and dealing with “difficult” subordinates. Maybe Tim Keller still has these problems, but he does not mention them here. Nevertheless, I would find myself much more willing to follow Tim Keller and his theological vision because it feels like he is about advancing the kingdom of God, rather than someone’s “God-ordained vision”.