Thoughts on Pastor Tim Keller’s “Gospel Ecosystems”

Dr. David Fitch recently posted Tim Keller’s “Gospel Ecosystem”: 3 Dangers In a Noble Idea. He invited feedback on the accuracy/validity of his take on Pastor Keller’s approach to urban transformation. Dr. Fitch was especially interested in whether the planks in Keller’s “gospel ecosystems” are (or could be misused to be) as (1) reductionistic and/or (2) potentially imperialistic. Also, to paraphrase, he wanted to know (3) whether Pastor Keller’s approach assumes that social structures are neutral and need only be improved by influential Christians, or whether there are personal forces of evil at work that must be resisted and sometimes the existing social structures must be resisted or replaced.

My short answers are: (1) Yes (probably). It appears to be incomplete and not fully interconnected. (2) Yes (potentially). Anytime you talk about influencing culture, and you don’t talk about the wisest and worst ways to do that, you leave the way open for horrific misapplications. And (3) I don’t have a yes or no due to insufficient information. But I do believe this is a particularly crucial issue. Some theologies don’t believe in Satan as a personal force of evil and that means social action is merely based on enlightened decisions by people instead of also spiritual warfare against an enemy who would rather see us enslaved or dead. Other theologies give principalities and powers too much purchase, and therefore overfocus on spiritual warfare in their attempts at solutions for social transformation. This post gives a more detailed expansion of these espresso answers to Dr. Fitch’s questions.

I’m in the midst of working on practical how-to’s for profiling paradigms, so all of this is very relevant. Our processes and procedures for collaboration and social transformation are bound to be two major issues in a world that is increasingly intercultural and where more people are adopting a quadruple bottom line. So, any broad-based collaboration that might include Christians from progressive, liberal, conservative, fundamental, Charismatic, Pentecostal, Reformed, Anabaptist, Anglican, Catholic, Orthodox, etc. backgrounds has a lot of groundwork to do. Maybe the resources I’m developing will be of help in those endeavors.

I am one who seeks to engage in constructive intercultural collaboration among Christians, and also believe Christians should participate in social transformation efforts to embody the gospel and bless all peoples. However, these are definitely dicey issues in terms of their theory, theology, and practice. They are full of complex system problems and complicated relationship issues. Also, I am always wary of any and all suggestions about Christians “collaborating” – and for good reasons, as I’ve seen so much bad emerge from various attempts at supposedly doing good.

I found many positive elements in Pastor Keller’s white paper for the Cape Town Conference in 2010 (the first link in Dr. Fitch’s post). For instance, Keller highlights the crucial role of critical contextualization. He shows a strong value on a “transgenerational approach” (i.e., being mindful of the constructive or destructive legacy our systems leave for generations not yet even born). He also includes numerous elements that a holistic and organic systems approach definitely should feature. These are all elements I believe are essential to a long-term missional outreach that is comprehensive, contextual, and sustainable.

I realize the purpose of Keller’s white paper was to overview “gospel ecosystems,” and that it was not the place for a full exposition. However, overall, I find his vision too vague. He uses some appropriate terminology from the realms of organic systems, ecology, and horticulture. However, he also seems to be missing some key organic concepts. There are other unspoken assumptions as well, as to epistemology, collaboration, and research. So, I’d suggest there is no way to know if gospel ecosystems is a sound approach in keeping a dynamic tension going among theory, theology, and practices. I believe there are some key gaps, and I’d need more specifics in order to evaluate his system fully and fairly.

EPISTEMOLOGY SYSTEMS

Pastor Keller appears to have a modified pastiche approach to epistemology that attempts to combine some premises of traditional theological liberalism (e.g., social improvement) and conservatism (e.g., church growth). This approach has some significant inherent issues. I’ve written about that in The Problem with Pastiche Paradigms.

Gluing things together is not the same as fully reintegrating paradigm. The pastiche gluing approach is “holistic” only in the sense of tallying up more items creates a more comprehensive paradigm system. The former leads to what I’ve called “the Frankenstein Syndrome” – the parts may be there and stitched together, but it is neither an organic whole nor alive. The integrative epistemology approach is both more comprehensive (larger number of parts) and connective (the parts are vitally linked with one another in a way that brings interdependence).

ECOSYSTEMS

Pastor Keller does not define what he means by ecosystems, though he does describe the term indirectly through the use of various terms from organic systems, horticulture, etc. (For example, vitality, reproducibility, sustainability.) But he does not describe his core assumptions about ecosystems or list all the elements he believes they contain. And his readers may or may not be informed about this topic themselves. They may be reading what’s on their radar into what he means. So, at first read, Keller’s idea of “gospel ecosystems” may sound great … but is it?

In my musings on how to parse paradigms and the consequences of our paradigm assumptions, I often find that what’s missing is what kills us. And in the case of all descriptions of Keller’s “gospel ecosystems” linked to in Dr. Fitch’s post, I noticed there is NO mention of the crucial ecosystem issue of toxicity. Keller offers general indicators of the kinds of churches, ministries, and individuals that would be involved in gospel ecosystems for reaching a city. Basically, they reunite social action and evangelism. However, he does not give any indicators of what kinds of churches, ministries, and individuals should NOT be embraced. Are we to assume that it must be open to anyone and anything that is remotely Christian? Or are there factors to keep out detractors?

Ecosystems feature various forms of “symbiosis” – different species living together, sharing the same space. Some forms of symbiosis benefit all parties involved (known as mutualism), but some benefit only one partner and either have a neutral impact on the other (commensualism) or explicitly harm the other (parasitism). What kinds of individuals and organizations will prove toxic/parasitic to a gospel movement? How do you discern between benefactors and detractors for reaching a city’s church-systems healthiness and thus a gospel movement tipping point? How do you corporately handle abusive leaders and parishioners, unrepentant toxic influencers and ministries, and churches that may want to participate but are have terminal illness theologically speaking? Unless these are addressed explicitly, an approach that doesn’t really mesh with Scripture is likely to fill the void.

So – some of the issues of ecosystem toxicity tie right in with the overall approach to collaboration …

COLLABORATION SYSTEMS

As Robert Webber demonstrates in his book The Younger Evangelicals, Facing the Challenges of the New World, each generation tends to have a distinctive approach to specific issues. Along this line, I’ve written a tutorial that overviews a comparative approach to collaboration styles. This includes “unity” and working together. Nominal unity and traditional ecumenism are more typical of the Builder generation. Functional unity and pragmatism are more typical of Boomers. Experiential unity and experimentalism seems to go with Busters. And, I would suggest, Integrational unity and interculturalism will be a hallmark of the more holistic Blaster/Beyonder generations.

I’d suggest from what I read about gospel ecosystems, Pastor Keller’s approach seems more along the lines of Boomer functional unity and pragmatism, with a few dashes of Beyonder integrational unity and interculturalism that brings in an added sense of holistic concerns. He seems to want and expect a higher level of interdenominational involvement, requiring more time together than the usual pragmatic approach. And “face time” in the same place is part of what can lead to a greater degree of interculturalism in ministry endeavors.

If this assessment is relatively accurate, then specific problems inherent to functional/pragmatic approaches will likely arise. Namely, the Boomer approach is based in a hierarchical system that has a top-down approach to leadership and change. It is still more modernist in its organizational procedures than organic. The Beyonder integrational/intercultural approach, however, is more based on organic systems and a grassroots approach to participatory leadership and bottom-up approach to change. I’ve written about some related issues in my post on Involving Modernist Disciples in Postmodern Ministries Without Letting Them Dominate. Keller is visionary (and also activist), but does his overall system still represent too much of an old wineskin with some new patches?

SEVEN COMPONENTS IN “GOSPEL ECOSYSTEMS”

Once the issues of system toxicity and collaboration have been addressed in general, then there are some very specific issues that come up in the seven-point summary linked to in Dr. Fitch’s post. My main concerns cluster around three out of the seven points listed:

#1 – Kingdom-centered, city-wide prayer movement.

#6 – Leadership development systems. (In Keller’s Cape Town white paper, he actually links this directly with specialized campus ministries, not as a separate item as in the various seven-point summaries. I’m looking at it here as an important piece, regardless of where it attaches.)

#7 – Influential leaders from varied disciplines.

On the surface, all of these sound good. However, there are some destructive pro-Christendom movements that could masquerade as healthy participants in a given city’s gospel ecosystem. But, they would actually drain its energy and inject imperialistic DNA into the cultural connection and leadership development systems. Without further detail from Pastor Keller about the boundaries for keeping predatory participants out, we simply won’t know.

As a technical note here, just because Keller may be proposing what sounds like more of a centered-set collaboration to replace the conventional bound-set ecumenism, that doesn’t mean boundaries are inappropriate. Systems that are HEALTHY always have multiple means to keep out or remove damaging agents. In the human body as an ecosystem, for instance, the boundary of our skin is a primary means of preventing infection; it is also our heaviest organ.

Meanwhile, my specific concerns on gospel ecosystem elements are related to contemporary “prayer movements,” using techniques like the so-called “strategic level praying” and “spiritual mapping.” These incorporate many elements that are theologically abiblical at best and abusive at worst.  Many proponents of these techniques are also advocates of the Seven Mountains Movement. The original Seven Mountains approach seemed to take a more comprehensive view of cultural domains and interaction in order to influence. However, Christians with a “dominionist mindset” seem to shift the idea to being in control. They use the language of cultural influence and transformation, and transmogrify it into cultural imperialism. They openly state that they want the Church to be the head of all things, THE leaders. They are not content with being marginalized or sojourners who live alongside secular people in the city or elsewhere.

And speaking of “alongside,” some of the more difficult questions about any form of collaboration deal with how church and culture interrelate. These go beyond the overall question of whether the church is supposed to dominate culture or influence it. For instance:

  • Should this gospel ecosystem function as a parallel to the secular ecosystem, i.e., should we create our own alternative set of social agencies – or should we work directly within the existing social agencies?
  • How do we participate in social transformation alongside people of good will who are not Christians, and avoid coming across as “Christian supremacists”?
  • Do we/how do we participate alongside individuals and organizations that come from other world religions and philosophies and worldviews?

Whatever is in the DNA of these gospel ecosystems could develop leaders who are unqualified to serve due to lack of skill, or perhaps even become disqualified to serve due to abusive/overlording tendencies that remain unresolved. (For resources on this topic, see my futuristguy category on Recovery from Spiritual Abuse.) All that to say, the issue of whoever collaborates in the corporate DNA of the system is critical. They directly affect its suitability to engage in social transformation enterprises, its level of sensitivity to surrounding cultures, its survivability in the face of changing internal and external dynamics, and overall organizational sustainability.

OTHER RESEARCH ISSUES

Another concern relates to research topics. I noticed that all references cited in Pastor Keller’s Cape Town white paper were sources from 1990-2001. Most of these related to analysis of biblical times and the spread of the gospel as a movement to and through cities. That limited timeframe of sources makes sense. However, I also had to wonder if there are additional perspectives, methods, and models that have been used in the past 10 to 15 years that are especially relevant to ministry in the postmodern paradigm shift and beyond. There may be too strong of an assumption in gospel ecosystems that cities are THE key place for all significant action to happen in moving toward a tipping point for a society. Just sayin’ … not everything that leads to such critical mass for gospel transformation necessarily comes from the cities, does it?

Anyway, what can we learn about ecosystems and postmodern cultural contextualization from such additional and emerging disciplines, such as: Organic architecture? The organic foods/slow foods movement? Heritage agricultural varieties? Theory of “cultural creatives” for paradoxical paradigms?  Cultural geography?

CONCLUSION

Okay, well, that was draining. But these truly are important issues: “Social transformation” and how to conduct it for good is emerging as a major dimension of the global world we live in. We need to be able to design contextually-sensitive plans that prove themselves to be biblical and balanced, church-based and gift-based, comprehensive and sustainable. Pastor Keller’s visionary approach has much to offer, but also needs some clarifications. As soon as I can, I’ll add a section of “appreciative inquiry” to summarize what I think his gospel ecosystems offer as assets and benefits for social transformation enterprises. I’ll also take a look at the approach of the Christian Community Development Association to see what it addresses and how it compares with gospel ecosystems. Then I’ll consider how the design systems I’ve been working on myself perhaps fill in some gaps (or have gaps that need to be filled!) compared to these other in-depth approaches.

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