“Gospel Ecosystems” and Its Organic Features

Summary: This series began in response to a blog post by Dr. Dave Fitch on Pastor Tim Keller’s concepts and practices of “gospel ecosystems.” My previous post in this series about Keller’s approach to collaborative city outreach was “Gospel Ecosystems” and Organizational Systems. There I summarized Keller’s key elements in organizing people and processes as best I could from the information in his white paper and video, and then suggested where we’d need more information to evaluate his approach more fully and fairly. Finally, I focused in on research and development topics related to church planting assessment tools. I see this as a crucial part of contextualized ministry for emerging paradigms and cultures.

In this post, I take a similar approach, but addressing aspects of organic systems that could make or break “gospel ecosystems.” After summarizing Keller’s elements, I list areas that need more detailing. Then I focus on prevention and intervention related to various agents that would subvert the system and make it unsustainable. I conclude with an Afterword about the overall topic of “city reaching strategies,” and give some initial thoughts on the approaches I have seen in the past 20 years.


Pastor Keller’s Gospel Ecosystems

Pastor Keller’s strategy incorporates numerous aspects of organic systems. For instance, in the ecosystems part of gospel ecosystems, the whole is shaped by the contribution of its parts. On this line, Keller emphasizes that:

  • Participants combine their strengths to carry out a comprehensive set of elements and activities (indicators of maturity and stewardship).
  • Participants connect with one another through working together (an indicator of energy continually flowing into the system).
  • Partners become interdependent on each other for quality of spiritual life and for amplified impact on the city (an indicator of probable long-term sustainability).

These points are all necessary parts of a vibrant individual organism or well-functioning ecological system – as long as the parts or partners each achieve and maintain robust health. (More on that last point shortly.)

Also, in an ecosystem, the interdependent parts give energy to the whole, and receive resources from the whole. On this line, Keller suggests that a robust gospel ecosystem moves toward sustainability when it is:

  • Initially fueled by quality discipleship that equips the saints for the work of service.
  • Continually refueled by replication of life through others following Christ.
  • Continually expanded when churches replicate themselves in new congregations of disciples, who likewise contribute toward the larger Body in the city.

These points relate to bringing new growth and energy to the larger system as a whole. They are indicators of the ecosystem’s viability (Will it survive?) and vitality (Will it thrive?).

On the gospel part of gospel ecosystems, Keller’s approach assumes that participants willingly choose to wrestle through the messiness of coming to terms personally and practically with complicated considerations like “unity” and “ecumenicity,” plus “tipping points” and “transformation movements.” These are all important practical aspects of a set of “Christian organisms” seeking to live in healthy interdependence in the same overlapping space. But these are also some very tough concepts to work out in everyday life. For the gospel part of the ecosystem to stay intact requires more than theory or theology; there must be life – real, tangible vitality that demonstrates itself in praxis. Yet, when the focus is not just on coexistence, but collaboration without competition, the qualitative and quantitative growth of any one member more directly contributes to amplified growth in the Kingdom. It is worth the effort.

However, as I suspect many of us would admit, this search for unity and constructive collaboration in the midst of diversity may prove to be our biggest challenge. For instance, so many differences can potentially divide us: level of abilities, gender, generation, race, language, country of origin, social/economic class. Although any of these can be personal descriptors, none of them need to be delimitors in the Kingdom. Also, reaching a city requires sharing our resources. The Kingdom to have the organizational equivalent of a permeable organic membrane that allows the good stuff in and the bad stuff out, and a circulatory system keeps resources moving to where they are needed. Are we willing to communicate across the divides to forge unity and work together?

It is possible, even if difficult. After all, Jesus chose a sensationally diverse inner circle of disciples in terms of their social, economic, political, and personality backgrounds. The 12 disciples represented privileged and poor, anti-Rome and pro-Rome, hotheads and introverts. They had a hard time learning to work together, care for one another, understand and embody the values of the Kingdom – and they all spoke the same language and knew Jesus personally. We shouldn’t expect to have it easier than them, should we, even if the benefits of kind of positional and relational unity found in John 13-17 include an incarnational witness of what the Kingdom is like?

My Concerns on Organic Systems and Toxicity

Earlier, I expressed concern about how the overall level of health in a system depends on the vitality of the individual members. This is a critical concern. Interdependence not only means that members in an ecosystem can succeed together – they can also “epic fail” together. To become viable and remain healthy, organic systems must contend with at least three kinds of attackers. They must:

  • Protect against external predators.
  • Contain or expel internal parasites.
  • Counteract poisons from both external and internal sources.

Attacks ultimately come from personal sources, whether through people or spiritual forces. Attacks may take such forms as deceit (and Satan is the father of all lies), social structures that perpetuate injustice and evil, or direct abuse or violence. I’d suggest that how the churches in a city survive evil or succumb to it stands as a crucial part of its everyday witness and work. Without this dimension of preventing or intervening against sin, brokenness, and evil, how can we ever be fully incarnational representatives of Christ in a city? How can we demonstrate that God and His Word overcome both the everyday and extraordinary toxicities that plague our lives?

Grace and truth must meet together to sustain a gospel ecosystem. However, I could not find anything in Keller’s Cape Town white paper that addressed explicitly whether anyone or any organization could/would be excluded or expelled from these gospel ecosystem networks. I saw nothing about how to deal in restorative ways with toxic leaders or other participants, or toxic organizations, that need to be “put in spiritual time-out” or even fully removed from participation for the sake of the health of the whole. That doesn’t mean Pastor Keller has nothing to say about these issues, just that I do not know how he recommends dealing with spiritual toxicity and attacks.

But the questions of spiritual abuse and toxic organizations are vital issues for systemic health and sustainability. And I’ve seen too many attempts at inter-church collaboration go askew from toxic people – especially leaders who are bullies in their own churches. I cannot remain silent – the admonition “not to lay hands too eagerly on others” to be our leaders is in the New Testament for good reason. If we cannot/do not protect the flock from harmful people inside our systems, how will our churches, ministries, or agencies convince the outside host community that we bring them a safe spiritual haven?

Also, the replicative nature of DNA applies whether it is in the physical or spiritual realm. If a church or organization has grown into an abusive environment, or creates a domineering theology, that is what it reproduces. And the DNA of spiritual abuse, shepherding control, cultural domination, etc., is exactly what it injects into the system. Granted, functional unity requires tolerating differences among churches’ theological and praxological trajectories. However, we cannot use unity as an excuse for failure to confront toxicity and evil inside our own cooperative systems. (If this issue hits home, I’ve dealt with specifics for developing organization health and addressing abuse in my blog posts on Recovery from Spiritual Abuse.)

My Concerns on “The Gospel” in Gospel Ecosystems

Another concern I have relates to unity in sharing “the gospel” in Pastor Keller’s “gospel ecosystems.” What exactly does he mean by “the gospel”? Given the differences in perspectives and maturity levels among sincere Christians, we’re never going to get full agreement on that term. But don’t we need at least substantial agreement about the nature and fullness of “the gospel” in order to carry on productive collaborations?

The nature of the gospel is a core theological issue in any kind of ecumenical dialogue or endeavor. And I did not find a definition of the gospel in Keller’s Cape Town Lausanne video or his Cape Town white paper PDF: “What Is God’s Global Urban Mission?” Nor did I find a description of any practical how-to parameters for the limits of tolerating a reasonable range of theological distinctives on the core of what the gospel is and how it affects peoples’ lives. If I lived in New York City and was considering participation in city-reaching collaborative efforts, that would be a key issue to making an informed decision.


As with the organizational aspects of a city-reaching system, Pastor Keller offers a solid understanding of organic features in his “gospel ecosystems.” I believe his holistic approach shows that he “gets it” about what I’ve called the Four Biggest Questions about any kind of social transformation enterprise using a quadruple bottom line framework to benefit community, ecology, economy, and spirituality – without inflicting harm:

1. Are we designing our enterprise with suitability? An enterprise with suitability optimizes the possibilities within our team as a human organism. It fits the assets of our participants and/or partners, and doesn’t amplify our deficits. It fits the assets of the planet and doesn’t inflict damage.

2. Are we designing our enterprise with sensitivity? An enterprise with sensitivity is contextually relevant to both our cultural setting and our own calling. It resonates with our host culture AND remains obedient to our organization’s mandate and to biblical standards.

3. Are we designing our enterprise with survivability? An enterprise with survivability is future-oriented. It will survive unavoidable trends caused by external cultural changes in both the local and global scenes, and from internal dynamics and demographics within our enterprise/organization.

4. Are we designing our enterprise with sustainability? An enterprise with sustainability is transgenerational. It is coherently strategized, structured, and supervised to last beyond the current generations by ensuring we equip, empower, mentor, and oversee others well.

There are many points that need clarification or expansion to give a full and fair evaluation of “gospel ecosystems.” However it is clear enough from the extensive material in Pastor Keller’s white paper and video that this is a practical approach to be reckoned with.

In fact, the process of evaluating his city-reaching system inspired me to consider other approaches that I’m aware of from the past 20 years. And so I wrote my next post on that subject: Seven City-Reaching Systems. This is an initial overview of the ministry emphasis, theology, and age-group appeal of various approaches I’ve observed and/or been involved with since the 1990s. If we look at these approaches as a set, I suspect we’ll be better able to develop a more comprehensive and contextual strategy for wherever it is that God’s providence has us.