It’s Like a Lawyer’s Brief
for an American CHRIST Awakening!
Reflections on Dr. Tim Keller’s Urgent Appeal
for Revival in the Churches of Our Nation
NOTE: This may be my most important post to date in eight years of blogging.
Recently, Tim Keller, one of America’s best known and most respected Christian leaders—pastor, author, theologian, church planter, and urban mission pioneer—has poured out his heart regarding the condition of God’s people at this time in history. He has done so through a four-part series titled “The Decline and Renewal of the American Church.”
The four installments, over 60 pages total, cover crucial issues that must be addressed without delay. All four parts are linked for you here.
Keller’s incisive analysis of the existential crises confronting believers today is spot on. But he also presents profound insights about our only real hope for deliverance from this nightmare scenario. Every serious, concerned Christian should invest the time necessary to read and weigh the entire document.
What excites me most about what Tim Keller has written is this: His arguments could almost double as a lawyer’s brief to ratify the kind of strategic mission, message, and methodologies CHRISTNOW.COM has been living out and calling for over this past decade.
That’s why I would say that in my eight years of blogging, this may be my most important post to date.
Therefore, here’s what I propose to do: Since this penetrating series offers a lot of content to digest, I’ve excerpted a few highlights from the four parts for you to consider. After each section of excerpts, I’ve added my own brief reflections to help you connect the message I’ve been writing and speaking about for the last forty years with the themes of Tim Keller’s urgent appeal for what he calls “revival” but what we choose to call an “American CHRIST Awakening.”
I recommend printing a hard copy of this blog post and then reading it carefully and prayerfully.
Tim Keller on the Decline of the Church in America
Excerpts from Parts 1 and 2
There is no more urgent question for American Christians than this:
What is wrong with the American Christian church
and how can its witness and ministry be renewed?Virtually everyone agrees that something is radically wrong with the church. Inside, there is more polarization and conflict than ever, with all factions agreeing (for different reasons) that the church is in deep trouble. Outside the church, journalists, sociologists, and all other observers either bemoan or celebrate the church’s decline numerically, institutionally, and in influence.I’m privileged to serve with Redeemer City to City, a ministry that helps national leaders plant churches and reach their countries’ greatest global cities. That means many of the leaders I work with are non-western Christians. And the one question that I’ve heard over the past three years from these brothers and sisters is: “Have U.S. evangelicals lost their minds?”If you are distressed about the condition of the church in America, consider how we must look to our brothers and sisters in Christ abroad!No one thinks the current state of our American churches is a good one.
Tim is right—there IS an emergency. I suggest that at its heart is what I’ve termed a “crisis of Christology.” This crisis manifests as a sobering, debilitating shortfall in how we see, seek, savor, and speak about God’s Son for all he is today in the fullness of his supremacy.
For many believers, it feels like an aching “absence” of the dynamic relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ we believe God promises us—and as a loss of passion and hope toward Jesus and his kingdom.
Boston University’s Stephen Prothero concludes: “The American Jesus is more a pawn than a king, pushed around in a complex game of cultural (and countercultural) chess, sacrificed here for this cause and there for another.”
West Coast church planter Erwin McManus echoes this conclusion: “The diminishing influence of the American Church on American society is not simply because fewer people are going to church. Rather, fewer people are going to church because of the diminishing influence of CHRIST upon the church itself” (emphasis added).
Dr. John Stott, in one of his last warnings to the evangelical movement, put it simply: “We have become pigmy Christians because we have created a pigmy Christ.” His concern is supported by the widely respected, in-depth research in 2005, which revealed (in its own words) that American Christianity is marked by “moralistic, therapeutic, deism”—with Christ on the fringes.
I started speaking and writing extensively about this crisis thirty years ago, sounding the alarm in 2003, for example, with my 470-page book, Christ Is ALL!
Today, this crisis represents the single greatest threat to the future of the Christian community and the spread of the gospel in America.
All of this is one major explanation for Tim Keller’s next exposè.
Tim Keller on Marks of Today’s Evangelicalism
Excerpts from Part 2
Moralism vs gracious engagement — Strict conformity to behavioral codes. Secondary doctrines made primary with resulting self-righteousness. Everything is either wholly good or evil, leading to withdrawal from society. A spirit of condemnation. Separatism and sectarianism. No ability to engage opposing views with patience, humility, hope, and tolerance.Individualismvs social reform — Belief that we are wholly the result of our personal choices. Little understanding of how culture forms us, or of systemic or institutional evil forces.Dualism vs a vision for all of life — A pitting of biblical beliefs against culture. Either we seek a hostile takeover, or we seal off Christian beliefs from our work and life in society. No thought for how faith shapes the way we work in the secular spheres and how it can serve society.Anti-intellectualism vs scholarship— A distrust of experts, a reverse snobbism against education, and of any result of scholarship or research which is not believed as “common sense” to most people. Distrust of scholarship. Skepticism of science. A refusal to show other viewpoints any respect. A shallow “common sense” approach to biblical interpretation that ignores the biblical author’s intended meaning in the original context and the scholarship that helps us discern it.Anti-institutionalism vs accountability — A distrust of traditional institutions. A use of celebrity-driven, brand-driven platforms and networks which lead to fast growth, but low accountability. A tendency to authoritarianism.Enculturation vs cultural reflection — A wedding of Christianity to popular, traditional U.S. culture . . . a tendency to “baptize” American culture . . . a “God and Country” ethos that rejects reflection on the dark sides of U.S. history and society and expresses fear of a multi-ethnic future . . . at the very least a racial and cultural insensitivity and cluelessness.
Agreeing with what Tim outlines here, I would like to add one more “mark.” It may be the one that is allowing all the others to emerge. It is this:
American Christianity has become increasingly
“Power-driven vs. PERSON-driven.”
With rising intensity, many Christians today exhibit a determination to secure greater levels of earthly control in order to “reclaim” the culture for a Judeo-Christian worldview. Relatively fewer believers, however, appear to be similarly compelled by a preeminent passion for pursuing the greater priority: the prevailing of the purposes, promises, and person of Jesus Christ, Lord of all, in the life of our nation.
This nearsightedness is unfortunate since Jesus’ saving reign IS “forcefully advancing” (Matthew11:12) at this very moment—offering the Church the only true hope for the transformation of life in America by moving it in a Christward direction. If only we had eyes to see this!
Instead, many believers have made an unhealthy trade-off—seeking temporal power rather than the active reign of the Person to whom all authority belongs. Too often, their motivation rises out of an existential fear: the fear of cultural and personal demise if the “other side wins.”
Far too many Christians have become fear-driven, not “Person-driven“: This fear is especially evident in the current, aggressive realignment of many of God’s people—both on the Left and on the Right—with political and media brokers offering them access to levers of influence and dominance.
On the other hand, PERSON-driven disciples and churches are possessed by an outlook similar to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s, who wrote in the face of Nazi tyranny:
In Jesus Christ, the reality of God entered into the reality of this world. Henceforth, one can speak neither of God nor of the world without speaking of Jesus Christ. All concepts of reality which do not take account of Him are abstractions.
Essentially, PERSON-driven discipleship means this: We see all of life through and with the Redeemer, ascended to the Father’s right hand, incomparable in authority and majesty, reigning over earth and Heaven, day by day bringing to fulfillment God’s plan for the ages to sum up everything under himself as Lord.
This vision of the greatness and glory of our Savior should define and shape everything else for believers—worship, prayer, service, fellowship, evangelism, missions, and lifestyle choices. This approach is equally vital when it comes to our efforts for the macro level sea changes we long for our nation—related to politics, culture, the poor, cries for justice, gun violence, economic disparities, the unborn, or the pursuit of “a more perfect union.”
The scope of the hope we find in the sovereignty of the Son must dictate what Christians think, feel, seek, choose, and do—as well as how we relate to the unbelievers around us. Jesus’ ascension and coronation—the wonder he is today and the wonders he performs today—puts everything into proper perspective for the Church.
That brings our “lawyer’s brief” to the crux of Tim Keller’s central thesis.
Tim Keller on the Need for Movements of Revival
Excerpts from Part 3
Basically—we need a revival that only God can provide and a new movement to capture the fruit of that revival for the renewal of the American church (emphasis his).
Revivals are periods of great spiritual awakening and growth. In revivals, ‘sleepy’ and lukewarm Christians wake up, nominal Christians get converted, and many skeptical non-believers are drawn to faith.
In part, Tim defines revival as “‘sleepy’ and lukewarm Christians” waking up. Agreed! But waking up to WHAT?
Biblically and historically, the primary answer must be, first of all, waking up to more of the fullness of Christ himself. I’m confident Tim would agree.
A few years back, over one hundred Christian leaders came together to put their names to a 41-page document whose title says it all: “An Urgent Appeal to Christian Leaders in America for Consensus and Collaboration on the Biblical Nature and Hope of Corporate Revival” (read it HERE). On page 16 of this historic confession appear these words:
Preeminently, all true revival is about God bringing glory back to His Son by the power of the Holy Spirit through His church. Between the Ascension and the Consummation, this is one of the most strategic activities of the Holy Spirit. In fact, corporate revival necessitates Trinitarian activity: Father-initiated, Spirit-driven, Son-centered.
Yes, biblical revival is supremely Son-centered—it is utterly Christ-dominated. Some have even called it a “Christ-awakening.” We can think rightly about revival only when we think rightly about Christ’s place in revival. He is the criterion by which we define it, measure its legitimacy, and vindicate its impact (emphasis added).
Next, Tim addresses the strategic need for awakening movements.
Notice that the terms ‘revival’ and ‘movement’ are often used almost interchangeably to describe these times of church renewal. It would be more accurate to say that revivals—times of spiritual refreshing, reality in prayer, and awakening—lead to movements.
A movement is a self-propagating body of men and women, united by a common vision for a new future and committed to specific changes. For Christians this could be a major change in the church, or in society, or both.
Looking back in history, we see how revivals provided the spiritual momentum on which movements were built.
The purpose of a revival is always, supremely, to please, enjoy, honor, and glorify God. It is to become the church God wants us to be. And when that happens even to a small degree, there is always an impact on non-believers and society.
I’m so glad Tim chose to focus on the necessity of revival movements.
For the past thirty years, our efforts at Proclaim Hope! and ChristNow.com have pursued nothing less than a movement toward the reclamation of the Church for the glory of Christ. In fact, our ministry mission statement declares: “We exist to foster and serve a nationwide Christ Awakening movement.”
Today, that mission has crystalized into what we call “A Nationwide Campaign for an American CHRIST Awakening.”
Such movements are made up of individuals awakening to more of the greatness of Christ. But ultimately, they become widely shared corporate experiences, impacting the saving work of God’s kingdom as well as the larger society around the awakened churches.
But next is what I consider Tim’s most important insight about revivals and movements.
THE SPIRIT’S ROLE
The Holy Spirit is the ultimate cause of revivals, but there are three instrumental means (or secondary causes) that the Spirit ordinarily uses.(1) First, there is always arecovery of the gospel . . . Revival always proceeds around a rediscovery of the wonder of grace and the radical nature of Christ’s accomplishment of salvation on our behalf, leading to a joyful repentance, a sense of being so loved that we can finally admit the flaws and sins that we have denied or hidden.
(2) Second, there is always corporate prayer—extraordinary, kingdom-centered, prevailing prayer. This is prayer beyond the normal daily devotions and worship services. As much as possible, prayer should be united prayer, bringing together people who do not usually pray together.
(3) Third, however, there is always creativity. No revival is just like the last one . . . In each generation, some new methods arise for lifting up the gospel in ways that fit the cultural moment.
About the Holy Spirit: Scripture teaches he has one primary role in the life of the Church, which is to reveal to us more and more of the glory, the wonders, the greatness, the nearness, the sovereignty, and the inexhaustible love of our Lord Jesus Christ. A “Christ Awakening” type of revival provides God’s people with fresh, more dynamic manifestations of how the Father “has blessed us with every blessing from the realms of heaven in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 1).
About Tim highlighting “creativity” as a third indication of the Spirit’s initiative in revival: Personally, this insight causes me to praise God for how, over the past eight years, the Father has been leading CHRISTNOW.COM to pioneer our mission to “foster and serve a nationwide Christ Awakening movement” into the digital world.
Our many digital platforms, populated with a vast variety of Christ-exalting free tools and resources, are virtually unprecedented. All of it has been created not only to encourage the rise of Christ-focused renewal— individually and corporately—but also to double as spiritual fuel for those who have come alive to God’s Son in new ways in a Christ Awakening.
Thankfully, Tim next addresses a pressing question on how all of this happens.
Tim Keller on How Revival Movements Happen
Excerpts from Part 3
But how do movements happen? A new Christian movement thrives and grows when [to name just four of many contributing factors Tim lists]:
(1) The need for it is acute and clear.
(2) A specific, compelling vision is cast for a better future.
(3) There are overlapping networks of people with different abilities, assets, and resources, united and working sacrificially for a common purpose and with common values.(4) The changes and goals achieved first naturally trigger and empower other change.
About the acute and clear need for revival: Bottom line, I suggest it is needed most of all because we’re facing a threefold crisis inside the Body of Christ:
(1) the core crisis, which is the “crisis of Christology”;
(2) the secondary crisis, which is that so few Christians and Christian leaders realize there is a crisis;
(3) and for those who do recognize that something is amiss, most see it as one of many problems but not as the underlying crisis that must take top priority.
About the compelling vision: I offer four definitions for a Christ Awakening. The wide-ranging ramifications of each one present a vision that should stir up all of us to prayer and action—especially when you witness the picture that puts all four outcomes together:
A CHRIST AWAKENING is when God’s Spirit uses God’s Word to reintroduce God’s people to God’s Son for ALL he is today.
A CHRIST AWAKENING causes the whole Church to become wholly alive to the whole vision of the whole Christ.
A CHRIST AWAKENING manifests itself when the Church becomes so saturated with the supremacy of Christ that God’s people are mobilized to saturate their communities with the gospel of Christ.
A CHRIST AWAKENING unleashes within and then through God’s people a full range of approximations of the Consummation.
The profound life-altering and church-changing transformations resulting from such a work of God’s grace needs all the reinforcement we can give it. Tim does precisely that next.
Tim Keller’s Threefold Case for Renewal/Revival
Excerpts from Part 3
(1) The Church needs it. The American Protestant church is in deep need of spiritual and institutional renewal. Christian churches in the U.S. have not been able to avoid being drawn down into the same maelstrom of forces tearing our society apart.
The mainline-liberal church has been in precipitous decline for 50 years and only its historically accumulated assets of endowments and real estate have kept it from disappearing altogether.
Now the conservative-evangelical church is also in decline and faces an enormous exodus, especially of its young people.
The black church is facing many highly complex generational, theological, and institutional challenges.
Never in American history has the church been weaker or has the American population been more disconnected from religion.
Never have all the various branches of U.S. Christendom been so weak all at once.
Even the Catholic church is facing crises of shrinking parishes and shrinking numbers of clergy. (This has been discussed in detail in earlier articles.)
(2) The country needs it. While many secular voices see this unprecedented deterioration of the church as an unmixed blessing, a number of analysts and social theorists point out that religions bring things into a society that cannot be supplied from other sources—consensus of moral intuitions, strong community ties, meaning in life beyond material circumstances, and a powerful hope for the future. . . .
There is a place in society for a new Christian movement that practices love and justice, that answers the great questions—of purpose, meaning, hope, happiness, guilt and forgiveness, identity—questions that the secular culture has given up on. But it must avoid the abuses of power and the mistakes of religious regimes of the past.
(3) The love of God requires it. The decline of the church in the U.S. should concern everyone. Christians seek renewal of the church as a way to love and serve the One who saved us. Jesus told us to “Go and make disciples of all nations…Christians seek the renewal of the church for the love of God as well as for the love of their neighbor.
Therefore, revival is an absolute imperative.
Let me expand a little more on what the Church really needs. What we need is a fuller experience of Paul’s exhortation to the believers in Ephesus, when he writes in Ephesians 5: “Awake, you who are sleeping and arise from the dead and Christ will shine on you!” We need a fuller answer to his prayer in Ephesians 3, written to that same congregation. Note: He prays that they would be plunged into the depths of the love of Christ and come up filled with the glorious riches of Christ.
I propose that the primary spiritual revolution God must work in the American Church today is nothing less than a widely shared encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ that is, for every believer, the profound reenactment of the miracle of 2 Corinthians 4:6:
“May the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness
shine into your hearts
to give you the light of the knowledge of the glory of God
in the face of Christ” (emphasis added).
Now THAT is the genuine, transforming awakening God’s people in our nation desperately need right now!
Tim Keller’s Concluding Appeal to All of Us
Excerpts from Part 4
Jesus started the greatest movement in the history of the world not with any seed money, nor with an organization or institutions. He didn’t leave behind a book, or even a vision, mission, and values statement!
Instead, he left behind a group of friends who had become a community through common bond with Himself, but also through shared common experience together. “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see” (Luke 10:23).
It will take a community of friends who ask God to open their eyes to see the same things, to bless them with those truths and aspirations, and to help them renew the church that he purchased with his own blood (Acts 20:28).
Let me amplify Tim’s concluding appeal with a story.
Back in 2007, at the Grand Hilton Hotel in midtown Manhattan, I was one of a thousand Christians from across the United States gathered for a banquet to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Third Great Awakening in our nation that had been birthed out of a daily prayer meeting that convened a few blocks from where we assembled.
At that holy remembrance, Tim Keller and I sat together at a table near the platform. Tim gave the main message about the meaning and impact of that historic renewal movement. Before his message, however, I spoke about the layman who gave leadership to it for many decades: Jeremiah Lanphier. I quoted from the only book Lanphier wrote, published in 1872 and titled Alone With Jesus. In it, we discover the vision that compelled a “Christ Awakening” for a whole generation—that must be the focus of the revival of the Church in our day (slightly paraphrased here):
Christ is the text of revival; all revival beside Christ is beside the text. Keep to your text.
Christ is the very foundation and subject matter of revival, and revival without Christ is building castles in the air.
Christ is the life and soul of revival, and all revival without him is like a body without life and spirit.
Christ is the great end of revival; revival is to manifest his glory; and when revival is not about Christ, then that great end is lost.
I join Jeremiah Lanphier—and Tim Keller—in appealing for this kind of revival in the life of the American Church—soon. First to Heaven. Then to everyone reading this blog post.
Now it’s time for your verdict!
Quoting and reflecting on this brilliant four-part analysis from one of America’s most influential spiritual leaders, I have composed for your consideration a “lawyer’s brief” that argues why we must pursue together—without delay—nothing less than what I, too, am calling for: an American CHRIST Awakening.
I’ve laid the case before you.
Your generation awaits your verdict.
Then, what will be your very next steps?
Read Tim Keller’s “The Decline and Renewal of the American Church.”
Learn more about Dr. Tim Keller HERE.
View CHRISTNOW’S short video about “Our Vision for America” HERE.
Join our “Nationwide Campaign for an American CHRIST Awakening” HERE.