Unstoppable Church - T. Keller

by Tim Isbell, Sept 2018

Timothy Keller is on my shortest "short list" of Christian thinkers, writers, and speakers. So when I heard he was coming to speak in Mountain View I immediately bought tickets. He spoke on September 6, 2018, in a lecture (his term) titled "The Unstoppable Church." 

My pastor sat next to me rapidly typing notes on his laptop. A couple days later I borrowed his notes and filled in some gaps as I watched the video. Then I watched it a third time with my wife and polished the notes a bit more. 

Dr. Keller structured the talk into four parts: Why evangelize? Where evangelism happens. What is evangelism? And, how to evangelize. I would have come for just any one of these four, but the one that most impacts me is the third one, "Where...?" Here's a snapshot of his thinking on "Where." I hope it intrigues you enough to follow the link at the bottom of this webpage to the full notes of that evening, which include a link to the video. 

The room was full of Christian leaders, including many preachers. So Keller caught all our attention when he pointed out, "In the early church, the gospel did not primarily spread through preaching; it happened in the Oikos, where there are two factors present."

By "Oikos," Keller means

  • Our geographical neighbors.
  • The people we have something in common with such as work, hobbies, our kids' school or sports teams, and so on.
  • Extended family.
  • Friendship networks such friends from school days, members of service clubs we may participate in, and so on.

Or, in my vernacular, our FRANs (Friends, Relatives, Associates, and Neighbors). Keller emphasized that the spreading of the good news is the natural fruit of the stewardship of our entire relational network. Now for the two factors.

The first factor

Our individual character traits. In the early church, individual Christians stood out in the culture because of their:
  • Integrity - honest and fair dealing.
  • Generosity - with customers, employees, vendors, and so on. They gave away money and resources - in eye-popping amounts.
  • Hospitality - they opened their homes and shared their possessions.
  • Sympathy - They were unusually willing to forgive and sacrifice in order to restore and maintain relationships. They were not ruthless or self-absorbed.
  • Chastity - Their approach to sexuality was astounding - they practiced sexual purity within a single committed relationship. 
  • Handling of adversity - They did it with grace. They were willing to suffer.
Until we are distinct in these ways nothing much will happen our Oikos, either.

The second factor

Community character traits. The early church was known for certain characteristics, the combination of which distinguished it from the surrounding culture. Churches were: 
  • Multi-ethnic. Christianity was the first multi-ethnic religion. Before that, nobody chose their religion. Gods came from their family traditions and the surrounding culture, and their town or region. But from the very beginning, any racial group was welcome to follow Jesus and become a part of his local and broader community.
  • Committed to the poor and marginalized.
  • Non-retaliatory.
  • Pro-life. Abortion technology was dangerous if it existed at all. So pregnant women usually carried their baby to term and then they'd take the unwanted ones, usually girls, and discard them at the garbage dump. Christians went to those dumps, picked up the discarded kids, brought them home, nursed them to life, and adopted them into their families.
  • Committed to sexual purity. Sex was confined to committed, life-long relationships.
Keller pointed out that today we think of the first two as liberal characteristics and the last two as conservative. The middle one looks like neither. So, an authentic Christian community does not look like an extension of any political party; it is a unique community where the main (sometimes the only) thing they have in common is that they're followers of Jesus.

Then Keller added a third factor

Vulnerable transparency. If you are a person of character, living in a church community of character, and you just don't hide who you are - then God will use you to extend the gospel of Jesus throughout your Oikos. Evangelism is not a program, it's the fruit of living as a follower of Jesus.

A caveat

I completely agree that the individual and communal characteristics in Keller's lists are essential to sharing the Gospel. But it's crucial to also understand that his lists are descriptive, not prescriptive. In other words, our willpower is incapable of building such characteristics into us or our communities. If these characteristics will ever describe us, it will only happen as we humbly invite the Spirit of Jesus to transform our hearts to beat like Jesus' heart. Christian hearts are not self-made. I know Keller understands this because he helped me understand it. It just doesn't happen to be the subject of this particular talk. 

So if you find Keller's lists attractive and want to understand how to put yourself in a place where such lists describe your life, check out Beyond Conversion 1. And for a longer list of the kinds of characteristics that this life leads to, check out Beyond Conversion Marks.

Here's the link to my notes of Keller's talk

Just click on Notes of Tim Keller's talk, "The Church is an Unstoppable Force". The link to the video is right at the top of the notes.


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