Ministry in the New Global Culture of Major City-Centers

by Tim Keller


A. Globalization is making major world cities more powerful than ever. Why?

  • 1) The mobility of capital means national governments are now virtually powerless to control the flow of money in and out of their own economies, thus greatly decreasing their influence in general. The cities are the seats of multi-national corporations and international economic, social, technological networks.  2) The technology/ communication revolution means that national governments are powerless also to control what their people watch or learn. As a result, it is the culture/values set of world-class cities that is now being transmitted around the globe to every tongue, tribe, people, and nation.  NY and LA are now far more influential in forming the culture of, say, teenagers in rural Indiana or rural Mexico than are the national or local governments or civic institutions.  Sum: This is the first overall major erosion of nation-state power in 800 years.
  • N.Pierce: “Great metropolitan regions...not nation-states--are starting to emerge as the world’s most influential players.” Cities are growing in the ‘Third World’ at an enormous rate and are regenerating in the U.S. and Europe. In the U.S. even smaller cities have seen a renaissance of their downtown cores, as professionals, immigrants, international business leaders, empty-nest baby-boomers, artists, and the ‘young and hip’ move back in. The coming world ‘order’ will be a global, multi-cultural, urban order.

B. Globalization is making world-cities even more connected and thus alike.

  • Globalization means, secondly, that the largest cities in each country are becoming more alike and connected to one another than they are to the rest of their own countries. This is particularly true of the world city-centers.
  • What are ‘city-centers’? The center city, unlike the 'inner city' (where the poor live) or where the working-class live, is where there is a confluence of a) residences for professionals, b) major work and job centers, and c) major cultural institutions--all in close proximity.
  • Who lives in the ‘city-centers’? a) Young single corporate professionals and b) young creative professionals (the hip and artistic)--both trying to ‘make it’. c) Corporate leaders who ‘make it’ into wealth and d) creative leaders (of the arts and the academy)--who create alliances to run the major cultural institutions of society. e) New Immigrant families (who work and live near the city-centers—e.g. ‘Chinatowns’) and their f) 2nd-generation children seeking professional success. g) Large numbers of students and academics, and h) the gay community.
  • The cultures of center-cities in different hemispheres are surprisingly similar. There are many daily connections and their residents travel and move back and forth between them. So ministry leaders from other cities in the world come to Redeemer in NYC and say: "We admire many U.S. churches but they are in places that are unlike our own country and culture. But NYC is very much like the largest cities in our own country--so we think much that 'works' there will probably work here."


So globalized city-centers are the strategic ‘leading edge’ of world culture. So what are they like? Would we say that young city-center dwellers are ‘post-moderns’? That analysis is too simplistic.

A. The limitations of the modern vs. post-modern categories of analysis.

  • There is almost a consensus among suburban Anglo evangelicals that Baby boomers are more ‘modern’ but the younger generations are ‘post-modern’, and so ministry will need to change radically to reach the ‘emerging’ culture. Some of the polarities:
  • Moderns are rational/cognitive; post-moderns are more experiential and intuitive
  • Moderns are secular, anti-spiritual; post-moderns are more open to the spiritual, mystical
  • Moderns are more ‘hard’ liberal or ‘hard’ conservative; post-moderns are less ideological
  • Moderns are individualistic; post-moderns are more oriented to community and friendship
  • These generalizations are largely true among Anglos, who went through a period in which our culture almost worshipped science and rationality and the absolute freedom of the individual over family and community. Now among some Anglos, there is a strong reaction against ‘modernity’. There is a strong reaction to the very idea of ‘objective truth’ so the emphasis is on experience rather than information, narrative rather than propositions, dialogue rather than proclamation, process rather than settled positions. Anglo evangelicals seeking to create an ‘emerging church’ have called for ‘non-foundationalist’ theology that incorporates post-modern insights.
  • But African-Americans, Latinos, and Asians didn’t get such a strong dose of the Enlightenment even here in the US, and the people of Africa, Latin America, and Asia certainly did not either. The post-modern allergy to setting boundaries, to fixed doctrine, to persuasion-evangelism, to objective truth does not resonate very well with them. They are not as much in reaction to ‘modernity’ since they never were as rationalistic and individualistic as US-Europeans had become.
  • Additionally, post-modernism in academic circles is now seen as a spent force. For example:
  • The European thinkers who developed ‘deconstruction’ in the 70s and 80s are seen as passé.
  • At the Univ-Chicago in 1997 a major conference was held called ‘After Post-modernism’. It posed the question: If we absorb postmodernism…but do not want to stop in arbitrariness, relativism, or aphoria, what comes after postmodernism?
  • Terry Eagleton recently wrote After Theory (2004) saying that we have to realize again that there are moral absolutes. Emily Eakin wrote an article for the New York Times “The Latest Theory is that Theory Doesn’t Matter” (April 19, 2003) covering a high level gathering in U.S. academia reported the consensus that post-modern theory was dead, largely because it didn’t give anyone the basis for calling oppression and injustice wrong.
  • As a result there are many efforts (probably too inchoate to be called a ‘movement’ as yet) seeking to get beyond the modern idolization of individual consciousness (in which the individual defines truth for him or her-self) and the post-modern idolization of community (in which the community defines the grammar of truth and there is no way to know if it has any correspondence to reality.) N.T. Wright refers to 'naïve realism' of pre-modern times, the 'positivist realism' of modernism, the 'anti-realism' of post-modernity, and the 'critical realism' which is now emerging. This is a view that we can know truth, though only partially and after a great deal of humble critical reflection. (The New Testament and the People of God, p.32ff.)
  • Paul Vitz has termed this new way "Trans-modern" ("The Future of the University: From Post-modern to Transmodern" in Rethinking the Future of the University ed. D.L.Jeffrey.) There is music, art, literature, and architecture trying to move 'beyond' both modern rationalism and the post-modern allergy to reason and love of fragmentation. (See J.Parker "A Requiem for Postmodernism--Whither Now?" in Reclaiming the Center Crossway, 2004.)
  • The cultural reality in city-centers is that all the ‘world-views’—traditional, modern, post-modern, and post-post-modern exist in significant strength. We should not imagine that ‘post-modernism’ is a juggernaut that will take over. Global city-centers are complex ‘salad’ bowls’ of them all.  Effective ministry must recognize that and not simplistically aim to only reach ‘post-moderns’ which will only be a slice of city-centers.
  • The traditional world-view will be especially present with first-generation immigrants who have made it professionally in the city-center and come to city-center churches.
  • The modern world-view will be especially present with Anglos, with middle aged people, and with those working more in business and science.
  • The post-modern world-view will be especially present with younger Anglos, and those in the arts (80% of which are Anglo.)
  • The post-post-modern world-view is seen in younger non-Anglos and in today’s teenagers.

B. Comparing three city-center ‘world-views’ and a fourth.

1. TRADITIONALIST- People from US South and Midwest, rural/small towns. Blue-collar people in general, non-Anglo 1st generation immigrants from non-western countries, people 70 or older.

  • Identity- Duty accepted. Your social obligations define you. Your conscience is the 'real you' more than feelings or reason. You have a duty to your people and family, and you find meaning and significance in fulfilling that. There is little talk of ‘finding yourself’ but rather of fulfilling your role in the tribe/people. Example: homosexuality is unmentionable.
  • Meaning of life- To be good.
  • Major cultural 'felt need'- How can I get the strength to be a good person? How can I overcome the feelings of guilt over ways I have failed? Much more concern for traditional values.
  • Value- Give me the right thing to do--and I will do it.
  • Relationships- The most important relationships are people you are born into relationship with--family, clan, long-time neighbors. The primary relationship is a family one. You love them by being totally loyal or faithful to them. "Storge"-based love.
  • Persuasion- Concrete thinkers. Show me how this produces good character, I'll believe it.
  • Idols- 1) Authority. Prone to blind duty. 2) Racism. Prone to make an idol out of your people or 'blood' (fascism.) 3) Moralism. A very overt belief you save yourself by being good.
  • Ministry contextualization (cf. III.A and C below)-
  • 1) Contextualizing the gospel to traditional people (see 'cultural felt need')--a) You know you should be good, but you aren't (sin as falling short of the glory of God) b) only in Jesus can you be both forgiven and made righteous (grace as propitiation of wrath.)
  • 2) Dangers of over-contextualization to traditional people: a) The gospel becomes only a way to get your individual personal sins/failings covered so you can go to heaven. b) Preaching becomes exclusively doctrinal and legalistic. c) Leadership becomes authoritarian. Pastors wield enormous personal power d) Tone becomes harsh and condemning toward outsiders. e) Often too heavily rooted in the past. Some former historical Christian era is seen as 'golden'.
  • 3) Key way to challenge traditional people- the gospel of grace. Religion is as much a form of self-salvation as immorality and irreligion. Sin is self-salvation, not just breaking the rules. Explain 'elder-brother lostness' not only 'younger brother lostness' from Luke 15. If anything, religion is a greater barrier to real conversion and life-change than is irreligion.

2. MODERN- People from U.S. Northeast and West coast, suburbs and exurbs. College educated over 45, those in corporate rather than the creative professions, Anglo. ‘Boomers’ and ‘Bobos’.

  • Identity- Desire discovered. Your deepest passions and desires define you. Your feelings are more the real 'you' than your duties or even your thinking. You have a duty to discover your deepest feelings and dreams and you find meaning and significance in fulfilling that. The rights, freedom, and fulfillment of the individual are far more important than the needs of a group or family or community. Example: homosexuality is 'discovered'. If I am gay, I must fulfill that.
  • Meaning of life- To be free (and therefore happy.)
  • Major 'felt need' - How can I be free? How can I be set free to find my truest self and pursue my greatest passions? Much more concern for individual human rights and freedom.
  • Value- Give me what I need to fulfill my personal goals and vision.
  • Relationships- The most important relationships are those with people who help you get to your personal goals, who give you good feelings and emotions.  The primary relationship is a sexual one. You love them by freeing them to be themselves. "Eros"-based love.
  • Persuasion- Rational thinkers. If you can prove it to me, give me enough reasons, I'll believe it. They are not at all open to the idea of the supernatural or miracles, and they tend to see religion of any kind to be primitive and a barrier to scientific and social progress.
  • Idols- 1) Feelings. If I feel it I must not go against it. I can't help them. 2) Individualism. I decide what is right or wrong for me. 3) Science and reason. By them we can control the environment and make a world that fulfills my desires. 4) Implicit moralism that I save myself by achieving.
  • Ministry contextualization (cf. III.A and C below)-
  • 1) Contextualizing the gospel for moderns (see 'cultural felt need') a) you know you should be free but you aren't (sin as building your identity on idols rather than God) b) only in Jesus will you have a Lord that does not enslave and who became a ransom to buy you out of slavery (grace as liberation from bondage-personal ‘powers’.)
  • 2) Dangers of over-contextualization to moderns: a) The gospel becomes only a way to get personal fulfillment here and now, get your needs met, solve your personal problems. b) Preaching becomes exclusively practical 'how-to' sermons on living. c) Leadership adopts a business-model. Pastors are more CEOs than shepherds. d) Individualistic (with little emphasis on working for the common good) and moralistic (blessing happens through your efforts to 'apply Biblical principles') e) Almost no rootedness in the past at all. Distinctives of historic tradition (Anglican, Reformed, Lutheran, Orthodox, Wesleyan, etc) are played way down or dropped altogether.
  • 3) Key way to challenge moderns- the gospel of the kingdom. Show how secular people are just as 'religious' (through idolatry) and ultimately just as enslaved and self-saving as the moralistic religious people you despise. Call to forsake old masters/lords and come into a new administration/ kingdom based on service. Show how it is belief in the gospel (not just trying harder) that is the solution to every problem.

3. POST-MODERN – People from U.S. Northeast and West, especially urban areas. College-educated 25-45 mainly Anglo. Sometimes called 'cultural creatives' (Paul H. Ray) or 'creative class' (R. Florida)

  • Identity- Created and unstable. There is no 'true' identity to be either accepted or discovered. There is no core 'essence' to which to be true--either moral or psychological. (See Kenneth Gergen.) One's identity is pieced together and is constantly changing. There is little or no talk of 'finding yourself' but rather ‘creating’ yourself. Example: homosexuality is 'constructed', chosen.
  • Meaning of life- You have to find your own way on that. There is no over-arching purpose. Much less emphasis on 'vision', much less confidence that we know what is best for the world or others or ourselves. We 'see through' so many 'visions' for the world as having been just power plays.
  • Major cultural 'felt need'- How can such totally different/diverse people live together in peace? How can community be built in a deeply pluralistic world? Much more concern for social justice.
  • Value-Give me something that moves me (because so little does!)  
  • Relationships- The most important relationships are the people you are committed to. (Reaction vs. the discardable selfish relationships of modernists.) The primary relationship is friendship.  You love them by not judging them. 'Philos'-based love. In general, a deep hunger for community.
  • Persuasion- Pragmatists. Show me that this works--and builds community, and I'll believe it. They are not as rational or as linear in their thinking and are much more open to story and mystery. They are not as skeptical of the supernatural or of spirituality, but they see the church as a key wielder historically of oppressive power.
  • Idols- 1) Inclusion. An unwillingness to ever confront or take a stand for truth. No one can ever be made to feel like an outsider. 2) Doubt/cynicism. An extremely deep belief (!) that virtually everyone is out to exploit you. An unwillingness to commit to any idea or truth or cause--just friends. 3) Group identity. My community defines reality—no one from outside can evaluate or judge it. 4) Implicit moralism. Cynicism is ultimately pride that you are the only one not ‘phony.’
  • Ministry contextualization (cf. III.A and C below)-  
  • 1) Contextualizing the gospel for post-moderns (see cultural 'felt need)- a) you know you should love and embrace 'the Other' who is deeply different from you but you can't help but feel superior (sin as exclusion) b) Christianity is the only faith which has at its heart a man dying for his enemies, giving up power, becoming a servant, forgiving them rather than destroying them (grace as the great reversal of value.)
  • 2) Dangers of over-contexualization to post-modern: a) The gospel becomes only a way to join a kingdom- movement bringing peace and justice to the world. Thus a new form of moralism (‘commit to peace and justice and you’ll be saved’)  b) Preaching becomes only story-telling rather than exposition of truth c) The leadership model can become so relational that churches must stay extremely small and disorganized.  d) While there is a hunger for ancient tradition, there's a danger of not inhabiting any particular historic tradition  (Anglican, Reformed, Lutheran, Orthodox, Wesleyan, etc) and instead just take the trappings of tradition  (Celtic crosses, discussions of lectio divina, candles, etc) to create a superficial pastiche. e) Non-judgementalism is an idol (we can’t offend anyone) and thus a new exclusivism.
  • 3) Key way to challenge post-moderns- the gospel of the cross. The cross is not pragmatic--it doesn't 'work' for you! Belief in Christ means admitting there is truth--but the only kind of truth that won't oppress you. When give up power to the one who gave up power for you--it is the only non-exploitative relationship. Even living for your own ego will exploit you.

4. TRANS-MODERN - Non-Anglo children of immigrants; Age under 25.

  • I am not at all sure that the post-post-modern world-view will be called this! A Google search shows that many people are using this as a synonym for post-modern. But some post-po-mo is surely coming for the reasons I mentioned above.  a) In the academy po-mo is seen as basically an unstable compound and more a negative—a recognition of the limitations of modernity—than a positive. b) Non-Anglos and those outside Europe and North America didn’t go through the ‘Enlightenment,’ used the modern world more critically, and so won’t ever become as allergic to reason and the idea of objective truth as ‘post-moderns’ are.  c) We can already see some signs among non-Anglo youth and even Anglo youth that the extreme cynicism and fear of authority and relativism of post-modern culture is on the wane. (See Christian Smith’s new book Soul Searching on the religious patterns of U.S. teenagers. He calls it ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.’ ) Teens are less likely to have sex, abortions, out-of-wedlock births than people now in their 20s.
  • I think the ‘trans-modern’ (or whatever it will be) will reject both a) the skepticism of modernity (that does not believe anything unless it is empirically proven) and b) the subjectivism of post-modernity (that does not believe there is any way to know that one belief is truer than any other belief.) Will this be a neo-traditionalism? Will it be a compromise between modern and post-modern? Only time will tell if these are even the right questions.


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