Some problems with Tim Keller’s comments about passing on a megachurch

Tim Keller has recently made comments on social media about why he and the leaders of Redeemer, New York chose to split the church into different churches rather than hand it on to a single successor as one entity. These reasons have been gathered together into one article by Outreach magazine.

Now, before I go step into a critique it is probably worth a few early disclaimers.  You see, in recent times, Tim Keller has come under serious flack. It seems he cannot say anything without being accused of being a liberal or prosperity teacher or such like, none of which is true.  So, first of all, I wanted to be clear that I’m personally deeply appreciative of him and his contribution to the church.  Whilst I’ve never had the opportunity to meet him, I’m appreciative of the following.

Tim’s writing. I have enjoyed reading his books, especially those of an apologetic nature for myself but I’ve also found it helpful to pass them on to others.  If I’m involved in your pre-marriage counselling I’m highly likely to encourage you to read the Keller’s book on marriage and we’ll refer to it frequently.

Tim’s preaching and teaching. Only this last week, a group of us were listening in to a helpful teaching session. He sets a good example of winsome, expository teaching in an apologetic context.

Tim’s commitment to supporting and encouraging church planting. First, there’s the example of his commitment and fruitfulness in a secular city like New York. Secondly, so many of us have been encouraged and benefited from the support of City to City. This also means that whilst I’ve never met Keller personally, I’ve also benefited indirectly from those who have been able to spend time with him.

My second disclaimer is that I’m not about to disagree with the points in the article. I think that overall, he is right about the dangers within megachurch culture and context.  Ironically, I think he highlights one of the risks even in terms of the potential reaction to the statements. He is, in my opinion right on the problems but that doesn’t mean his article is infallible. I think one reason we have to be careful about situations where a single leader is placed on too high a platform is that due to their gifting in one area, we treat them as omnicompetent in other areas. Tim Keller would be the first to insist that he isn’t omnicompetent. Personally, respect for his gifting in apologetics, writing and church planting doesn’t require me to accept his polity which arises out of a Presbyterian context.

My third disclaimer is that whilst Keller critiques megachurch issues here, I’m not sure that Redeemer is a megachurch in the same way that other examples are in the US. The model is rather closer to a presbytery with different congregations gathering around the city albeit with a higher level of connection to the one primary leader.

So, what is my issue with the comments here?  Well, it’s very simply this.  If these things are true about the handing over of a megachurch, then surely they are true about it during the ministry of its founding leader.  When Keller suggests that these problems should encourage us to start handing things over sooner then this should push us to say “then better not to mass that level of power and control in the first place.”  Look again at Keller’s words:

When megachurches grow quickly under one leader, Keller explained, “they usually depend too much on the gifts and personality of that founder so the sooner that addictive dependence is broken, the better.” At the same time, “often the founder comes to see the church as their personal possession,” the result being that founders “often never want to leave, nor do they know how to well. It is good to leave sooner rather than later as a spiritual discipline.”

Consider three things here. First, the language of “handing over” already indicates that I’ve got a mindset where the church is my personal possession to hand over.  This suggests that I get to control its future as well as its present. It also has the unfortunate implication built in that the problem isn’t with the structure and culture of the church so much as with the inadequacies of the successors.  They will not be able to take on and cope with the things the founder took on. This amazingly brilliant man was able to hold the empire together with grace and humility like no future leader can.  It encourages longer term hero worship of the founder. Again, to emphasise, I do not believe that this is what Keller seeks but there is an unintended danger in the words.

Secondly, consider the point that the founder should want to leave sooner. What this means is that if followed strictly, then their ministry to a place should be short term. In other word, it would encourage a model where they rapidly grow churches before moving on. Now, there may be people around whose gifting pushes them to planting and moving on but will this always be the case.  Is it not possible for the church to function in a way that means they can be a long term gift to the church and in return benefit from long term fellowship and accountability as part of the same church family?

Thirdly, I think it focuses on the problems of size when in fact the problems are cultural and structural.  Everything that Keller says about the problems with a megachurch could be said to be true of a church of 30, 50 or 150. Whether it is possible to avoid such problems with a mega church I don’t know because we don’t really have experience of the US mega church model here in the UK and I certainly don’t expect to have that experience in the next 15-20 years.   We might be tempted not to hear the remarks because

  1. We aren’t in the megachurch game
  2. We are right at the start, not the end.

And I think that would be a shame because in fact, we would do well to heed the warning now rather than ignore it or wait. If you are in the early stages of ministry or a church plant then ask yourself.

Can we develop a culture here where the church isn’t dependent on one leader, where authority is shared and gifting embodied within the whole church?  Can we make it our habit not to seek to hold on to knowledge and power?  Can we build multiplication into our DNA from the beginning?

If those are the principles at the start then it probably will matter a little less how rapidly and how large you grow. It might also help you avoid a hand over headache in 30 years time.

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