As I begin another transition project in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan (Canada) for a church that has lost its previous pastor and will be searching for another I’m excited about seeking to apply a concept of ministry that came to my attention through the work of Tim Keller, pastor of New York City’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church. This pastor who is successfully communicating with many young urban professionals would say that success in ministry is not merely a matter of faithfulness but of fruitfulness in one way or another. If we really want to align ourselves with Christ in the building of His kingdom and His church as He modelled it in the New Testament we need to measure success in terms of the fruitfulness of making disciples.
In his book, Center Church, Keller states that there are a lot of books out there that describe successful church ministry merely in terms of a theological framework based on Scripture such as, Mark Dever’s Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, John Stott’s The Living Church, or Edmund P. Clowney’s, The Church. Keller doesn’t discount the importance of these very valuable contributions to helping us understand the nature of the church from a theological point of view. He also sees value in the very practical “how-to” books that are characterized by very pragmatic and innovative approaches to church ministry. Among these, he would include such writings as Bill and Lynn Hybels, Rediscovering Church: the story and vision of Willow Creek Church, Rick Warren’s, The Purpose Driven Church, and Andy Stanley’s, Seven Practices of Effective Ministry. Also in this latter category, he would place the recent popular “missional books” such as Eddie Gibb’s, NextChurch: Quantum Changes in How we do Ministry, Reggie MacNeil’s, The Present Future, and M. Scott Boren’s Missional Small Groups: Becoming a Church that Makes a Difference in the World.
But just as it is evident that there is a middle layer of software between computer hardware and regular software called middleware, a software layer that works between the computer’s operating system that provides service to various software applications, so in church ministry, there is a theological middleware that works between the biblical doctrinal definitions and the pragmatic applications of these principles. Keller borrows the term, theological vision, from Richard Lints, a professor of theology from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, to describe a layer of church ministry wisdom that begins with a biblical theological foundation but relates that to the implication of doing ministry within a particular culture. Besides our doctrinal foundation, it is imperative to look at our setting — the cross-over of where a church stands in time and culture. Theological vision is the restatement of the true biblical gospel in terms of the church’s place in a particular time and place.
I think this is a profound insight that has a lot of application for our churches today. Too often, I think, we believe the church will be successful merely by the “preaching of the Word,” which we have a particular way of understanding. If we are faithful in expositing the text, our thinking might be, we will be doing what God intends for us to do in the church — even if we are not effective in really making disciples. Our thinking might be, “at least we are being faithful.” On the other hand, many of us in church leadership are inclined to adopt the first practical idea we see attempting to apply it in our particular situation. This likewise proves to be ineffective because we haven’t thought through more deeply what it means to make biblical disciples in our particular setting. Our need is not merely for doctrinal preaching or pragmatic ministry, but for theological vision.
This means that we have to re-examine our understanding of Scripture to see how we can communicate it effectively in the context of today’s culture. For me, in preaching, this means, I think, that it is good to preach thematically. As I study the ministry of Jesus and the Apostles, I find, in fact that this is the way they spoke. They spoke to the culture of their times using themes of biblical truth from the Old Testament. Effectiveness in making disciples appears to be related more to well-reasoned applications of God’s Word to today’s generation than what might be thought of as verse-by-verse explanations of the biblical text. It seems to me that effective disciple-making is really about demonstrating how the truth of the Bible makes good sense in today’s world.