Listen: Dr Tim Keller talks to Sam Robinson about the challenges posed by a changing culture. (For more, catch the full-length interview)
The culture of 2016 is vastly different to the culture of 1996—and the Western church has some catching up to do, according to Dr Tim Keller.
In a chat to Hope 103.2’s Sam Robinson, the Christian theologian and author said that while the world we are living has changed rapidly in recent decades, the Western church hasn’t kept up in terms of how it communicates its gospel message.
“I think we’re behind,” he said.
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A Post-Christian Culture
In New York City, where Dr Keller heads the popular Redeemer Presbyterian Church, the population has become far less aware of the Christian faith since he started 28 years ago.
“About a quarter of the population here in Manhattan is Jewish, not Christian, so church-going 20 years ago might have been 5 to 10 percent of the population,” he explained. “But everybody’s memory of Christianity and the Bible was stronger then.
“Jewish people 20 years ago did know the Bible stories. They knew something about the Bible and Biblical beliefs. And almost everybody who wasn’t Jewish was Christian-ish; I mean, they had some respect for the Bible. Or they knew they ought to have respect for the Bible. And they knew an awful lot about the Bible stories. So even though it was really a secular city with lots of scepticism [at least] the people knew what they were reacting against. You could use terms like ‘sin’, and ‘Jesus’ and ‘God the Father’, and the people would at least know what you’re talking about.
“But that’s not true so much anymore.”
Australia’s Culture not so Different to New York City
While Dr Keller talks in the context of New York City, he said that Australia and Europe have similar landscapes of belief, in that they are highly secularised societies with little memory of the Christian traditions of their forebears.
“Many people don’t even have a memory really of Christianity,” he said. “Most of America’s not like that, but New York is.”
Another big change that has impacted the way Westerners think is social media, and it’s something that Christian communicators must be more aware of.
“Many people don’t even have a memory really of Christianity. Most of America’s not like that, but New York is.”
“On social media people are fragmented into little warring parties and they are all kind of activists,” Dr Keller said. “So when you talk to them, they usually have kind of a political agenda or some social activist agenda and they want to know whether or not you’re for or against them. That’s a new idea too.”
Christian Communicators Must Know the Issues of their Time
As a writer, communicator and preacher, Dr Keller said he’s had to come to grips with peoples’ expectations of church leaders.
“People want to know your view on whatever they think is the most important thing in the world,” he said. “It might be the environment, it might be women’s rights, it might be gay rights, it might be transgender rights. It might be a change in the economy, like Occupy Wall Street, it might be Black Lives Matter.
“Today, probably one out of three non-Christians right up front want to know where I stand on their issue, when I’m talking about Christianity. And that’s kind of weird because I say, ‘Well, you know, I don’t know as much about this as you do. Let’s talk about Christianity’. [But their response is], ‘Nope. Unless I know that what you’re saying supports what I believe the world needs, I don’t want to talk to you.’ ”
“So that’s new as well. And I don’t think that our churches have responded terribly well to that yet.”