Interview with Dr. Timothy Keller
Keller, author of 26 books including Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel–Centered Ministry in Your City, discussed the concept “Integrated Urban–Focused Mission,” one of the territory’s four Strikepoints, and how urban ministry has changed since he wrote Center Church in 2012.
Dr. Keller also offered a word of encouragement to the Messengers of Light to embrace God’s grace, rather than put their total faith in academic prowess.
GN: Dr. Keller, from your perspective, what are the challenges of urban mission today?
TJK: I’ve always appreciated the fact that The Salvation Army is committed to cities. Cities still attract the poor, but there is a tendency to think that cities produce the poor. This is not true. Ed Glaeser of Harvard University says, “The poor go to the cities because there is more hope there. If you’re poor in the rural parts of Africa, South America, or Appalachia your chances of improvement are zero. But if you move to the city, your chances are a lot better than zero.” Cities have more opportunity, services, and community. So, even with gentrification, cities will always attract the poor.
Cities are also the place from where most immigrants assimilate into society. By and large, they join concentrated numbers of their own people, strive to learn the language and culture, and start their own businesses. I don’t see that changing. As a matter of fact, more younger and older people are coming to the city. Having rich and poor people living together in the city forms “bipolar neighborhoods.”
So even in prosperous neighborhoods, you’ll find government housing projects—two cultures. Next to trendy restaurants are bars, pawn shops, and barber shops. This mix makes ministry more complex. Can we reach them all?
Ministry is also more exciting. If you care about it, what more interesting opportunities can you find than in the city?
And the rich will never move the poor from the city. Since the beginning of time, society has taken care of the poor and has helped immigrants acclimate. The density and diversity of cities make this possible. And when you innovate in the city, it spreads throughout the rest of the country.
So, urban mission is changing in some ways, but in other ways, it’s still the same and is as important as it has always been.
GN: Will you give us a preview of what you’ll speak about?
TJK: I’m going to talk about why cities are important for spiritual renewal. And then at the end, I’m going to say that The Salvation Army has always been in this space. Today, the Army needs to hold on to its core, but change for the times, and cooperate with other ministries and people who aspire to the same things.
GN: Included in your audience will be 47 new cadets who have successfully entered the Army’s College for Officer Training. What is your advice to them regarding how they should deal with the rigors of college life?
TJK: The Gospel says you are saved by grace rather than by your works. You are saved by God and His love and by what Jesus did. So, you can’t earn it or deserve it or force it. It’s a free gift. We are also told by the Bible that, if you really have been saved by grace, you’ll be so grateful that you will get your act together—you will not live for yourself, but for God and your neighbor.
Living for God and your neighbor is not how you get salvation. As soon as you fall into that thinking, you begin to go back and forth between self–righteousness and self–hatred and feelings of failure. For example, if you’re having a good week, you’ll think, I’m pretty cool, and you’ll feel proud. If you have a bad week, you’ll think, I’m a failure, and you’ll hate yourself—because you’ve lost sight of the Gospel.
If you hold onto the Gospel, the gratitude and the love that come from that will give you the proper motivation to work hard. But it’s easy to forget the Gospel and make fear or pride your motivation. You’ll think, if I make something of myself, God will bless me and people will think I’m pretty hot stuff. And in the long run, that puts too much pressure on you. Even if you do succeed, you’ll be an anxious person. And if you fail, you’ll hate yourself.
I think that getting that proper motivation is extraordinarily important and that’s why I think you have to keep on coming back to the Gospel, which says we are saved by grace.
GN: Thank you, Dr. Keller.
by Warren L. Maye