How a Gospel Movement Works

By Tim Keller

At CTC, we often talk about our mission to help build a gospel movement around the world. In our last Quarterly Snapshot, we looked at what a gospel movement is. Now let’s look at how a gospel movement actually works—what we call a gospel ecosystem. 

A gospel ecosystem consists of three concentric circles, each representing a key element of a gospel movement. 

Circle.png

THE INNER CIRCLE: CONTEXTUALIZED GOSPEL THEOLOGY

Circle_Graphic_Inner.png

At the core is what we call contextualized, gospel theology. That is, a gospel presentation that makes sense to a particular person. 

The vertical axis represents gospel theology. At the top of the axis is legalism—the idea that faith plus works make you justified with God. This is wrong, for we are “justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:21, 24). At the bottom of the axis is relativism—the idea that faith leads to justification before God but no changed life—God accepts everyone no matter how they live. This too is wrong, “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:26). In the middle of the axis is the gospel—faith leads to justification and a changed life of good works.

Faith + Good Works → Justification

Faith → Justification + Good Works

Faith → Justification - Good Works

The horizontal axis is contextualization or cultural engagement. On the left is over-accommodation—you so accommodate and adapt to your culture that you don't challenge it. Your only goal is to become attractive and accepted by people in the culture, and you will change anything in your message or ministry to achieve that acceptance. But on the right is cultural withdrawal or cultural warfare—you see the culture as so dangerous that all you do is withdraw from it to remain pure, or you see it as so bad that all you do is confront and denounce it. Neither mode engages the people of the culture. If non-Christians walk into your church service, they will be either unnecessarily offended or hopelessly confused because you have not made an effort to present the gospel in a way that engages the culture. 

But in the middle of the axis, you are engaged with the culture—you understand the culture and to some degree attract the culture, but you also challenge and convict the culture.The closer your ministry is to the middle—to both a contextualized and a biblically true gospel theology—to that degree, your ministry will be life changing, converting and transforming. The further out toward the ends and extremes, the less life-changing power your ministry will have. 

CTC helps start churches and train leaders who understand this and are pushing toward the center. 

THE SECOND CIRCLE: CROSS-DENOMINATIONAL CHURCH PLANTING

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The second circle is a set or series of dynamic, church-planting movements in the city across several denominations and traditions. You may ask why CTC focuses on new churches and doesn’t just work with existing churches. There is no better way to strengthen the whole body of Christ, including those existing churches, than having a set of dynamic, church-planting movements in that city across several denominations. 

Here's why church planting is so crucial: 

  • New churches reach unchurched people far better than older churches. It's not just anecdotal evidence or experience. It's been scientifically and empirically proven more unchurched people come to know Christ in a church less than 10 years old. It's even true of Redeemer Presbyterian Church. In the first five to 10 years of that church, more people became Christians per capita then they do now. New churches are more oriented toward outsiders, so new churches reach unchurched people better than older churches. 
  • A new church becomes financially self-supporting after a number of years and begins to fund other ministries. Church planting is the ultimate spiritual investment. The funding base of the entire body of Christ grows through church planting. 
  • Older churches are more oriented toward the city of 10 to 20 years ago and are a bit out of touch on the newer things happening. Newer churches are oriented more to what is happening right now—including new people and attitudes in the city. 
  • Often older congregations are unwilling to try something new, convinced it “will never work.” But when they see it working in a new church, it gives them the courage to try it themselves. This, in turn, strengthens them to reach more people.

But what about when I say “across several denominations”? CTC sometimes receives criticism because we are not a franchise that only starts one kind of denominational church. We work with national leaders across denominations to help them reach their cities. We bring the expertise of what we've learned around the world to that particular city, which means we work with churches of many denominations. 

CTC not only seeks to help different denominations and their churches get started, but we also try to make sure they get along—that they appreciate each other. We find this true in NYC. People with fairly different theological beliefs—yet all within orthodox Protestant theology with a high view of the Bible—really can and do pull for each other. They want each other to succeed. The tribal mentality is low. And we think that's crucial for the city. Why? Here are three reasons:

Witness. 
Non-Christians see different denominations throwing bricks at one another, and it’s a terrible witness. While doctrinal differences are important enough that we do reside in different denominations with distinct beliefs, that is no excuse for ignoring Jesus’ call in John 17 that we are to be one even as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one. 

Preference. 
Truth matters, but we must focus on the areas of greatest importance. Ethnic background, socio-economic class and temperament are all reasons a person might prefer a certain liturgy or denomination. Only together can we really reach a whole city.

Spiritual Growth. 
These differences in preference mean that working across denominations forces us to flex and adapt to each other, and that is great for everybody’s spiritual growth. 

THE OUTER CIRCLE: SPECIALIZED MINISTRIES

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The outer ring is what we call specialized ministries. Ralph Winter, formerly a professor at Fuller Seminary, wrote a seminal article discussing parishes and orders entitled, “The Two Structures of God's Redemptive Mission.” A parish is a church that ministers to all kinds of people in one place. But an order ministers to a certain kind of people in all places. Those are specialized ministries. 

You may have a youth group in your church. But Young Life is an order that specializes in reaching kids all over the world. Your church could never have as much experience in reaching youth as Young Life will have over the years. On the other hand, Young Life is not a church. If a young woman in her teens becomes a Christian through Young Life, she has to be in a local church with other people besides kids, or she isn't going to survive. 

And that’s just one example of a specialized ministry. You need ministries for prayer, evangelism, justice and mercy, faith and work and family life. And you need training ministries where great numbers of urban leaders and church leaders are trained. 

These institutions must have a symbiotic relationship with each other and with church congregations. Congregations can’t consider themselves most important, and specialized ministries can't think that they do things better than the church. They need to love each other and work together, and together the whole body of Christ grows in quality and quantity in the entire city. 

When all three elements are present -- contextualized gospel theology, cross-denominational church planting and specialized ministries -- we see gospel movement.

For more on Gospel Movements, see Center Church: Doing Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City by Timothy Keller (Zondervan 2012).

Defining a Gospel Movement

By Tim Keller

It is common for Christian ministries, indeed for human organizations, to claim to be a movement. It has a very positive ring to contemporary ears. When Christians use the term, they often mean, “God is blessing our efforts.” But when Redeemer City to City (CTC) employs the phrase, we have something much more specific in mind, and it is important to us. We help leaders build gospel movements in their cities. That’s why we exist.

I've been thinking about gospel movements most of my adult life. I became a Christian sometime around January 1970. I attended a small InterVarsity Christian Fellowship chapter on a college campus in central Pennsylvania. We were only about 10 or 15 people. America was then involved in the Vietnam War, and in May of 1970, U.S. forces invaded Cambodia. A student protest broke out on many campuses across the country, including mine. Students boycotted classes and, instead, set up an open mic on the central university quadrangle where anyone could speak about anything. In the midst of the anti-war sentiments, a few students from InterVarsity talked about Jesus Christ. One went to the mic and said he believed that Christ was the answer to our human problems. We put up a sign that said, “The resurrection of Christ is intellectually credible and existentially satisfying,” and we just sat under it, out where people could come by, read it and engage with us. Christians became a lot bolder about being public with their faith.

When we came back to school in September, our little group of 10 was surprised to see over 100 students show up to our first meeting of the year. Over the next year, we saw dozens and dozens of people come to Christ. It was not a result of any planned campaign. It was not a result of a planned program of any kind.

And it was an example of a lesson we must learn from both the Bible and church history. That is—you can steward a gospel movement, but you can’t really make one start.

During the Fulton Street Revival in 1857, it is believed that up to 80,000 people came to faith in Christ and joined churches of New York City within a two-year period. Given the estimated population at the time, that was 10% of the population. In the early 18th century, the Great Awakenings in North America and the United Kingdom were even more extensive. From 1904-06, Wales and Korea each experienced a spiritual awakening—a gospel movement—of similar form. When Kathy and I first moved to NYC, for about a year and a half, scores of people came into the church and were converted. It was a time of unusual fruitfulness and spiritual power. CTC probably would not be here today if that had not happened.

So—what is a gospel movement?

There is both an individual and a corporate aspect to a gospel movement.

INDIVIDUAL ASPECT

On the one hand, a gospel movement is when the gospel itself is rediscovered, lifted up, understood and becomes a dynamic power in lives. What do I mean by “understood”? Well, usually people understand the gospel in vague terms of Jesus dying for us, so we should live for him. That’s a true but insufficient formulation because it equates Christianity with merely getting forgiven and trying hard to follow Jesus’ example.

The gospel begins to have power in our lives when we grasp how radically different it is from both the moralism of religion and traditionalism and the relativism of modern culture.

Take a look at these three statements:

Faith = Justification + Good Works
Faith + Good Works = Justification
Faith = Justification - Works

The top one is the gospel. The second is legalism or moralism. And the third is antinomianism or relativism. Almost always, people will naturally fall into the second or third categories. Moralism, which tells us we can save ourselves by living up to moral values, either crushes us with guilt (when we fail) or makes us smug, self-important bigots and Pharisees (if we think we are succeeding). Antinomianism forces us to create our own values and achieve our own self-worth by living up to our dreams and aspirations. Ironically, this can be just as crushing and alienating.

However, the gospel is neither. It has a far more pessimistic view of our sin than moralism and a far higher assessment of our value in the eyes of God than antinomianism. It gives us a love from God that is uniquely solid, sustained and unconditional because it’s not based on the ups and downs of our performance. Yet, at the same time, it humbles us at the realization of our sin and of Jesus’ costly love for us in spite of it all. This unleashes a power within us unlike any other. It liberates us from the need to prove ourselves, from any guilt over the past, from an addicting over-dependence on things in the present, and it gives us infallible hope for the future. We no longer dread death, as both secular persons will (who think it’s the end of love) or the moralists will (who know judgment is coming and can’t be sure if their lives were good enough).

So as the church preaches the gospel to individuals, three things happen. Nominal Christians (people who think of themselves as Christians but have not been spiritually born again) get converted. Sleepy Christians (people who are believers but their lives show little of the power and fruit of the Spirit) wake up. And non-Christians—lots of them—start getting attracted and converted, because Christians are more willing and able to engage them and show them the beauty of Christ.

CORPORATE ASPECT

Historically, churches that have seen many individuals’ lives changed by the gospel have a great balance of emphases. They stress:

  •  Solid teaching and preaching of the Word
  • Anointed worship and extraordinary prayer
  • Loving fellowship and thick community
  • Outward-facing and bold evangelism
  • Compassionate, vigorous social justice

Ordinarily, churches tend to major on only one of these things, and so do denominations. But when a gospel movement is happening, the churches develop this balance and, in addition, tend to work together across denominations, so that each kind of ministry is tapped and strengthened, and the body of Christ grows.

The corporate and individual aspects of revival are symbiotically related to one another. The more churches work at this integrative ministry balance, the more individual gospel renewal happens, and vice versa.

The greater the number of individuals changed, the greater the gospel movement. There is a great variety. Gospel movements can be in a single church or across a whole continent or continents. They can be very intense or rather mild; they can last months, years or one night. When an intimidated Billy Graham spoke to Cambridge University students in 1955, 400 students came to Christ in one night.

So can we start gospel movements? Not really. They are too supernatural. But we can build or steward a gospel movement. A good metaphor is Elijah’s building of an altar in 1 Kings 18. We can build the altar, but God has to send the fire. And when the fire comes, we can throw wood on it, but we still don’t ignite it. Only God can ignite it.

When Redeemer Presbyterian Church was only a couple of years old, people saw that it was growing, and they asked us, “What’s your model?” They thought it might be wearing suits, singing hymns, playing jazz in the evening services or quoting philosophers. That’s not a model. That was our contextualization of our ministry to the gifts and capacities of our people and community. For gospel movements, there is no single model. Gospel movements are built through the movement dynamics we have talked about—the application of the gospel to hearts, integrative ministry, extraordinary prayer. They both invite God to use us and build movements that he starts.

CTC teaches these gospel movement dynamics. The gospel of Jesus Christ must transform our own lives—each leader’s life—and then it moves out through the city and transforms others. This is gospel renewal. Not a model. And it leads to a movement.

CTC is not a franchise. We have no model to teach. We only have the gospel. But that’s the most powerful thing. We help national leaders build gospel movements. We are stewarding a movement in the great cities of the world.