Tag Archives: tim keller

Parties or church?

Why did people invite Jesus to parties? It’s been a question I’ve wrestled with for awhile (even here), ever since I stopped to think about how often Jesus was at parties.

His first miracle was at a wedding. Matthew gets invited to be a follower and throws a party, complete with sinners and tax collectors. Jesus is inside, the religious people are outside, looking through the window and scolding.  In fact, one day the super-religious leaders were muttering, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

And it wasn’t, I don’t think, that Jesus went to the meal and didn’t talk. In fact, I’m pretty sure he was talking to the people around the table. I’m guessing that he was doing a lot of listening and then asking a pointed question or two. I’m guessing that he was showing compassion for the difficulties that took people away from the religious system. I’m guessing that lots of people changed their behavior, thinking “I don’t like religion, but Jesus? He’s great. I think I could follow him.”

That thought is at the core of the latest book by Tim Keller: The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith. In fact, Keller says it better than I:

Jesus’s teaching consistently attracted the irreligious while offending the Bible-believing, religious people of his day. However, in the main, our churches today do not have this effect. The kind of outsiders Jesus attracted are not attracted to contemporary churches, even our most avant-garde ones. We tend to draw conservative, buttoned-down, moralistic people. The licentious and liberated or the broken and marginal avoid church. That can only mean one thing. If the preaching of our ministers and the practice of our parishioners do not have the same effect on people that Jesus had, then we must not be declaring the same message that Jesus did. If our churches aren’t appealing to younger brothers, they must be more full of elder brothers than we’d like to  think. 15-16.

When he speaks of the elder brother, Keller is referring to a character in a story Jesus told, a story known most often as “The Prodigal Son.”

You may know it. A kid asks for his share of the family estate early, leaves home, spends it all. He has no more friends. He’s feeding pigs. He decides to go back home asking to be a servant. Instead, the father welcomes him home as a son, throwing a huge party.

We talk about prodigal children, about people who have left home, have left “the faith.” This is the story they are talking about.

But Keller makes us look at the whole story.

Earlier I talked about the religious leaders muttering about Jesus. This story, the one about the son, is one of three stories Jesus told in response to their muttering. He talked about the younger son coming home, Jesus did. But then he talked about the older son, the one who had never left. This son, Jesus says, doesn’t come to the party for the younger son. When the father goes to talk with him, the older son complains that he has always been good, that he has always done everything exactly right, and what has the father ever done for him?

Keller talks about the moralistic pride of the older brother. “I’m better than my brother, so you should love me more,” is the older brother’s philosophy. The way to be loved is to be good. The way to get stuff is to be good. And so, there are many younger brothers who stay away for fear of not measuring up to the standards of the older brother. And there are many people who stay away from church, who stay away from religion because they think that church is about being perfect.

But the point of the parable is that being at the feast isn’t about being perfect. Being with Jesus often meant, in the first century, not being with the perfect people. Jesus was at the parties, walking along the road, sitting on a hillside. He was helping people see that they can’t fix themselves, whether they are younger or older.


So how do I end this post?

  • It’s sort of a review of a book, sort of a response to how a book resonates with questions I wrestle with. And part of me wants to just end like a book review on “Reading Rainbow”: If you ever wondered why some Christians seem so stuffy, this is the book for you.
  • And part of me knows that writing about books is something I want to work on as a way of helping you see what is shaping my heart. Because the sermon that this book grew out of has been shaping my heart since I first heard it a couple of years ago.
  • And part of me wants to pose some wonderful, thoughtful question.
  • And part of me wants to say, “I get older brothers. I see one in the mirror every morning. I get younger brothers. I see one in the mirror every evening.”
  • And part of me wants to figure out which party Jesus is at today and go listen. Or maybe I should just throw my own and invite him.

So pick your own ending.


Tim Keller
The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith
Dutton, 2008. 140 pages

Tim Keller is pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in new York City


i can’t fix me.

Friday night I was sitting at a dinner. The speaker was talking about revival. More specifically, Tim Keller from Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan was talking about the Fulton Street Revival, a(n) (…um…event? movement? process?) thing that started with a guy deciding that he needed to spend lunchtime once a week praying and invited other people to come and pray, too.

As he was talking, Keller said, “The default mode of the human heart is to revert to self-salvation.”

I would love to argue with this. Except I can’t.

This morning I was looking for my shoes. Nancy innocently asked what I was looking for. I was polite, but inside I thought “don’t ask me. I don’t need help. I’ll look myself.”

A month ago, a four-year-old was in my office. There were balloons on the walls because a friend had decided (correctly) that I needed encouragement.  The little one’s dad wanted her to ask me for a balloon. She resisted, was told “no” to taking one without asking, went through a period of tears, calmed down, got down from her dad’s lap, and was told again to ask me for a balloon.

“I don’t need to. I can reach myself.”

We looked at each other, the dad and I, and laughed the kind of laugh that doesn’t show up on the face. We laughed because we recognized the independence of spirit which characterizes humans, showing up clearly in this four-year-old.

Every face I look at, every mirror I see, shows this same fierce commitment to fixing things myself, to fixing myself. Even as I put myself into this picture with my close friend Manhattan, there is a strong sense of me.


Practically, such independence is silly. I cannot save myself, not even from myself. Now, I do have to take care of myself. I am responsible for my actions, for my reactions, for my attitudes, for my attempts to live life in a meaningful way. But I cannot function apart from other people. If I tried, I would die. I can’t grow enough, work enough, whatever enough, to sustain myself.

And if I try, I prove that I’m an ornery cuss. To function as a person, as a social being, I need other people.

Now Keller’s comment wasn’t talking merely about the practical level. His point was that unless we stop trying to save ourselves and acknowledge that God has to do that, we will fail at revival and we will ultimately, eternally, fail.

What is important to understand is that he is talking first to that collective entity of people who call themselves The Church. Keller was saying that The Church, or the little clusters of people who call themselves churches are stuck in this self-salvation too.

We end up saying that if we believe exactly right or if we care for the poor exactly right or if we have the precise kind of worship service services that make me God happy or if we go to church the requisite number of times a day/week/month/year or if we consume the right kinds of music/movies/books or if we do ______ exactly right, then God will be happy with us and love us.

And that is exactly wrong because it puts all the burden for our salvation on us. It makes us responsible for fixing ourselves.

It’s no wonder that people get annoyed with “church”. It’s because we often are helping people get LIKE US rather than helping people get TO God.

I was reading about Jesus a bit ago. He was talking to and healing and touching people who never would have made it into a church. In fact, he was even doing all those things with people who didn’t even, well, didn’t even know whether they believed in him or not. I mean, they saw him, and knew that he was cool, and knew that he healed them, but they didn’t understand any of the theological stuff about him.

All they knew was that what they were doing wasn’t working. So when Jesus talked about good news, they were all (deaf) ears and (blind) eyes and (broken) hearts.

What if the church stopped being so churchy? Maybe there might be evidence that God actually is necessary rather than just our rules.

Or at least that’s what I think.