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Keller-219x300In a recent forum, “Conservative Christianity After the Christian Right,” Tim Keller predicted moderate growth of conservative evangelicalism even as the culture at large has grown more secular. In these remarks, he explains why these trends are leading to increasing polarization:

When I say “growing moderately,” I mean that the number of the devout people in the country is increasing, as well as the number of secular people. The big change is the erosion is in the middle. The devout numbers have not actually gone down that much. It depends on how you read them. But basically, they are not in freefall by any means.

You don’t so much see secularization as polarization, and what is really disappearing is the middle.

Keller sees the middle as having once leaned toward nominal Christianity, out of a sense of respect, tradition, or for social reasons. He says:

It used to be that the devout and the mushy middle — nominal Christians, people that would identify as Christians, people who would come to church sporadically, people who certainly respect the Bible and Christianity — the devout and the mushy middle together was a super majority of people who just created a kind of “Christian-y” sort of culture.

The mushy middle used to be more identified with the devout. Now it’s more identified with the secular. That’s all.

What does this mean for conservative Christians? Keller uses the analogy of an umbrella:

So what’s happening is the roof has come off for the devout. The devout had a kind of a shelter, an umbrella. You couldn’t be all that caustic toward traditional classic Christian teaching and truth. I spoke on Friday morning to the American Bible Society’s board. American Bible Society does a lot of polling about the Bible. The use of the Bible, reading the Bible, attitudes toward the Bible. They said that actually the number of people who are devout Bible readers is not changing that much.

What is changing is for the first time in history a growing group of people who think the Bible is bad, it’s dangerous, it’s regressive, it’s a bad cultural force, that was just never there. It was very tiny. And that’s because the middle ground has shifted, so it is more identified with the more secular, the less religious, and it’s less identified now with the more devout.

Later, he explains what the loss of this umbrella means for the devout:

The roof came off. That is, you had the devout, you had the secular, and you had that middle ground that made it hard to speak disrespectfully of traditional values. That middle ground now has not so much gone secular, but they more identified with this side. They are identified with expressive individualism, and so they don’t want to tell anybody how to live their lives.

And so what that means now of course is that the devout suddenly realize that they are out there, that the umbrella is gone, and they are taking a lot of flak for their views, just public flak.

He uses the White House’s rescinding an invitation to Louie Giglio as an example of the kind of flak conservative Christians are now experiencing:

And there was no doubt, by the way, the Louie Giglio thing, when he was sort of disinvited because of his traditional views on homosexuality from giving the invocation at the Inauguration, that was so clear. No matter how I add it up, I look at the mainline churches and I take out the quarter that are probably evangelical, my guess is that 80 percent of the clergy of this country would have some reservations about homosexuality — 75, 80 percent, something like that.

But what we were being told was that you are beyond the pale, not just that you’re wrong, but that respect for you is wrong. And so that was heard loud and clear in the conservative Protestant world. Loud and clear. It was enormously discouraging. It was sort of a sense of it’s not just that you’re going to disagree with us, but basically you are saying we really don’t even have a right to be in the public square.

So when you have, on the one hand, that kind of pushback in the public square because now the middle is with the secular rather than with the devout, you have both — more people from conservative Protestantism trying to get into the cultural industries than ever before, instead of just staying out and being in their own subculture; on the other hand, getting more pushback for their views than ever. What will happen?

I would think if you were in the media you would say this is a story, and I’m just going to have to keep an eye on it. Right now there is a tension between people wanting influence and people wanting to have less influence. And the end result is in doubt.


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27 thoughts on “Tim Keller on the Disappearing Umbrella Over Conservative Christians”

  1. Wesley says:

    Great collection of thoughts Trev. It’s interesting, from a Canadian perspective that has long since abandoned traditional Christian ideals (particularly out West here) to watch our American brothers and sisters go through the same culture shock we have endured in the past few decades. What we have found here – w/o the umbrella – is that, just like always, the message still does not change but *how* that message is communicated absolutely changes. Knowing that the bride of Christ is ultimately victorious in the end gives great hope to our efforts, just as I;m sure it did to the first recipients. Praying for you’ll and trusting God’s continued protection and multiplying of His church in the US.

    1. Nick says:

      Wesley,

      Thanks for sharing. It’s helpful knowing that other brothers and sisters in Christ have been where we are. Hopefully we can learn a lot from those of you who have experienced this cultural shift, and how we can continue to shine the light of Christ despite our difficulties.

  2. taco says:

    The mushy middle used to be more identified with the devout. Now it’s more identified with the secular. That’s all.
    That seems like a healthy change.

  3. Curt Day says:

    Perhaps the thinking that the Bible is bad and repressive is result of the chickens coming home to roost for our past associations with Christianity. Western Civilization’s past associations include anti-Semitism, empire, American exceptionalism, racism, free market capitalism, and homophobia. In each of these cases is the association of the Bible with some form of domination over people. We are in a post modern world now where domination is regarded as proof that one’s premise is wrong. And there is a very valid concern expressed there.

    Perhaps our hope can be found in repenting from seeking privileged places in society to becoming coworkers with nonChristians for justice with the Church officially joining this new alliance.

    1. Bob says:

      Ironically, the “anti-Semitism, empire, American exceptionalism,” etc. came from that very mushy middle. The umbrella under which we once stood most certainly also sheltered a great deal of “sympathizers” with the Christian side who brought a lot of their un-Christian junk with them. Perhaps the problem of the devout was that they didn’t call them on it, or at least make the message of the gospel perfectly distinct from all of that.

      1. Cedric says:

        My guess is the devout didn’t call them on it in part because it gave then power.
        And I mean political power of course, not spiritual power…

    2. F says:

      You say “we are in a post modern world where domination is regarded as proof that one’s premise is wrong.” Don’t you see that your point of view is dominant too? You are doing the exact thing that you are criticizing. You are saying that your answer is the right one and anyone different is dominant. Your attitude is that you have this figured out …

    3. Todd Nystrom says:

      I am skeptical of a call for “becoming coworkers with nonChristians for justice.” As Christians we should certainly be champions for justice, and though we are called to serve the poor, the sick, the elderly, the widow and the orphan, this must never be done in exclusion of the good news, the Gospel of Christ. We must always ensure in championing these various causes of justice, that we do not compromise the biblical foundations that make us distinct from the world around us.

    4. Tabitha Croucher says:

      I’ve thought for a long time that it may well be the best thing in the world for the American church, to have the ‘mushy middle’ leave. We’ve gotten too used to dominance, to the point where even devout Christians seem to think it’s an American right to have the culture respect us, look up to us – and when that is eroded, they genuinely believe that we are being persecuted. Not all, of course, but losing our dominance may well strip us of our idols. If it COSTS something to be a Christian, then maybe we’ll all lean a little more heavily on our Lord.

      1. Jason says:

        That is a great perspective. God is ultimately in control and no one will strip him of glory. Maybe God wants to show his trustyworthiness by taking away the crutch of the luke-warm, which fits well with Revlation 3:15-17…

        Revelation 3:15-17 (NIV)

        15 I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! 16 So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. 17 You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.

  4. Marty says:

    I agree with Tim Keller’s observations. Society is becoming more polarised, the (evangelical) Church is without question on the fringe. But I can’t help but sense it’s not all bad news amidst our post everything confusion.

    I read a fascinating book over the summer “Inventing the Individual” by Larry Siedentop of Oxford. He basically calls western liberals to realise that the secular tradition they embrace, has it’s root in the Apostle Paul, justification and individual dignity in the sight of God. Liberal thinking is not born out of the European renaissance and subsequent revolutionary rejections of Christian ‘rule’.

    I mention this, simply to say, in the wider world, it’s not exclusively “them and us” – for the time being at least.

    On the homosexuality issue, again, some conservative writers such as Douglas Murray of the Spectator (UK), sense that the gay marriage debate, having been settled, is no longer a source of contention. David Cameron for example, has re-integrated a socially conservative Christian in a summer cabinet re-shuffle.

    Perhaps however, I’m looking at the glass half full. As Keller says, there is a “tension”.

  5. Curt Day says:

    Todd,
    At the same time, we must recognize when, as Romans 2 say, the unbeliever does what is right by acting according to their conscience. In addition, if we want others to listen to us, isn’t it arrogant if we never listen to them?

    I would agree with you if we reduced the Gospel to working for justice, but that is not what I am advocating here. What I am saying is that part of our life here is about seeking justice because that reflects God’s nature. Seeking justice itself will distinguish us from many. But if we think that we have to be completely different from everyone, we will be both living lives of trying to show up nonChristians and seeking to rule over them because they are not good enough. Both have been tried and have failed. Plus in working with, we have more opportunities to share what is in God’s Word and let others see where we are different.

    1. Todd Nystrom says:

      Curt,
      Agreed. We cannot isolate ourselves. Working alongside non-Cristians and tangibly sharing the love of Christ is a primary and effective means of witness. Passing out tracts to a starving person is clearly an ineffective witness. I merely suggest caution that what may be termed “justice” by the culture around us may not be a biblically sound cause. Where appropriate we should work away, right alongside our non-Christian friends/family/neighbors, but we must be discerning.

      1. timbushong says:

        Good point about the use of terminology, Todd. We must let the Biblical categories define what we should support or endeavor to do.

  6. Curt Day says:

    F,
    Isn’t there a difference between saying what is right and trying to dominate? Isn’t the latter an effort to control others while the former is an assertion of what is correct or what should be done?

  7. Curt Day says:

    Bob,
    I see it differently. I see the desires for empires, American exceptionalism, and so forth as coming from elites. Those who were from the mushy middle were hoping to ride in on the coattails of the efforts of or direction provided by the elite. And they were complicit by their silence or collaborators by their support. Many of those who were complicit or collaborators came from Church leadership.I hope that I am not being too picky here because we might be using the same word to describe different groups.

  8. Kate says:

    it is interesting to me that Keller says, “It was sort of a sense of it’s not just that you’re going to disagree with us, but basically you are saying we really don’t even have a right to be in the public square,” when talking about conservative Christians and their views on homosexuality. He doesn’t acknowledge that that is exactly what the LGBT community experiences from Christians all the time- not just that “we think you are sinners,” but “you don’t even have a right to be in leadership or in legitimized relationships.” It’s a shame he feels the need to complain from his place of power about that power diminishing just a little bit in order to open the doors to millions of other people.

    1. timbushong says:

      “…you don’t even have a right to be in leadership or in legitimized relationships.”

      Kate–are you talking about leadership/relationships within the Church or in the surrounding society?

    2. Franko says:

      Would you allow a “homophobe” in the leadership of an LGBT organization? I’m OK if you don’t. You should also be OK with gay activists not being allowed in the leadership rank of conservative organizations. In the public square such as the government, however, all ideas should be permitted.

  9. Ringo Leaves says:

    first, i have enormous respect for Keller – he is one of the great christian public intellectuals. when he speaks, i always listen, however, when he says “the devout” (at least in the context you present him in) it seems there is the assumption that “this devout” or conservative christianity, as he calls it, is of one brand and it is all banded together. i don’t think that the collapsing umbrella for “this devout conservative” is due just to the mushy middle identifying with secularism (and they may be) but it’s also from a current schism in ranks of “the devout” – especially in evangelicalism. more and more of “these devout” are growing weary of a reformed-calvinistic theology that has hijacked evangelicalism and commandeered the bible with their version of “the truth”. that might also be adding to the umbrella’s collapse. so keller’s probably right that the mushy middle leans secular, but to lay blame for it by simply saying they want “expressive individualism” borders on arrogance with oversimplification and lacks self awareness. it also, completely misses another reason why the umbrella is collapsing – the message and messengers themselves. the mushy middle, doesn’t identify with a Jesus wrapped in the harsh and rigid message of neo-calvinism and then told to join and live by “the truth” or else. it’s not individualism, only, they want, they want love & acceptance and they run to their friends, family, workmates and neighborhoods who seem to have it.

    1. timbushong says:

      “…the message and messengers themselves. the mushy middle, doesn’t identify with a Jesus wrapped in the harsh and rigid message of neo-calvinism and then told to join and live by “the truth” or else.”

      Yeah—I would collapse under that, too—except for the fact that that was a great big straw-man/caricature with no basis in reality.

  10. Dan says:

    I believe that both sides of this reply thread have valid arguments. Too often, those who are in the more dominant position – whether conservative, liberal, or moderate – are tempted to dominate, ignore, or berate those in the less dominant position. No matter which of these camps we might fall into, we all know what type of behavior Christ exemplified and how He has instructed us to behave toward one another – with humility, preaching the truth with love, feeding the poor, ministering to the sick, caring for orphans and widows, visiting prisoners, proclaiming the Gospel to the world. We may disagree. We may even disagree ardently, vociferously, and passionately witth one another. (Whether we are devoutly liberal, moderate, or conservative, the term, “devout” implies that we will disagree ardently, vociferously, and passionately.) Yet, we must not oppress, berate, injure, ignore, or cause others to stumble in their faith over our misbehavior. We are called to be Christlike, to be lights in the darkness, to care for God’s children, and we are all God’s children. The world is watching how everyone who calls themselves “Christian” is treating others who call themselves, “Christian.” Our differences in theology should not prevent us from showing genuine compassion and concern for those with whom we disagree. If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth isn’t in us. Likewise, the one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. God loves us, so we ought to love one another. Theology matters. It absolutely matters, but the love we demonstrate to one another matters more. The world is watching our witness. Let us walk in the footsteps of Jesus and love one another, for love is from God.

  11. Rich Gall says:

    Key quote: They are identified with expressive individualism, and so they don’t want to tell anybody how to live their lives.

    When the church has stopped loving their neighbor, feeding the poor, visiting the prisoner, giving shelter to the homeless, some of us look around and see that ALL we DO is tell other people how to live their lives. And since the church doesn’t love them, we middle middlings can’t imagine why they would listen, much less care. So we look at our friends wielding the law as a cultural force and ask them why they forget the Gospel. When they pick up their banner against gays, liberals, and Muslims, we can’t help but ask, aren’t those the people Jesus came to save?

    1. Franko says:

      It was absolutely wrong for conservatives to oppose legalization of gay marriage if only for biblical reasons because non-Christians are outside the New Covenant. But churches have the solemn and non-negotiable obligation to implore their members to follow biblical lifestyle.

  12. Chicago says:

    I’m not really sure what to believe anymore. I look at the culture, and I can’t get a feel about who is what or where or why anymore. A billion shades of grey all over the place. Jesus means what, exactly, these days? What is Brand Jesus?

    1. Milton says:

      It does seem the Brand Jesus has been very badly damaged by those “selling” it. The genuine “product” has never changed and is still the essential of life, and there are no lite versions or substitutes that will do. But that has not stopped those who imitate the packaging and wrap it around a counterfeit from claiming a great deal of the public attention.

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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