A Progressive Christian Response to Tim Keller


“There is no more urgent question for American Christians than this: What’s wrong with the American church and how can its life and ministry be renewed? Virtually everyone agrees something is radically wrong with the church… We must find a new way forward—to spiritual, theological, and institutional renewal—until the Christian church is thriving again, until it’s growing by appealing to and reaching people with truth and serving and changing people with love.”  So writes Tim Keller, founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in New York, and an important leader in evangelical Christianity.  It begins a piece by him,  “The Decline and Renewal of the American Church,” that is getting wide distribution lately. 

It is an in-depth piece, reflecting his status as one of the relatively rare intellectuals in the evangelical world.  As such, I think it deserves a response – in particular because he blames the decline of the American church, as a whole, on progressive Christians.  His is the old and tired argument that by reconciling our faith with science and social progress, we deprived Christianity of its distinctiveness, thus making it indistinguishable from the wider culture and thus irrelevant.  He also argues that by doing so, we deprived America of any kind of foundation for moral order.  It’s the old circular argument that the Bible must be literally true because we need it to be literally true – so that we’ll have a basis for our ethics and laws and culture.  Meanwhile, current advances in biology show that basic morality is a byproduct of evolution – in the animal world, as well as in the human, it has survival value.  And among those discoveries is the fact that a certain amount of homoerotic behavior in animal populations has survival value, as well.  And then there’s the obvious problem of basing our behavior today on some of the very problematic precepts we find in the Judeo-Christian scriptures.

It is only at the end of his piece that he obliquely recognizes that conservative Protestants might share a bit of the blame for the decline of the church in America:

“The progressive mainline Protestantism still in existence is no real way forward for the American church.   However, because of the reassertion of fundamentalism within American evangelicalism and the consequent exodus of many young adults from the churches of their youth, many are pointing to mainline, progressive Christianity as the place for them to go. There may indeed be some influx into mainline churches, especially in urban areas, of young “ex-evangelicals” who are “deconstructing their faith.” But the overall project of mainline Protestantism has failed. It overadapted to Western secular culture and can’t offer our society an alternative or counterpoint to what the dominant culture already offers.  It also doesn’t appear to be able to grow the way the church has historically grown in every culture—by evangelism and church planting. Can it lead secular people into life-transforming conversion?”

Thank you, Tim Keller!  Like other panicked evangelical leaders are doing lately, by dissing our movement as the cause of their own problems, they give us the best possible publicity. 

He only grudgingly – and very briefly – admits that young evangelicals are leaving evangelical-world because of evangelicalism.  And he’s right that many are exploring progressive Christianity.  But he’s wrong that our project has failed, wrong that it does not offer an alternative to dominant culture, and wrong that it cannot be transformative. 

And he’s way off the mark in his claim that the road to renewal is paved with the same dead dogma and regressive social values that led them into their cul-de-sac.  Evangelicals had their moment, and it was a long and notable one.  Now their movement is rapidly shrinking, and one would think that a person of Keller’s stature would turn his gaze inward to diagnose carefully what it did wrong, and propose a real change of direction.  But no. 

Keller apparently has no awareness of the spiritual renewal going on right now in progressive Christian churches that embrace the contemplative, mystical tradition of the faith, which evangelicals would do well to discover and practice if they’re interested in renewal.  He shows no interest in exploring what is distinctive about the progressive Christian churches that are growing and thriving as they hoover-up young ex-evangelicals.  Nor does he get it that progressive churches are far more of an “alternative or counterpoint to what the dominant culture already offers”.  As if evangelical churches, on the whole, aren’t the Republican Party at prayer?  As if they don’t offer artisan coffee after worship in their huge, fancy, mall-style church buildings?  If you are looking for a critique of the dominant culture, which is capitalism run amok, you’ll go to a progressive congregation.  If you’re looking for communities that are actively practicing alternatives to the cultural norms of rampant consumerism and personal greed, you’ll go to progressive churches.

Sure, he’s upset that the evangelical worldview has become a minority perspective in America.  All religious people are minority voices in America today, and the country is none the worse for this diversity and divergence of expression.  He says that, while once the voices of the non-religious were suppressed, “today in the secular society mainline Protestantism helped bring about, it’s religious voices that are precluded.”  That, of course, is nonsense.  Hello, Tim Keller!  We need look no farther than the front page of the newspaper to see how un-precluded those voices are, as they call for banning abortion, demonizing LGBTQ+ people, and attacking the rights of trans people.  Progressive Christians have neither undertaken to preclude evangelical voices nor succeeded yet in out-voicing them.  Religious freedom in America is as alive and well as it ever has been, for religious and non-religious people alike.  And any claim to the contrary is a dangerous lie.

Progressive Christianity today is exactly the “spiritual, theological, and institutional renewal” that Tim Keller hopes will sweep through the church.  If you’re reading this, Tim, count it as an invitation to set your prejudices aside for a while, visit our thriving churches, and get to know us for who we really are.


Rev. Jim Burklo is the Executive Director of Progressive Christians Uniting, which is now organizing ZOE, a national network of progressive Christian ministries at colleges and universities.   He is the founder of Souljourning.org, providing resources for families to nurture the natural spirituality of young people.  He retired as the Senior Associate Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life at the University of Southern California in 2022 and now serves as pastor of the United Church of Christ of Simi Valley, CA. An ordained pastor in the United Church of Christ, he is the author of seven published books on progressive Christianity.  His latest is Tenderly Calling: An Invitation to the Way of JesusHis weekly blog, “Musings,” has a global readership.  He is an honorary advisor and frequent content contributor for ProgressiveChristianity.orgJim and his wife Roberta live in Ojai, CA. 


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