By Tim Keller
When I was in Seoul for the first time last year, I witnessed what may be the biggest challenge of reaching the next generation. There, many people recognized that the Korean church was starting to shrink, despite the fact that it had grown faster than the country’s population for about 70 years. Everybody was concerned about reaching younger people. My guess is that this is also true in many other countries around the world, not just Korea.
For a while, the non-Western world has been experiencing revival. What has happened? We all know the West has become highly individualistic — what matters is me, not my family, not my community. Am I happy? Are my desires being fulfilled? But in the rest of the world, that’s not how most people think. The Western narrative says the meaning of life is to be free and to be myself, but for the rest of the world, the meaning of life is to be a good person — a good son or daughter, a good husband or wife, a good member of my community.
But there’s this thing called the Internet. There are Western stories and movies influencing the entire world. What you’re now finding in Korea, for example, is younger people that are a unique blend of Western and non-Western values. And yet, at the same time, they’re not Americans. They are Koreans.
“It’s almost like putting two chemicals together to form a new cultural compound.”
They’re not Westerners, who have a rugged individualism as their baseline cultural narrative. They are still pursuing honor and achievement for their family’s sake. But they’re not like their parents. Younger people in these cultures still keep those ties, such as deferring to authority in a way that Westerners have long since abandoned. But because of Western media, there’s a growing influence of individualism. It’s almost like putting two chemicals together to form a new cultural compound. Nobody quite knows what to do with them. It would almost take somebody from the West and somebody from Korea working together to say, “How do you reach them?”
If we all admit that none of us really have the answers but that we all have some ideas, we could start navigating this challenge together. We have to collaborate. And we have to experiment.
On a related note, we at Redeemer City to City aren’t in the business of exporting Hollywood and Western values. Far from it. One of the things the global church has suffered from is America’s role as an amazing economic engine. When Christians in America have a new idea, they churn out books and videos. They send people all around the world to sell their product. If they have an evangelistic method that works in Florida, they think they should give it to everybody. The trouble is, when Americans export their way of doing evangelism to other parts of the world where people are more secular or non-Western, it just doesn’t work.
Even though Americans have produced so much material for the Christian world, America is out of step. It may be ahead of the rest of the world when it comes to packaging and marketing and publishing, but it’s behind the rest of the world when it comes to understanding the cultural moment.
On a positive note, our kids are already connected across cultures. Young people are talking to each other all across the world. This is the sort of communication that church leaders need to reach the next generation — a collaboration across cultural, national, and denominational lines. And when we meet together, like the cultures of the world already are, then we can begin to meet the most important challenges of our day.
Timothy Keller is Chairman of Redeemer City to City and the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, which he started in 1989 with his wife, Kathy, and three young sons. For over twenty-five years, he has led a diverse congregation of urban professionals that has grown to a weekly attendance of over 5,000.