City upon a hill

Even though he’s a New York Times bestselling author and the founding pastor of one of the most influential churches in America, Tim Keller is a pretty unassuming guy. Unabashedly bald, with a bulbous nose, and small eyes hidden behind square, minimalist glasses, he looked like an accountant as he stood on the Skyline Ballroom’s stage last Thursday for the closing remarks of “Christ+City: A Call for Renewal,” the daylong conference about for the role of the Gospels in Chicago urban life.

“If I go too fast, or skim over a few points, please read my book ‘Generous Justice.’ Or better yet,  don’t read my book–borrow it from a friend. Simple living.  Just don’t tell my publisher that,” said Keller to appreciative laughter. Following this gentle self-deprecation, he launched into a skillful discussion of the talking points of his new book, touching upon the relationship between justification by grace (the idea that all people are sinners, saved only by God’s grace and mercy) and social justice, explaining that social justice is the proof that one has been saved. “He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for his Maker,” Keller said, quoting Proverbs. “The poor and rich Christian work in tandem with each other,” he preached. “The poor Christian, who receives shame and disdain from the world, needs to remember that he is loved and cherished by God. For the rich Christian, he needs to be poor in spirit, he needs to decrease and God needs to increase.”

The crowd in the ballroom showed greater diversity than the simple divide between the poor and the rich.  Counted in the audience were white bible college kids, Asian and blck students, an abundance of staid, middle-aged folk and a small litany of shrill middle-schoolers who may have only been there for the closing performance by Christian rapper Lecrae.  Keller’s talk was followed by a panel discussion, featuring an impressive array of speakers, including Donnita Travis, a former advertising firm president and founder of the NGO By-the-hand, and Pastor Charles Jenkins, the State Commissioner on the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission.

After the panel the rap concert got started. The middle schoolers cocked their ears when Lecrae came on the mic. Bobbing their heads to his beats, the audience seemed to be nodding in agreement with his inspirational message, too.