Timothy Keller Discusses “Preaching to the Cultural Heart” at Basics Conference


Why is it that conservative Christian values seem so unthinkable to the modern secular mind? At the Basics Conference held on Tuesday May 12 at Parkside Church, Timothy Keller gave a breakout session entitled “Preaching to the Cultural Heart.” The session examined the philosophical undercurrents of our post-modern society and arguably contained the most insightful material of the conference.

To set the stage for his message, Keller quickly outlined Christianity’s flowering in West from 500 to 1500 A.D., the secularization of the intelligentsia from 1500-1900, and the continuing proliferation of secular thought in the West following World War I and beginning in Europe. He then presented “Five Cultural Narratives Common in the Twenty-First Century West,” each a part of the superstructure of secular philosophy dominant in our culture:

“The Identity Narrative” –  Also known as “Expressive Individualism,” this philosophy is characterized by the motto, “be yourself.”  Keller revealed how contrary this philosophy is to traditional values. According to traditional values, individuals sacrificed their personal desires so that they could fulfill their various roles. For a man this meant that his roles as husband, father, businessman, citizen, etc. were his ultimate priorities, and other desires were subordinate to these. Conversely, those who adhere to expressive individualism eschew traditional values in lieu of the higher goal of fulfilling their concepts of self-identity.

“The Truth Narrative” – Also known as “Self-Authorizing Morality,” this narrative is characterized by the saying, “Only I know what is right for me.” Keller explained that those adhering to this personal moral authority believe “hate is you not supporting me in my own moral values.”

“The Freedom Narrative”— Also known as “The Modern Moral Order,” this narrative is characterized by the belief that individuals should be free to live in any manner they choose as long as it doesn’t cause any harm to others. Those holding to this narrative believe that only one real virtue exists, “choice,” and conversely that only one real sin exists, “limiting choice.”

“The Science and Technology Narrative” – Birthed by the Enlightenment, this philosophy is grounded in the belief that only that which is based upon science, fact, and empiricism (knowledge that is based upon experience gained through the senses) can bring real solutions for life.

“The History Narrative” – This narrative is a familiar part of the conservative-liberal debate regarding same-sex marriage, as those on the left simply say of the opposition, “you’re on the wrong side of history.”

At the conference, Keller encouraged pastors to “vaccinate” their congregations by exposing the falsehood of these philosophies through their preaching. He stressed that this is critical in our time as we seek to teach biblical theology and form disciples who hold a thoroughly Christian worldview.

Notably, Keller mentioned that this material would be included in his new book due out on June 9, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism. Since Keller is fan of C.S. Lewis, it will be interesting to see if he references The Abolition of Man, where Lewis refers to postmodernism as the “dehumanizing of society. Lewis’s book, written in the 1940s, established that traditional values are always rooted in a higher authority. Regardless, Keller’s new book is sure to be beneficial reading not only for preaching pastors but for all church staff.

Keller, Timothy. Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism. New York: Viking, 2015.

Lewis, C.S. The Abolition of Man. New York: HarperCollins, 2001.

Sproul’s GLORY TO THE HOLY ONE Aims to Reclaim Music as “the Handmaiden of Theology”

Glory to the Holy One

A.W. Tozer said, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” Although biblical theology must be at the very core of shaping our thoughts about God, the manner through which the church cultivates the imagination through the arts also has a role in forming our conception of God as both affect “what comes into our minds when we think about God.” In our cultivation of music then we should consider Steven Lawson’s thoughts regarding The Attributes of God

High views of God lead to high and holy living. High views of God lead to exalted transcendent worship of God, but low views of God lead to low and base living. [see Proverbs 9:10 and Psalm 111 for similar thoughts]

R.C. Sproul’s recent musical collaboration with film score composer Jeff Lippencott, Glory to the Holy One, firmly encourages a high view of God. This collection of hymns and choral music effectively awakens the imagination to anticipate the beatific (heavenly) vision that will be the experience of all who are a part of Christ’s kingdom. In this, the collection succeeds as a fine example of worship music that is good, true, and beautiful. These new hymns for the church are a feast for the believer’s heart and mind. Each of the texts are thoughtfully rich and the music is very-well conceived to match. In an effort to demonstrate the music’s potential for the church, the CD is recorded by many excellent musicians, including The Choristers of Canterbury Cathedral, The Phoenix Chorale, and the Northwest Sinfonia Orchestra.

In Sproul’s own blog  promoting the CD’s release he discusses the state of church music in the past century or so and, notably here, the value of singing Scripture and great hymns in pointing to the transcendent character of God. In this way music has historically been part of the church’s catechism. Sproul’s states that this project “aims for a new reformation in our worship and praise.”

I would encourage you to read Sproul’s blog first and then continue reading here. In writing this review, my desire is to relate some timeless principles of music-making that Sproul and Lippencott are encouraging in the cultivation of God-centered worship. Here are some of the noteworthy tracks:

“1517”—The opening track of the CD orchestrally underscores the familiar voice of “Renewing Your Mind” as he dramatically tells of Martin Luther’s essential contribution to the Protestant Reformation. This track sets the tone for the other pieces on the CD—rich text accompanied by music that beautifully and rhetorically reinforces its meaning. In the way of a modern film-score composer, it recalls the tradition of sacred music that was championed by Luther, himself, as he believed music to be “the handmaiden of theology and second only to theology.” Handmaidens were always subservient to their masters. Their function was to provide what their master needed to function at his best. Until the transformation in Western music during the 18th century (see Worldview and Musical Values), the normative standard in sacred music was for the music to support the text (theology). It worked in every way possible to project the meaning of the text in sound and, thus, never risk competing with the message of the text.

“Glory to the Holy One”—With dramatic reverence this anthem sets the cries of the seraphim from Isaiah 6. What really sets this piece off is its placement on the CD, seamlessly following “1517.” This is no mistake; this is how it should be heard. It should be noted that Isaiah 6 outlines a biblical pattern for worship in revealing the stark contrast between the holiness of God and man’s (Isaiah’s) sinfulness and need for redemption. Appropriately, it begins with the pure and reverent sounds of an a cappella boy choir to introduce the scene:

Seated on the heav’nly throne,

Above all mortal view

The King supreme in glory sat

Bathed in resplendent hue

Then strings and organ enter transitioning to the music of the refrain—boldly proclaiming the cry of the seraphim as sung by the full choir:

“Holy, Holy, Holy”

Cried the seraph throng

Glory to the Holy One

Join in heaven’s song

After two more stanzas and repeats of the refrain, a dramatic cinematic transition ushers in the final stanza incorporating a martial percussion theme—urgently anticipating the wonder of and victory of salvation:

Angel come now, purge my lips

Make pure my soul anew

Now I’ll rise and stand again

In grace to go for you

“The Secret Place” – This wonderful hymn stresses the spiritual relationship that Christ’s disciples have with the living God. In a world of increasing tension, stress, hurry, and antagonism, this hymn offers the church the opportunity to again reclaim Psalm 46:10a, “Be still and know that I am God.”

“Heavy is Our Savior’s Cross” – The Choristers of Canterbury Cathedral sing this a cappella (“for the church”) piece with stunning musicianship. Opening with the boy choir, the mysterious and ominous nature of the refrain penetrates the soul:

Heavy is our Savior’s cross

Weighed down by human sin

His blood so pure, no earthly dross

Is borne by only Him.

The listener should notice throughout this piece how the elements of the music (including style, form, meter, rhythm, melodic shape, use of harmony, and the selection and interaction of voices) work together to piercingly communicate the text.

“Viam Dei” (Way of God) – This piece intensely portrays through solely instrumental music “the struggles, the push and pull, the pain and peace that the Christian encounters on the road on which God has placed each of His beloved—the path toward sanctification” (CD liner notes).  This is essentially accomplished through the creative use of a two-chord progression, which gives a clear sense of stress and release. This is an exceptionally poignant piece to worship with in times of deep, searching prayer. The final chords of the piece resolve to depict the completion of the Christian life—“the Christians faith, having been tested, is now made complete in the sight of the Savior face-to-face.” (CD notes)

“No More the Grave,” “Clothed in the Righteousness,” and “These Great Things” – These form a trio of hymns contemplating the Christ’s wondrous gifts promised to his church of immortality, righteousness, and glorification. The orchestral accompaniment for each of these tracks is suitably noble and majestic, reinforcing the wondrous propositions of the text.

All of the music on this CD is very good and the order of the tracks forms a biblically-theological arc throughout, a strength that I am sure is playing out wonderfully in the national tour of this music, which began in California on May 1.

The only real deficiency on this recording is that the words that the choir sings are difficult to understand on many of the tracks. Fortunately all of the text is included in a booklet with the CD, but for text of this caliber this is very unfortunate. Wonderfully, the sheet music is available for each of these tracks from Ligonier so choirs can recreate these works and improve this element. In order for music to be “the handmaiden of theology” the choir’s diction simply must be clear. How else can text and music formed together to stimulate the imagination regarding the things of God have its intended impact? The legendary Robert Shaw (who still, 16 years after his death, is thought of as the dean of American choral conductors) said regarding his craft, “I am amazed again and again how the mastery of successive minute technical details releases floods of spiritual understanding.” Nowhere is this statement truer than in the case of words sung. Shaw employed a marvelous technique with all of his choirs to achieve excellent diction. His recordings stun the listener with the clarity of the text. Conductors—to learn about his golden technique see here .

Nevertheless, this music is among the best of American twenty-first century sacred music for the church, and it succeeds brilliantly in calling us back to biblical values in the composition of music for the glory of God in corporate worship. King David’s musicians, as well as the artisans that crafted the temple of Solomon, including its articles and decoration, were highly skilled and produced works of the highest standards.  They were of the very best the Israelites had to offer. Following this pattern, Glory to the Holy One calls us back to the standard of God’s Word to guide us in the appreciation of all that is good, true and beautiful, values that our post-modern culture desperately needs to regain.

Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness.  (Psalm 29:2)

Click here to hear recordings  and  order the CD or sheet music:  Glory to the Holy One 


Bauder, Kevin T.; Aniol, Scott; De Bruyn, David; Riley, Michael; Martin, Michael J.; Parker, Jason. A Conservative Christian Declaration. Religious Affections Ministries, 2014.

Jones, Paul S. Singing and Making Music: Issues in Church Music Today. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing,  2006. For those who have heard the rumor that Luther’s hymns were based upon beer hall tunes, please see here how Paul Jones has cleared this up.

Lawson, Steven. “Introduction to the Attributes of God.” In The Attributes of God.  [on-line]. Accessed on May 18, 2015. Available from http://www.ligonier.org/learn/series/attributes-of-god-downloads/introduction-attributes-of-god/?; Internet.

Lippencott, Jeff and Sproul, R.C.. Glory to the Holy One: Sacred Music for the People of God. Ligonier Ministries, 2014, compact disc.

“Music as Servant of the Word” [on-line]. Accessed on May 18, 2015. Available from http://www.ctsfw.edu/page.aspx?pid=413; Internet.

“Robert Shaw: 1916-1999[on-line]. Accessed on May 18, 2015. Available from http://www.metanoia.org/martha/shaw.htm; Internet. See program notes  under “Concerning Missa Solemnis, May 16, 1972.”

Tozer, A.W. The Knowledge of the Holy. New York: HarperCollins, 1961.


Turning from Worshiping Self to Worshiping God

One of the biggest challenges to God-centered worship has been and always will be self-centered worship, or put more plainly—worship of self. This was the great sin of Lucifer (Satan) that got him thrown out of the presence of God forever. Biblical worship of God involves fear and reverence for Him leading to prostration—falling on our knees before Him. But what does prostration—a gesture of humility, imply for us in all things? Repeatedly, Scripture teaches that in order for our worship to be genuine we must depend upon, or place our trust in God.

We live in a culture of self-reliance. This philosophy is taught to us in our schools, in the popular media, in the world of business, by many parents, and is championed by what the bible calls “the flesh.”  Because this is our natural tendency—reliance or dependence upon God is supernatural. One of the great obstacles to trusting in God occurs in our mind. We know that we live in a world of cause and result. Each action we take has direct results and consequences. Yet as Scripture teaches, God is working simultaneously in every thought and action to ultimately bring about His results (consider Joseph’s life, Genesis 50:20).  Although we are very limited in our understanding, abilities, and existence, God is transcendent or infinite in His. Therefore, God alone is ultimately worthy of our trust and dependence.

Although we may know this, the turn from worshiping self to worshiping God is ultimately life-long and can be very challenging. However, I want to share today how God has and is working in me to accomplish this. Notice that I did not say, this is how I learned to worship God, OR here is what I did to get my worship right before God. No—God is the agent that produces this change and it is never of any merit of our own that we learn it.

For many of us, when we encounter trials in life our first thoughts are not of James 1:2-4. Instead we wish that things were different and tend to compare our lives to those whose lives seem to be going much better. Only now at 44, am I really learning to take James seriously—that joy can really be our response to trials.

Back in 1996 God called me to attend seminary, and the call was joyfully confirmed through abundant financial assistance. My plans after seminary? To serve full time in church and build a thriving Christ-centered music ministry. However, life can offer some bumps in the road, right? And so I was let go from my first position due to some advice from a church-growth expert. My second go at this dream was incredibly tough as well, but I initiated the departure in obedience to God’s leading. Then it hit me—I was falling into the statistic that everyone talks about—most ministers only last two years in a given church.  How could this happen? I thought I had so much promise—my scholarships, grades, and encouragement from others all seemed to say so. I thought that God had chosen me for service to him through music and worship ministry.

It was then 2004. The next year, as the result of a spiritual gifts and temperament test and much prayer, I sensed that God was calling me to teach. He told me to go back to Southern Seminary and earn my doctorate. Here God would begin teaching me that it was by His merit and hand that any success  would come, not my own. Fast forward—in 2012 after much work, further trials, marriage, and a baby along the way, the D.M.A. program was finished.

So, I began vigorously applying for teaching positions in music at universities across the country. Well, by the time 2015 rolled around, I began to really be concerned. These events just didn’t make any sense to me at all. I knew I had followed God to seminary the first and second times. I knew that He must be up to something—something that couldn’t be experienced without these events unfolding the way that they had in my life. I also knew that up to this point I had not really trusted God with the main events of my life. Sure, I had trusted him for my eternal salvation, but death was a long way off, right? How could I trust him now to make a substantial difference in my life where I could see him moving? How could I better experience the transformed life that Christ promises?

Then a shift began to happen. I have a family member who is a Christian counselor. I was talking with him on the phone one night and I told him, “I don’t know how to trust in God.” He simply responded, “Ask God to teach you how to trust him.” So I did. The Holy Spirit led me from then on to tell God that I trust him whenever a difficult situation would arise. He also told me, “Shawn, when you do this [and mean it], it frees me to bless you.”

I started noticing that there was a direct response from God when I initiated trust. What I mean is that God was meeting me with his provision in some way in each situation when I would express trust. Not only would he equip me with peace—oftentimes there were events (sometimes several) that took place surrounding a given situation that made it very clear that God was at work. So what was I learning? Simply what I mentioned earlier—that God is the only one worthy of our ultimate trust. I was also learning the kind of existence that should be normal for the Christian—experiencing His presence in concrete ways—walking in the Spirit. I was learning to be aware of Him day by day in the fabric of life, not just during corporate worship or time set aside for personal prayer and Scripture reading.

Not only do we live in world of self-reliance, we also live in a world that is very product oriented. In other words, in the marketplace what matters is not how much homework, footwork, or blood, sweat and tears that you pour into something—results are what really count. The problem with this system is that it literally trains us to think that results are all that matter. In the Christian life, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Proverbs 3: 5 and 6  us:

    Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.

These verses clearly teach us that it is our dependence upon God that matters—upon what Scripture teaches and what he reveals to us through prayer—and the two never conflict. The principles taught in Scripture always align with what the Holy Spirit speaks to our hearts. When we rely upon God in this way, in our heart we are bowing to him as King of the universe. When we worry or anxiously strive for results in this life, then we put ourselves on the throne—as if this can be done. John 15 reminds us of how to cultivate the proper relationship with God—that it is abiding in Christ that we bear fruit for the kingdom. Biblical worship of God is all about process. The results are up to God himself.

Although God is clearly the one who deepens trust in the heart of the disciple of Christ, there are a few things that I want to encourage you to remember:

  1. Praying and asking God to teach you how to trust him, is of the Spirit, not the flesh. This would never happen if God did not initiate the desire for greater trust in your heart.
  2. Trust is surrender, never manipulation. I believe that as I began the turn to rely upon God in the events of my daily life that he chose to encourage me greatly in the first steps I was taking. Trusting God can feel like jumping off into an abyss—it is scary at first, so God was encouraging further trust with quick results. Sometimes we may have to trust God with things that we will never fully understand or see resolved until we get to heaven.
  3. Anxious striving takes humility to overcome. We must turn away from our worrying, and still our minds in God’s presence. This should happen in increasing frequency throughout the day, as we place our trust in him. Consider Psalm 46:10, “Be Still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!”
  4. When trials come, remember that these serve as James 1 teaches, to test our faith and make us “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
  5. Trust God at all times, remembering that when things don’t make sense to us—this is because God is God and we are not. Only He can see the master plan!
  6. Becoming aware of God’s presence and his work through you is a big part of worshiping him.
  7. Remember that the process of life lived in relationship with God according to Scripture is what really matters.
  8. Meditate often on the Psalms to remind yourself that when we are thinking and living rightly then God is at the center of everything we do. I love Psalms 46, 62, 27, and 131.
  9. Question: What else is involved in worshiping God rather than ourselves?