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Paul Hoffman

Research on Keller’s urban missiology leads to new practices for local pastor

Newport, Rhode Island, in the United States, has a reputation for being a seaside playground for the rich and famous. That is where Paul Hoffman pastors a church that reaches as many as 500 people, among whom are students, military officers and their families, and people who work in the sailing industry and tourism.

The church is positioned on Aquidneck Island, which straddles a kind of economic line. On one side are the vacation homes of people who come to the community only for holidays, and on the other side are people who live on public assistance.

In this context, Hoffman found himself studying the works of Tim Keller, a long-time pastor who planted a church in the diverse urban setting of Manhattan, New York City. Keller’s writings became the focus of his PhD research when he began his studies in 2012 with Nazarene Theological College.

“Like many evangelicals from the USA, Keller presents an underdeveloped understanding of the Holy Spirit in mission. As Lesslie Newbigin asserted, the Spirit is the ‘Sovereign Spirit,’ the one who leads congregations and Christians on mission.”

In mid-November 2017, he defended his thesis on urban mission through a critical analysis of Keller’s urban missiology, and was awarded his PhD.

As he studied Keller’s writings, he found they were “thin” in consideration of the Holy Spirit’s role in mission.

“Like many evangelicals from the USA, Keller presents an underdeveloped understanding of the Holy Spirit in mission. As Lesslie Newbigin asserted, the Spirit is the ‘Sovereign Spirit,’ the one who leads congregations and Christians on mission.”

Because Hoffman believes the Trinity’s role in local American ministry has been neglected, he constructed a Trinitarian missiological lens which he used to critically analyze Keller’s urban missiology.

Having laid that groundwork, Hoffman addressed Keller’s “thin areas” by presenting his own urban missiology in a three-part, interlocking or overlapping structure that is pneumatological, reconciling, and offers collective engagement.

“I think my research is helping influence my ministry,” Hoffman said.

Hoffman said that Keller’s writings and his own ministry have made him think more deeply about the purpose and value of churches in urban centers, in a world where the United Nations estimates that more than 50 percent of the global population live in urban centers. The UN projects that will increase to 66 percent by 2050.

“This will be my passion going forward – part of what is coming out of my doctoral studies. I’ve had a chance to reflect upon reconciliation and what does that mean, and that Christians, I believe, are called to a ministry and message of reconciliation.”

“I was drawn to him because he didn’t set out to become an urban church planter.”

Keller was a professor in Philadelphia who developed an appreciation of the compelling nature of cities. When he was commissioned to leave his tenured teaching post to plant a church, he hoped that eventually he might draw in a few hundred worshippers. That goal was surpassed in the first year and now the church gathers an average of 5,000.

Hoffman found that in the diversity of urban settings, “reconciliation as a way of life” needed to play a significant part in an urban missiology – and he argues this is lacking in Keller’s writings.

Hoffman began trying to integrate reconciliation in his own ministry. He led a call to prayer at city hall in his community in July 2016 in response to a growing rift in the United States between law enforcement and civilians, following police shootings of black people in Minnesota and Los Angeles, and a retributive sniper attack on officers during a police funeral in Dallas.

“This will be my passion going forward – part of what is coming out of my doctoral studies. I’ve had a chance to reflect upon reconciliation and what does that mean, and that Christians, I believe, are called to a ministry and message of reconciliation.”

Partially in response to his studies, Hoffman also led his church in an initiative called the “Year of Care” in which they identified five organizations in their area, both secular and religious, who were effectively serving people. The church then partnered with them over the course of a year to serve a local school; pregnant, at-risk teens; people with developmental disabilities; people in need of crisis housing placement; and women leaving abusive relationships.

Hoffman is grateful for his experience studying at NTC. He plans to continue his work fostering reconciliation in his region and is currently presenting a book proposal on reconciliation to publishers.