Lessons I Learned from Keith Green

John ArmstrongAmerican Evangelicalism

A lot can be learned from the Keith Green story. After I watched a wonderfully done videography included in the CD album, "Keith Green: The Ultimate Collection" (2002), I was moved to reflect once again upon his life. I also thought about many younger Christians leaders and writers who appear to draw a significant following today. My reflections are not meant to be personal, simply general reflections. These are my simple reflections, surely influenced by both my age and context. As I thought back to Keith's influence and time, and then forward to these modern evangelical leaders and movements, especially the "emergent" movement, I made these reflections.

1. Emotions always play a huge role in following Christ. Far too many Christians, especially in my era in the 1960s and 70s, denied this connection. Keith Green was a very emotional man with a truly deep and passionate love for Jesus. This was both his great strength and a real weakness, especially given his youthfulness.
2. Keith attracted a lot of attention and drew many people to Christ and his kingdom. But his theology was not sound at some crucial points. His passion so overwhelmed  people that one could easily become enamored with his radical call to follow Jesus and his strong ideas about a number of diverse subjects. Again, this had a good and bad side to it. The danger here is that a strong person is often seen as a role model in all areas upon which they communicate, whether in singing or in writing.
3. Keith lived a prophetic and obedient life but there was, as with all such individuals in public ministry, a call to others that often created a lot of guilt. This may have been balanced out over time but we will never know how this would have happened since Keith died at such a young age.
4. Keith Green was completely real. He lived the Christian faith and never wavered in seeking to obey Christ no matter what the cost. He is a role model here like few young men in his time. His music has this almost haunting element of call and conviction to it. It still moves me personally.
5. Keith reminds me, as I look around me at the age 60, that movements are often built on deeply emotional men and that their strongly personal calls to obedience have both a big upside and a huge downside for followers. (Keith did not desire to have followers but did not yet have the maturity to see that this will always happen when a person has a large gift.) I do wonder what Keith Green would have become if he were alive today. Would he be more like the mature and reflective John Michael Talbot, who is still deeply committed to Christ but rooted in ancient faith and practice? Or would Keith still be deeply committed to Finney’s aberrant system and manipulative theology? Would he have moved on from "The Jesus Movement" or remained captive to all the elements of this wave of the Spirit?
6. While Keith Green appealed to the young he did not appeal to older people. I doubt such a young man would in any age. This is as it should be, at least in one sense. We all have a role to play, young and old alike. I do worry about older men who create hugely emotional followings among young people. It all seems quite odd to me. Some of these older men seem to “need” their followers and the young seem attached to them out of deep emotional need too. This attachment is at times unique, even troubling to me. Maturity is not necessarily found in platform appeal and great passion. That much I know well. I have learned most of this the hard way. A positive role model will suffice here. Think J. I. Packer. He is 82, widely respected, but never been a "rock star" personality in any sense. I have learned more from Jim Packer than any of the more respected and passionately followed "stars" of my own world. I recall, for example, Jim spending time with me when he could have picked far more promising material to be around than me. I was an unknown pastor in a small church and had written nothing at all that mattered much.

7. Keith Green, both deeply flawed and incredibly interesting, still remains a voice from the past that I appreciate deeply. As I've said above, he was real if he was anything at all. This came through on the DVD that I watched.

I thought about the whole “emergent” movement as I watched this DVD. I think this connection was because I had been on vacation and had read several of the leading voices of this movement over the week. I found myself appreciating Keith more as a result of comparing the two groups and the spokespersons that speak for them. "The Jesus Movement," with men like Keith, was emotional, even raw at times. Would add that it could easily be overbearing. The “emergent” guys are more analytical, philosophical and often exceptionally bright. But they are also a great deal more reactionary against the church than Keith Green ever was. I have to say that I would take Keith, with all his flaws, over almost all the “emergent” leaders that I read today. (Again, I am not attacking the men/women or their excellent contributions, some of which profit me immensely.)

Please do not misunderstand me. I believe there are some powerfully important things to be learned in the present “emergent” conversation. I am in it one way or the other, so I think. I know most of those who are leaders, at least those who are seen widely as the leaders. I like them and enjoy their putting pressure on all of us regarding the nature of the church and about our incredulous certitude about everything Christian. I also love their call to practice the faith more than argue about it. But I would take Keith’s passion for Jesus, and the way he expressed Christ's love, and lived it out day-to-day, over almost everything that I have seen in the “emergent” conversation and movement.

Perhaps some kind of blending of the missiological and contextual insights of the “emergents,” linked with the passion for mission and the pure love for the gospel of a Keith Green (along with his powerful music), would make for a stronger new movement. Maybe I am suggesting here that the best of "The Jesus Movement," and the best of the newer postmodern turn, would be an awesome work of grace if we learned from one another. I would have to guess that this would be a good thing in the end, or so I thought as I watched the Keith Green story in the Orlando Airport last week just before I came home from my vacation.

Here are a few choice Keith Green quotations. I have taken these, and some of my biographical notations in yesterday
's post, from Wikipedia, which has what amounts to a good article on the late musician if you wish to know much more.

"It's time to quit playing church and start being the Church (Matt. 18:20)" — Keith Green, as quoted by Melody Green in the introduction to A Cry in the Wilderness, Sparrow Press, 1993.

"I repent of ever having recorded one single song, and ever having performed one concert, if my music, and more importantly, my life has not provoked you into Godly jealousy or to sell out more completely to Jesus!" — Keith Green

"You shouldn't go to college unless God has definitely called you to go." — Keith Green, 'Why YOU should go to the mission field', 1982

"No Compromise is what the whole Gospel of Jesus is all about… 'For I tell you…no man can serve two masters…' (Matt. 6:24). In a day when believers seem to be trying to please both the world and the Lord (which is an impossible thing), when people are far more concerned about offending their friends than offending God, there is only one answer…Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Him!" — Keith Green, in the album, No Compromise (1978).