Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City Hardcover – Sep 8 2012
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About the Author
Timothy Keller is the founder and senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Reason for God and The Prodigal God. He has also mentored young urban church planters and pastors in New York and other cities through Redeemer City to City, which has helped launch over 200 churches in 35 global cities to date.
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The book is essentially a manual for creating a theological vision for a city, being a faithful re-statement of the gospel with rich implications for life, ministry, and mission in a type of culture at a moment in history. The book starts by discussing what the gospel is, and what is involved in gospel renewal. It then discusses the importance of gospel contextualisation and how it relates to a city, and finally movement dynamics including mission, institutions and integrative ministry.
While leaders of established churches may not spend much time considering the theological implications of their church practices, church planters (unless they are merely following someone else's template) are inevitably faced with the task of thinking through what the new church is going to look like, how it is going to explain the gospel to the local people groups, and how it is going to embody Christian community. These are challenging theological issues, and the book provides excellent source material to assist in the process.
The author explains how his own approach to explaining and advocating the truth has been honed by receiving extensive feedback from a wide variety of people with different cultural backgrounds, and this is reflected in his writing style, in which he gives careful and respectful consideration to a range of different views before explaining his own view. While you might not agree with him, at least you will feel that all views have been considered fairly.
Readers hoping for an easy read with witty and entertaining anecdotes would be best to avoid this book. It is a long book, with a lot of words packed onto each page, aimed at readers who are committed to thinking in depth about how the current decline of the church in Western countries can be reversed. By the end I was both inspired by the possibilities and somewhat overwhelmed by the complexity and extent of the task of gospel work in cities today. In my view, this is an outstanding reference work for church leaders and planters.
What we need, according to Tim Keller, is middleware. Middleware is like the operating system on your computer. It's neither the hardware (like theology), nor is it the application (the programs). In the church, this middleware -- a theological vision for ministry, really -- is more practical than doctrinal beliefs alone, but more theological than "how-to" steps for ministry. It is, it turns out, exactly what we need, and it's what Keller aims to deliver in his tome Center Church.
Yes, it's a tome. The book is almost 400 pages, and the audiobook is almost 23 hours long. It's formatted like a textbook with lots of sidebars, and some tables and sidebars. As Mike Wittmer writes, "The only thing it's missing is a few pictures of U.S. Presidents, and I'd be back in high school." (The sidebars are one reason why the print version is superior to the audiobook or the ebook format. There's no real way for the sidebars to have the same flow on a Kindle, much less an audiobook.)
The book delivers exactly what you'd expect from Tim Keller: a scholarly but practical look at ministry. The book is broken into three sections: Gospel, City, and Movement.
First, he begins with the gospel, helping us think carefully about what it is and what it isn't. He also describes how the gospel renews the church. Chapter 6, "The Work of Gospel Renewal," is worth the price of the book itself for any pastor who wants to see the church revived.
Second, Keller writes on the city. Keller describes what it means to contextualize our ministries appropriately, and then gives us a basic understanding of urban theology. Keller is the best thing to happen to urban theology since Ray Bakke, who wrote The Urban Christian years ago. Keller makes a compelling case for the importance of ministry in the urban core, without devaluing the significance of ministry elsewhere. He then deals with the complex topic of the church's relationship to culture. Entire books have been written on this topic, but Keller bravely tackles it, providing a good synthesis of the various views. Keller reminds me of why I love cities, and why I'm glad to be pastoring in a city like Toronto.
Finally, Keller writes on movement. The Church, he writes, is both an organism and an organization. It requires that we join God on mission, that we integrate a number of ministry fronts, and that we act as an organized organism.
We need, he writes, more than sound doctrine, although sound doctrine is necessary. We need more than a magic-bullet program that will reach people. We need something in the middle: a theological vision that enables us to communicate the gospel to our time and place. "You can do this ministry with God's help," Keller writes, "so give it all you've got. You can't do this ministry without God's help -- so be at peace."
I can't tell you how much I appreciated this book. It's meaty, but it re-energized me at many points. When Keller writes about church planting, for instance, he both inspired me and encouraged me, and made me want to sign up to be a church planter all over again. He has a knack for communicating complex information in a pastorally helpful way.
This is one of those books that I'll be reading again. It's going to go on the shelf of books that are consulted often, because it covers so much material in a substantive, helpful way.
I did have a couple of mild criticisms. Keller likes finding the via media, the middle way. This is often helpful, but not always. Also, I also found that this book had a heavily edited feel. It ocassionally seemed to lack cohesiveness, which is perhaps understandable given all the ground it covers. Still, it seemed to be missing some of Keller's voice. I could be imagining this, but it felt that way.
That being said, this book is gold. A few of Keller's articles have had a profound influence on my life. Imagine, then, almost 400 pages of such material. If you're in pastoral ministry, or if you are interested in a theological vision of the church, or any number of related topics such as church planting and cultural engagement, then this book is a must. Buy the print edition if you can, and refer to it often. You won't be sorry.
What is the gospel and how do we bring it to bear on the hearts of people today?
What is this culture like and how can we both connect to it and challenge it in our communication?
Where are we located, and how does this affect our ministry?
To what degree and how should Christian lay-people be involved in civic life and cultural production?
How do the various ministries in a church, word and deed, community and instruction, relate to one another?
How innovative will our church be and how traditional?
How will our church relate to other churches in our city and region?
How will we make our case to the culture about the truth of Christianity?
Next Dr. Keller fleshes out the answers in a clear and concise manner, making it simple for leaders to develop their own answers for their own situations. This is building what Dr. Keller calls a "theological vision" which he defines as "a faithful restatement of the gospel with rich implications for life, ministry, and mission in a type of culture at a moment in history."
The one minor objection I had for this book (I now see it as an advantage) was that there are many large sidebars throughout the text. At first I found these distracting but only because I wanted to plodge through as quickly as possible. This is a book meant to be digested, ruminated upon, and reflected. The sidebars are actually rich fields of supporting material by way of story or illustration. And the well footnoted references are worth the price of the book all by themselves.
My favorite sections were: What is the Gospel? The need for Gospel Renewal, and The Gospel and Contextualization. I especially enjoyed Dr. Keller's piece on Biblical Contextualization, he states, Romans 1 & 2 provide the basis for contextualization, the bible takes a mixed view of culture. 1 Cor. 9 speaks to our motive for contextualization, flexibility, ready to adapt. 1 Cor. 1 gives a basic formula for contextualization and shows how to keep a balance between affirming and confronting culture.
Timothy Keller outlines an answer to that question in Center Church. Keller is founder and pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, and a New York Times bestselling author. Through Redeemer City to City, he mentors young urban church planters and pastors. Keller is also cofounder of The Gospel Coalition, a movement associated with the New Calvinism and the resurgence of a complementarian understanding of gender roles. As a Pentecostal, I disagree with both his Calvinism and complementarianism, though I hasten to add he doesn’t make them points of contentions in his book. Regardless, I believe that Center Church offers a theological vision of gospel ministry that repays careful consideration by ministers across the evangelical spectrum.
Books about church tend to fall into two categories: what to believe (doctrine) and what to do (ministry). Center Church brings the two together in fruitful dialogue, resulting in “theological vision.” Keller writes: “a theological vision is a vision for what you are going to do with your doctrine in a particular time and place.” It develops “from deep reflection on the Bible itself, but it also depends a great deal on what you think of the culture around you.”
Keller organizes his theological vision for ministry around three commitments: gospel, city, and movement. “Both the Bible and church history show us that it is possible to hold all the correct individual biblical doctrines and yet functionally lose our grasp on the gospel,” he writes. “It is critical, therefore, in every new generation and setting to find ways to communicate the gospel clearly and strikingly, distinguishing it from its opposites and counterfeits” (emphasis in original). Keller takes up this task in Parts 1 and 2, which focus on “Gospel Theology” and “Gospel Renewal” (or “Revival”), respectively.
Parts 3, 4, and 5 focus on “Gospel Contextualization,” “City Vision,” and “Cultural Engagement,” respectively. Keller writes: “All churches must understand, love, and identify with their local community and social setting, and yet at the same time be able and willing to critique and challenge it.” These chapters are, in my opinion, the best in a very good book. We often think of missiology as the study of missions internationally—across national, cultural, and linguistic boundaries. What Keller demonstrates is that missiological thinking is relevant intranationally—within our own culture. Evangelicals should not assume, as we have done for so long, that America is a Christian nation. We should rather approach it as a mission field and think of ourselves as missionaries to it.
Finally, Parts 6, 7, and 8 focus on “Missional Community,” “Integrative Ministry,” and “Movement Dynamics,” respectively. This last topic “has to do with your church’s relationships” (emphasis in original). “Some churches are highly institutional,” Keller writes, “with a strong emphasis on their own past, while others are anti-institutional, fluid, and marked by constant innovation and change.” Keller advocates a balanced position between tradition and innovation, drawing on the best of both.
Indeed, balanced is a useful way to describe Keller’s theological vision throughout the book. Keller speaks of “the balance of three axes.” On the gospel axis, the Church must balance between legalism and antinomianism. “We are saved by faith and grace alone, but not by a faith that remains alone,” he writes. “True grace always results in changed lives of holiness and justice.” On the city axis, the Church must balance between only challenging the culture and only appreciating it. “This is based on the biblical teaching that all cultures have God’s grace and natural revelation in them, yet they are also in rebellious idolatry.” On the movement axis, the Church must balance between being an organization (focused on tradition and authority) and an organism (focused on cooperation and unity). “[A] church at either extreme will stifle the development of leadership and strangle the health of the church as a corporate body, as a community,” Keller writes. “The more that ministry comes ‘from the center’ of all the axes, the more dynamism and fruitfulness it will have.”
Center Church is not a quick read. It is a 400-page, two-columned textbook. If you’re looking for easy answers or quick fixes, this is not the book to read. On the other hand, if you’re willing to put in the time and effort, reading this book will change the way you think about gospel ministry in a post-Christian era.
Keller sets out to communicate one central message which is summed up in the subtitle: Doing Balanced Gospel-Centered Ministry in the City. Center Church is encyclopedic in nature. It covers every subject conceivable and is a helpful tool in every pastors prospective tool chest.
The discussion about gospel contextualization (chapter 7) is deeply encouraging and highly instructive. The author notes, "Contextualization is not - as is often argued - 'giving people what they want to hear.' Rather, it is giving people the Bible's answers, which they may not at all want to hear, to questions about life that people in their particular time and place are asking, in language and forms they can comprehend, and through appeals and arguments with force they can feel, even if they reject them.."
Keller warns against the temptation to use contextualization as a clever means of compromise (which I find many pastors doing). He adds, "The call to contextualize the gospel has been - and still often is - used as a cover for religious syncretism. This means not adapting the gospel to a particular culture, but rather surrendering the gospel entirely and morphing Christianity into a different religion by overadapting it to an alien worldview."
Center Church is filled with helpful instruction on doing gospel ministry in the city. It is a long read but worth plodding through for the treasures along the way.
Highly recommended for pastors who love the gospel!