Book Review – Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City by Tim Keller

I saw a slight criticism of Tim Keller’s book “Center Church” about a month after it was released in September, so there was no way that the critic could have read the entire book! So, that got my attention. After reading what Keller had to say about his own book, I decided to buy it and check it out.  I had my reservations after having read a few comments from people who had some reservations about Keller’s direction. So, I want to lay out a report of what the book is about and what some of the key thoughts are that drive the direction of the book.

1. The Gospel
The first and most important issue that Keller addresses is the gospel, it’s content and it’s exclusivity. He also makes it clear that incarnational gospel living isn’t enough, words are necessary! It must be preached verbally. The gospel is a story that begins with creation and ends in the consummation. Different parts of the plot line of the story of the gospel are better starting points to share with unbelievers than others depending on the culture. There is no “one size fits all” presentation of the gospel that fits in every time and place. Neither is the gospel just a hoop we jump through to get converted:

“It is inaccurate to think the gospel is what saves non-Christians and then Christians mature by trying hard to live according to biblical principles. It is more accurate to say that we are saved by believing the gospel, and then we are transformed in every part of our minds, hearts, and lives by believing the gospel more and more deeply as life goes on.”

As the gospel is understood more by believers, it will have an affect on every detail of their lives so that their lives become shaped by the gospel and it’s implications. This will lead to a gospel renewal individually and corporately. To my surprise, chapter 4 deals with the subject of revival and revivalism. This really grabbed my attention because I just spent the better part of this year digging into the past to learn about the great movements of the Holy Spirit. It was refreshing to read how we need to first begin with gospel renewal and the Holy Spirit’s power. He affirmed what Alexander, Nevin, and other 2nd Great Awakening “Old Schoolers” believed:

“A commitment to corporate and individual gospel renewal through the ordinary means of grace – is the work of the church…Revivalist ministry emphasizes conversion and spiritual renewal, not only for those outside the church but also for those inside the church…to kindle every revival, the Holy Spirit initially uses what Edwards called “extraordinary prayer” – united, persistent and kingdom centered…revival occurs mainly through the instituted means of grace: preaching, pastoring, worship, and prayer. It is extremely important to reaffirm this”

As we pray and prepare for gospel renewal/revival in our church, we must preach the gospel to Christians and non-Christians alike. You can’t assume that everyone under your voice is a believer. So, although the worship service is designed specificially for believers, we must be sensitive to the fact that unbelievers will be present and what we say needs to be directed at them too.

2. The City 
The next part of the book, deals with the importance of the city and how to bring the gospel to it. This is the section on contextualization. At the beginning of chapter 7, Keller acknowledges all the baggage that this word has from its origins in the World Council of Churches. He explains mainline denominational liberalism which forsook the authority of Scripture to define it’s mission and turned to see what the culture is doing as if it was God that was at work through it. The church then had to find out what God was doing and then get on that mission – human rights, emancipation of slaves, women’s rights, civil rights and now gay rights.

“Contextualization is not – as it 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. Sound contextualization means translating and adapting the communication and ministry of the gospel to the particular culture without compromising the essence and particulars of the gospel itself….we show people how the baseline ‘cultural narratives’ of their society and the hopes of their hearts can only find resolution and fulfillment in Jesus. What do I mean by this? Some cultures are pragmatic and prod their members to acquire possessions and power. Some are individualistic and urge their members to seek personal freedom above all. Others are honor and shame cultures with emphasis on respect, reputation, duty and bringing honor to your family. Some cultures are discursive and put the highest value on art, philosophy, and learning. These are called ‘cultural narratives’ because they are stories that a people tell about themselves and make sense out of their shared existence. Whatever the story may be, sound contextualization shows people how the plotlines of the story of their lives can only find a happy ending in Christ.”

To do this kind of contextualization correctly, we must find out what parts of God’s naturally revealed truth does the culture reject and accept. Because of common grace and the image of God stamped into every person, there are parts of God’s truth that are readily accepted and others that are offensive. To engage these people well, we must affirm and begin with the “A” doctrines that they already accept and show them how they are inconsistent for not accepting the “B” doctrines that they reject. This approach as Keller explained it had a very Van Tillian apologetic flavor which resonated with me. The only way to know what questions and values these people have is to immerse yourself in their questions, hopes, fears and beliefs so you can give a biblical, gospel-centered response to the questions.

In the next chapters 11-14, he writes about the importance of Christians to do ministries in cultural centers called cities.

 “The city is humanity intensified – a magnifying glass that brings out the very best and worst of human nature… Cities, quite literally, have more of the image of God per square inch than any other place on earth. How can we not be drawn to such masses of humanity if we care about the same things that God cares about?”

Rather than Christians leaving the cities as they get more corrupt and moving to the suburbs where other good people like themselves are living, he encourages us to be salt and light in the cities. The only way to reach the world is through the city and you can’t reach the city through the suburb, but you can reach the suburb from the city. This was Paul’s strategy in going to large cultural centers where he started churches. People are moving in and out of cities and contributing their talents to art, technology and ideas that shape the greater culture. Why shouldn’t Christians be in the very center of this, contributing what they have to offer in a gospel-shaped distinctive way? They can do so by showing the world around them what its like to be in the kingdom of God under the Lordship of Christ and make an impact.

This brings up the question of how to engage the culture. Everyone has different philosophies about how to go about it. There were basically four models in which any of us can find ourselves:

Relevance – These are the churches that rely heavily on common grace more than revealed truth and are very active in trying to adapt to the culture such as the liberal mainline denominations, emerging church and seeker sensitive churches.

Transformationist – These are people who believe in theonomy, Christian re-constructionism and the political religious right. They think that the way to engage the culture is to shape the government and cultural institutions into a distinctly Christian worldview. They are also very active, especially in politics.

Counterculturalist – These are the separatists who believe in withdrawing from the culture altogether and forming their own subculture as a distinct separate society that the world can witness as different. The people who would be included in this group would be the Amish, Mennonites, neo-monastics and Fundamentalists.

(Note: Keller never mentions that Fundamentalists belong in this category, but since he fails to mention it, I will, because they seem to fit somewhere between this category and the Transformationist category since many Fundamentalists are active members of the political religious right as well.)

Two Kingdoms – This view is Augustinian in its origins because there is the “City of God and City of Man” coexisting together. Believers are citizens of both cities, but hold their allegiance to the City of God and do what they can to shape the City of Man with the values of the City of God. The Reformed traditions and Lutherans would belong to this category. Most Dispensationalists would not find themselves here since they don’t believe there’s a Kingdom of God until the second coming. There is very little room for the “already, but not yet” paradigm. Although Keller does offer a few criticisms of this view, he seems to favor this one a little more than the others.

Yet, to be a “Center Church”, Keller explains that the right balance of all four views simultaneously is what we want to shoot for. We do need to acknowledge appreciate the common grace that the unbelievers enjoy and utilize while seeking to transform the culture into one that is governed by a Christian worldview. At the same time, we do need to be a separate people who are a distinct community under the Lordship of Christ that the world sees as an attractive alternative and realize that we are members of two kingdoms until the Kingdom of God comes in its fullest form to engulf the kingdom of man.

3. Movement
Finally, at the end of the book the last chapters are dedicated to the church being both an organism and an organization that have static and dynamic elements. The church is both a stable institution with inherited traditions and a dynamic movement of the Holy Spirit. We minister with balance, rooted in our ecclesial tradition, yet working cooperatively with the body of Christ to reach our city with the gospel.

In this section, Keller lays out what he defines as the Missional Church. He also talks about the history of the term Missio Dei and all of the liberal baggage that comes with it, but then how a guy named Lesslie Newbigin broke away from the more liberal World Council of Churches to redefine “Missional” as something that encapsulates both aspects of social justice and evangelism (incarnational and evangelistic).
Keller clearly plants his flag in the “Missional Church Movement”. There has been such a cultural shift in our society that the old culture of “Christendom” is gone forever. Christendom was theWest’s Christianized culture that has reigned since the middle ages, but today we are in a neo-pagan culture in which the assumptions that believer and non-believer alike once held in common are no longer there.

“Every part of a church’s life – its worship, community, public discourse, preaching and education – has to assume the presence of non-believers from the surrounding culture. The aesthetics of its worship have to reflect the sensibilities of the culture and yet show how Christian belief shapes and is expressed through them…A missional church is not less than an evangelistic church, but it is much more…”

This last paragraph is exactly what missionaries do when they start a church in another country with another culture. Their churches, dress, music, etc… are familiar to the surrounding culture without adapting the evil parts of that culture.

Keller gives the marks of a missional church:

1. A Missional Church, if it  is to have a missionary encounter with Western culture, will need to confront societies idols and especially address how modernity makes the happiness and self actualization of the individual into an absolute: materialism, consumerism and greed lead to injustice. The doctrine of the atonement and justification provide a basis and internal motivation to live more simply and do justice in the world.

2. A Missional Church, if it is to reach people in the post-Christian culture, must recognize that most of our more recently formulated and popular gospel presentations will fall on deaf ears because hearers will be viscerally offended or simply unable to understand the basic concepts of God, sin and redemption…Christian communicators must now enter, challenge and retell the culture’s stories with the gospel.

3. A Missional Church will affirm that all Christians are people in mission in every area of their lives.  We must overcome the clericalism and lay passivity of the Christendom era and recover the Reformation doctrine of “the Priesthood of all believers”.

4. The Missional Church must understand itself as a servant community – a counterculture for the common good. Churches used to be able to limit themselves to only religious concerns and function as loose fellowships within the wider semi-Christian culture…While the Christian Church must be distinct, it must be set within, not be separated from, its surroundings. The neighbors must see it as a servant society, sacrificially pouring out its time and wealth for the common good of the city…it shows the world a way between the individualistic self absorption that secularism can breed and the tribal self righteousness that religion can breed.

We must take these values and teach our people to live them out as informal missionaries in the world if we are going to have an impact and bring the gospel to them. We will have an impact for the gospel if we are like those around us yet profoundly different and unlike them at the same time, all the while remaining very visible and engaged. Christians must be like their neighbors in the food they eat, the clothes they wear, their dialect, general appearance, work life, recreational , cultural activities and civil engagement doing all things with excellence. But Christians need to be unlike their neighbors by being scrupulously honest, transparent, fair and generous. Evangelism is not simply information transmission, it’s pouring our lives into others with the gospel. The church’s objective is to connect people to God, connect people to one another, connect people to the city and connect people to the culture so that they will think “Christianly” about life. Christianity is more than a set of beliefs that achieve salvation for the soul, it is also a distinct way of understanding and interpreting everything in the world. We want Christians to be growing in maturity, working in their vocations with both excellence and Christian distinctiveness, seasoning and benefiting the culture in which they live.

At the end, he encourages churches to engage in church planting in cities as the best way to get the gospel to more unbelievers and the best way to revitalize dying established churches. If a city population can get to at least 10% Christian population, it can make a huge difference in the morals and the cultural expressions of that city.

Overall, this book resonated with me and gave me the most clear vision for ministry that I have ever read in one volume since reading 9 Marks of a Healthy Church. I was greatly encouraged by this book and would recommend any pastor to consider what Tim Keller has to say. There may be some philosophical differences on some points, but for the most part, I believe he sets a good direction for churches to follow into the future.

This book review was written by Pastor Will Dudding  (Mission Peak Baptist Church in Fremont, CA) and was used with permission.  This review also appeared on the SharperIron blog.  You can read more of Pastor Dudding’s thought on his blog, Reforming Baptist.


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