“Center Church” by Tim Keller – A Review

It is the best book outlining the theological vision and philosophy of ministry prior to determining specifics church models, ministry programs, and methods of multiplication

Keller begins his discussion about the city by critiquing romanticized views of the city (p. 135).  Keller even admits that the contrasts between city, suburb, and town are general and that some locations blur the distinction (p. 136).  In the end, Keller commends ministry in all locales and believes Center Church is helpful to churches in non-urban contexts (p. 381).   

 

I eagerly opened my Amazon package more than two weeks ago to get my hands on Tim Keller’s newest book, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City.  Reading excerpts of the book before its release gave me excitement to dive into this (long) work.  Whether I ended up agreeing with particular points or not, Keller is an engaging thinker and practitioner when it comes to pastoral ministry.   

In many ways, this is Keller’s most important work.  I didn’t encounter a ton of new material in here since it is basically an assimilation of his talks, articles, and other books that deal with gospel centrality, vision for cities, collaborative movements, etc.  So, those who are well-versed in Keller’s thought (either in strong agreement or disagreement) will not find much new material here.  The newest material seems to deal with Keller’s discussion about the missional church in chapters 19 and 20, as well as his discussion of Christ & Culture models in part 5 of the book.   

The problem with reviewing a book that lacks an abundance of new material or insight from a well-known church leader is that it is nearly impossible to convince fans of Keller to love him more or to significantly disagree with him.  Likewise, significant criticism won’t be dissuaded by anything written in this review.  Why is this?  While it is because Keller is rather polarizing (probably less to do with him and more to do with some of his rather fanatical followers…which any successful theologian or pastor must deal with), I believe Keller is onto something significant in the first main point of his work.   

Middleware – Theological Vision

Keller lays out his thesis in the book’s introduction.  In writing to two groups:  those who believe one must comprise doctrinal integrity to have fruitful ministry, or those who believe that strict confessionalism should solve the issue of divergent philosophies of ministry in a single denomination/tradition, Keller makes the case for a third category between doctrinal commitments and practical ministry programs.  Drawing from computer technology, Keller labels doctrinal commitments as ‘hardware’, ministry programs as ‘software’, and theological vision as ‘middleware’.   

The case for theological vision as the deciding factor as to how fruitful (not just faithful) a local church is made, in part, from church history.  Keller briefly talks about the ‘Marrow Controversy’ in the Church of Scotland during the 18th century (p. 22).  The ‘Marrow Controversy’ was unique in that both sides of the debate had pastors who fully subscribed to the Westminster Standards but diverged on practical (and theological) issues  such as the free offer of the gospel, the balancing act between legalism and antinomianism, finer details of covenant theology, etc.  Thus, Keller claims, mere doctrinal orthodoxy or confessional subscription isn’t enough to decide a myriad of issues when it comes to the ministry of the church.  What is needed is a theological vision, middleware.   

Theological Vision is defined by Keller 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.” (p. 19) Keller goes on to define Redeemer’s TV, and though his definition of TV would seem to indicate that no two churches will have the same TV, Keller implies throughout the book that his TV might be a good one to adopt with slight revision.  Perhaps Keller should have clarified this or even presented other TVs besides his own.   

What is Keller’s TV (which really is a philosophy of ministry)?  It is the title of the book, Center Church.  Center Church emphasizes the notion of ‘centrality’ over ‘boundary’, which has drawn complaints from some Reformed folk.  (Ultimately, I don’t think critics of “center” language understand the purpose or distinction being made by Keller, The Gospel Coalition, Together 4 the Gospel, etc.) The three ‘central’ values or emphases of this Center Church TV are gospel, city, and movement (which is how the book is divided).  What does Keller mean by these three values?   

Gospel-centered is emphasized throughout the book in three key ways.  First, the gospel is distinguished from antinomianism (irreligion) or legalism (religion).  Second, the gospel is neither everything nor a simple thing (Ch. 1-2).  (Some critics of Keller and the ‘grace movement’ have claimed that these pastors make everything about the gospel or that this gospel-centeredness detracts from the third use of the law.  I think Keller does a more than adequate job dispelling these concerns in speaking about repentance and holiness throughout these discussions.)  Third, the gospel affects everything (Ch. 3).    

These opening chapters are both familiar (Keller doesn’t cover much new ground compared to his previous work) and fun (his discussion on biblical theology, different ‘forms’ of the gospel within the one gospel, etc.).  Keller is one of the most gifted pastors in writing and preaching about the gospel with all its biblical nuances.   

Keller spends three chapters on ‘gospel renewal’ where the reader is treated with a theology of revival and a critique of revivalism.  Many traditional Reformed folk will be pleased to see Keller’s appeal to Old Princeton in critiquing Finney revivalism as well as critiquing Nevin’s nonrevivalism.  Keller’s perspective, as many know, fits nicely with Jonathan Edwards’ view on revivals (p. 55-57).  In addition, Keller asserts the vital importance of the ordinary means of grace to see the Spirit bring revival.  The emphasis on the local church should be encouraging to some of Keller’s more conservative detractors, “Unbalanced revivalism indeed undermines the work of the established church.  But balanced revivalism – a commitment to corporate and individual gospel renewal through the ordinary means of grace – is the work of the church.” (p. 60) Amen!   

City-Centered might be the most controversial part of Keller’s TV with his emphasis on contextualization and the importance of urban church planting.  While Keller does focus on urban cities in this section as well as the entire book, Keller broadly defines city as “cultural context”, which would gave many of these principles apply in non-urban settings.   

Still, what about Keller’s insistence on contextualization as essential to fruitful ministry?  While Keller doesn’t examine every single problem or issue with contextualization, he spends four chapters defining, defending, and applying this notion.  Overall, I am in agreement with Keller in terms of the philosophical (logical), theological, and biblical bases for balanced contextualization.  

Contextualization, within a Center Church TV is defined as, “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.” (p. 89) I love this balanced and careful definition.  Keller makes it clear that the goal is not to make everyone to believe by any means necessary.  Rather, the goal is clarity.   

Keller makes his case for contextualization in a number of ways.   He is wise to appeal to evangelical and Reformed giants such as J. Gresham Machen to show what faithful contextualization should not be (p. 92).  Keller goes on to show how contextualization is necessary and inevitable (p. 93).  It isn’t a question of contextualization versus non-contextualization, but rather faithful contextualization versus over/under-contextualization.

Finally, Keller gives a biblical basis for contextualization.  Keller centers on Paul, specifically with Rom 1-2, 1 Cor 9, and Pauline speeches in the book of Acts (p. 108-14).  I won’t summarize Keller’s exegesis, but I found it sound.  Those who decry Keller’s insistence on and case for biblically balanced contextualization will need to read these pages.   

What about Keller’s strong insistence that denominations, networks, and churches focus on urban cities when it comes to church planting and revitalization?  Many criticize Keller’s city-centric proposal as somehow being anti-rural or anti-small town.  Yet, Keller’s previous writing as well as Center Church show Keller’s emphasis on cities but not to the exclusion of the rural or suburban.  In fact, Keller begins his discussion about the city by critiquing romanticized views of the city (p. 135).  Keller even admits that the contrasts between city, suburb, and town are general and that some locations blur the distinction (p. 136).  In the end, Keller commends ministry in all locales and believes Center Church is helpful to churches in non-urban contexts (p. 381).   

So, why be city-centered?  Keller makes an interesting biblical-theological case (which may be found elsewhere in other writings) for going after cities, or places of great population density, with the gospel.  Keller’s exposition of the story of Jonah, showing how God loves people more than plants while Jonah loves plants more than people is stirring and convicting.      

In general, Keller proposes that cities are a strategic location for church planting as well as a wonderful place to do ministry.  If God loves image bearers who need redemption, and cities (by definition), have exponentially more broken image bearers than the country, then church planting should happen more in cities than other geographic areas.  While some see this reasoning as prideful, unbiblical, or anti-rural, I think Keller’s main points in the context of what he says about cities and the rural refute such criticisms (really, ad hominem).  (Keller’s interaction with Wendell Berry on how the ‘agrarian mind’ may be translated into the urban environment is pretty neat, p. 170.)   

Movement-Centered is the most practical portion of Center Church.  Three main topics are dealt with: the debate over the missional church, mobilizing one’s congregation into ‘lost’ culture, and the nature of ‘movements’ in church planting.  The final topic is summarized in Keller’s previous article on gospel ecosystems.  The best word to summarize this point is collaboration.  The notion of churches from different denominations and networks collaborating and cooperating to evangelize a city will be offensive and difficult for many, but Keller’s appeal to the Apostles Creed’s phrase “one holy, catholic church” is a solid basis for collaboration (p. 368ff).   

Concerning the mobilization of one’s congregation, Keller has five chapters that describe ways to connect people to the city, one another, and the culture.  In summary, Keller appeals to Abraham Kuyper’s distinction between the institutional and organic church (p. 294) as to how the “church” transforms a city and culture.  Keller will receive the most push back on the church’s role in justice issues, and he devotes a few pages (p. 325-27) outlining the church’s responsibility (and whether it goes back to the institutional or the organic church).  The brevity of the section signals its lack of helpfulness.  Yet, Keller would have the reader go to his other book, Generous Justice, to wrestle with these issues.   

Keller’s discussion on the missional church is fascinating.  I enjoyed learning the lay of the missional land in contemporary literature and where some of the lines are drawn.  In the end, Keller doesn’t mind the word ‘missional’ and freely adopts helpful aspects from missional literature, but he delivers strong critique to figures and movements that undermine gospel proclamation or ecclesiology.   

A Redeemer Model?   

Keller is eager to point out that Center Church is not promoting a “how-to” strategy on church planting or ministry.  Neither does he want folks to copy Redeemer Presbyterian Church’s ministry programs.  Rather, Keller would have churches, pastors, and planters imitate Redeemer’s thinking process and how they arrived at their particular TV.  At many points, Keller preaches against being “for a model”.  While models are “unavoidable” (p. 293), it is unwise to be “too tied to a particular form” of church (p. 265).   

Missional church proponents that heavily critique any and all forms of church different from their form would do well to heed Keller’s words, “I don’t believe any single form of church (small or large, cell group based or midsize community based) is intrinsically better at growing spiritual fruit, reaching nonbelievers, caring for people, and producing Christ-shaped lives…because each approach to church – the small, organic, simple incarnational church, and the large, organizational, complex attractional church – has vastly different strengths and weaknesses, limitations and capabilities.” (p. 268) I heartily agree, though I myself love a particular form/model.  Keller’s point, though, is that TV is more foundational than form/model.   

Christ & Culture   

Along with the discussion about the missional church, Keller takes a few chapters to summarize and critique various Christ & Culture models.  One can see Keller’s affinity for thinkers (past and present) such as Abraham Kuyper, James Davison Hunter, and D.A. Carson.  Keller ends up critiquing only four models:  transformationalist, relevance, counterculturalist, and two kingdoms.  One senses Keller’s slant towards something close to the transformationalist model, but he employs Carson’s critique of all the models being unbalanced.   

Reading Keller’s summary and history of the four models and their various subgroups is intriguing.  Keller’s own conclusion on the matter comes out of left field as he encourages the reader to choose their model that they have a personal affinity for and then strive towards biblical balance (p. 241-42).  Keller provides a helpful chart for this.  Whether one agrees with Keller on this issue, I think every theologian (young, old, professional, amateur) needs to read Keller’s four rules for engagement on this issue (p. 242).  He frankly calls everyone to be mature and humble on this secondary debate.   

Other Matters   

Aside from the content, the reader will enjoy the layout of the book, but patience will be key in getting through everything.  Also, Zondervan endnotes are seriously annoying. (Seriously.) The index for the book is decent enough, but it could be beefed up more (and there is no Scripture index).  The textbook style of Center Church might frustrate some with its large pages, double columns, sidebar articles, etc.  But overall, most readers will enjoy the layout.   

A flaw?   

Again, most people have their minds made up about Keller and his thinking.  I just hope Center Church (and even this review) will move folks a little toward the middle on this issue.  However, no book or philosophy of ministry is without flaws.  When we look back on the Center Church/Kellerism model in 15-20 years, what will we say were the blind spots?    The blind spot may be Tim Keller’s giftedness.  Reading this book made me, a Keller fan, overwhelmed.  There is so much to think about and process if I would want to apply these principles in my own church context (the church plant that I am on staff with, in fact, does a lot what Keller teaches).   

Even if I followed this book perfectly, I would never see my church grow rapidly and become a megachurch (or even a several hundred person church).  But, why does it work for Redeemer and Keller so that there is a multi-side mega church in the coolest city in the world?  It works well for Keller because he is gifted and blessed by the Holy Spirit.  Even if one tries to apply Keller’s principles for preaching in a gospel-centered, Christ-exalting way, you will never be as good as Keller.  Critiquing the idols of a culture, studying the cultural baseline narrative of a city, mobilizing people around this Center Church TV, etc. is hard work.  One must be gifted to do these things even moderately well.  Keller is very gifted and blessed by God.   

Keller recognizes this frustration the reader may have.  On the final page of the book he affirms both the humility and the overwhelming feeling that the reader may possess.  Keller encourages us to recognize that the Holy Spirit must be behind it all if there is to be fruitfulness.  There is no need to be afraid or completely overwhelmed because we can’t do it without Jesus anyway.   

Application for Reformed Pastors   

As one in the Reformed tradition who is involved with church planting, the big debate in my denomination and among Reformed friends is whether an ‘ordinary means of grace’ ecclesiology is coherent with this ‘Theological Vision’ that is gospel, city, and movement-centered.  Beyond coherence, is Keller’s discussion on contextualization compatible with the ordinary means of grace?  Reformed thinkers sometimes claim “No” and that something like ‘covenant’ is our only contextualization (e.g. Michael Horton).   

Yet, Keller makes a stronger case FOR compatibility than any case I’ve heard that argues for incompatibility.  Indeed, Keller appeals to the ordinary means of grace and the priority of the local church in his discussion of revival.  He believes that gospel-centered preaching is central to a church that experiences renewal.  While Keller doesn’t believe the ordinary means of grace are the ‘only means of grace’ (a sort of ex opere operato model of preaching, sacraments, and prayer…if you have a worship service, they will come) since he makes a case for ‘fruitfulness’ beyond mere faithfulness, I don’t see how this contradicts the Westminster Standards.  The only way one could make such a case is that Reformed confessionalism must be committed to a sort of ‘unwritten practice and piety’.     

Yet, this ambiguous language only muddles a Reformed ecclesiology and binds one to a sort of golden period within Reformed orthodoxy (17th century English puritanism, 19th-20th century Dutch theology, 19th century old school Southern Presbyterianism, 16th century Magisterial tradition, 18th century American revivalism).  The debate over confessionalism has become more confusing over the years due to the writings/blogging of particular Reformed thinkers.  I am glad that other Reformed theologians (who are committed to the ordinary means of grace) are bringing balance back to the discussion.   

Recommendation

I give Center Church a top recommendation.  It is the best book outlining the theological vision and philosophy of ministry prior to determining specifics church models, ministry programs, and methods of multiplication.  You can be sure that Presbyterians will use this in their training of church planters.  I know of a Southern Baptist church planting coaching center that is thinking of using Center Church as their text book.  There are discussions in my denomination to have a colloquium/seminar to allow pastors, elders, and students to discuss the contents of the book.  Even if many have questions or disagreements with Keller’s points, this book deserves to be discussed and debated as the American evangelical (and Reformed) church faces the North American missional frontier.  It wouldn’t surprise me if Center Church tops our reading list the next 10-20 years when discussing church planting and church revitalization.   

Daniel Wells is a Church Planting Intern with the Hill City APR Church Plant in Rock Hill, SC.

@Copyright 2012 The Aquila Report – all rights reserved 

[Editor’s note: Original URLs (links) referenced in this article are no longer valid, so the links have been removed.]