Book Review

The church in the center

Learning from Tim Keller’s emphasis on the strategic value of ministry in the city

February 7, 2020

It was 2005. I was a farm boy who found himself pastoring a church in the center of a major city. I had no idea what I was doing.

Another pastor I knew had just returned from a church planting conference at which he heard some guy speak and gave me the 23-page handout. “Nathan, you’ve got to read this! This is all about where you are.”

The title of the paper was “Ministry in the New Global Culture of Major City-Centers.” The author was Tim Keller, who was starting to be known more widely outside of New York City where he had planted and pastored Redeemer Presbyterian Church since 1989. I devoured and marked up that document and shared it enthusiastically with many others.

Keller helped me understand for the first time how the gospel is not just the ABCs of the Christian life, but the A to Z. He also connected the dots for me to see the city as an exciting, strategic, and necessary place for gospel ministry. I had never encountered anything like it before, and Keller’s continued influence has profoundly shaped me personally as well as pastorally.

The unique blend of biblical and practical theology with sociology that I first discovered in that handout has now been fully developed and expanded in the substantial tome titled Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City. Here ministry practitioners will not find a plug-and-play model to use but rather be challenged to develop a theological vision to guide them in their own context.

It begins with the gospel

It all begins with the gospel. Keller carefully distinguishes what the gospel is and what it is not, looking at it systematically as well as redemptive-historically. Yet an accurate grasp of the gospel’s content is not enough. The gospel must penetrate our hearts and in turn affect all areas of our individual and corporate lives.

Envisioning this kind of genuine gospel renewal, Keller writes, “When the gospel is expounded and applied in its fullness in any church, that church will look unique. People will find in it an attractive, electrifying balance of moral conviction and compassion” (51). Revival like this is a gift of God and cannot be manufactured, but we can pray and preach toward that end, and Keller gives some rich insight into how to do that.

Reaching the city

Keller believes that we also have a role to play in contextualizing the gospel to our culture. By this he means lovingly and boldly expressing the Bible’s answers to the human predicament “in a way that avoids making the message unnecessarily alien to that culture, yet without removing or obscuring the scandal and offense of biblical truth” (89). Some may quibble with exactly where Keller falls on the continuum, but no one can honestly deny that we are all doing contextualization at some level. Nor can anyone maintain that Keller has sold out to the world.  

In this section Keller also makes his best case for Christians to be in cities. He traces the urban theme throughout the Bible and history, showing convincingly that city life has been God’s design all along. In fact, the New Jerusalem portrayed at the end of Revelation is the Garden of Eden fully developed. He does not hide the costs and ugliness of the cities of Man, yet he points out the beauty, benefits, and opportunities that many have perhaps not considered.

Keller is quick to make the caveat that “there must be Christians and churches everywhere there are people.” He is clear that he is not calling for all believers to “pack up and go to live and minister in urban areas.” What he is saying is that “the cities of the world are grievously underserved by the church, because, in general, the people of the world are moving into cities faster than churches are.” Keller is “seeking to use all the biblical, sociological, missiological, ecclesial, and rhetorical resources at [his] disposal to help the church (particularly in the United States) reorient itself to address this deficit” (166). He makes a compelling case.

“Even those (like Wendell Berry) who lift up the virtues of rural living,” notes Keller, “outline a form of human community just as achievable in cities as in small towns.” Keller believes that “a person with an ‘agrarian’ mind can live in a city very well” (170). As someone with rural roots who has often wistfully read Berry’s tales of Port William, I think Keller is right. Despite many challenges, I am trying to apply the best of where I came from to the place that my wife, five kids, and I now call home.

Chapters 15 through 18 deal with cultural engagement, revisiting H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic categories of how Christ relates to culture and interacting with more recent developments in the debate. After seeking to charitably assess strengths and weaknesses of each camp, Keller (in classic Keller form) tries to advocate for a balanced, blended approach between what he calls Two Kingdoms, Relevance, Transformationist, and Counterculturalist schools of thought. One might lean a little more into the Two Kingdoms camp and Keller may gravitate more to the Transformationist/Kuyperian side, but the discussion here will be stimulating for anyone interested in thinking through the Church’s role in this world.

The Church on the move

Keller maintains that churches must assume a missional posture, always having an eye toward the unbelievers around them. Yet his sights are set on more than mere church growth. He desires a movement where many new churches of different shapes and sizes are started throughout the city and beyond. And this requires a gospel ecosystem that involves more than just local churches, but also campus ministries, seminaries, trans-denominational prayer meetings and other specialized parachurch ministries.

The final chapters include priceless pieces of wisdom for the church as an organization, like how to structure the worship service to both edify and evangelize, preaching to the heart, ideas for community building, etc. There are also practical suggestions for equipping and sending gospel-renewed Christians out into their workplaces and neighborhoods, serving the poor and doing justice—the church as an organism.


The length of the book can be daunting (the publisher has actually now broken it up into three shorter paperbacks to remove that obstacle). Keller’s “third way” instincts can become predictable and somewhat hackneyed at times. But in an era of divisiveness and vitriol, Keller’s gracious, thoughtful, winsome engagement with the world provides a model worthy of our attention. And in a day of high-profile pastoral malpractice, Keller’s long-term faithfulness is admirable.

This book best encapsulates Keller’s ministry. And familiarity with his story is a great boon to us all, demonstrating the power of the gospel in cities, rural settings, and throughout the world. 

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24