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Book Review

The church in the center

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

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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.

Conclusion

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.