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Saturday, August 25, 2012

"Center Church" (Tim Keller)

TITLE: Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City
AUTHOR: Timothy Keller
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012, (400 pages).

This book is an ambitious attempt to bring together generations of thinking surrounding Church ministry and outreach, and at the same time, challenge Christian leaders to develop their own theological vision, that is based on gospel truth and contextualized ministry. Adapted from Richard Lints's observations about the importance of theological vision, Keller restates "theological vision" 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." Such a theological vision enables churches to see the real need in their churches, to contextualize gospel truths to culture, and to empower the ministry through the priesthood of all believers. Four key themes form the basis of "Center Church."
  1. "The gospel is at its center."
  2. "The center is the place of balance."
  3. "This theological vision is shaped by and for urban and cultural centers."
  4. "The theological vision is at the center of ministry."
All of these are applied toward the commitments of proclaiming the Gospel, to a living Church, and to constant movements in and out of ministry in a city. Center Church is formed in three progressive phases. It begins with a doctrinal foundation that is biblical, then to the formation of a theological vision, and finally to a type of ministry expression that bears fruits here and beyond. The key is in attaining some form of a "balance" among the three major axes of gospel, city, and movement.

In summary, Center Church is about being centered in the gospel, being the center of engagement among between city dwellers and Church, and being the center in which movements flow in and out of the church.

A) The Gospel Axis

Firstly, a gospel theology needs to rise up and above all other popular forms of doing church. Forms like pragmatism, shallow doctrines, lack of reflection, and other "method-driven" philosophies or ideas. It needs to avoid the extremes of liberalism, relativism, and antinomianism, or the harsh legalism or religious practice. The gospel is not about the dispensing of good advice, but the announcement of good news. Keller sees the gospel through four chapters. Any less is not the gospel.
  1. God as Creator: Where do we come from?
  2. Sin: On what has gone wrong?
  3. Christ: What will put things right?
  4. Faith: How can it be put right?
Secondly, what exactly is the gospel? Keller points out several interesting observations. He cautions us about making the gospel into "everything," at the risk of saying what the gospel is NOT saying. He then says that the gospel is simple but not simplistic. Instead of assuming a simple gospel outline, one needs to tie in to listen to the story and themes of the gospel. I like the way Keller draws in themes of covenant, kingdom, and bridging ancient contexts with modern ministry. In its truest essence, the gospel will then affect everything and enables ministries to reach out fruitfully. Here, Keller takes on a pastoral tone, to let the gospel speak to the depressed and the discouraged; provides guidance to relationships, family, sexuality, and many other issues affecting the modern person. The gospel experience is both experienced as well as lived intellectually. Keller gives his own take on comparing religion with gospel.

B) The City Axis

Center Church essentially sits between underadapted and overadapted, or under or over contextualized ministries. "Balanced contextualization" enables one to avoid either extremes. By working through stories and history of church ministries, Keller points out the dangers of over-contextualization, that while it is necessary, it can also be misleading. Contextualization is not about language, race, or emotional expressiveness on a general basis, but a constant adaptation to where we are, and who we are trying to communicate with. Greater cultural awareness leads to better gospel contextualization. Contextualization is like a two way bridge, where we communicate and listen to culture we are in. Keller then uses three biblical examples of how contextualization is done, namely Romans 1-2, 1 Corinthians 9, and 1 Corinthians 1. On gospel contextualization, Keller proposes a three-part process of "active contextualization" of "entering" and "challenging" the culture and then "appealing" to the listeners. He makes a good observation on the way we do cultural critique.

"Our criticism of the culture will have no power to persuade unless it is based on something we can affirm in the beliefs and values of that culture."

Then, we can better appreciate the tensions of the city, and work toward redemption of the city. Keller goes heavy on theological engagement from this point. His work on cultural engagement represents perhaps his most intense engagement with the many thought-leaders such as Carl Henry, James Hunter, Richard Niebuhr, Brian McLaren, and proponents of both Kingdom models as well as Transformational models, Emergent Relevance as well as countercultural models. While he critiques, it is important to recognize Keller does not dismiss them outright. He then tries to make sense of all the models through an innovative "Blended insights" model that tells why all models are right or wrong. The key is for different ministries to find out what is best for them, but only after having developed their theological vision.

C) The Movement Axis

Finally, the third axis is about how a ministry becomes both an organism as well as an organization, living with both tradition as well as change. Keller makes some poignant observations about the missional movement, engaging Lesslie Newbigin, Darrell Guder, Craig van Gelder, and shows us why the influence of Christendom has been lost. One of the main reasons is the rise of individualism and perceived sufficiency of human reasoning. His three primary concerns about the missional conversation revolves around the lack of comprehensiveness, too restricted to a particular form, and a lack of a clear understanding of the gospel when implementing them. In other words, there is no one model. There is only one particular contextualization that needs to be moved into or out of at any point of time. Keller then proposes 6 marks of a missional community.

Six Marks of a Missional Church
  1. The church must confront society’s idols. 
  2. The church must contextualize skillfully and com-municate in the vernacular.
  3. The church must equip people in mission in every area of their lives. 
  4. The church must be a counterculture for the common good. 
  5. The church must itself be contextualized and should expect nonbelievers, inquirers, and seekers to be involved in most aspects of the church’s life and ministry. 
  6. The church must practice unity.
My Thoughts

From the beginning, Keller has me at "fruitfulness" when comparing it with success and faithfulness in ministry. For years, I have thought that faithfulness will be largely sufficient, and success be God's decision. His summary of the many books on church ministry is worth the price of the book. Keller is well read and he demonstrates his constant ability to contextualize what he reads by being both critical and affirming, open-minded yet staunch gospel conviction, and above all, deep love for people and the Church. In other words, Keller does not just tell, he shows the way. This book may a little hard to read for those of us who are unfamiliar with church history, the missional or cultural models mentioned. Perhaps, Keller is writing more for Christian leaders who have been curious about the success of the Redeemer Church model. Keller is also careful not to let his own Church become another model that misleads others. By arguing for constant contextualization, and a need to hone in one's theological vision for each church, he is making sure that he does not add on to the growing piles of books that are theoretically sharp but practically blunt.

I find Center Church a little disconcerting at first, because Keller seems to be approving, yet disapproving of almost all models he has highlighted. Perhaps, that is his style of contextualizing as he writes or thinks. Perhaps, the way to understand this book is not to become fixated over formulae, methodologies, strategies, or so-called best practices of Redeemer Church. It is the process, and formulation of a theological vision that will determine how best to preach the gospel, to reach out to the city, and to move in and out of the flow of a living Church, led by the Spirit.  I like this book, and its highly engaging way in cultural engagement. My main critique is that Keller has attempted too big a bite, and having done that, he has only chewed off the tip of the iceberg. My main applause will be, Keller is on to something very big, very important, and ultimately very life-giving.

Ratin: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Zondervan and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.


  1. Hi Conrade,
    Thanks so much for providing this thorough review. I know that your thoughts will move the conversation around this book forward. Thanks for the thoughtful critique.

    1. Andrew,
      Thanks for your kind words. I appreciate you reading this and your affirmation.

      Grace and peace,