In my time I’ve read a number of different books on the church, ranging from Your Church Can Grow by C. Peter Wagner, to Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Church and Bill and Lynne Hybels’ Rediscovering Church: The Story and Vision of Willow Creek Community Church, and Sticky Church by Larry Osborne and so I was intrigued to read Center Church by Timothy Keller.
In many ways Keller’s book is a different kind of book bringing a mixture of theology and application. I heard Tim speak at Cape Town 2010 – The Third Lausanne Congress, and was immediately impressed with his thinking around God and the city. As pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, a thriving ministry in the heart of New York City, he has been able to put into practice much of his thinking from his time at Westminster Theological Seminary. Redeemer has helped mentor other church planters in New York and beyond through Redeemer City to City, a ministry which has helped launch over 200 churches in 35 global cities so far. Much of this book has been already shared in other places – be it sermons, or the Preaching Christ in a Postmodern World course he did with Ed Clowney.
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, and in this Keller refers to 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 Confession of Faith, but diverged on practical (and theological) issues. Therefore, 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, which he defines 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’s own theological vision can be summed up under the values of gospel, city and movement.
1. Gospel—Center Church maintains that it is critical for every new generation and setting to find ways to communicate the gospel clearly and strikingly, distinguishing it from its opposites and counterfeits. I love reading Keller’s writing on the gospel – he is very skilled at articulating the nuances of the gospel – highlighting what it is and what it is not. Keller lays out the difference between the Gospel and legalism on the one hand and anti-nomianism (license to sin) on the other. This section deals with the plot lines of Scripture and seeing Christ as the resolution to each one. Keller lays out how the Gospel itself is not merely the key to justification but to sanctification; that we grow spiritually as we more deeply come to see the implications of the Gospel for our lives and believe it. He then moves on to the concept of “Gospel Renewal” (part 2 of the book) developing Richard Lovelace’s writings, looking at the marks of true revival.
2. City—Center Church maintains that every church, whether located in a city, suburb, or rural area…must become wise about and conversant with the distinctives of human life in those places. It gets into the question of contextualization: how should the believer relate to the world and how should they present the Gospel to the world? As a youth worker this is incredibly important for me, how do we relate to our culture, but coming from the position of timeless truths. I found it interesting how Keller decries how church planters or missionaries tend to reproduce the cultural methodology of ministries that have impacted them:
If they have been moved by a ministry that has forty-five-minute verse-by-verse expository sermons, a particular kind of singing, or a specific order and length to the services, they reproduce it down to the smallest detail. Without realizing it, they become method driven and program driven rather than theologically driven. They are contextualizing their ministry expression to themselves, not to the people they want to reach. (p. 97)
3. Movement—This has to do with a church’s understanding of traditions and how they effect the practical parts of a church’s ministry. It is the most practical part of the book, which focuses on three main topics: the debate over the missional church, mobilising your congregation into ‘lost’ culture, and the nature of ‘movements’ in church planting. I particularly liked the way that in this section Keller time and time again emphasised the need for collaboration and co-operation across communities, something that sadly we still fail to do. Keller is eager to point out that Center Church is not promoting a “how-to” strategy on church planting or ministry; and nor does he want people to follow his set of programmes, instead he wants people to engage in the thinking process.
The book is a great textbook on how to think about doing church. It’s left me wanting to re-read sections, to dig deeper into his thinking and wrestle with where I stand, and how I lead my children’s and youth work. I found the layout of the book, with a lot of diagrams and sidebars, leading to recommended reading very helpful.
You can learn more at CenterChurch.com.