Book Review: Center Church by Timothy Keller

5 out of 5 Stars
Author: Timothy Keller
Publisher: Zondervan
Buy Center Church: Doing Balanced Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City
Reading Level: Moderate

I have aligned (and again) myself with the missional emphasis in reformed theology and I have also been critical elsewhere (and again). I also recommended highly Kevin DeYoung’s What is the Mission of the Church? (buy) for a balanced critique of the missional movement. While stressing the importance of good works as fruit of our faith, DeYoung is clearly outside of the missional camp. Now I will recommend Keller’s Center Church which also stresses the importance of good works as fruit of our faith, Keller though is clearly inside the missional camp. Many areas of concern in missional theology are balanced and corrected in Keller’s Center Church. Even those who are not missional-minded would be served well by Keller (even if you might find his discussion of the importance of city and other items disproportionate).

I usually don’t note formatting but the format for Center Church is different so worth noting. It’s a slightly larger page layout. This, I assume, is partly because it’s laid-out in double columns. Graphics, tables, and sidebars are frequent. It almost had a textbook-like quality (preview book’s format). And it’s a robust 400+ pages.

Illustration from p. 19

Section 1 discusses gospel theology and renewal. Section 2 argues for the importance of gospeling in cities/cultural centers. He aligns contextualization with the gospel and ends this section with a discussion of biblical cultural engagement. Section 3 moves into missional theology focusing on community, integrative ministries, & movement dynamics (cooperation with other gospel churches in our cities).

He begins with a lengthy discussion of the gospel and establishes the thematic and structure of Center Church early.

Therefore, if you think of your doctrinal foundation as “hardware” and of ministry programs as “software,” it is important to understand the existence of something called “middleware.” I am no computer expert (to say the least), but my computer-savvy friends tell me that middleware is a software layer that lies between the hardware and operating system itself and the various software applications being deployed by the computer’s user. In the same way, between one’s doctrinal beliefs and ministry practices should be a well-conceived vision for how to bring the gospel to bear on the particular cultural setting and historical moment. This is some- thing more practical than just doctrinal beliefs but much more theological than “how-to steps” for carrying out a particular ministry. Once this vision is in place, with its emphases and values, it leads church leaders to make good decisions on how to worship, disciple, evangelize, serve, and engage culture in their field of ministry — whether in a city, suburb, or small town. (p. 15)

So many topics could be discussed. I want to highlight a few strengths in Center Church. First, Keller’s expansion of D. A. Carson’s “The Biblical Gospel” (download the PDF) was enlightening (pp. 38-42). Keller discusses major themes of the Bible and their interconnectedness with gospeling. For example, he examines the themes of home/exile, YAHWEH/covenant, & kingdom relating each to the questions of creation, sin, Israel, Jesus, and restoration. Such balance was struck in this discussion. Everyone seeking to enter the fray in the current scuffle over what is the gospel should read the Carson article and then Keller’s section.

Second, those not entrenched in missional theology can often be suspicious of contextualization. Anyone with that mindset should read Keller’s section on contextualization. He strongly argues against compromising or changing the gospel when we contextualize (p. 89). Keller says we should place the gospel within the context of the cultural narrative we find ourselves,

When we contextualize faithfully and skillfully, we show people how the baseline “cultural narratives” of their society and the hopes of their hearts can only find resolution and fulfillment in Jesus (p. 90)

He also realizes the dangers in contextualization and fights against those abuses (pp. 92-93, 103-105, 119-120). For instance, he points out one mistake: some make the bible and culture equal authorities. This is especially pertinent in our current cultural climate.

Though we may say we make the Bible and culture equally authoritative, in the end we really are not doing so. If we state that what the Bible says here is true but what the Bible says over here is regressive and outdated, we have absolutized our culture and given it final authority over the Bible. Either the Bible has final authority and determines what in the culture is acceptable or unacceptable, or the culture has final authority over the Bible and determines what in the text is acceptable or unacceptable. (p. 104)

Also, his explanation of engaging unbeliever’s worldviews was instructive.

To enter a culture, another main task is to discern its dominant worldviews or belief systems, because contextualized gospel ministry should affirm the beliefs of the culture wherever it can be done with integrity. When we enter a culture, we should be looking for two kinds of beliefs. The first are what I call “A” beliefs, which are beliefs people already hold that, because of God’s common grace, roughly correspond to some parts of biblical teaching. Because of their “A” beliefs, people are predisposed to find plausible some of the Bible’s teaching (which we may call “A” doctrines). However, we will also find “B” beliefs — what may be called “defeater” beliefs — beliefs of the culture that lead listeners to find some Christian doctrines implausible or overtly of fensive. “B” beliefs contradict Christian truth directly at points we may call “B” doctrines. (p. 123; pp. 123-132).

I had never thought about engaging people’s worldview in this way but it made perfect sense. Putting this into practice would go along way in not over-contextualizing (see seeker sensitive) or under-contextualizing (see fundamentalism).

My only “major” criticism (if you can call it that) would be Keller seems to over emphasize the importance of cities in the spread of the gospel. His exegesis of cities in the Bible and cities in our sense seems conflated. I don’t know if our sense of cities, suburb, and country are found easily in the biblical text. There are other minor disagreements you might find like in any book you didn’t write but nothing worthy of mention.

Center Church will be helpful in establishing gospel churches which engage the culture for years to come. This book could easily become a standard work in its field. Anyone interested in missional theology, contextualization, or ecclesiology should check it out. Also, the layout and design lend itself to discussion within a small group. Each section is broken up into much smaller chapters and each chapter ends with questions. Pastors and small groups could easily use this book as a jumping point to refocus the church on the gospel and biblical engagement with the culture.

A free copy of this book was provided by Zondervan. If you plan on purchasing Center Church: Doing Balanced Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City, consider supporting Grace for Sinners by purchasing from Amazon.