Book Review: Center Church by Timothy Keller
“Center Church” by Timothy Keller is articulate, serious, thoughtful and challenging. He’s challenged my thinking in many ways regarding gospel ministry in cities. There are three main sections: Gospel; City; and Movement. Each section is sub-divided into parts and each part has several chapters. Keller is brilliant in his perspective. I might not agree with all of his theology, but he has thought through issues that I have not considered. He is extremely well read and he incorporates the summary and thoughts of an abundance of authors throughout his discussions.
His book is on “Center Church,” because he is seeking the center to balance theological, philosophical and practical extremes of world view. He seeks to balance the gospel axis between legalism and relativism; the city balance between challenge and appreciate; and the movement balance between structured organization and fluid organism.
His chapter “The Gospel is not Everything” was bothersome as a title, but it caught my attention. He does not mean the gospel good news of Christ’s sufficiency and blood atonement, but that the gospel influences every part of life and is far more expansive than a simple story to get people into the kingdom of Jesus Christ. Yes, indeed, the gospel affects everything and the church that expounds the gospel in its fullness will look unique.
Keller provides many approaches to his subjects. People are not just saved or rebellious, but it is helpful to classify rebellious in a religious and irreligious mode. Both are unbelievers. In the city context, many will consider themselves religious, who can then be shown they are not of the gospel.
His second section on city was challenging. The city seems to be a gathering place for immorality and the exaltation of sin, which they are. However, Keller exposes the importance of ministering in cities to reach the multitude of people for whom Jesus died. He clearly shows many of the advances brought about by cities, but the balance is that those advances have not drawn people closer in their relationship with God. He emphasizes one day all will be drawn to the “city” of God, so cities are not inherently bad. Yet, he seems to be careful to not offend city-dwellers who depend far too much on human strength and abilities rather than God’s Spirit. I would have hoped he emphasized that as the city attracts multitudes and various peoples, sin multiplies exponentially and apart from the Holy Spirit, it will not be brought under control prior to the Lord’s return. I do appreciate his approach to ministry in cities, because he is building bridges unlike many of us who burn bridges to city-dwellers, much like Jonah in Nineveh.
He notes that the early Christian movement “was largely an urban movement that won the people of the Roman cities to Christ, while most of the rural countryside remained pagan.” (149) he writes, “The city is an intrinsically positive social form with a checkered past and a beautiful future.” (151) Apart from the Holy Spirit cleansing the cities through the gospel, they will continue to spiral down. It’s interesting that immorality, abortion, wickedness and the like begin in the cities and then slowly penetrate into the rural areas. The church, then, must hear the call to the city. (154) He cites some crucial statistics of the declining spirituality in America. (182)
So how should the church respond to culture? Great discernment is needed. Keller presents five approaches in which he delineates strengths and weaknesses of each. Keller sees the grays in between black and white choices of response and that has greatly assisted him in reaching the city culture.
His last section on “Movement” describes the structure of the organized church and the fluidity of the organism of the church. Both are necessary for becoming a missional church. A missional church is going to adjust to the culture where it can in order to reach into and rescue souls seeking God’s solutions. I appreciate his urgency to connect people to the culture, so that the church influences culture, rather than be influenced by culture. His comparison of an “Institution versus Movement” is insightful and thought-provoking.
“Center Church” is not going to be a book everyone will sit down and consume in a few nights. The 382 pages are double-columned, so most people will be put off by the amount of material. It doesn’t have testimonials and stories or pictures, so many will drift away. However, every student should consider studying this as it is likely used in many academic contexts. I’d encourage students of Scripture to study this for expanding your thinking.