Review: Center Church by Timothy Keller

Timothy Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 395 pages.

I would like to thank Zondervan for providing a review copy.

Amazon | Zondervan 

While working on my dissertation dealing with the church’s relationship to political and social order, a friend suggested that I look at Tim Keller’s book Center Church. The recommendation caught me off-guard, not because I hadn’t heard of Tim Keller—in my church circles, I hear his name a lot—but because I had not considered him an academic resource for my study. After all, Keller’s works are often aimed at pastors and laity. But I also began to realize that he reads wide and deep on the issue of culture, and his analysis on cultural issues is regarded quite favorably. It is with that in mind that I read Center Church.

As anyone familiar with Keller will know, he often uses the method of a “third way” to triangulate his ideas against two extremes. Keller gives two pictures of this at the beginning of the book. Between confessionalists who emphasize doctrinal boundaries and pragmatists who emphasize cultural adaptation, Keller argues for a balanced “center.” Instead of only “faithfulness” to doctrine or “success” of church growth, “fruitfulness” captures both the need for doctrinal rootedness and contextual outreach. Much of the book returns to this theme of balance and center with Keller’s label of “theological vision,” a midpoint between doctrinal foundation and ministry expression.

The book is divided into three parts: “Gospel” (doctrinal foundation), “City” (theological vision), and “Movement” (ministry expression). For Keller, churches should have a vision gospel-centered, city-centered, and movement-centered. Keller’s “third way” models are present in each part.

Part One: “Gospel” 

The first part, “Gospel,” is largely a discussion of doctrinal foundations, and it begins with a definition of the gospel. Churches should be centered on the gospel, and Keller outlines a biblical theology that narrates the gospel. He concludes that the gospel is neither “everything” nor “simple,” yet the gospel “affects everything.” In recent debates about whether the message of the Bible is first and foremost about individual reconciliation or cosmic renewal, Keller comes down firmly on the side of individual reconciliation. Yet he believes that this does not exclude cosmic renewal—hence his dictum that “the gospel is not everything, but it affects everything.” Even though Keller believes the chief locus of the gospel is the human heart, out from the heart the gospel affects all of life.

Even here in the definition of “gospel,” Keller is trying to stake out a place for both spiritual salvation and cultural restoration. He appeals to the Calvinist belief in both predestination and the free offer of the gospel to illuminate how churches work toward cosmic renewal. Even though Calvinists know that faith is ultimately a gift from God which they cannot awaken in people, they still call for faith and repentance. Likewise, Keller sees no reason why churches cannot seek the kind of cosmic renewal that is laid out in Romans 8 and Revelation 21, even though they know it is ultimately God’s doing.

Part Two: “City”

The second part, “City,” is about contextualization. His call to be “city-centered” is probably one of the more controversial claims. Although he does believe that Christians should be especially focused on urban centers of culture, his use of “city” is more of a way of talking about cultural context in general, whether that be in rural, suburban, or urban areas. Cities require more intentional contextualization, he argues, because of their fast pace of change, but churches in any setting require contextualization. Keller seeks to strike the third-way here between merely challenging culture or merely affirming culture. He appeals to both the neo-Calvinist ideas of antithesis and common grace.

It is in this section that Keller outlines his “models” of Christ and culture, interacting with Niebuhr’s famous types and others proposed by recent authors. He first narrates the history of evangelicalism’s cultural relationship, beginning with its move from a pietistic to an engaged stance. The problem with pietism was its naivety “about culture’s role in preparing people for evangelism” (185). From pietism, evangelicals turned to Kuyperian neo-Calvinism, which through the influence of Francis Schaeffer gave rise to the Religious Right. About the same time with a different mode of engagement arose the “seeker sensitive” paradigm of churches. In reaction to both these, the emerging church was born, as well as neo-Anabaptist perspectives and the Two Kingdom approach to Christ and culture. Now there is a great diversity of opinion in evangelicalism on its cultural stance.

Using D.A. Carson’s critique of Niebuhr, Keller sees both positive and negative in each of the classic models of Christ and culture. The Bible gives justification for each type in different places, and if one is relied upon exclusively it is ultimately misguided. Re-categorizing Niebuhr’s typology, Keller uses four different categories: Transformationist, Relevance, Counterculturalist, and Two Kingdoms. He plots them on a grid to show the spectrum as it answers two questions: is culture redeemable and good or fundamentally fallen, and how active should Christians be in influencing culture? The Transformationist model (neo-Calvinism and the Religious Right) sees society fallen and in need of redemption, and they are aggressive in seeking change. The Relevance model (seeker sensitive, emerging church, liberal/mainline) sees much good in society already, and it also seeks common ground with nonbelievers to improve society for the better. The Counterculturalist model (neo-Anabaptist, New Monasticism) sees society as hopelessly corrupt and in need of prophetic critique from outside (not change from the inside). The Two Kingdoms model (Lutheran and Reformed confessionalism) sees secular society as preserved by natural law and a common ground with nonbelievers,  and they do not see a need to actively make society more Christian.

page 231

page 231

Keller has critiques and insights for each model. The Two Kingdoms model promotes “humble excellence;” the Relevance model promotes “common good;” the Counterculturalist model promotes “church as counter-culture;” and the Transformationist model promotes “distinctive worldview.” Keller suggests that we should seek the center of each model and avoid the extremes, and we will find that there is greater consensus.

There also might be a time and season for emphasizing one model over another. The Counterculturalist approach is most appropriate for “winter” (when the culture is corrupt and Christians need to salvage genuine faith); Transformationist is for “spring” (when there is opportunity to influence culture in a Christian way); Two Kingdoms for “summer” (when culture is largely Christian and there is much common ground); Relevance for “autumn” (when culture is losing Christian influence but people are still open to the gospel). Christians should use wisdom about how to approach culture at what time.

Part Three: “Movement”

The third part, “Movement,” is the most practical section of the book as Keller seeks to describe the expression of ministry, especially in relationships and partnerships. One of his main moves is to distinguish the church as institution and as organism (from Abraham Kuyper). The church as institution is the church at worship, organized under its ministers and leaders. Keller argues that the institutional church should focus on worship, teaching, and preaching, ultimately equipping its members to witness in their culture. But the church should not, as an institution, become a lobby group or a cultural block. Keller suggests ways that church as organism can make relationships to give a Christian witness in society, and he also suggests ways that churches as institutions can partner toward the goal of better structural unity. The goal here is to avoid either stifling institutionalism or free-floating mass. His main word throughout is “flexibility.”

This section also affords Keller the opportunity to express his vision for “integrated” ministry of word and deed. The point is that all aspects of the church’s life should be outward focused, expecting the presence of nonbelievers and supporting the laity in their work in the world. In this sense, Keller encourages a worship and preaching style that connects to the surrounding culture.

Pickett, Mark. “Review Article: Constructing Theological Vision.” Foundations 64 (Spring), 2013. Online: http://www.affinity.org.uk/foundations-issues/issue-64-article-5---review-article-constructing-theological-vision

Pickett, Mark. “Review Article: Constructing Theological Vision.” Foundations 64 (Spring), 2013. Click image to follow online link.

Final Thoughts

Center Church tries to strike a balance on many debated issues and therefore gain a wide hearing from all sides. Keller does this well, but I sometimes wonder whether his “third way” arguments are truly what they say they are. It seems that his “third way” method is to set up two extremes and appeal to the reader that the correct vision is somewhere between those two poles. Although this common sense approach gains consensus and certainly rules out options, it doesn’t actually outline how the median functions as a “third way.” Readers will notice that Keller spends more time in his descriptions of the two extremes than he does in a description of the middle option. This was especially apparent in the cultural engagement section, which had good critiques and many appeals to “balance” but spent little time making an argument for Keller’s actual position on its own merits. In order to make some of his “balance” points, it also seemed like he had to make “strawmen” of the two extremes, characterizing them at their most excessive points. His chart of the four models of cultural engagement is brilliant for its brevity, but for the same reason, it also shortchanges some of the nuances of each position.

Overall, Keller is to be commended for putting together his expansive vision for church ministry in a single volume, one that is sure to stimulate thought for pastors, laity, and theologians.

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About Robbie Crouse

I completed my PhD student at Wheaton College with Dr. Daniel Treier in 2016. My doctoral research was on ecclesiology, Christ and culture, and Christian political theology. I'm married to Becky (2008), and we have a daughter, Susanne, who was born in 2012.
This entry was posted in Book reviews, Ecclesiology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Review: Center Church by Timothy Keller

  1. Jon Hoglund says:

    Robbie, thanks for the helpful review. You’re on a review rampage!

  2. mikemoxness says:

    Great review. Including the diagrams was very helpful.

  3. Malcolm D says:

    Yes – now I can refer people to the diagrams.
    Still making it throught the book – it is great. Helps me understand much of what the fights are about, and how some misunderstand each other.

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