Gospel is central for the urban frontier

Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City
Timothy J. Keller

Diversity, innovation, busyness, people, poverty, prosperity, development, density, spirituality, culture: a lot happens in cities. Cities are a mosaic of people with countless perspectives on life and culture. Cities are expanding, and along them urban culture. City culture is becoming a global culture. Called to be salt and light in the world (Matthew 5:13–16), Christians need to engage this urban reality. Tim Keller’s latest book, Center Church, offers an inspiring vision for such engagement.

Writing out of 20-plus years of pastoral ministry in New York City, Keller’s insights and experience combine theology and praxis in proposing how the church can be faithful to the gospel of Jesus in our world. And to be faithful to gospel, Keller contends, “We must go to the cities.”

For those expecting a model for ministry based on Keller’s own Redeemer Church, this book is not for you. This is no “church in a box” program for urban ministry, but a theological vision that “is a faithful restatement of the gospel with rich implications for life, ministry, and mission in a type of culture at a moment in history.” And for Keller, the city’s time is now.

Keller outlines his theological vision in three main areas: gospel, city, and movement.

Gospel

Refusing to pick between religion and irreligion, legalism and relativism, Keller centers on the gospel. He makes a strong case for the traditional evangelical gospel of “salvation by grace” through the work of Christ on our behalf. Keller roots the gospel in the robust doctrines of Reformation theology. The reader gets a nuanced exposition of the salvation narrative of Scripture as the basis for the gospel (creation, fall, redemption, restoration).

This section’s strength is its demand that the gospel affects everything in our lives as Christians – this is no pie-in-the-sky gospel! The gospel needs to permeate all aspects of the church and Christian life: ethics, preaching, lay-ministry, small groups, and social justice are just a few of the areas a gospel-centred ministry is expressed.

Keller passion is clear and contagious – let’s be sure we don’t lose sight of the gospel!

Keller is also correct to stress that how we define the gospel is crucial. Contemporary evangelicalism offers many “gospels,” so let’s be sure we get it right (and biblical). Seeking clarity and precision, Keller rejects a definition of the gospel that “confuses what the gospel is with what the gospel does” (emphasis original).

Though he is right to react against those who downplay salvation in Jesus, unfortunately, Keller offers little engagement with definitions that combine what the gospel is with what the gospel does. For example, the influential work of N.T. Wright on gospel, salvation, and the kingdom of God gets only a passing reference in Keller’s definition of the gospel. Wright’s influence on evangelicalism is too great to omit engagement with his work.

That said, Keller’s emphasis on the centrality of Jesus for all we do as Christians is an important reminder that forms a solid foundation for the church’s relationship with the city.

City

Keller offers a compelling vision for engaging our cities – and the ever-expanding urban culture – with the gospel. Here, Keller is at his best. Combining theoretical engagement with practical experience, Keller navigates the complexity of being faithful to Jesus without turning our backs on the world. He challenges churches to know their default positions on church and culture, stressing a need for openness to learn from other models.

His seven features of the urban church summarize well how Christians can faithfully contextualize the gospel:

1. Respect for urban sensibility
2. Unusual sensitivity to cultural differences
3. Commitment to neighborhood and justice
4. Integration of faith and work
5. Bias for complex evangelism
6. Preaching that both attracts and challenges urban people
7. Commitment to artistry and creativity

Limits to this section come in the interaction with various models of church and culture (e.g. transformationist, relevance, counterculturalist, two kingdoms). Limited space for definitions leaves the reader little context for the different models. Anabaptism, while growing in popularity and influence, gets minor treatment as Keller moves through his summary of the counterculturalist position. Yet, Keller convincingly shows the need for all the models as a balanced engagement with culture that doesn’t compromise the gospel.

Movement

A gospel-centred church in the city can be defined as a movement, argues Keller – dynamically organized and organic. Avoiding the extremes of rigid traditionalism and random spontaneity, he presents an impetus for the church in the city that is both inspiring and challenging. Reflections on his ministry drive this section, exhibiting a needed cooperation among Christians to faithfully represent the gospel of Jesus in cities.

Keller strongly connects with the missional church, pointing out the value of partnering with the mission dei (“mission of God”) in all that we do as the church. Worship, preaching, church planting, evangelism, and social justice are all part of the movement dynamic at work in the life of the church. As the gospel is about our whole lives, so it is with the church.

As such, this section of the book offers a helpful grid to understand what Keller terms as “integrative ministry”:

1. Connecting people to God (through evangelism and service)
2. Connecting people to one another (through community and discipleship)
3. Connecting people to the city (through mercy and justice)
4. Connecting people to the culture (through the integration of faith and work)

In engaging the missional church movement, Keller provides helpful warnings where people are prone to overemphasize certain doctrines at the expense of others (e.g., social justice). A few times he makes unhelpful generalizations regarding those who support a basis for ministry with a stress on the kingdom of God. Again, interaction with N.T. Wright’s theology was missing. But overall, this section’s call for creative churches sharing the gospel is inspiring.

Conclusion

Tim Keller offers an insightful, thorough, and engaging book for anyone passionate about the gospel of Jesus rooted in the mission of the church in the world. To be clear, Center Church is no light read. And at nearly 400 pages with two-columns and small font, it is no quick read either. A level of familiarity with contemporary discussions on defining the gospel as well as typical models for church and culture (e.g. Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture) will help the reader grasp the scope of Keller’s vision. But in an age when books on gospel, church, and culture are published at a rate that forces questions of quality and depth, Keller offers a resource unmatched by most of his contemporaries.

It’s no surprise Tim Keller is popular and widely read among MB churches and leaders. I include myself as a beneficiary of his work. His authenticity and heart for faithfulness to Jesus has inspired my own ministry. And with Keller’s example of an engaging ecumenism in church planting with evangelism and social justice, MBs will continue to draw inspiration from Keller with this book. It’s no surprise our own C2C church planting network has connections with Keller’s “Redeemer City to City” network as they seek to plant gospel-centred churches in cities across Canada.

On a whole, Center Church is relevant for all people, in all churches, in all places. Keller is right: we cannot ignore the city. In our desire to be faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ, his call to engage the cultural reality of cities should be heard by all – “Wherever you live, work, and serve, the city is coming to you.”

–David Warkentin is community impact pastor at Hyde Creek Community Church, Port Coquitlam, B.C.
Blog: www.davidwarkentin.blogspot.com. Twitter: @warkd.

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