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Center Church by Timothy Keller

Shane Lems

Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City, by Timothy Keller. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012, 400 pages, $29.99, hardcover.

For various reasons a book like this is difficult for me to review. It is difficult to review because it’s a long and very detailed book that covers numerous topics. I would need many pages to give a thorough review. It is also difficult for me to review because there are so many helpful parts of it that I would like to explain in depth; but there are also a few parts of it that I would like to critique from a confessional Presbyterian point of view. That being said, I hope this brief review will stimulate readers enough to consider reading this helpful resource on church planting and, in the good sense of the term, church growth.

Center Church has three main sections: 1) Gospel, 2) City, and 3) Movement. In the first section, Keller spends around seventy pages explaining the gospel of grace. He doesn’t give a detailed exegetical explanation of the gospel, but he does explain how the gospel is rich, counterintuitive, and affects every area of our lives. In the first section Keller also talks about gospel renewal, which is something like revival.

The second section of the book, City, contains 160 pages discussing these three topics: contextualization, focus on the city, and cultural engagement. Keller argues that there are poor and unbiblical ways of contextualization—but there are also good and biblical ways to contextualize the gospel. Very obviously, Center Church is mostly about churches and church plants in large cities. Keller spends time in this section talking about the biblical theme of “city” and also discusses it from a sociological point of view. Finally, in this second section of the book, Keller talks about the different views of Christ and culture and ends up attempting to utilize the strength of each “Christ/culture” view. Keller’s cultural vision is what he calls “cultural renewal.”

The third section of Center Church, Movement, is a 130-page explanation of what it means to be a missional church having an integrative ministry that is more of a movement than an institution. Keller spends time defining a missional church (even giving “marks” of a missional church). He also talks about how people relate to each other in church and out of church—including how a missional church should interact with non-Christians during the week. Here he advocates an “every-member gospel ministry” that has to do with evangelism and mercy ministry. What should “missional” worship look like? Keller answers that question in this final section and also explains justice and mercy in the city. Finally, he says that though “Center Churches” should not throw out the institutional model of ministry, they should be closer to the “movement” model of ministry, which includes following a vision for the church and city.

To be sure, this book isn’t technically a manual for church planting. It is all about church planting, but 1) it is a “big picture” view of church planting from a theological, philosophical, and sociological angle, and 2) it doesn’t give a detailed step-by-step time line or “how to” of church planting. Also, the reader should note that the book is not about a church planter’s piety and life. Yes, it will help church planters, but it isn’t a book about church planters.

So what are the strengths of this book? Many! This book was one of the most thought-provoking books on ministry and church planting that I’ve ever read. I’d suggest reading it with a notebook and highlighter handy so you can highlight and write the insights that apply to your own ministry, evangelism, and church planting. I appreciated Keller’s interaction with an unbeliever’s mindset and how we can engage them in a way that is biblically relevant. I was also motivated to think about healthy outreach at a local level that includes the members of the church. I’m glad Keller got me thinking again about contextualization and how we should be careful not to let our traditions become idols in our ministry.

There is such a thing as a good, godly interaction of church and culture, or the Christian and culture. I certainly need motivation to be a good neighbor and let the light of Christ shine in every area of my life. This book pushes the reader in that direction. I was also glad to be reminded that we should not let the church as institution swallow the church as organism. I have more good things to say about this book, but, suffice it to say, Center Church is on my “top five” list of church ministry/planting books.

Yet there are some significant weaknesses of Center Church. To me, it felt like Keller was writing from a conservative evangelical perspective to conservative evangelicals—the book is neither distinctly Presbyterian nor confessionally grounded. On a different note, Keller did explain the gospel clearly and well, and the book is grace-centered. However, he used the term “gospel” as an adjective so many times I was uncomfortable with it by the end of the book. For example, Keller talks about gospel neighboring, gospel renewal, gospel contextualization, gospel movement, and so forth. Using “gospel” as an adjective sounds good, but often is ambiguous and therefore not overly helpful.

I was also troubled by Keller’s triperspectival and flexible views of the regulative principle of worship. Many readers who subscribe to the Westminster Standards will disagree with Keller when he makes the elements of worship and church polity part of “ministry expression” rather than part of the philosophy of ministry or doctrinal foundation. In other words, Keller’s views on church polity and worship are not in line with Old School Presbyterianism. I also had some questions about Keller’s model of church polity which seems at first glance to be a sort of hybrid Presbyterian model.

As I noted above, Keller’s main emphasis is on the city. This book is so focused on the city that big portions of it don’t really apply to churches in small cities and towns. I do certainly believe that we need to be planting churches in big cities—but in doing so we should not avoid or downplay rural areas that also need solid churches. On the topic of city, I would also hesitate to adopt Keller’s “cultural renewal” model. Some points he made about cultural renewal were actually quite good, but I thought he spent too much time with the “Christ/culture” debate.

More could be said about this helpful book on church planting and church renewal. I certainly recommend it for those who need a good resource on these topics. But it is not for everyone. The book is thick, detailed, and printed on large pages with small font and even smaller endnotes. You’ll need time, concentration, and dedication to work through the entire book. But for me it was definitely worth it; even the disagreements I had with parts of it made me think more about these crucial issues. In fact, though I don’t think it is “the” church planter’s book, the one that will end all others, I do think it should be on the shelves of pastors, church planters, elders, and informed laypeople who are involved in Christian ministry and church planting.

Shane Lems is the pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Hammond, Wisconsin. Ordained Servant Online, April 2014.

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