A Review of
Center Church : Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City
Reviewed by Michaela Flack
A few years back, I found myself serving as a youthwork coordinator at a tiny urban church in the United Kingdom. Having lived there for three years, while completing my Bachelor’s degree, I was excited to find myself finally serving in a church full-time, ready to move into my “urban ministry calling”, listening to Tim Keller’s sermons on a Gospel Vision for the City on the bus ride to work each day. I announced to my pastor that I was planning on moving into the area where our church was (a neighborhood notorious for being the poorest public housing complex in all of the UK) in order to live and work and minister. To my surprise, I was strongly discouraged, borderline commanded from my superior not to do so. It wasn’t safe, he said. So at the end of each day, I went back to my city apartment in the (apparently safe) student area of town, and he went back to his suburban neighborhood. Six months later, with mutual agreement, I left the position and moved back to the States.
Fast forward 6 years. In my research for Tim Keller’s new book, Center Church, I took a look around its promotional website, which includes a video book trailer. Press play, and it’s hard to not be impressed by whichever media art department put this together. But for me, snazzy graphics couldn’t compare to the shock I found myself feeling when I noticed, over and over again, video of that little church (along with several other worldwide churches) I spent 6 months serving in in the UK. Further research indicated that this little church hired a new pastor a few months after I left, which, with the help of the Redeemer City to City Network (a sister organization of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, where Keller serves as pastor), had transformed not only that church, but that entire neighborhood – by moving into and loving that area well, and serving it with vision and effective, strategic mission.
I mention this not to brag about my supposed “right-ness” from a former employee position, but to showcase the potential of the influence of this book on any church (large or small) willing to listen to its contents and apply them to their own location and ministry. As a collection of material based largely on a combination of Keller’s previous works and the Redeemer City to City church planting curriculum, I have seen – albeit in hindsight – the effectiveness of the book’s content.
Center Church, of course, comes in a long line of “_________ Church” books. There’s ample (and, I should say, often helpful) material out there for your Purpose-Driven, Vertical, Everyday, Simple, Organic, Externally-focused, Total, Slow Church. Given the abundance of such titles (which Keller himself acknowledges), one couldn’t be blamed for glossing your eyes over “Yet Another How-To Church” book, particularly if you have read some of those and struggled to see how they may apply to your specific community context. But, at the risk of sounding trite – this is not one of those church books. I dare to say that, for the most part, Center Church is saying something both entirely new and entirely familiar. Much of it left me with the impression of: “Well, of course. Shouldn’t we know this by now?”, while at the same time being impressed at just how Keller seems to tell us what we should probably already know (but often don’t) about the “doing” of church ministry. In short, no one seems to package a theological or ministry concept quite like Timothy Keller.
Keller begins with an introduction much needed in many of the other “____ Church” books, which defines his terms. His use of “theological vision” and “middleware” (among other unique expressions of his) are helpful throughout the book because he kindly began by explaining what he believes those mean. When many books throw out words we think we may understand and agree on (“missional”, “ecumenical”, “community”), Keller leaves no room for error here.
He continues through much of the first third of his book (a two-part section entitled “Gospel”) by defining, more specifically, what he believes the gospel is, what it is not, and how it should be applied. Though he (or his editor) risks being repetitive in a few places, this section is clearly set to be the foundation for his book – and rightly so, if one believes as he does, in a foundational centeredness of any fruitful church on the gospel.
The middle section of his book, “City” brings readers to grapple with contextualization, a vision for the city (and why such a vision is needed), and cultural engagement. It is here again where we see the author’s strength in balance. He feels no need to tack previous models of cultural engagement and ministry contextualization (such as Niebuhr’s classic Christ and Culture, or Kuyper’s Transformationist model, among others) onto your church (or his), but rather, boldly declares: “Why All The Models Are Right….and Wrong.” Here he finds a much-needed third way, leading the reader to rediscover the foundations of what culture is, and how it should be approached and engaged with in your context, in your community, with your church.
I suspect this may also be the section that some suburban and rural church leaders may find uncomfortable. Keller makes no apologies for being “city-centric”, and goes to great length to explain his urban emphasis from both a current missiological stance and a Biblical stance. Indeed, even the book’s subtitle reads: “Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City”. He insists here that due to the general consensus of cities being “centers for cultural intensity” coupled with the ever-increasing shift towards urban-centric living worldwide, most of his “city focus” also has application elsewhere, as culture “trickles down” from these urban centers to their suburban and rural counterparts. While his argument here makes sense on paper, the equation may look different to those pastors and leaders faithfully serving in rural or suburban settings. Some of this is a result of semantics, as it can prove difficult to wade through some of the very urban-centric language to find where the “non-urban” applications lie, even if they truly are there.
I will admit that I found the very practical third section to be a bit of fresh air after the sociological and philosophical weight of the previous two sections. However essential both of those sections are, it’s impossible to get through them without the constant questioning of: “OK, now what do we do?” In “Movement”, Keller answers the question: Now, this is what you do.
Thankfully, the section does not lay out the ministry model for Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, offering the ability to plug in your X, Y and Z variables into an equation ready to pop out a ready-made “effective” church. But he does offer a variety of excellent ideas for community engagement (I found Chapter 21, “Equipping People for Missional Living” to be a particularly helpful read) that are widely applicable to any area a church finds itself in (“.
Center Church is not a layperson’s (or, probably, even a clergypersons) summer beach read. Tapping out at nearly 400 pages (with a very tiny font), the book does take some commitment from the outset, as even the most die-hard of Keller readers can easily begin to feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information . This is a massive urban ministry textbook on vision, the gospel and missional ministry specifically written for church ministry leaders to implement. Where possible, I would encourage church ministry leaders to read this through in community – as a leadership team, perhaps – using the included “Questions for Discussion and Reflection”, and prayerfully consider together how to apply this material to your church context. While any solo read will lead you to an answer for the “Now, what do I do?” question, that answer will likely prove incomplete without following that up with “Now… what do we do?”
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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com