April 25, 2014

Center Church and the true church

by Jon Anderson

I have three major concerns with Tim Keller’s Center Church (CC):

  1. CC and contextualization (which I wrote about here)
  2. CC and common grace (which I wrote about here)
  3. CC and the church

Today I want to address this third issue: how Center Church presents the church, and then end with an appeal aimed at pastors who are embracing CC as a guide to their methodology.  

CC and the Church:

The Church is the body of Christ composed of repentant believers in the gospel.  Those in the church have separated themselves from the perverse generation of the culture around them and devote themselves to the life of the church and the apostles teaching (Acts 2:38-42).  The composition of the church reflects the gospel’s work in the lives of sinners.  When a professing Christian lives like the world in unrepentance, they are to be disciplined out of the church (Matt. 16:19; 18:15-20; Jn. 20:23; 1 Cor. 5; 2 Th. 3:14-15; Tit. 3:9-11).  The biblical aims of church discipline are, 1) restoration of a sinning brother (Mt. 18:15b; 2 Cor. 2:5-11), 2) protection of other believers (1 Cor. 5:6-11), and 3) protection of the gospel manifested to the world by the lives of individuals in the church (Acts 5:13-14, after Ananias and Sapphira in vv. 1-11; 1 Cor. 1:2; Eph. 5:25-26; 1 Pet. 2:11-12).  These goals are undermined if the church includes nonbelievers in makeup, let alone allows their participation in visible, up-front ministry.

Who Belongs to the Church?  Christians or Nonbelievers?

CC articulates the need for the church to embrace the contributions of unbelievers in the corporate gathering as a means of continuing to attract other outsiders.  Of course Keller affirms that evangelism is not to be discarded, but it isn’t enough.  Let me begin by quoting Keller at length:

To reach this growing post-Christendom society in the West will obviously take more than what we ordinarily call an evangelistic church; it will take a missional church.  This church’s worship is missional in that it makes sense to nonbelievers in that culture, even while it challenges and shapes Christians with the gospel.  Its people are missional in that they are so outwardly focused, so involved in addressing the needs of the local community, that the church is well-known for its compassion.  The members of a missional church also know how to contextualize the gospel, carefully challenging yet also appealing to the baseline cultural narratives of the society around them.  Finally, because of the attractiveness of its people’s character and lives, a missional church will always have some outsiders who are drawn into its community to incubate and explore the Christian faith in its midst.

So the idea that ‘to be missional is to be evangelistic’ is too narrow.  A missional church is not less than an evangelistic church, but it is more.  (265)

In the CC perspective, the church must also take its cues from what it learns from the unbelievers.  Keller writes:

And if incarnational can be defined as a church that listens to its community to learn what its needs are, speaks and interacts with its community with respect, equips and sends its people out to love and serve—then all missional churches should be incarnational. (265, italics his)

According to Keller, the church must take its directives from nonbelievers as to its approach.  What is more, it must also include them in most of the church’s ministry!  Notice the inclusive terminology in the following quotes:

A missional church must be, in a sense, ‘porous.’ That is, it should expect nonbelievers, inquirers, and seekers to be involved in most aspects of the church’s life and ministry—in worship, small and midsize groups, and service projects in the neighborhood. (274)

The church must itself be contextualized and should expect nonbelievers, inquirers, and seekers to be involved in most aspects of the church’s life and ministry. (274)

The power of good art draws people [unbelievers/outsiders] to behold it. (305)

Excellent aesthetics includes outsiders, while mediocre aesthetics excludes.  The low level of artistic quality in many churches guarantees that only insiders will continue to come… For the non-Christian, the attraction of good art will play a major role in drawing them in. (305)

In other words, Keller believers that as unbelievers contribute, serve and add flavor to the art, music, and social ministries, outsiders are drawn into the church due to the excellent aesthetics.  CC is calling for the focus of the corporate gathering to be turned away from the in-depth teaching of the Word and Christian edification toward attracting those who don’t love the truth.  The Bible is clear—those who make up the church are saints, called by God for holiness and blamelessness, so that they will manifest the difference between the saving grace of God and man’s natural enslavement to sin Matt. 5:16; 1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 6:14-7:1; Eph. 1:4; Col. 3:12; Tit. 2:10-14; 1 Pet. 1:13-21).

To begin to erase the distinction between believer and unbeliever has crucial implications for the clarity of the gospel manifested in the lives of that congregation.  Keller’s focus on “evangelistic worship” (307) depreciates the priority of doctrinal teaching, regardless of the offense.  In a section titled, ‘WHAT ABOUT DEEPER, MEATIER TEACHING?’, Keller writes:

But why should we spend a lot of time preaching about these distinctives [‘deeper, meatier types of teaching,’ ‘logical distinctives,’ and ‘how the church’s view of certain doctrinal issues differs from that of other churches and denominations’] when many people present in the service do not believe in (or live as if they do not believe in) the authority of the Bible or the deity of Christ? (307)

Keller answers his own question on the following page:

So our counsel to people asking the questions [such as ‘Why don’t we go deeper in the Word?’] is, ‘Go deeper and learn the details and distinctions in classes, small groups, and in individual relationships with pastors and other Christians’ (the lay ministry dynamic at work). (308)

According to CC philosophy, the pastors are responsible to engineer the attraction and pander to the unbelieving constituency of the ‘church’ from the pulpit, while the lay people raise the congregation’s biblical discernment throughout the week.  This is the very opposite of God’s purpose for giving the church pastors and teachers in Ephesians 4:11-13.  Besides, the lay people who are faithfully ministering in their occupations and families will only be able to equip at the level to which they are equipped or trained by their own pastors.  Eventually, lay people will live at the level of their leadership.  They won’t equip anyone at a deeper level than the pragmatic methods practiced by their pastors.  This approach cuts the legs out from under the true equipping of the saints.  The whole counsel of God is not taught.  Since it is profitable for souls, the true saints in the church are ultimately the losers in this approach.

Finally, this methodology for the church introduces confusion about the definition of Christian community.  Keller begins chapter 24, “Connecting People to One Another,” with these words: “The gospel creates community” (311).  But, Keller defines community as more than a fellowship or sharing in the person of Christ and the benefits of His cross work.  For Keller, “Community is one of the main ways we do outreach and discipleship, and even experience communion with God” (311). Keller says that community needs to be understood in a union that transcends ‘fellowship’ and embodies a counterculture.  For example, notice how Keller’s horizontal union that embraces those whose sexual patterns differ from us:

As we have often seen in this volume, to be faithful and effective, the church must go beyond ‘fellowship’ to embody a counterculture, giving the world an opportunity to see people united in love who could never have been brought together otherwise, and showing the world how sex, money, and power can be used in life-giving ways…

Sex. We avoid both secular society’s idolization of sex and traditional society’s fear of sex.  We also exhibit love rather than hostility or fear toward those whose sexual life patterns are different from ours. (311-312)

Keller’s words are shocking when we consider that he said them in the context of defining Christian community.  This is confusing for many reasons, but let me mention two: 1) Regarding love, Christians must love those with different sexual lifestyles.  But what does that love look like?  Biblical love sacrificially serves and speaks the truth of the gospel.  For a Christian to hate an immoral person would be wicked and self-righteousness.  Keller, on the other hand, believes that we are united together in community in spite of different sexual patterns.  But how would this be a demonstration of biblical Christian love?  Indeed, instead of showing them their greatest need—to repent and receive the pardon that Christ purchased—I would actually be affirming them in their sin.  This is the most unloving thing I could do as a Christian.

2) Regarding unity and community, embracing alternative sexual conduct is not merely going “beyond ‘fellowship’” as Keller says.  On the contrary, it destroys the biblical definition of fellowship.  True unity exists because of the gospel.  The unity Keller talks about is a disguise for the tolerance of destructive sexual conduct.  There are times when Keller’s discussion of unity tracks along biblical lines.  He goes on to talk about unity in spite of economic and racial differences.  This is absolutely biblical.  Our church rejoices at seeing the gospel bring a young, black, ex-Muslim into fellowship with a white, middle-aged father of four from the Bible belt—all because of a profound and shared love for Jesus Christ and His grace!

However, to speak of unity as tolerating alternative sexual life patterns as equal with unity in spite of racial, economic, or age distinctions is contradictory to Scripture.  Any sexual ethic condemned by Scripture is a sin for which Christ suffered. Christ didn’t die on the cross to save us from our financial status or ethnicity.  Therefore, redefining who makes up the church has massive and dangerous implications for the gospel.

Who is Responsible for the Cultural Mandate? The Church Organized or Organic?

For a book devoted to ecclesiology, one of CC’s greatest weaknesses was its inconsistency about the church’s mission.  While Keller affirms that there is a cultural mandate, the million dollar ecclesiological question is whether the cultural mandate belongs to the church organized (the corporate, gathered body) or organic (the individuals who make up the church as they scatter into the world).  How does Keller answer the question?  It depends on which page you read.  For example, from the following quotes Keller teaches that the cultural mandate is exclusively the function of individual Christians as they live godly lives in the work place, school, and neighborhood:

…it is important to remind ourselves of the critical distinction between the ‘church institutional’ and the ‘church organic.’ Abraham Kuyper taught that the church institutional was the gathered church, organized under its officers and ministers.  It is called to do ‘Word and sacrament’—to preach the gospel, baptize, and make disciples.  This he distinguished from the church organic, referring to all Christians living in the world who have been discipled and equipped to bring the gospel to bear on all of life. (240-41)

…it is best to think of the organized church’s primary function as evangelizing and equipping people to be disciples and then sending the ‘organic church’—Christians at work in the world—to engage culture, do justice, and restore God’s shalom.  In many expositions of the missional church, this distinction virtually disappears. (268)

So we hold that the institutional church should give priority to Word ministry, but we also teach that Christians must do both word and deed ministry in the world—and the church should equip them to do so. (324-25)

On the other hand, there are other paragraphs where Keller records that the institutional church has a theological obligation to meet the social mandate and fulfill mercy ministries.

 …engaging on all of these fronts [evangelism, church growth, church planting, fellowship, community, the poor, social justice, culture, and the arts] is required by the nature of the gospel… What’s more, engaging on all these fronts is required by the nature of our culture.  … It is only as we do all of these ministries at once that any of them will be most effective.  Success on any one front depends on success in the other fronts of ministry. (291)

…effective churches will be so involved in deeds of mercy and justice that outsiders will say, “We cannot do without churches like this.  This church is channeling so much value into our community that if it were to leave the neighborhood, we would have to raise taxes.” (305)

But even if we agree these are all essential pursuits for Christians (and they are!), we have not yet answered the question of how the institutional church should be involved.  For both theological and practical reasons, I believe the local church should concentrate on the first level of assistance (relief) and to some degree the second (development).  At the second and third levels, in the domains of community development, social reform, and addressing social structures, I think it is generally best for believers to work through associations and organizations rather than directly through the local church. (326)

Keller answers the cultural mandate question with his feet, it seems, firmly planted in mid-air.  Some portions affirm that this is the responsibility of “the Church organic,” while others answer, “the Church organized.”  Therefore, it does seem strange that a book written fundamentally about ecclesiology would waffle so severely on such a fundamental question.

Almost 200 years ago, James Bannerman astutely observed the dangers of elevating the church to the level of a surrogate Christ in his absence (The Church of Christ,1:87). The Roman Catholic Church views the church as a surrogate Savior and Head, distributing out pardon for money and works.  The social gospel views church as a surrogate King, reversing the curse, and making the world a better place to live.  Let’s be honest—it is just as insulting to Christ for the church to imagine it can forgive sins without the Savior’s merit as it is for the church to imagine it can reverse the curse on creation without the King’s presence.  Yet Christ didn’t ask us to reverse the curse, set the creation free, or cause times of refreshing.  Only He can do that.  He has asked us to testify and witness to the resurrection until He returns.

I believe it is time to get back to the missio Dei as given to the church by Jesus in Acts 1.  While the kingdom was a legitimate concern to both Jesus and the disciples, Jesus told them that the establishment of the kingdom to Israel (shalom, social justice, eradication of the curse as a man, Jesus Christ, finally shows dominion over a cursed creation—cf. Acts 3:19-21) wasn’t now—“It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority” (Acts 1:7).  Instead, the immanent missio Dei for the church was one of testimony, witnessing, declaring in the power of the Spirit that Jesus did indeed rise from the dead until He returns the way he left (vv. 5, 8, 11).  Our job is not to pretend that we have the power to reverse the curse—Christ will do that when He returns and brings times of refreshing to earth.  We have no right to squander the mandate to testify and proclaim the gospel with supposed illusion of doing kingdom work of the temporal variety now (cf: Matt 28:18-20; Acts 1:3-11).

Is it no wonder that Christ never commanded the church to establish hospitals, orphanages, or welfare societies in Jerusalem or Rome?  How ashamed would the church be if Christ returned and established His kingdom while were we distracted from the only mission God gave the church?  How doubly embarrassing when He reverses the curse on creation and shows our attempts to do kingdom work to be nothing more than what the world can do through philanthropy and government aid.  Let us proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.

A Plea to Church Leaders

I’m very concerned about the future of the church in America.  There is more at stake for the body of Christ than losing popularity. If we follow CC methodology, we go down a path that empties the gospel of divine power.  We cannot package the divine message of the gospel in the man-made methodology of a culturally savvy appeal.  When we adapt the message to make the gospel attractive, the gospel is diluted and the fruit is superficial.  Moreover, Keller’s model allows for us to take credit for the fruit and become enticed by the lure of power and popularity.  The gamble of Keller’s contextualization risks power for popularity.  In this wager, the gospel always loses.

It is my trust in the very words of Scripture that compels me to write this evaluation.  This is no personal attack—I’m sure that Tim Keller is equally convinced of the biblical nature of his position in the same way I am.  Many of you have no doubt benefitted from Timothy Keller in other areas.  However, I am asking you to consider the biblical merit of the philosophy found in Center Church and weigh it against the face value meaning of the words Scripture.  I’m convinced that this approach won’t stand up to 1 Cor. 1-3.  If the church sows this seed it will reap the same factions and weakness that Corinth suffered.  I’m grieved at the view of common grace which goes beyond Scripture and contradicts its use in Romans 1-2.  I’m burdened at the eclipsing of the missio Dei as defined in Acts and the epistles.  On every spectrum pertaining to the church, the gospel, and the world, I am convinced that the Biblical side of the spectrum is better than Keller’s compromising “center.”  Only Christ, the true Head of the church, can give us balance and keep us centered.

Don’t be ashamed of Christ or His words so that the believers in your care might enjoy every spiritual benefit for their souls.

Jon Anderson

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Jon teaches Greek at The Expositors Seminary. He is also the college pastor at Grace Immanuel Bible Church in Jupiter, Florida.
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  • Nelis

    Amen!

  • http://almostreadytogoamish.blogspot.com/ Johnny

    I’ve enjoyed reading these various posts on Keller, and really when I read anything by him on the church I can’t help but read it through the lens of him as a pastor who’s working in the center hub of one of the world’s most massive, pagan cities, so I know that’s making a big impact in what he writes about. He’s a fantastic teacher but his church principles do seem a tad wonky.

    • Jonathan Anderson

      Exactly. You comments are balanced. I have no personal axe to grind with Keller, but as you’ve read, I am utterly convinced that the American church will be blessed by avoiding the ecclesiology he has articulated.

  • Simple_Elder

    Hi Jon, I don;t know you but i want to thank you for such a thorough and engaging review of CC. I read the book about a year ago and had many of the same thoughts, but not nearly the skill to explain them as you have done.

    Where I pastor (CT) we have seen several churches influenced by the Keller contextualized approach but it has not worked for them. They have a “vision for the city” and so, once a year they might clean up a city park and be sure to tell the mayor and the press about it. But they are struggling to support FT pastors.

    They are pulling from the same pool of new-calvinists deeply vested in an arminian ecclesiology. God saves, though our church community/efforts. So, for example, one of them (PCA) explains on their web site that they use recycled paper only for their Sunday bulletins.

    In a city north of here in MA, two Keller-inspired churches are cannibalizing each other. Not pretty.

    • Jonathan Anderson

      Simple Elder,

      Thanks for your thoughts. I love your line: “They are pulling from the same pool of new-calvinists deeply vested in an arminian ecclesiology.”

      I couldn’t agree with you more! In fact, we have an annual weekend at our church called Ekklesia in hopes to teach what the Scriptures say about this issue. It seems popular for our generation to hold to something called Calvinism, but it is something philosophical and not yet textually based. If it were, then their ecclesiology would be consistent with their proclaimed soteriology. Then, they practice church as though God’s sovereignty doesn’t have practical ramifications for doing church. There seems to be an insecurity about “Will the world think I’m attractive?” A Calvinist who relies on one’s own ability to attract unbelievers for salvation is an oxymoron.

  • David Alves

    Keller appears to be forgetting something which nearly all seeker-sensitive ministries have also forgotten: Where, pray tell, does the New Testament EVER give even the slightest indication that (A) church is intended for unbelievers and (B) the worship services of the local church are meant to be predominantly (or even overtly) evangelistic in orientation?

    I keep saying it: If we simply go with God’s Word, things are so very much easier!

    • Brad

      Hey David!

      Here is the biblica/theological case that Keller makes. It makes sense to me. Pretty convicting.

      God commanded Israel to invite the nations to join in declaring his glory. Zion is to be the center of world-winning worship (Isaiah 2:2-4; 56:6-8.) “Let this be written for a future generation, that a people not yet created may praise the Lord…so the name of the Lord will be declared in Zion, and his praise in Jerusalem when the peoples and the kingdoms assemble to worship the Lord” (Psalm 102:18.) Psalm 105 is a direct command to believers to engage in evangelistic worship. The Psalmist challenges them to “make known among the nations what he has done” (v.1.) How? “Sing to him, sing praise to him; tell of his wonderful acts” (v.2) Thus believers are continually told to sing and praise God before the unbelieving nations. (See also Psalm 47:1; 100:1-5.) God is to be praised before all the nations, and as he is praised by his people, the nations are summoned and called to join in song.

      Peter tells a Gentile church, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (I Peter 2:9.) This shows us that the church is challenged to the same witness that Israel was called to–evangelistic worship. A key
      difference: in the Old Testament, the center of world-winning worship was Mt. Zion, but now, wherever we worship Jesus in spirit and in truth (John 4:21-26) we have come to the heavenly Zion (Heb.12:18-24.) In other words, the risen Lord now sends his people out singing his praises in mission, calling the nations to join both saints and angels in heavenly
      doxology. Jesus himself stands in the midst of the redeemed and leads us in the singing of God’s praises (Hebrews 2:12), even as God stands over his redeemed and sings over us in joy (Zeph. 2:17.)

      Biblical cases

      I Corinthians 14:24-25.

      Paul is addressing the misuse of the gift of tongues. He complains that tongues speaking will cause unbelievers to say they are out of their minds (v.23.) He insists that the worship service must be comprehensible to them. He says that if an unbeliever “or unlearned one” (an uninitiated inquirer) comes in, and worship is being done “unto edification”, “he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner and will be judged by all” (v.24.) Of what does this conviction consist? “The secrets of his heart will be laid bare” (v.25.) It may mean he realizes that the worshippers around him are finding in God what his heart had been secretly searching for, but in the wrong ways. It may mean the worship shows him how his heart works. The result: “so falling on his face, he will worship God, exclaiming, ‘God is really among you'” (v.25.)

      Acts 2

      When the Spirit falls on those in the upper room, a crowd gathers (v.5) because a) they are hearing the disciples praising God (“we hear them declaring the wonders of God” v.11), and b) and also because this worship is “in our own tongues” (v.11.) As a result, they are first made very interested (“amazed and perplexed they asked one another, ‘what does this mean'” v.11), and later they are convicted deeply (“they were cut to the heart and said…’Brethren, what shall we do?'” v.37.)

      Comparison

      There are obvious differences between the two situations. I Cor 14 pictures conversion happening on the spot (which is certainly possible.) In Acts 2 the non-believers are shaken out of their indifference (v.12), but the actual conversions (v.37-41) occurred at the end of an “after meeting” in which Peter explained the gospel (v.14-36) and showed them how to
      individually receive Christ (v.38-39.) It is often pointed out that the tongues in the two situations are different. But students usually are looking so carefully at what the two passages teach about tongues and prophecy that they fail to note what they teach about worship and evangelism. We can learn this:

      1. Non-believers are expected to be present in Christian worship. In Acts 2 it happens by word-of-mouth excitement. In I Cor 14 it is probably the result of personal invitation by Christian friends. But Paul in 14:23 expects both “unbelievers” and “the unlearned” (literally “a seeker”– “one who does not understand”) to be present in worship.

      2. Non-believers must find the praise of Christians to be comprehensible. In Acts 2 it happens by miraculous divine intervention. In I Cor 14 it happens by human design and effort. But it cannot be missed that Paul directly tells a local congregation to adapt its worship because of the presence of unbelievers. It is a false dichotomy to insist that if we are seeking to please God we must not ask what the unchurched feel
      or think about our worship.

      3. Non-believers can fall under conviction and be converted through comprehensible worship. In I Cor 14 it happens during the service, but in Acts 2 it is supplemented by “after meetings” and follow-up evangelism. God wants the world to overhear us worshipping him. God directs his people not to simply worship, but to sing his praises “before the nations.” We are not to simply communicate the gospel to them, but celebrate the gospel before them.

      Hope this helps, brother!

  • smedly

    Jon,
    thanks for the hard work on this!

    “For the non-Christian, the attraction of good art will play a major role in drawing them in.” (CC, 305)

    Keller, perhaps unintentionally, ascribes to aesthetics what should properly be ascribed to the Holy Spirit. Similarly, Keller has elsewhere ascribed to Darwinism the power to grant unbelievers the ability to respond to the Gospel:

    “There is no logical reason to preclude that God could have used evolution to predispose people to believe in God in general so that people would be able to consider true belief when they hear the gospel preached. This is just one of many places where the supposed incompatibility of orthodox faith with evolution begins to fade away under more sustained reflection…. What will it take to help Christian laypeople see greater coherence between what science tells us about creation and what the Bible teaches us about it.”

    • brad

      To be fair to Keller, he is not claiming, intentionally or unintentionally, that good art replaces the work of the Holy Spirit. Here is the quote in context:

      “Contrary to popular belief, our purpose is not to make the nonbeliever “comfortable.” After all, in 1 Corinthians 14: 24–25 and Acts 2:12, 37, a nonbeliever will be “convinced by all that he is a sinner”; “the secrets of his heart will be laid bare”; he will be “amazed and perplexed”; and he will be “cut to the heart”! Our aim is to be intelligible to them. We must address their heart secrets (1 Cor 14: 25), and so we must remember what it is like to not believe. How do we do that?

      “Consider using highly skilled arts in worship. The power of good art draws people to behold it. It enters the soul through the imagination and begins to appeal to the reason. Art makes ideas plausible. The quality of our music, your speech, and even the visual aesthetics in worship will have a marked impact on its evangelistic power, particularly in cultural centers. In many churches, the quality of the music is mediocre or poor, but it does not disturb the faithful. Why? Their faith makes the words of the hymn or the song meaningful, despite its lack of artistic expression; what’s more, they usually have a personal relationship with the music presenter. But any outsider who comes in as someone unconvinced of the truth and having no relationship to the presenter will likely be bored or irritated by the expression. In other words, excellent aesthetics includes outsiders, while mediocre aesthetics excludes. The low level of artistic quality in many churches guarantees that only insiders will continue to come. For the non-Christian, the attraction of good art will play a major role in drawing them in.”

      Keller gives six other practical suggestions – some more helpful than others in my opinion. The overall point though is that we should strive to make the truth of the gospel as clear and understandable as we possibly can. (And I understand that the Holy Spirit is the only one who can ultimately open hearts to believe the gospel.)

      Blessings!

      • Jonathan Anderson

        Thanks Brad. I think the last sentence you quoted proves my point from the last two days. His methodology gives a major role to man’s artistic ability in order to draw in the lost.

        • brad

          What methodology would you be comfortable with to draw in non-believers to hear the gospel?

          Is there anything positive the church can do to try and make the gospel understandable to non-believers?

          • Jonathan Anderson

            Brad,

            Sorry I couldn’t get back to you til today…

            The Bible has an answer and it isn’t flashy, novel, or flattering to man. However it is supernatural, and utterly unable to mimicked by the flesh–it requires the Holy Spirit. The Bible declares that the early church was so pure and holy that no one dared join her ranks (Acts 5:12-13). In fact, the conviction and fear that permeated the environment of the early church prevented anyone joining for self-promoting reasons (think Ananias and Sapphira). Even though the early would have been attractive for any unbeliever (he would have known that his needs would be met, cf. 4:32-37), he didn’t dare join for social reasons or temporal benefits, because everyone respected the church. They knew that this thing wasn’t the laughable, desperate and juvenile attempt to get a hearing that we see today. In fact, the robust holiness was what set it apart from the attempts to earn the world’s favor through various man-centered means. Think about the effect of these means: social work is appreciated by the world, but peace corps does a phenomenal job without the Holy Spirit… attempting to sound like popular secular recording artists is (somewhat) appreciated by the world, but Coldplay does a better job at being Coldplay than any “praise band,” again, without the Holy Spirit. Then, the when the world is done laughing at the church’s attempt to be cool, it thinks, “Why would I be a Christian when 1) the Coldplay concert was better, and 2) your life is just like mine with one major exception, I don’t have all the religious baggage. If I live like you without the religious baggage, then obviously it is unnecessary.”

            Then, consider Acts 5:14. Even when no one dared to join the church, many were being added to the Lord. Conversions were taking place! When the purity of the church is so evident, the only reason people would join is due to the miracle of conversion. Suddenly, miraculously, people are attracted to a place where they are surrounded by people who aren’t into exalting men, but only the name and salvation of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. From the beginning, the call of the gospel has always been to separate and be saved from the perverse world (Acts 2:40). The greatest threat to the church is to become impure and indistinguishable from the world (Mt 18:15-20; 2Cor. 6:14-7:1; 2Tim 2:14-26). This is the true mark of a work of God, and it can’t be mimicked successfully without the Holy Spirit.

          • brad

            Thanks Jonathan!

            Couldn’t agree more about holiness and the Holy Spirit!

            I’m just not opposed to also thinking through ways we can meet and love unbelievers and proclaim the gospel to them in the clearest way possible. That just seems unavoidable and wise.

    • Jonathan Anderson

      Smed,

      Where did that quote come from? This contextualization goes beyond superficial areas. It really does affect doctrine. This is a startling example of that. We conservatives wouldn’t have so much to be embarrassed about it we simply gave up Creation, perspicuity, purity in the church, etc.!

  • Sammy L

    “Excellent aesthetics includes outsiders, while mediocre aesthetics excludes. The low level of artistic quality in many churches guarantees that only insiders will continue to come… For the non-Christian, the attraction of good art will play a major role in drawing them in. ”

    So American and middle class. Here in Asia there are churches which have believers who live in rural areas where there is no power .They believers have to work everyday just to survive and make a living. And they meet outdoors under a single lamp. If there was any aesthetic, i dint notice any but the most beautiful thing was them singing of the savior who saved them from their sins.

    “We avoid both secular society’s idolization of sex and traditional society’s fear of sex. We also exhibit love rather than hostility or fear toward those whose sexual life patterns are different from ours. (311-312)”

    Apart from being unbiblical this is an insult to and demeans the missionaries who toiled and gave their lives in hostile places here in Asia. If sin was not an issue there was no need for them to die and come here in the first place.

    If this example is followed Church ceases to be missional. Church becomes the world. So sad. Thanks for the review

    • brad

      Two quick questions:

      1. Do you realize that your response is as “contextualized” as Keller’s?

      2. So it is biblical to be hostile and fearful of those whose sexual life patterns are different from ours?

      • Sammy L

        “Do you realize that your response is as “contextualized” as Keller’s?”

        Logically yes. Thats the problem with my example vs your example.
        Jon above has shown a more excellent way. Which is open the Bible and refute.

        “So it is biblical to be hostile and fearful of those whose sexual life patterns are different from ours?”

        How about grieving for their sin and begging them to repent, Brad? Does that work. Atleast that gives them a chance to either repent or reject the real gospel.

        • brad

          I was trying to make the point that the details in how we worship and reach unbelievers will look differently in different contexts, and that is ok. It is not just a matter of opening the Bible and refuting.

          And yes, grieving for their sin and begging for them to repent is awesome and the highest form of love! But that’s very different than treating them with hostility and fear. And I don’t think that grieving for their sin and begging for them to repent is the only way we can love others whose sexual patterns are sinful.

          Hopefully this clarifies things, brother! Peace!

    • Jonathan Anderson

      Sammy L,

      Thanks for taking the time to post this. Your comments are valuable because they speak to the transcendent nature of biblical ecclesiology. The Center Church methodology is only plausible in an American context. If it is only plausible in an American context it isn’t biblical, because the biblical mandates transcend cultural differences.

      • brad

        Aren’t you confusing biblical ecclesiology and methodology? When I think through the issue as honestly as I can, I come to the conclusion that ecclesiology and truth is transcendent but methodology is culturally conditioned.

        In other words, I would say that the church that chooses the method of meeting outdoors under a single lamp, and singing in Chinese with no instruments and no aesthetics is a legitimate and biblical expression of the church, if the Gospel is preached, the sacraments are administered, and their is community/church discipline. As is the huge church that chooses the method of building a huge building with comfortable pews and a certain style of music. As is a church that chooses the method of meeting in local houses or schools etc.

        To me, it just seems obvious that the methodology has to change depending on the context.

        • Jerry Wragg

          Your distinction between methodology
          and ecclesiology holds up, Brad, IF the essentials of biblical ministry
          you mentioned are never abandoned. But that’s clearly the heart of the
          problem. Pragmatism has always messed with gospel-essentials while
          claiming to merely change methods. This
          was Hybels’ appeal at the leading edge of the mega-church movement. Thirty years ago, he assumed (as does Keller
          today) that the culture’s growing contempt for Christianity was caused by the
          church’s unattractive methods. We weren’t
          “reaching” the culture because our methods were disconnected from how the
          culture ‘wants to be reached.’ Willow
          Creek Community Church asked the “unchurched” culture what it wanted and then fashioned
          the services accordingly. And Hybels
          didn’t pioneer the more modern versions of pragmatism. Twenty years earlier, Robert Schuller held
          the same conclusions, prompting him to buy a drive-in theater so the culture
          could ‘go to church’ without the religious trappings they most disliked about local
          churches.

          Keller simply teaches a more subtle (and sometimes more
          blatant) form of the same idea. He
          concludes that the culture’s dislike for the gospel is largely due to
          Christianity’s lack of engaging the ‘common grace’ interests of the lost. Our evangelism suffers, Keller believes, because
          we’re not demonstrating that society’s concern for human flourishing and
          personal dignity are our top concerns as well.
          To break down that barrier and diffuse the alienation, Keller calls the
          church to become savvy peace corps-like specialists, helping the culture “flourish”
          in God’s common grace. This is so crucial
          to Keller’s paradigm because he’s essentially made ‘human flourishing’ THE
          ULTIMATE means for removing the culture’s hostility and guaranteeing a
          bridge to the gospel. The upshot, Brad,
          is that Keller claims to be merely altering methods, but he is convinced that
          by adapting in this way there is inherent
          power to diffuse the natural man’s suppression of the true gospel. People frequently defend these approaches as
          mere differences in method—a bit of intramural sparring over externals. Yet most aren’t willing to examine more closely
          to see if true gospel and ministry mandates are being threatened.

          Suppose, for example, I offer help and counsel to a
          neighboring family of unbelievers on how to bring more consistent parental discipline
          to their children. And suppose the principles I offer find their
          basic framework in the book of Proverbs. Suppose the parents implement the
          principles and begin to see changes in their kids. And let’s
          further imagine that their family now seems more attracted and ‘open’ to our ‘Christian’
          lifestyle. In this scenario, I’ve helped a pagan family experience the
          common grace of God. They’ve benefitted from it and are very
          thankful for my unusual care and concern. Their marriage has improved,
          their kids are less of a problem at school, and their family’s overall
          relational health is ‘flourishing.’ So far so good, right?

          But now imagine that, at some point, I drop the bomb on
          them that they are unreconciled with God and desperately need Christ. Suppose I gently explain that healthier
          relationships at home are mere window dressing in light of their need to repent
          and believe in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins. Suddenly they strongly disagree—as happens in
          many cases—and seem shocked that I’d be so narrow and uncaring. They
          feel alienated, our sense of ‘community’ is lost, and the neighborhood
          immediately grows cold toward our family.
          What happened? Prior to giving
          the gospel there was no alienation between us. In fact, we shared a
          common concern for better, more relationally healthy families. And I even
          framed up parenting principles for them right from the pages of
          Scripture. They were “flourishing” in the common grace of God. What could be more complete in terms of
          influencing the culture than compassionately strengthening families and their
          impact on wider society? Haven’t I just “created”
          the divide between us by bringing the heart of the gospel into the mix? My social concerns resonated with them so
          beautifully until I made the issue more than God’s common grace.

          But here’s the fundamental inconsistency: a ministry
          whose primary goal is to enrich the
          self-improvement of condemned sinners cannot turn around and call them to
          repent of their self-improvement. Once
          the church makes human compassion her highest
          bridge-builder, she forfeits saving compassion in Christ as her highest ‘good
          news.’ If we’re helping the lost
          become self-satisfied in their enmity with God, we can’t also call
          them to repent of it. That’s
          hypocrisy. To be consistent, if our
          ultimate front-line “power” in evangelism is helping the natural man achieve what he already wants without
          the Spirit, then we shouldn’t drive him away later by saying he must heed the
          conviction of the Spirit, die to self, take up His cross and follow Christ
          alone. Yet this is Keller’s entire philosophy
          in summary. He dangerously believes that
          helping unbelievers experience the best of common grace is just as much ‘gospel
          ministry’ as proclaiming Christ crucified for the hope of sinners.

          I’m not against personally helping lost people meet their
          physical needs and apply practical common graces to their plight. I love people. I would gladly help them to acquire the
          basics of life. But without the gospel
          of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, common grace can only condemn. We cannot stop at mere expressions of human
          sympathy and empathy. To the lost, such
          help is
          the highest and best that mankind can achieve.
          But when the church adopts as her primary mission the world’s highest
          version of compassion, she is destined to end up the lowest attempt at true
          gospel ministry.

          • brad

            Thanks brother Jerry!

            We might have to disagree on this one! Here is how I understand the crux of your argument:

            “A ministry whose primary goal is to enrich the self-improvement of condemned sinners cannot turn around and call them to repent of their self-improvement. Once the church makes human compassion her highest bridge-builder, she forfeits saving compassion in Christ as her highest ‘good news.’ If we’re helping the lost become self-satisfied in their enmity with God, we can’t also call them to repent of it. That’s hypocrisy.”

            From what I have discovered about his ministry, one of Keller’s key themes is that of repentance and teaching sinners to turn away from any type of self-improvement project!

            I’m just not sure how we could be reading and hearing the same things and coming to radically different conclusions.

            At the end of the day, Keller’s ministry encourages me to radically serve and love unbelievers, call them to repentance, tell them about the good news of Jesus Christ, and invite them into the family of God!

          • Jerry Wragg

            Brad –
            If we’re “reading and hearing” opposite perspectives from Keller, either he’s a poor communicator (highly unlikely given his popularity) or one of us has simply not read his book “Center Church” closely enough, and it isn’t me. What he’s penned in that volume IS his ecclesiology. I’m not surprised when prolific evangelicals occasionally articulate a biblical perspective. I have no doubt that Keller knows the gospel and can accurately preach Christ. But CC is his magnum opus on ministry and how to engage the culture. As Jon Anderson’s review firmly demonstrates, Keller’s ecclesiological and ministerial moorings are an admixture of acute evidentialism and pragmatism. Surely you’ve heard his evasive answers on the homosexual issue? Or what about his “need-to-know” theory on the question of whether someone can be saved without hearing of Jesus Christ? On just these two issues alone Keller’s public responses were consistent with the pragmatism he defends in CC.
            Whatever he may say in his church on the themes of ‘repentance’ and ‘the good news,’ his book is what he really believes.
            I’m afraid it’s true, my friend: until Keller’s followers are willing to comb over his lengthy textbook on the church and culture instead of pointing to anecdotal evidence of good things said here and there, we will have to disagree on this one.

          • brad

            Sounds good Jerry!

            I bought Center Church and am reading it now.

            “Either he’s a poor communicator (highly unlikely given his popularity) or one of us has simply not read his book “Center Church” closely enough, and it isn’t me.”

            Another option is that we aren’t actually hearing what Keller is saying. My guess is that I am probably reading him in the best possible light and you are reading him in the worst possible light – neither is healthy, the truth is somewhere in the middle!

            Thanks, Jerry, for sharpening and challenging me! So glad the Spirit leads us into the truth!

  • Nelis

    This review has helped and encouraged me so much! How vital for us as the body of Christ to stay biblical, doctrinal and confessionally protestant.

    Some quotes from “The courage to be protestant” by David Wells.

    “Furthermore, what is to be gained if we are so intent in reaching out to the unchurched that we unchurch the reached?” p55

    “A soft, shapeless Christianity ready to adapt to any worldview may enjoy initial success, but it will soon be overtaken and lose its interest” p94

    “It is important to remember that culture does not give the church its agenda. All it
    gives the church is its context. The church’s belief and mission come from the
    Word of God. They do not come from the culture either through attraction to it
    on in alienation from it. It is not the culture that determines the church’s
    priorities. It is not the (post)modern culture that should be telling it what
    to think. The principle here is sola Scriptura, not sola cultura” p98

  • 4Commencefiring4

    There’s a lot of discussion here of the role of “unbelievers” in the congregation and what roles they should or should not play, but I’m left to wonder: What attraction would someone who is “hostile to the gospel”, so to speak, have for the average church? I can see someone who is a “seeker” coming for a short time–perhaps once or twice–just to see if there are any Answers for him; but it would be passing strange for someone who cares nothing for the things of God to continue to be around those who do. My experience is that those who are unabashed unbelievers wouldn’t be caught dead in a church, save for a wedding or funeral. (Try asking someone to church who you know is a mocker or a christian-basher and see how well that goes).

    People come to a church for a variety of reasons, but being essentially opposed to the main purpose of “church” would not seem to be among them. Of course, if a given church has become little more than a place to do bake sales, and they no longer play the role they should, then all bets are off. Anyone might be there.

    But any church that has good teaching from the pulpit would soon repel anyone who is truly opposed to the message. I cannot conceive of anyone who can’t stand christians and things of the Bible coming to my church more than once. And not even once, since it says “Bible” in its name. They’d be a fish out of water.

  • Richard Rice

    I have heard so many good things about Mr Keller, but …

    If the purpose of the Church (even in its local sense) is meant to be a gathering of saints for the worship of God, how can we possibly – purposely and knowingly – ask the unregenerate to contribute? How can they worship in Spirit and in truth? It would be advocating what Isaiah condemned among the Jews who “honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Is 29:13; Mk 7:6-7). The gospel isn’t meant to “make sense” because we dumb it down – it makes sense because of the Spirit of God enlightens the mind and regenerates the heart.

    As a pastor of 28-years, I understand the so-called “pastor’s heart” – but Keller seems to be making a compromise to the purpose of/for the Church that Paul wouldn’t have made, nor one the Saviour advocated.

    I also have a serious problem with the idea that our goal is to draw sinful men to the Church. In some circles, a bride seeking to draw the attention of another man to herself would be said to be playing the harlot.

    • Jerry Wragg

      Well said, Richard!

    • brad

      Hey Richard!

      I think we run into major problems when we say that “THE purpose of the Church (even in its local sense) is to be a gathering of saints for the worship of God.” That is “A” purpose of the church, but the purpose of the church is much broader than that!

      I love your comment, “a bride seeking to draw the attention of another man to herself would be said to be playing the harlot.” What a great way to encourage your missional brothers and sisters as they pursue the lost!

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  • Martin

    If Jesus is so great (and He is) and if the culture of His Kingdom is so great (and it is), shouldn’t we be confidently putting That on display as a superior alternative to the seekers’ (or non-seekers’, or pre-seekers’) cultural particulars?

    If the seeker is seeking, then haven’t they already found something lacking in the “context” in which they find themselves? The culture of Jesus’ Kingdom is radically different from theirs. It’s the best, perfect, and will satisfy them. How can it be right to dress It down, to make It a Version 2.0 of what the seeker has already found to be lacking?

    • Martin

      To put it another way – Jesus, His Kingdom, and the Gospel are such an astounding and compelling “Product”, they don’t need a Tim Keller marketing approach.

    • brad

      Hey Martin!

      I am curious to know what you think is so great about Jesus?

      Also, in what ways does Keller’s approach “dress down” Jesus’ kingdom? In other words, how is Keller not calling people to repentance?

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