Timothy Keller’s recent work, Center Church (CC), is a substantive book on ecclesiology and philosophy of ministry. It has received a lot of attention since it was released last September. With its graphic, glossy hardcover, and double columns throughout, the 395-page volume has the look and feel of a textbook. I believe that is what it was intended to be—a textbook for pastors (particularly in an urban context) to maximize their fruitfulness for the sake of the gospel. Keller’s popularity and acceptance within mainstream evangelicalism have positioned this book to hold significant influence on the American church.
After thoughtfully considering this book and weighing it against Scripture, I have a few concerns. In spite of areas of agreement, I found the heart and soul of the book to be biblically off-center. I fear that the theological vision of CC will cause more harm than good in American churches.
I don’t regard the differences that I see between CC and the Bible as minor or preferential. In fact, I’m convinced that with nothing but the sufficient Word of God, no one would arrive at this theological vision. Where CC falls short of the biblical ideal will not be of minor consequence. Regardless of what this evaluation may appear to be, my primary reason for writing it is that I’m convinced that this vision is unbiblical. I am sure that Keller wrote this book with sincere motives. I offer this critique with the sincere motive of love for Tim Keller, pastors at large, the people of God, and the unbelievers in every community where they serve. I desire to edify and highlight a biblical vision that must not be lost or else the church will suffer impotence and lose even more influence than it already has. I write out of sincere desire for the church of God to rest firmly on the Word of God, and think discerningly about the way that Christ is building His church. I am convinced that we can’t improve on God’s ways, and I consider it a step backward for the church to go in any direction, theologically and methodologically, except that laid out in Scripture.
If you haven’t read CC, please read the synopsis of the book below. If you have read the book, feel free to skip ahead to the evaluation.
Synopsis of Center Church
Keller lays out what he calls a ‘theological vision’ for doing ministry in the city. His approach is intentionally to go beyond theology and delve into the driving vision that determines how someone accomplishes the ministry. He defines theological vision as “a faithful restatement of the gospel with rich implications for life, ministry, and mission in a type of culture at a moment in history” (p. 19). He doesn’t see theological vision as rooted exclusively a doctrinal expression, however, and admits that “this concept of a theological vision explains how, for example, our conservative Presbyterian denomination, in which all churches share the same detailed doctrinal foundation (Westminster Confession of Faith) can be deeply divided over ministry expressions and methods, such as music, preaching style, approach to organization and leadership, forms of outreach, and so on. The reason is that church with the same basic doctrine are shaped by different theological visions because they are answering these questions about culture, tradition, and rationality differently” (pp. 18-19).
Keller then demonstrates for us how he answers questions about culture, tradition and rationality through three sections of the book. All three sections describe spectrums that must be balanced for a church to remain in the center.
First, there is the gospel spectrum (chs. 1-6) with ‘legalism’ and ‘religion’ on the extreme left, and ‘relativism’ and ‘irreligion’ on the extreme right. For the church to be fruitful, it must steer clear of works-based righteousness on one side and antinomianism on the other. In these chapters, Keller highlights how the gospel must always be articulated in contrast to two different errors. There is always the danger of rejecting Christ for irreligion, and rejecting Christ for hypocritical religious performance. It includes chapter titles like “The Gospel Is Not Everything” and “The Gospel Affects Everything.” Here we see how pervasive the implications of the gospel are for everything. Keller explains in these sections how all-encompassing the mandate for the church really is. “We evangelize, telling people about the gospel and preparing them for the judgment. We also help the poor and work for justice, because we know that this is God’s will and that he will ultimately overcome all oppression. We teach Christians to integrate their faith and their work so that they can be culture makers, working for human flourishing—the common good” (p. 47).
Second, the city spectrum (chs. 7-18) refers to the spectrum of how the church regards the world, with ‘underadapted’ and ‘only challenge’ on the extreme left and ‘overadapted’ and ‘only appreciate’ on the extreme right. “We will show that to reach people we must appreciate and adapt to their culture, but we must also challenge and confront it. This is based on the biblical teaching that all cultures have God’s grace and natural revelation in them, yet they are also in rebellious idolatry” (p. 24). In these chapters, we find how to adapt the message of the gospel to a post-Christian, post-modern culture. American culture is not what it was, and without adapting to the changes in the culture, Christians won’t gain a hearing the way we used to. Keller articulates the balance this way: “Because the city has potential for both human flourishing and human idolatry, we minister with balance, using the gospel to both appreciate and challenge the culture to be in accord with God’s truth” (p. 87). Without correctly identifying where the culture is and how it has changed, the church will lose her voice in the world.
Third, the movement spectrum (chs. 19-30) goes from ‘structured organization’ and ‘tradition and authority’ on the left to ‘fluid organism’ and ‘cooperation and unity’ on the right. It is imperative for the church to avoid rigid traditionalism, which can’t get out of its stuffy, narrow denominational constraint in order to have influence on the city. It is equally important to avoid anti-institutionalism, which would shun all organization. On this spectrum, however, Keller admits he is much more towards the right side of spectrum. He believes that for a church to remain a ‘movement’ or an ‘organized organism’, and “since churches always migrate toward institutionalism, they often must be brought back toward a movement dynamic” (p. 352). In these chapters, we find how to maintain our own ecclesial traditions and yet work cooperatively with other churches for the sake of reaching the city. Keller defines what he sees as a missional church, and how the church can successfully connect people with God, each other, and the culture.
Evaluation of Center Church
There are three areas where I consider CC to be in error:
- Contextualization—this immediately shapes our view on the methods of evangelism and equipping, how the church is built, who gets the credit for building the church, and how we evaluate ministry efforts
- Common Grace—this immediately shapes our view on the cultural mandate of the church and the goal of the church in the world
- The Church—the definition of who makes up the church has an immediate impact on how the gospel is manifested to the world
We will look at these three issues one at a time. Today we will look at CC and contextualization, then tomorrow common grace, and on Friday we will conclude with CC and the church.
CC promotes a contextualization that takes the transcendent truth of the gospel and adapts it to the culture so that the culture can understand it and find it attractive. The pursuit of clarity with the gospel is necessary, but the idea that the way the gospel is packaged can make it attractive to the world is theologically aberrant. For Keller, the effectiveness of one’s theological vision is based on how well a church leader adapts himself to culture. This type of contextualization empties the cross of its power (1 Cor. 1:17b) and gives the credit for fruitfulness to the power of man (1 Cor. 2:4-5). The Lord calls His servants to reject the attractive methodology of the world (1 Cor. 1:17a; 2:2) in order that the fruit might be based on divinely-given faith (1 Cor. 2:5).
The American church seems to be going through a mid-life crisis. Instead of being confident in the allure of her bridegroom to woo the world, the church often sounds like a middle-aged wife, perversely adorning herself for other suitors. Let me say it this way—the power of the gospel is entirely and only in the Spirit’s working through the proclamation of Christ and His cross. However, to read CC would make one think that the greatest danger threatening the church is that we would fail to be attractive to unbelievers. For instance, phrases like “The most important way to gain a hearing from postmodern people…” (66), “making this distinction may be the only way to reach them” (66), “They will be turned off if…” (178), “If you care about having an influence on society, evangelism is not enough,” (185), and “New churches… attract and harness many people in the city whose gifts wouldn’t otherwise be used in the body’s ministry,” (360) occur regularly throughout the book.
In fact, for Keller, what is at stake in our ability to impress the world is the very foundation of our being heard. He says, “Yet we could also argue that the greatest problem for the church today is our inability to connect with nonbelievers in a way that they understand” (224). Of course every true Christian is concerned about gospel clarity so that nonbelievers can understand the gospel. However, Keller says we are losing our voice with unbelievers, and the solution lies in our ability to adapt to their tastes and preferences. Note the focus on attraction and appeal to the world in the following quotes:
Those who lean toward a conservative theology may say (as I would) that while the mission of the church qua church (the institutional church) is to evangelize and make disciples, individual Christians must be well-known for their sacrificial service to the poor and common good if a society is going to give the gospel a hearing. (263, fn. 37)
This church’s worship is missional in that it makes sense to nonbelievers in that culture… 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. (265)
If the latter [the church dispersed] does not minister in both word and deed, no one will listen to the gospel preached by the former [the church gathered]. (274)
This striking way of laying out the early church’s social situation forces us to realize that the church must have grown because it was attractive. (285, italics are Keller’s)
Excellent aesthetics includes outsiders [specifically “making worship comprehensible to nonbelievers”], while mediocre aesthetics excludes. The low level of artistic quality in many churches guarantees that only insiders will continue to come. (305)
I am concerned that philanthropy, urban renewal, artistic expression and social justice have become an alternative methodology for presenting the message of the cross. These functions and projects are highly esteemed and praised by an ungodly American culture. That doesn’t mean that Christians should never take part in something like painting over graffiti in the center of town, but it would be a tragic mistake to believe that the popularity of social work has the power to make the gospel more attractive to unbelievers.
Faithful, Successful, or Fruitful?
The theological vision of CC is consistently built on this principle that ministry can and must be attractive to the culture or it will never have impact and influence. In fact, the very first page of the Introduction Keller evaluates a ministry on the basis of the culture’s attraction to it. Many would evaluate a ministry on the basis of its faithfulness, which means “sound in doctrine, godly in character, and faithful in preaching and pastoring people” (13). Others would evaluate it on the basis of success: “Many say that if your church is growing in conversions, members, and giving, your ministry is effective” (13). However, Keller declares that neither is sufficient. He says, “As I read, reflected, and taught, I came to the conclusion that a more biblical theme for ministerial evaluation than either success or faithfulness is fruitfulness” (13). He bases that conclusion on John 15:8. Examples of fruit would include conversions, godly character, and mercy done to the poor.
However, throughout the book the fruitfulness being discussed seems to shift from those three types to numbers. In fact, on page 14, Keller talks about the increased attention Redeemer Presbyterian Church was receiving because what they were doing was “working so well in Manhattan” and “what we were doing was bearing fruit in city.” Even more explicitly, he writes, “At Redeemer… we had thousands of the very kind of secular, sophisticated young adults the church was not reaching” (15). Quite honestly, I’m not sure how this is any different than evaluating a ministry on success.
Regardless of terms, Paul is very clear on how a ministry is to be evaluated. Christian laborers will be rewarded, not according to fruit, but according to their labor and quality of their work—“Now he who plants and he who waters are one; but each will receive his own reward according to his own labor” (1 Cor. 3:8). That reward will come from the evaluation of quality of one’s labor, not the quantity of fruit.
Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. (1 Cor. 3:12-14)
Every Christian (let alone every church leader) must give constant and solemn watchfulness to the materials with which they are building. Imagine the irretrievable loss of those who labored passionately in a direction that God never commanded, with methods that He prohibited, and yet produced the ‘fruitfulness’ of thousands of followers. On that day, their work will ride the conveyer belt through an incinerator in order to be tested by Christ’s holy gaze. The wood, hay, and straw of those who built on the one foundation of Christ (right message) with flammable materials (wrong methodology) will not stand the test. What a tragic loss of potential reward in the next life, and what danger for the church in this one!
Human Power or Divine Power?
It may be helpful to put Keller’s doctrine of contextualization and its implications into a syllogism.
Premise #1: Theological vision is based, not on doctrinal theology, but on how you approach the question of cultural engagement.
Premise #2:Theological vision should be evaluated, not on faithfulness, but on fruitfulness (conversions).
Conclusion: Therefore, fruitfulness is the justifying proof of how effectively a minister brings the gospel to his culture.
What concerns me most about Keller’s evaluation of ministry effectiveness is that rather than boasting in the power of the gospel, this approach leaves room for boasting in man’s ability. Specifically, man’s ability to adapt truth to the culture determines the fruit. In other words, the unadorned gospel doesn’t contain the power to produce spiritual fruit, but the culturally savvy pastor who dresses up the gospel carries the true power. Imagine a church that sees conversions, sanctification, and gospel impact through equipped saints, and a church in the next city with identical convictions that doesn’t see the same fruit. According to Keller’s paradigm, the boast for the church with fruit is not the gospel, but the skill and savvy of that church to approach and adapt to the culture! Both have the gospel, but for Keller, the second church’s lack of visible fruit indicates neglect. I don’t know what is worse—ignoring the fact that the gospel is so magnetically powerful that it always attracts and repels, or promoting a scheme of ministry that allows man to boast in his cultural savvy as the basis for spiritual fruit!
For consider your calling, brethren… God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God. But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that, just as it is written, “LET HIM WHO BOASTS, BOAST IN THE LORD.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31).
The Scriptures attest that the power to effect spiritual fruit comes only from the Lord (eg. John 15:4-8, James 1:18). What compels unbelievers that the gospel is supernatural is the legitimate power of the holiness and purity of the church. After Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead for lying (Acts 5:1-11) while trying to gain notoriety equal to Barnabas (Acts 4:32-37), the unbelievers wouldn’t dare join the church for superficial reasons like having the benevolence of the church which met the needs of insiders.
At the hands of the apostles many signs and wonders were taking place among the people; and they were all with one accord in Solomon’s portico. But none of the rest dared to associate with them; however, the people held them in high esteem. And all the more believers in the Lord, multitudes of men and women, were constantly added to their number. (Acts 5:12-14)
This is entirely opposite to the theological vision of CC. Holiness and purity must be powerfully lived out by the church so that superficial association with the church will be unattractive. Then, and only then, will those who begin to associate with the church be rightly labeled believers, because what is attractive to them is the power and purity of the church. When the church is uncomfortable to unrepentant believers (“those who are perishing,” 1 Cor. 1:18), conversion can only be a work of the God who sovereignly transforms the heart to hunger and thirst for righteousness. The true church can only be built by divine power. The true church can only be harmed by the fruit of human power when it attempts to make herself attractive to an unbelieving culture.
Implications of Keller’s View of Contextualization
1. The contextualization described in CC produces personality cults (Paul, Apollos, Cephas or fill-in-the-blank with your favorite cultural contextualizer—cf. 1 Cor. 1:12; 3:21-23; 4:6).
2. This contextualization undermines God’s power with the wisdom of man. To preach the unchanging message of the gospel with the changing methods that match the culture is to empty the message of its power (1 Cor 1:17), and leave the audience with a presentation that finds its success on the wisdom of man! (1 Cor 2:4-5). If the church continues to move in this explicitly unbiblical direction, God may sovereignly grant conversion through the message in spite of your method, but you will have no criteria to evaluate whether the faith of the hearer rests in the power of God or on the wisdom of men! I pray no pastor would be willing to go this direction or pay this price.
3. This contextualization will never attract the world. Every previous form of contextualization has earned the laughter of the world when compared with the world’s power to accomplish it. Don’t get me wrong, the world will always appreciate it in the sense that it isn’t offensive or intimidating like the gospel. But, when the church attempts to sound like Coldplay, why would the world listen the copycat when the real band sounds better and doesn’t have the baggage of a message about sin, righteousness and judgment? When the church attempts to produce like Hollywood, why would the world watch with anything more than mild curiosity when the movies are always seven years behind in technology and filled with B-rated actors? For that matter, Oscar winners would add nothing of spiritual power to the production even if more people might pay to see it. So, when contextualization goes the route of cultural renewal, the churches efforts will always pale in comparison to the efforts of the secular government and subsidized secular non-profit organizations. If this is our sales-pitch, we’ll never earn the right to be heard.
…and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God. (1 Cor. 2:4-5)