April 23, 2014

Center Church: summary and contextualization

by Jon Anderson

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)

Jon Anderson


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


    Thanks for writing this biblically insightful evaluation of Tim Keller’s CC. I agree with your evaluations wholeheartedly and have had the same concerns for some time. It is my observation that while the leadership of many biblically sound churches is not moving toward this kind of contextualization (some are) it is the (sometimes) small remnant of often vocal folks within the congregation that have been enamored by Keller’s concepts and is pushing leadership to move in this direction. Pastors in many good churches often don’t have time to read up on these emerging issues and can be blindsided by the Keller remnant. May God give us wisdom and discernment to preach the foolishness of Jesus Christ and Him crucified in the power of the Spirit … and not with persuasive words of human wisdom.

    Jim Dowdy

    • Jonathan Anderson

      Well said, Jim. You are so right to point us in the direction of examining our hearts here. Humility before a God who is deemed foolish and with a gospel that is deemed weak is crucial to remaining faithful and useful to our Lord.

  • Moises Rubio

    Powerful message Jon! Our pastor is enamored with Tim Keller writings and after reading this, I see the reflection of my church with CC although I haven’t read it. I pray that my church and all other churches rely upon the power of the cross and not on human wisdom. Thank you!

    • Jonathan Anderson

      Thanks, Moises.

  • Brad

    I have listened to a few sermons by Tim Keller and read the books The Prodigal God and The Reason for God. He preached the Gospel about as clearly, powerfully, and faithfully as anyone I have every heard. So I am quite confused about this article!

    • Jonathan Anderson


      Thanks for your question. I hope I help identify where your confusion lies. I certainly don’t believe that Keller has never preached an accurate gospel. Regardless of how helpful his sermon may have been for your soul, what he says about the church in print is definitive. It is this ecclesiology which concerns me so much. If our ecclesiology ever becomes less about pleasing God and more about impressing the world, we’re doomed as the Church. If our church is more focused on making the world feel accepted by us, and less about delineating the line between the world and the church, we will lose the gospel in one generation. My concern isn’t that Keller has lost the gospel, but if the American church follows this ecclesiology, we eventually will. Hope that helps,


      • Brad

        Thanks Jon!

        To be fair to Keller, I would have a difficult time saying he cares more about pleasing the world than about pleasing God. He seems to be all about spreading the gospel and the glory of God, from what I have read in his books and heard about his church planting movement.

        But I will stay tuned for your next couple of posts!

        Take care, Jon.

        • Jonathan Anderson

          Brad, well said. I also wouldn’t want impugn Keller with motives. I simply know that those motives would make me succumb to Keller’s ecclesiology. I have no intention of presuming on Keller’s personal motives, but only to critique the objective content. I said that line more a precaution for all of us as we think about why we might go down that road. Thanks for clarifying.

  • Daron


    I completely understand your confusion as I to used to be confused as well on this topic. I think If you read this section below ( i re-posted), you may gain more clarity on this issue. It does not seem that Pastor Anderson is saying that Dr. Keller does not preach the gospel. In fact he affirms in the article numerous times that he does preach the gospel. He is highlighting in the article that a pastor’s methodology, even when he has an accurate gospel message, is very important to God. In fact , as I think the article accurately proves, when a man’s methodology is un-biblical, even if his gospel message is accurate, he is still in great danger of “emptying the cross of its power” ( 1 Cor 1:17). It would be a great tragedy for men to find out on the last day that they have placed there trust ” on the wisdom of men rather then the power of God”(1 Cor 2:5). This is why Paul says ” be careful how you build” ( 1 Cor 3:10).

    See below for section I was referencing
    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!

    – Daron

    • Brad

      Thanks Daron!

      I just can’t make the leap right now to say that Tim Keller’s methodology is “emptying the cross of its power” and encouraging others to place their trust in the “wisdom of men rather than the power of God.”

      But maybe if I read Center Church I will come to that conclusion!

  • W

    I am not so sure i see the contextualization you are highlighting here. I have read the book and actually found it to be one of most Biblical approaches to how to reach our community today. In the opening chapters Keller references the Apostle Paul and how he used different approaches to reach his different audiences. I saw Keller’s premise completely rooted in the book of Acts and Pauline Epistles. I also appreciated the fact that Keller is challenging churches to actually get out into their communities. I cannot count the number of times I heard church members say their desire to reach their communities but then you ask what they are doing and their response is “we simply preach the Word and they will come.” While I believe we should preach the Word in season and out of season, Keller shows that this approach can be improved and given the “contextualization” you say exists, Keller clearly proves that the first century church did more than just preach the Word. If our desire is to reach the world for Christ (I hope that is every believer’s desire) then we need to Go and not just sit and soak.

    • Jonathan Anderson


      Thanks for your thoughts. I think you may be hitting on another important
      area. You may have seen churches or movements that might be characterized
      by habit of reading and teaching the Word, but not believing it and practicing
      it. If this is what you mean by “sit and soak,” I’m with you.

      However, I’m very concerned about what we as Christians imagine we will bring
      to the culture when we “Go.” We must go to the lost with the
      truth of the gospel and God’s character. The contextualization that
      undermines the Scriptures and the sufficiency of the gospel is one that relies
      on a person’s ability to impress the unbeliever, be like the unbeliever, or do
      something that is naturally attractive to a person still in their sin. In
      my study of the Word, I don’t see Paul clamoring for the inclusion unbelievers
      in the worship set so that unbelievers keep coming back, or packaging the
      gospel in a socially acceptable way (which are hallmarks of Keller’s approach
      to ministry. I’m not sure which portions
      you read, but stay tuned for the portion on Keller’s ecclesiology, which should
      be posted on Friday). Instead, I see a robust confidence that the
      influence of the gospel devoid of pop-cultural packaging (think methodology…
      for the Corinthians sophistry and rhetorical excellence, for us it may be
      media, social work, cultural reform, etc.) will produce its own results (1 Cor.
      1:17). In that verse, we see that the cross does more than provide forgiveness,
      but it also secures forgiveness. The contextualized gospel, that I’m
      opposed to, is a message that God provides forgiveness but man secures it by
      his methodology.

      • W

        Thanks for the reply. I understand your concern and have heard these same points before. My response would be what does Paul mean, “I become all things to all men,” in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23?

        Look I am the first person to say there needs to be a balance. I completely agree some churches takes cultural Gospel way too far, but if not Keller then who? We just completed the celebration of the Passion Week, as I look at the Gospels I see Christ being crucified because He was addressing His culture.

        If someone were to come to you and ask you what book (other than the Bible) they should read to help them learn how to better reach their community, what book would you tell them to read? For me, Keller makes the best, Biblical case I have seen thus far. Do I agree with every jot and tittle, no, but for me the positives greatly outweigh the negatives.

        • Jonathan Anderson


          Thanks for your friendly comments. I truly appreciate your questions. We do disagree on this one. I’ll just say that I’m convinced that reading the Bible and Center Church will give you two different and mutually exclusive ways to approach the culture.

          On the 1 Cor. 9 issue, remember that the issue is this: Paul was willing to sacrifice any right or privilege in order to not offend someone. It was an issue of selflessness. Those rights or liberties sacrificed involved taking a believing wife, receiving remuneration from the church, observing certain Jewish events or practices, and even enjoying bacon! These things were expendable so that Paul didn’t cause personal offense. Of course, the gospel will always be offensive in and of itself. This is where many people go with the “become all things to all men.” Today’s contextualization ends up being a mandate to take on aspects of the pop-culture, in order to impress, impact, or fit in. It is often appealed to as a means of making the unchanging gospel more accessible to the world. In the end, however, this application of 1 Cor. 9 is guilty of the very thing Paul condemned in 1 Cor. 1-2–preaching the gospel with the method of Corinthian rhetoric. This the very thing that empties the cross of its power. Corinthians who wouldn’t have believed the foolish gospel, but would have responded to the eloquent rhetorical gospel aren’t compelled by the cross of Christ, but by Paul’s sophism and rhetorical skill.

  • jimbo


    How then would you describe Paul’s dialogue while speaking at the meeting of the Areopagus? Is that not contextualization?

    • Jonathan Anderson


      Great question. The meaning of contextualization is always crucial in a question like this. Did Paul strive to make truth clear to the Greeks in Acts 17? Absolutely! Did Paul try to adapt the message to fit in with what the Greeks were already comfortable with in order to minimize offense, like the A-doctrine and B-doctrine distinction taught by Keller? Absolutely not!

      In fact, Paul doesn’t point out their idolatry to compliment them, but to expose their ignorance of the one true God. His language is lovingly straight forward–they are ignorant of God and Paul strives to declare Him to them. Additionally, I’ve heard people appeal to Acts 17:28 to using secular songs and movies in order to somehow augment the corporate worship service. Yet, Paul wasn’t quoting from contemporaneous Greek poets in order to impress them, but he was quoting from Epimenides (6th cent. BC) and Aratus (3rd cent. BC). His purpose was clearly to show that all men everywhere acknowledge accountability to their Creator. These two poets serve as an indictment for accountability, not a token of Paul’s Greek trendiness. Finally, notice 17:24-25. This couldn’t be more culturally insensitive. All the Greek temples in the world can’t cut it. They are inadequate and unworthy of the one true God. Paul is dismantling their worldview so that they might come to an end of themselves. As sinners, they must humbly cling to Christ’s resurrection as the hope for their souls.

      Jimbo, I think many people may share your question, and so allow me to encourage you and others to listen to an excellent treatment of Acts 17 by Phil Johnson:

  • Morris Brooks

    I had the same concerns and issues with this book.
    1. This is a great example of how one’s eschatology affects their ecclesiology, as to the function and purpose of the church, and its relation to its surrounding culture.
    2. This leads to his ecclesiology being very man-centered and culturally “sensitive”, especially to those who are the culturally elite, one’s he calls the shapers of culture ie the intellectuals and artists.
    3. Because his ecclesiology is man-centered it capitulates to contextualism.
    After his opening chapters on the gospel, it was downhill and over the cliff from there.

    • Jonathan Anderson


      You can’t be bringing eschatology up–we may not all agree! Just kidding… I’m so glad you brought that up. I have become increasingly sensitive to the massive (and extremely relevant) implications of eschatology on church, kingdom, cultural mandate, etc. The degree to which ‘kingdom now’ becomes emphasized is the degree to which the church becomes compelled to accomplish what He alone can do when He returns! Thanks for your thoughts.

  • Andrew


    Would you say that the errors in Keller’s book regarding contextualization is the same (or similar) error as the Seeker Sensitive movement?

    • Jonathan Anderson


      That is quite a fascinating question. I do think that both models will be very attractive for the same reasons–no one wants to be ineffective or a failure. These models promise influence and acceptability with the unbelievers in the communities we live in. There is probably a pragmatism that would be common to both. If the seeker sensitive model started by surveying neighborhoods and giving people what they want, this seems to be very clued in to finding what will gain an foot into the door of the cultural centers, publication houses, music and Hollywood. There are major differences. One would have to be the theological literacy expressed in Center Church. You’ll see that in tomorrow’s post. That literacy makes CC a much more fascinating study, but also a more subtle and dangerous error. It might be harder to spot than some of the more obvious blunders of the seeker sensitive movement.

  • Eric Davis


    Thank you for serving us by this fair treatment of Keller’s book. It’s obvious you put much competent effort into this. I think this sums it up well, among other things: “This [Acts 5] 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.” Good stuff.

    • Jonathan Anderson

      Thanks bro. I’m hoping to follow in your footsteps. You’ve given us several very edifying posts.

  • 4Commencefiring4

    Your last paragraph may have been the only one I could sink my teeth into and that had meat I could appreciate. All the rest…well, too many 50 cent words and nebulous phrases that lost me. When I open a can of corn, just give me corn–not rationalizations for the contextualization of corn’s cultural implications and methodologies for its evaluation or application. Or something. I’d have never made it in seminary.

    That said, speaking of music that tries to sound like the world, I would wager that there are precious few churches–none that I’ve found–that feature both good teaching and solid classical hymns. This is especially true of “Bible churches”–you go in and sit down, and the music being piped in before the service sounds like Tony Bennett is waiting backstage. Choirs wearing robes? No. Hymnals? Pul-eeze. Compositions by Bach? Try the latest song by a popular “christian artist” with the copyright info at the bottom of the overhead screen.

    If the church has managed to do anything during the last 40 years, it’s in how well it has taken on the look, feel, smell, and air of the world. All we’re lacking is selling admission tickets at the doors of the “worship center”–which used to be called the “sanctuary.”

    Oh, help us all.

    • 4commence,

      I’m having a hard time understanding your comment. Jon was writting over your head? Is that the gist?

      I will say this: if you want corn and not cultural implications of corn…stay away from the Keller book 🙂

      • 4Commencefiring4

        Pretty much. What does this mean:

        “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.”

        I know what “theology” is, but what exactly is a “theological vision”? What would be an example of a “question” about “rationality”? This makes no sense to me. People are either “rational” or they are not: they either come to conclusions based on ordered, demonstrable facts, or they don’t. I have no idea what a type of “rationality” would look like that is not…rational.

        I guess I’m just too dull to get a fix on this kind of high-sounding phrasing. A whole book of it? I couldn’t even get through this article without saying, after about every three paragraphs, “What is he even talking about?”

        That’s why I said, just give me a can of corn and call it “a can of corn.”

        • Jonathan Anderson


          I’ll be the first to agree with you that I have plenty of room to grow as a writer, but what you quoted was entirely from Keller’s pen.

        • Daron

          I can see this article frustrated you and for that I am sorry :-/. I guess I am wondering what you think would be the fundamental difference between your inability to read this article and understand it, and those that benefited from it and understood it? I cant imagine that everybody that has commented above is at the astute level that you are assuming pastor Anderson is writing at. So it seems to me there must be something else driving your frustration??? I by no means want to impugn any motives, but it seems strange that you would struggle with the content to this degree unless you possibly were actually frustrated with the content itself. As the content itself, in my understanding,has proven to help unmask a philosophy of ministry that is harmful to sheep. I hope you will be willing to take what the article says and put it next to your copy of God’s Word and let that inerrant text be the standard and measure by which you evaluate this article. The opposite of that exercise would be to let your personal frustration and dislike for the content stand sovereign over the material. This would be a tragic mistake!!!


          • 4Commencefiring4

            I guess it’s just my personality. I don’t see a lot of value in using thirteen words when two will do the job. If I can’t sum up, in about one sentence, what took up three paragraphs, then I lose interest fast. Calculus and quantum mechanics are complex and hard to describe very succinctly.

            But if the subject at hand is “reaching the unsaved for Christ”, then why not just say, “Reaching the unsaved for Christ”? Not “envisioning a culturally significant and contextually appropriate approach to employing a theologically significant and high-functioning ministry-based outreach”–unless you’re being paid by the word.

            This isn’t meant as a criticism of Pastor Anderson’s writing skills, per se, as I’m sure he’s quite a lot more accomplished than I. Certainly more educated. It’s a general observation about how we sometimes overthink our assignments. Preaching the gospel, or “making disciples of all nations”, I didn’t think was supposed to be something that required rigorous academic analysis. That’s what number theorists are for.

            Well, don’t mind me. Life’s too short to debate even this.

          • Aaron

            I am a bit concerned about your conclusion because i am not quite sure the apostle Paul, inspired by the Holy spirit, would’ve met your standards. He wrote 13 letters to help us implement what it looks like to “preach the gospel” and “make disciples”. Or perhaps you would prefer they were written in 140 characters.

          • 4Commencefiring4

            Paul was occasionally unclear, too, but not because he used fancy terms for simple things. And he wrote about a whole lot more than preaching and disciple making.

            So never mind Paul. If this article–and the book’s assertions it comments on–were clear to you, perhaps you can restate this gem in plain English for me:

            “Theological vision is based, not on doctrinal theology, but on how you approach the question of cultural engagement.” Well, THAT’S good to know. I’m going to try to slip that into a conversation the next time someone brings it up.

            I still have no idea what “doctrinal theology” and “theological vision” even mean. And I’d bet good money that if you ask the next five believers if they do, you’ll get blank looks.

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  • Doug

    Jon, I truly appreciate this article. I wrestle with this issue much. What you said was biblical and clear.

    I do not want to force you to respond, but I would like to hear your thoughts on this…

    I agree that some people’s “contextualizing” does what you say it does,
    I also firmly believe that “anti-contextualization” (for the sake of
    doing it just because you can) is the same flawed problem. It’s doing
    the same thing! It is elevating methodology over the power of the

    You and I (and everyone here) knows that every church in
    every generation will have people who want to be more “traditional” or
    “contemporary”. Each of those camps are using a methodology that stems
    purely from opinion and comfort. So, while the individuals of these
    camps may feel diametrically opposed to each other, they are in
    actuality, in the same boat rubbing shoulders, going down the same

    Question 1 – So, while I agree wholeheartedly with you,
    what is the remedy for those (who want to be biblical), but are
    actually promoting “anti-contextualization” as a method? There are some
    churches that make this an external hurdle for people – and everyone
    would gauge this differently too!

    Question 2 – Even we who don’t
    want to be contextualizers, contextualize anyway. What discernment
    governs us now? Some church do not use powerpoint because it is “being
    like the world” (contextualizing). On that note, there are some tools I
    use here in the US that I would never use in a third world culture
    (purely because it would not make sense to them or be offensive. When I
    say “offensive” I’m talking about graphic designs for sermon titles for
    example. I can use that here, but I would never use that in a church
    where they had no access to that (and would be thus tempted to rest
    their peace on that “methodology” instead of true gospel growth).

    3 – When does “anti-contextualization” become religion? (“If you place
    your trust in Christ alone for salvation AND submit to singing songs
    from 1955, then you can grow as a disciple.”)

    Again, I agree with you, I am not trying to be antagonistic. I genuinely wrestle with these questions.

    • Jonathan Anderson


      I’m a big fan of these questions. Unfortunately, I’ll have to be brief (unfortunate, because these are the relevant questions that will edify saints and benefit churches).

      I imagine if we had time to sit and chat we would agree almost entirely on this. Here are my brief answers:

      1) In the same way that we wouldn’t want to conduct ministry with a focus on attracting the world, we also are not honoring to the Lord by seeking to be obtuse to the world. I think the helpful principle we gain from 1 Cor. 9 is this: The selflessness that gives up personal comforts and privileges for the sake of avoiding needless offense is pleasing to the Lord.

      2) Where do we draw the line with cultural elements? Why do I preach from an English Bible and not a Greek New Testament? Why do I wear typical business apparel to preach or lecture instead of the formal dress of any other culture? The answer has to do with the fact that I’m American, I minister mostly to Americans, and instead of trying to be something I’m not, I’d rather fade into the background of respectable and accepted cultural norms (where they don’t violate Scripture, of course) in order that what will hopefully be most obvious about my ministry is the culture-transcending Word of God. I think your question hits on an important point. When you minister in a context where there is no electricity, you may be concerned about the distraction of a fancy power point presentation. Meanwhile, you might deem that the very same presentation may add to clarity in another context. The point ought never to be our comfort as ministers, or impressing people with ourselves or our skill, but what will make the glory of God as revealed in the text absolutely clear.

      3) I have been so helped by watching my senior pastor for the decade. Rather than aiming at the musical trends or being deliberately obtuse to musical trends, he has time and time again, shepherded music leaders to aim at serving the sheep. If the issue is personal comfort, I’m not serving, but if I can gladly aim at a style and song choices (assuming the priority of theologically and biblically accurate lyrics which express the corporate heart for worshiping Him) that serve the cross section of the sheep God has saved, then I have balance. The love of the brethren ought to drive us and give us balance here. Fear may drive leadership towards being obtuse, and ambition may drive a leadership towards being trendy. Love of the brethren avoids both errors.

      I hope this helps. Great questions!

      • smedly

        “love the brethren” is a better governing principal for music selection than “imitate the cistern”

      • Doug

        (this is doug) – Great reply – thanks. It would be nice to sit down and talk!…but I live far away from you! 🙂

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