I doubt there’s a church leader alive who wishes their church would be less successful—that fewer people would be coming to faith in Jesus, their influence within their communities would diminish, and everyone would settle into a nice rut and eventually it would fade away.
I’ve never seen that book written or message preached. What I have seen a lot of, though, is a lot of pastors—implicitly or explicitly asking, “What’s the secret behind so-and-so’s success? If I do what they do, will my church be successful too?”
More often than not, the results are less than encouraging. Many books and conferences tout methodology, offering just the right combination of music, lighting and cultural relevance to draw a crowd (and remember, keep the theology to a minimum).
Others eschew this pragmatic approach. Instead, they focus on our doctrinal foundation; that is, on reinforcing theological fidelity and practical obedience to the Lord in all things. Numerical growth is not the measure of success; instead, it is the purity of the Church.
Both approaches have their strengths. Our theology ought to be robust; we must never compromise on the pursuit of holiness in the lives of God’s people. Equally, we must use methods that allow us to meaningfully connect with the people we are trying to reach.
But what is it that connects the two? In his new book, Center Church, Tim Keller argues for what he calls the “middleware” of ministry—theological vision, “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).
This is, frankly, what far too many books on church ministry miss. Our doctrinal foundation matters immensely. If we get that wrong, everything else will be also. However, we need to understand how to express our doctrine in a way that’s meaningful to a culture with no significant understanding of the essentials of the Christian faith. Keller spends the bulk of this book explaining the basic elements of what makes up the “Center Church” theological vision: gospel, city, and movement.
It’s not often I review a book in multiple parts, but because each of these concepts—the axises of the Center Church—is so vital to the vision Keller puts forth, I felt it best to examine the strengths of each separately. And so we begin with the gospel.
Keller opens his examination of the gospel access by stressing the importance of balanced gospel theology. This balance is among Keller’s greatest strengths. He is keenly aware of the difference between the gospel and its implications. The gospel is not everything, as he explains in chapter one. The gospel is good news, not good advice. It’s new announcing our rescue through Jesus Christ. Fundamentally, it’s the news that Jesus Christ died to save sinners.
But, the gospel is not its results, as some increasingly confuse it to be, with well meaning but incomplete admonitions to live lives of love that cause people to wonder. “It is news that creates a life of love, but the life of love is not itself the gospel,” he writes (p. 31). When we get this confused, we wind up obscuring the gospel, making it about us instead of about Jesus. It’s what we do or don’t do, think or don’t think, say or don’t say, rather than about Jesus’ graciously paying an impossible debt on our behalf. Therefore we must proclaim this message unashamedly while living out its implications. Anything less is pointless.
While the gospel is not everything in this sense, Keller’s equally clear that the gospel is the only thing which can handle the burden of being the main thing of the church. This should make us realize that it’s not a simple thing. “The gospel is a clear and present word, but it’s not a simplistic word” (p. 39).
We have a singular message that can be expressed in a variety of ways faithfully. The Bible uses models of exile and homecoming, covenant and fulfillment, and kingdom and coming, to name but three. There is a versatility to our message that we would be wise to not overlook. It’s easy to get caught up in preaching in a certain style—many of us default to the way that we heard the gospel and came to faith. But for the good of those around us, we have to be ready and willing to appropriately contextualize our message so the unbeliever can understand it.
For example, if I went to the average university student in my city, he or she likely wouldn’t have a clear understanding of basic terms like “sin” or “God.” They’re more or less foreign concepts to many North Americans. I need to communicate the singular truth of the gospel in a way that makes sense to the hearer (something we see Paul model throughout Acts). And when we do this, we can begin to communicate how it affects everything.
Of the three chapters comprising part one of the book, some of the strongest concepts are found in this one. When we see the implications of the gospel, when we see how much is affected—morality, sexuality, culture, authority… everything!—we can see the necessity of getting the gospel right and teaching how it applies to all of life. Faith in Jesus isn’t a “get-out-of-hell” free card; it’s a radical reshaping of everything we think, do, and say.
This is what leads us to understand the need for not only good gospel theology, but a desire to see gospel renewal.
What Keller calls gospel renewal, others have called revival – that is, the need for the doctrines of sin and grace to be experienced personally, but also corporately.
Because we don’t really believe the gospel deep down – because we are living as if we save ourselves – our hearts find ways of either rejecting or reengineering the doctrine [of grace] (as in liberal theology) or of mentally subscribing to the doctrine while functionally trusting and resting in our own moral and doctrinal goodness (as in “dead orthodoxy”). As a result, individuals and churches experience a slow spiritual deadening over the years, unless some sort of renewal/revival dynamic arrests it. (55)
Keller goes on to note that while modern revivalism in its most extreme forms is far too individualistic, genuine revival is part of the Holy Spirit’s pattern of work in a community, bringing spiritual life to the dead.
For me, the most challenging part if reading Keller’s assessment for the need for revival was getting my predispositions about what revival is out of my head. Genuine revival isn’t the crazy nonsense seen most prominently in recent years in the so-called Lakeland Revival, filled with people getting kicked in the face, and a “preacher” who openly contradicted the Word of God in word and deed.
But genuine gospel renewal always focuses on the heart, bringing the truth of the gospel to bear on the hearts of believers and unbelievers alike, seeing the living but stagnant renewed, and the dead regenerated. It’s this kind of balanced revivalism that Keller calls “the work of the church” (60).
This kind of renewal only happens through focused, intentional times of corporate and personal prayer, through the rediscovery of the gospel in the lives of individuals, the application of the gospel and gospel oriented creativity and innovation – that is, finding methods of gospel proclamation that fit our culture.
The vision described throughout this section is incredibly compelling and thoughtful. Indeed, its exactly what many of us would say we want to see happen in our communities, and it’s what we are striving for. But this is not easy, as Keller notes. Ultimately, “we can only prepare for revival; we can’t really bring it about. God must send it” (82). We sow the seed, we work hard, we faithfully serve, proclaim, and pray… but God determines the harvest we might reap.
Keller’s counsel in the first section of Center Church is wise and we would do well to carefully consider how we might apply these principles to our own context.
The gospel is the most essential part of the church’s vision, but it’s not the totality of it. The gospel’s implications must be dealt with, especially as we seek to understand how our churches ought to relate to our culture and expand the gospel’s influence into all sphere’s of life.
Title: Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City
Author: Timothy Keller
Publisher: Zondervan (2012)