Center Church offers readers a compelling theological vision for doing ministry in an increasingly urban world, one that revolves around the axises of gospel, city and movement. Yesterday, I started my look at this new book by Tim Keller by sharing thoughts on the gospel axis. Today, I’ll continue my review by focusing on the second section, “city.”
This question of contextualization is one that divides many evangelicals today. Some see the surrounding culture as something to be outright rejected, where others see it as something to be embraced without reservation.
Keller is quick to point out that, despite our protests, “everyone contextualizes—but few think about how they are doing it” (p. 97).
Whenever we communicate the gospel, whenever we express it in any way, we are inevitably conforming to some culture in order for it to be understood. This is why it’s essential for us to be careful to be intentional in how we contextualize.
Sound contextualization means translating and adapting the communication and ministry of the gospel to a particular culture without compromising the essence and particulars of the gospel itself. . . . When we contextualize faithfully and skillfully, we show people how the baseline cultural narratives of their society and the hopes of their hearts can only find resolution and fulfillment in Jesus. (pp. 89, 90)
That’s the point of contextualization. We don’t do it to be hip or cool, but to clearly communicate the hope of salvation in Christ without being the gospel becoming “unnecessarily alien” due to our preferences.
The most challenging aspect for many reading part three of Center Church is Keller’s admonishment that we must recognize that we all contextualize—our approach to Christianity is always going to be in relation to the culture we are surrounded by and to think otherwise is naive.
But recognizing this doesn’t mean that we simply accept and integrate whatever the culture’s doing into our ministry. We must meet the culture with what he describes as crictical enjoyment and appropriate wariness (p. 109).
Like Paul’s, our approach to culture should be one that is neither completely confrontional nor totally affirming. We are to reveal “the fatal contradictions and underlying idolatry within [our] cultures and then point them to the resolution that can only be found in Christ” (p. 112).
Part four of Center Church focuses on the need for an intentional focus on urban ministry. Indeed, Keller describes this as one of the highest priorities of the Church in the 21st century. Why?
Aside from the biblical connection between God’s people and cities—He commands them to seek the welfare of the city in Jer. 29; calls Jonah to preach repentance in unbelieving Nineveh; and uses the Apostles’ ministry to people within cities to create a movement that leads them to be dragged before the authorities as those who are turning the world upside down (Acts 17:6)—we live in a time where more people than ever are living in cities (over half the world’s population by most estimates).
The city represents an opportunity to impact a wider diversity of people than anywhere else—the cultural elite (the influencers), the younger generations, accessible “unreached” people groups, and the poor are all found in the city in abundance. Therefore we need to be in the cities, building churches, engaging in intentional evangelism and discipleship, and serving the community as a whole.
“Christians,” he writes, “ should seek to live in the city, not to use the city to build great churches, but to use the church’s resources to seek a great, flourishing city” (p. 172). This might sound odd, but it’s an important distinction. Our churches need to be churches for our particular city, regardless of size, seeking the wellbeing of the whole community, not just our island within it.
While Keller writes with a more optimistic viewpoint on the impact of this than I’d subscribe to (no matter how beneficial we are to the community, those who are opposed to Christ will always be more likely to rejoice in our leaving than lament it), I really appreciate the emphasis he puts on the need for this kind of engagement.
Part five, “cultural engagement,” represents some of Keller’s strongest work within the “City” axis, but also within the entire Center Church theological vision. Here, Keller sets to work examining the models of cultural engagement that are predominant within Christian circles—the transformationalist, relevance, counterculturalist, and “two-kingdoms” views. Keller, as always, is very careful in his critique of each, pointing out their strengths as well as their weaknesses.
Careful readers should come away with not only a better understanding of the different models, but also for the need to humbly recognize our own blind spots and be willing to learn from others.
No model gives us the full picture of the gospel’s relationship to culture, even though they all have some aspect they get right. No one’s got it all down pat, and we’d be foolish to believe that our way of doing ministry is the way for everyone.
This, I suspect, will be the hardest thing for many readers to accept. We all want to believe that our way is the right way, and the others have it wrong. But if our goal is to challenge the idolatry of the culture, to show them how their hopes, longings, and misplaced desires only find their fulfilment in Jesus, then we need to learn what we can from others for the sake of the gospel and, Lord willing, see gospel renewal in our communities as the new churches are planted and Christians faithfully engage in their spheres of influence.
Title: Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City
Author: Timothy Keller
Publisher: Zondervan (2012)