Focusing on the theological vision needed to connect our doctrinal foundation and our methodology, Center Church by Tim Keller revolves around three essential axis points: gospel, city, and movement. Over the last two posts, I’ve looked at the first two concepts and today I conclude my review of this book by looking at the final, “movement.”
Part six of Center Church focuses on defining and articulating the key characteristics of a missional church.
Admittedly, some readers will likely shift uncomfortably even at the mention of the word “missional.” And this is understandable. The word’s been used so often and been so poorly defined that missional is equally applied to loosely organized groups of Christians meeting in coffee houses for spiritual conversations and highly attractional, “come and see” megachurches.
Keller, being a missional insider, does a fine job of clearing up some of the murkiness surrounding the term, while providing what may be the most explicit explanation of what a missional church ought to look like. In summary:
- The church must confront society’s idols.
- The church must contextualize skillfully and communicate in the vernacular.
- The church must equip people in mission in every area of their lives.
- The church must be a counterculture for the common good.
- 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.
- The church must practice unity. (p. 274)
In his prior explanation of these six marks of a missional church, Keller makes it abundantly clear that there is to be no room for compromise on the doctrine of justification by faith. Indeed, missional churches can and must be committed to the historic, orthodox teachings of the faith as detailed in Scripture, otherwise we don’t really have anything to offer in place of the idols of our society.
The “alien righteousness” offered in the gospel is what puts to death the cultural idol of self-actualization. So I don’t need to be “the best me I can be,” because Jesus died to put that horrible god to death, offering me instead His perfect record and righteousness in its place. That’s the kind of message that is sorely needed by a world that has little to no grasp of the basic concepts of God, sin, and redemption. And this is what only the church can offer.
But being “missional” should not be confused with solely being evangelistic. This is where Keller’s focus on integrative ministry comes in. What he means by this term is balancing both the various metaphors describing the church (institution, organism, sacrament, herald, servant) and the four fronts of ministry:
- connecting people to God (through evangelism and worship)
- connecting people to one another (through community and discipleship)
- connecting people to the city (through mercy and justice)
- connecting people to the culture (through the integration of faith and work)
It’s fairly easy to look at our churches and those in our communities and see particular emphases—some are tremendously strong when it comes to worship; others excel at community or mercy ministry. But the point of integrative ministry is that we’re to pursue them all, ministering comprehensively as the body of Christ. “We are not called to ‘specialize’ in one of these areas—only connecting people to God, to each other, or to the world,” Keller writes. “We do them all” (p. 294).
This call is intimidating, isn’t it? Don’t just be the evangelism church, the social outreach church, or the people-focused church. If you want to see people come to Christ, we need to do it all. And more importantly, do it well.
Keller seems fully willing to embrace the tension this creates, which is why his call to balanced, biblical contextualization (see the previous post in this series) comes into view; it seems, in some ways, inescapable. Integrative ministry requires connecting with the culture in a way they understand so that we might fulfill our calling as a church:
We have one calling—to sing the praises of god, and to declare the excellencies of Him who called us out of darkness into his marvellous light (1 Pet 2:9). When we show forth and sing praises to the world, we witness. When we show forth and sing praises to each other, we build up and disciple. When we show forth and sing God’s praise to God in his presence, we worship. We declare and demonstrate the glory and goodness of God in diverse ways to different groups of people. That’s why we exist as a church. (p. 294)
But according to Keller, this kind of ministry requires more than a mindset of intentional, careful contextualization. It requires a movement mindset.
Part eight of Center Church brings the theological vision put forth in this book to its climax by asking how, practically, this kind of church will look and operate.
One of the characteristics of much recent “missional” writing on the church (that I’ve been exposed to at the very least) has widely panned or outright condemned the church as institution—one with clear structure, order and governance—in favor of the church as a movement. This typically characterized by flat governance, and a less clearly articulated structure.
Keller, however, argues that we need to embrace the church as an organized organism; that is, the movement mindset and the institution need to converge. From the beginning, he explains, the church was both an organization and a movement—therefore we need to embrace both sides to create a healthy movement dynamic.
Practically this means being committed to two key elements: intentionally developing leaders from within and church planting. To both of these I add a hearty “amen!”
New church planting is the best way to increase the number of believers in a city, and one of the best ways to renew the whole body of Christ… Nothing else has the consistent impact of dynamic, extensive church planting. (p. 365)
This doesn’t preclude the necessity of all the other forms of ministry we must take, but it is central to it. Church planting encourages the renewal of established churches; focuses theological education; gives greater ability to more meaningful cultural engagement; and so much more. Many church leaders wonder look at their cities and wonder what they can do to increase their impact. How can they more effectively reach people for Christ? The answer: intentional, consistent church planting.
Keller’s Center Church theological vision is a rich, thoughtful example of what it takes to reach an increasingly pagan culture, and it’s one that I hope will inspire and encourage many churches. Leaders, work through this book with your leadership teams. Church planters, work through this book with your core group and mentors. Wrestle with the implications and see how it might help you reach your city for the gospel.
Title: Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City
Author: Timothy Keller
Publisher: Zondervan (2012)