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.