Reviewed by Darren Middleton.
Tim Keller is a good speaker, thinker and cultural analyst. His magnum opus is Center Church (sic), where he lays out his understanding of gospel ministry. There are three major sections of his book emphasising the importance of gospel (content), the city (contextualisation) and movement (greater catholicity around the gospel – working together).
His chapter on gospel is good, juxtaposing religion and Christianity, works and grace and utilises throughout his work his emphasis on the “centre” as the place of balance, between word and deed, challenging and affirming, tradition and innovation, firmness and flexibility. This is a distinctive of Keller – what I call the Keller dialectic – where he presents doctrines in terms of polarity, poles that lie at opposite ends of a particular spectrum, and our job is to synthesize and bring a balance.
However, the heart of the book is what he calls “City” or gospel contextualisation. That is, the ability to speak into a culture coherently, telling them what they may not want to hear, in answer to the questions they are asking.
For Keller, this is the “secret” to his fruitfulness, and the “secret” to our fruitfulness in ministry. He argues that all too often a “boring sermon is doctrinally accurate but utterly irrelevant”. He is vociferous in our need to connect biblical truths with our cultural hopes, narratives, fears and errors. He suggests we should all be asking “what questions is the culture asking?”
The last section of his book was a great reminder that it takes a movement (more than one church or denomination) to reach a city. There are cultures and sub-cultures that churches and denominations just don’t seem to reach due to the culture of their congregation or denomination.
I am concerned that Keller overstates the proposition that the ability to contextualise well is the key to effective gospel ministry. He argues that there is a correlation between the degree we contextualise the gospel, and its effectiveness. According to Keller “only this kind of (missional) church has any chance in the non-Christian West”. Not surprisingly, Keller also argues that we should primarily evaluate ministry on the basis of “fruitfulness”, not “faithfulness”. He seems intentional in mixing the categories of “activity” and “results”. Having said that, the book is a very good read.
Darren Middleton ministers at North Geelong Presbyterian Church, Vic.