Actually Practical: A Review of “Center Church” by Tim Keller

Lots of books claim to be practical, Tim Keller’s Center Church actually is. Keller points out that there are two kinds of books on the church. There are theological books which explore specifically what the Biblical foundations of the church are (see volumes like Mark Dever’s Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, or Ed Clowney’s The Church). These are important works, but they don’t contain very much practical help. The other types of works consist of models of ministry (works like Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Church). These works are useful in some ways, but, as Keller points, out their practicality is limited for “Implicitly or explicitly, they made near-absolutes out of techniques and models that had worked in a certain place at a certain time” (15). But Keller is actually practical. He gives us the theological support, to be sure, but he wants to help his readers find effective ways of doing ministry too. More importantly, as he helps us develop a philosophy of ministry it will be one that fits our context and our time and not just his.

What Keller offers us in this book is what he calls “middleware.” Center Church is a book that fills the space between doctrinal foundations and “how-to” ministry books. This is a volume that helps readers develop a “theological vision” for their specific church. It is a vision “for how to bring the gospel to bear on the particular cultural setting and historical moment. This is something more practical than just doctrinal beliefs but much more theological than ‘how-to steps’ for carrying out a particular ministry” (17). The book revolves around, then, helping readers develop their own theological vision.

Keller realizes that far too many pastors lack this clearly articulated and realized vision, and their ministries are the worse for it. The cut-and-paste style of ministry that many pastor adopt is ineffective precisely because what works in Manhattan isn’t what your context needs. Portsmouth, OH (where I live and serve), does not need me the ministry of Redeemer Presbyterian or Mars Hill. It needs a ministry style that fits our context and our people. But developing that means thinking through both my doctrinal foundations and my cultural context. Keller teaches us how to do that in this comprehensive book.

The book is broken down into three parts, corresponding to the three key dimensions of a theological vision: Gospel, City, and Movement. Under the gospel heading Keller unpacks what the gospel is expressly, and then the need for continual gospel renewal in our churches. “It is possible to subscribe to every orthodox doctrine and nevertheless fail to communicate the gospel to people’s hearts in a way that brings about repentance, joy, and spiritual growth” (73). Under City Keller develops a defense and a Biblically balanced method of contextualization. He argues you are always contextualized, but you are either doing so intentionally and effectively or unintentionally and ineffectively. Along with this he helps readers develop a vision for their specific city. He gives us a comprehensive Biblical theology of the city, exposing some of the myths and errors Christians have about cities (over and against rural/suburban areas). “Because the world is on its way to becoming 70 percent urban, we all need a theological vision that is distinctly urban. Even if you don’t go to the city to minister, make no mistake, the city is coming to you” (88). He argues specifically that if you don’t have a vision for your city you cannot effectively answer the questions people in your city are asking, and therefore you will not be able to effectively apply the gospel to them. Lastly, Movement turns our attention to the specifics of life within the church. Here Keller argues for a missional philosophy that orients the church outward and orients ministries of the church outward. He discusses everything from how to avoid tribalism, to why you should plant other churches. He helps us see how to connect people in the church with evangelism, fellowship, and social justice. Each piece, he argues, being key to healthy effective church life. This is a comprehensive theological vision that Keller is striving to help us develop.

While some will lament that Keller doesn’t tell us how to do ministry that is actually the main point of the book. Tim Keller, as succesful as he is in Manhattan, can’t tell you how to do ministry. But what he offers us in this book are the tools we need to develop our own effective and culturally relevant philosophy of ministry. It is this approach that fundamentally makes Center Church the most practical book on ministry I have read EVER. It’s written like a textbook and therefore will be incredibly useful in seminaries, or in training your own church leadership. In fact we have already started using it in our church Free Seminary (thank you Zondervan for giving them to us before release date). But I know I will be using it regularly for my own personal reference beyond the classroom setting. Keller’s book is just that useful, and will, I don’t doubt, become a staple in ministry training for years to come. Center Church should be in every pastor’s personal library. It is truly a practical ministry book.


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