Tim Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in New York City, NY. In 2017, he stepped down from his position as senior pastor in order to focus on mentoring the next generation of urban church planters through a program called “Redeemer City to City.” Keller is a well-known figure in American Christianity, not only because of his success at planting a large church in New York City but also because of his well-reasoned apologetics and clear, compelling exposition of Bible stories. Keller’s theology is fairly conservative and biblical, and characterized by a strong focus on law and gospel. In recent years his books have become quite popular in WELS circles.
Center Church is Keller’s master work on urban ministry. In it he ambitiously tackles a variety of topics including doctrine, practice, church history, city demographics, and the future of our cities. The book is divided into three sections: “Gospel” (chapters 1-6), “City” (ch. 7-18), and “Movement” (ch. 19-30).
Gospel In chapters 1-3, Keller reviews the basic message of the Bible: mankind’s sinful condition, and the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ. He explores both the elegant simplicity and the beautiful complexity of the gospel, tracing several gospel metaphors throughout Scripture. Keller also discusses the role the gospel plays in ministry. The gospel needs to predominate in the life of the church, and this is the only thing that will make a church truly compelling to outsiders for the right reasons. “When the gospel is expounded and applied in its fullness in any church, that church will look unique. People will find in it an attractive, electrifying balance of moral conviction and compassion” (51). In chapters 4-6, Keller discusses how the gospel brings revival and renewal – both within a congregation and within a city.
City Chapters 7-10 focus on gospel contextualization, that is, presenting the gospel in a way that is understandable to a particular mission field. In the Bible we see Paul contextualizing the gospel to various audiences from Bible believers in Antioch, to peasant polytheists in Lystra to sophisticated pagans in Athens to Christian elders in Miletus to a hostile Jewish mob in Jerusalem to governing Roman elites in Caesarea (112).
Every culture has both inherent beliefs that the Bible affirms, and inherent beliefs that the Bible condemns. Good contextualization means knowing which ones are which, and building on the correct beliefs to critique the incorrect ones. Every culture also has questions. “What do I do with my guilt? What do I do with my fear? How do I know what’s true? Will I ever be loved?” The gospel provides the answers to all of them, but good contextualization means knowing which question(s) the people in your mission field are asking.
Chapters 11-14 shift to the topic of city mission work. Cities have always been important places to share the gospel. Keller writes, “In Acts 17, Paul travels to Athens, the intellectual center of the Greco-Roman world. In Acts 18, he goes to Corinth, one of the commercial centers of the empire. In Acts 19, he arrives in Ephesus, perhaps the Roman world’s religious center, the hub of many pagan cults and particularly of the imperial cult, with three temples for emperor worship. By the end of Acts, Paul has made it to Rome itself, the empire’s capital of military and political power. John Stott concludes, ‘It seems to have been Paul’s deliberate policy to move purposefully from one strategic city-centre to the next’” (148).
Cities remain very important targets for outreach today, because people are flooding to cities like never before. Many Americans don’t realize quite what is happening in their cities. “Since 1990, American cities have experienced an amazing renaissance. During this time, many cities’ population declines have begun to reverse. People began to move back into cities, and center cities began to regenerate at their cores” (155). Today’s American cities, especially the largest ones, are being revitalized with an influx of young American professionals and their families and with an influx of immigrants from around the world. This isn’t a fad–it’s the future. The world has become global and urban, and it’s not going back.
This has great implications for our mission work. City ministry is the best way to reach both the next generation and the cultural elites of our society. “If the church of the West remains, for the most part, in the suburbs of Middle America and neglects the great cities, it risks losing an entire generation of American society’s leaders” (160). In Keller’s opinion, city ministry is also the best way to reach people from around the world. “Globalization and urbanization are removing the very distinction between ‘home’ and ‘foreign missions.’ Every major city is now a portal for reaching the nations of the world. In other words, one of the very best ways to reach the far parts of the world is to reach your own city!” (159)
Keller concludes, “There is nothing more critical for the evangelical church today than to emphasize and support urban ministry” (162). He’s not just talking about pastors. In order to spread the gospel to the masses of non-Christians gathering in our cities, we need a whole generation of Christian people who are willing to make cities their home and help start new churches there.
Chapters 15-18 evaluate a number of “models” for how churches should engage the culture around them. To what extent can churches expect to change the culture of society? This is an important worthwhile discussion to have in cities, because cities tend to be the cultural leaders for a whole region.
Movement In the final chapters (19-30), Keller looks at the history of the missional church and discusses what it means to be a church that is truly “missional.” He also makes a strong argument for more church planting. He believes that new churches, which are naturally outreach-focused, energetic and have “fresh DNA” (that is, no historical baggage) are geared to integrate unchurched persons in a way that established congregations simply cannot (359).
Gospel During the “Gospel” section, Keller sounds much like Martin Luther. He distinguishes between law and gospel. He emphasizes that the gospel must predominate. He spells out the gospel repeatedly with a broad range of metaphors and pictures. In a world of churches that push the gospel aside in favor of topics deemed to be more “relevant,” this reviewer was refreshed and encouraged to hear Keller emphasizing that the gospel is the most relevant topic of all.
When it comes to the topic of “revivalism and renewal” in chapters 4-5, Keller begins to sound more Reformed. He writes, “It is possible (even common) for a person to be an active member of the church, subscribe to all biblical doctrines, and to live according to biblical ethics, but nonetheless to be wholly unconverted.” This type of statement almost implies that there is some kind of “middle ground” between an unbeliever and a true believer. The Scriptures don’t speak this way and thus Lutherans don’t, because we don’t want to lead our people into doubt regarding their salvation.
A confessional Lutheran pastor will also experience some discomfort with the way Keller discusses using “experience meetings” and “extraordinary prayer” to kindle revival. Some of this discomfort might simply be attributed to Keller using a “Reformed vocabulary.”
City The chapters on gospel contextualization (7-10) are excellent. In a particularly spot-on section Keller says, “One of the most basic mistakes ministers make is to regurgitate the methods and programs that have personally influenced them. After experiencing the impact of ministry in one part of the world, they take up the programs and methods of that ministry and reproduce them elsewhere virtually unchanged. . . without realizing it, they become method driven and program driven rather than theologically driven. They are contextualizing their ministry expression to themselves, not to the people they want to reach” (emphasis his, 97). This is the reason why contextualization needs to be an ongoing task for all congregations. If we do not continually ask how we can best connect to our mission field, we risk connecting only with the people already within our walls.
The chapters on city vision (11-14) are, in this reviewer’s opinion, the most helpful part of the whole book for WELS pastors. When it comes to “urban ministry,” we typically think of smaller Midwestern cities (like Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and Detroit) and their historical struggles with poverty, crime, and poor education. Keller helps us to expand our horizons and see that cities are changing–and that the biggest changes are happening in the very biggest cities. He makes an extremely compelling argument, both statistically and biblically, that we need to prioritize city mission work like never before.
The last chapters in the “City” section (15-18) are less helpful. A great deal of time is spent discussing various models of cultural engagement (for example, page 231 contains a complex chart comparing at least a dozen different schools of thought). Many of these models have unrealistic expectations about how thoroughly Christians can expect to transform the culture around them. Keller clearly hopes that readers of every theological background will find something useful here, but he risks “losing” his readers in a sea of theological jargon and unnecessary historical detail.
Movement Keller’s pleas for a 21st-century church-planting movement seem to reflect a growing sentiment in the Evangelical church-planting world that “bigger is not necessarily better.” Smaller, more relational churches may in fact be the best way to both reach unbelievers and disciple our own members. Keller has modeled this approach in his own ministry, by focusing on starting new, smaller congregations rather than turning Redeemer into a megachurch. This mindset is both encouraging and challenging for the WELS; encouraging because our churches already tend to be small and relational, but challenging because we don’t have much experience doing ministry in urban environments, especially the biggest “global cities.”
In the introduction to Part 2, Keller states, “Virtually all ministry contexts are increasingly shaped by urban and global forces. Regardless of your particular cultural or geographical vision, you will need to consider the city when forming a theological vision that engages the people you are trying to reach. In other words, 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.” Center Church is not only a good read for church planters, mission boards, and those who live near cities. Quite simply, this is a worthwhile book for anyone interested in sharing Jesus with our society – a society which is becoming more global and urban every day. Despite a few weak spots, the first part of the book alone (ch. 1-14) is more than valuable enough to justify the relatively low price tag.