Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Church

By Timothy Keller (2016) This book sets forth a large-scale vision for church ministry, renewal, and church planting in the city. It lays a strong biblical and theological foundation for church ministry, working from principles to practical application. Everything is grounded in the gospel and its entailments. A theological vision for outreach needs to be built on biblical theology. Keller articulates the necessity of proper contextualization, explains why we need to connect to the city, and shows how to do so. Center Church is a rare book, one that is both strong theologically and informed and helpful practically. Keller encourages churches to work with one another and with other agencies in order to create a thriving gospel ecosystem through the Holy Spirit that can change the city.

Section 1: Gospel

Section 1: Gospel

Part 1: Gospel Theology

The gospel is good news that tells us God has acted to bring about salvation from his wrath and the curse. A good summary of the gospel is that “God saves sinners.” The triune God acts to save, and Jesus Christ provides redemption. The gospel is what God has done for us—what we do and our work to make the world a better place is in response to the gospel, but not the gospel itself. On the personal level the gospel is about how an individual can get right with God, and on the global level the gospel is about the hope for the world. The gospel is a story that has chapters—it develops along the lines of God and creation, the Fall and sin, the salvific work of Jesus Christ, and appropriating this salvation by grace through faith. Jesus saves individuals, but at his second coming he is also going to transform the universe. The gospel is not everything but it needs to be the center of everything we do in church life.

The gospel cannot be reduced to one particular slogan or simplistic formula. In the Bible the gospel is expressed in a rich variety of ways. For example, the Gospel of John emphasizes receiving eternal life, whereas the other Gospels emphasize entering into God’s kingdom. These are not synonymous, but they are mutually complementary—they simply highlight different facets of the whole. Paul frequently explains the gospel in forensic, legal terminology, speaking of salvation in terms of justification. This diversity unpacks the core unity of the gospel, which lies in redemption through substitution. The gospel can be articulated through the categories and questions of systematic theology, and it can also be understood through tracing out key salvation themes that develop through God’s progressive revelation in Scripture. For example, the Bible connects the gospel to the themes of exile/homecoming, covenant/fulfillment, and the coming kingdom (to name a few). The richness of the gospel means that it can be articulated with different emphases, and the diversity of the human race means that the herald should contextualize the gospel motifs to their audience.

We have seen that the gospel is not everything, and that the gospel is not a simple thing. These two realities ground the truth that the gospel affects virtually everything. In the gospel we see the incarnation and the reversal of human measurements of greatness. We also see atonement and grace given to the undeserving—salvation is a gift, the opposite of works-righteousness and legalistic religion. The gospel shows us the power of the resurrection and points forward to the future purification and transformation of the world. As a result, we work to bring as much positive change to the world in the here and now as possible. Jesus is full of both grace and truth, showing us we are more sinful than we imagined and yet God is infinitely forgiving and merciful. The gospel addresses our needs and changes our lives. It brings healing and transformation. The gospel affects our view of God, ourselves, and others. It changes the foundations of our relationships, as well as changing how we perceive ourselves and what we try to do to find self-acceptance and the approval of others. It allows us to rest secure in God’s love and work for us, and it empowers and motivates us to do good works out of gratitude to him.

Section 1: Gospel

Part 2: Gospel Renewal

Personal renewal occurs when the Spirit impresses the truth and entailments of the gospel deeply into our hearts and minds. Corporate renewal (i.e. revival) occurs when a body of believers are experiencing personal renewal. A revival takes place because of the work of the Holy Spirit, intensely working through normal means such as prayer, preaching, evangelism, etc. Some revivals have been criticized for being too individualistic and detached from the authority of local congregations, and although there are dangers, revivals are from God. In our society most people are not connected to a church, so revival fits our culture by targeting individuals. It also focuses the message on the need for heart change which is a biblical focus. The heart is the center of the person and it is with the heart that we repent and entrust ourselves to Jesus. Paul prays that Christians will come to know the love of God more and more—we are to continue to grow in our experience of the Lord.

There are three ways of responding to God, two of which actually reject him. These ways are irreligion, religion, and the gospel. In religion people trust their own morality and works-righteousness to be saved. Even many genuine Christians default to religion and live their lives trying to measure up so they can be acceptable to God. Obedience must be our grateful response to God’s love and grace, not our attempt at making the grade. Religion appeals to our pride and controls us by fear of punishment on one hand and an egotistical superiority on the other. The gospel teaches us that we are sinful and yet loved by God, and it is this grace that gives us the power to obey God out of the right motives. We naturally manufacture and worship idols in our hearts, and we sin in order to maintain them (e.g. if money is an idol we may cheat on our taxes). Idolatry is a failure to trust in Jesus alone, so the solution to idolatry is clinging to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Revivals begin with extraordinary prayer that focuses on grace, salvation of the lost, and knowing God. They also come with a rediscovery of the truth and power of the gospel. The gospel is then applied in all areas of church life—it is preached, taught, and discussed. Discussion can take place in small groups or in casual conversations. Life change should be seen and shared. Preaching for gospel renewal will differentiate religion from the gospel as well as balance the holiness and love of God to demonstrate his grace. It will be clear and make the truth real. It will also show how biblical passages lead to Christ, and be addressed to both the regenerate and unregenerate. When a revival is occurring people who erroneously thought they were saved are converted and sleepy Christians wake up. Lives begin to change, worship deepens, and biblical truth is cherished. Because of the changes taking place in individuals, barriers to community are cast down and relationships based on humility, love, and service are formed. Churches can grow numerically without revival, but fruit and vitality will be missing.

Section 2: City

Section 2: City

Part 3: Gospel Contextualization

Proper contextualization gives the Bible’s answers to the questions about life that people in a given culture are asking, using culturally appropriate language and forms as well as relevant appeals and arguments. It presents the gospel as true and also shows how it is relevant in the cultural milieu in which it is proclaimed. Contextualization can be overdone so that the teaching of the Bible is compromised, but the views of a culture should never trump the truths of Scripture. It is impossible to avoid contextualization. Every language is tied to a particular culture, and even in that language word choice, illustrations, length of time speaking, etc. will depend on the audience being addressed (we lose people by being irrelevant if we don’t contextualize our speaking to our audience). Since contextualization is inevitable, we must do it self-consciously or we will be blind to our own biases and insensitive to those we are trying to reach. We need to bridge the gap between the Bible and culture, taking the Bible’s truth and reaching people with it. This requires listening to others to both learn their culture and to get help in seeing our own cultural blind-spots and assumptions. Too often our cultural assumptions prevent us from seeing certain aspects of the Bible’s teaching, or they cause us to see one side of the coin more clearly than the other. Culture and the Bible are not equally authoritative—the Bible determines what is acceptable or unacceptable in culture, not vice versa.

The Bible teaches that every culture is infected with sin and idolatry, yet every culture is also a recipient of God’s common grace and therefore contains some good. First Corinthians 9 is a key text that shows how Paul was able to be flexible in relating to different cultures, willingly waving his rights in order to prevent unnecessary obstacles from being placed in front of the gospel (while refusing to compromise on the truth of the gospel, which was an intrinsically offensive message). The most important biblical passage about contextualization is 1 Cor. 1:22-25. In this text Paul demonstrates that the gospel presents different challenges to different cultures, and it also affirms and fulfills the genuine insights and good goals of these cultures. The Book of Acts shows us that Paul adapted his style and approach to different audiences, but he always challenged their understanding of God and reality, pointed out their sinful state, and pointed them to Jesus. The biblical authors use a variety of appeals to persuade people to receive Christ: there are positive things to be gained and negative things to avoid.

If we are not active in contextualization we will still contextualize, but in a passive, uncritical manner. Active contextualization requires entering the culture, challenging it, and appealing to our hearers. In order to appeal to our hearers we need to know the Bible’s content, but we also need to know as much as possible about the culture’s thought forms, language, emphases, hopes, and questions. We must learn through study and lots of time spent in conversation. Some cultures are more analytic and logical, while others are more relational or intuitional. We need to see what values in a given culture agree with or contradict the Bible, and then utilize those points of contact. Our critique of the culture is most effective when we affirm where it agrees with Scriptural truths, but then show how other beliefs that are maintained are inconsistent with the truth. In Manhattan, secular people do not tend to take seriously the concept of sin as a violation of God’s law. When their problem is described as idolatry, however, the message resonates. Other pressure points include the commodification of sex, the tension between atheism and human rights, and the loss of cultural hope and meaning. We must move from the personal and corporate problems to appealing to, and consoling, those who are listening. We must show them that Jesus is the solution. The Bible speaks about the atonement and Jesus’ victory in different ways, but at the heart of each is substitution—he did it for us and he did it in our place.

Section 2: City

Part 4: City Vision

Cities are places where both the best and the worst of the human race is intensified. In the biblical world, a city is not so much about population as it is a place where people live close together. Cities were walled and provided safety and justice—today immigrants still flock to cities as the best place to find a home and make a living. Cities are places of diversity, productivity, and creativity. In the Bible, there is a tension in how cities are viewed because they can heighten what is good or evil. The first city is built by Cain, and it becomes a place of artistic and technological innovation. The dark side of cities is shown in Babel and Sodom, but the positive side is shown in the heavenly city which is the ultimate hope of the patriarchs. In Israel, God commanded the construction of cities of refuge and he also put his name in Jerusalem, which was to be a holy city that was an example to all nations. The prophets depict eschatological glory as being located in the city of God, but they also condemn the wicked apocalyptic city of Babylon. When Jerusalem became filled with sin and idolatry it was destroyed and the population taken into exile, where they were told to pray and work for the good of the city in which they were living.

Today, Christians are not living in one city, but are scattered throughout the world. We need to be the city of God while working for the good of the cities we live in. The Book of Acts shows how the gospel penetrated cities that were the intellectual, political, economic, and religious engines of the ancient world. The rural areas were reached from the overflow of the cities. We have a mandate to work and be fruitful in our cultures, for the glory of God. Urbanization in our world is exploding, and globalization and technology are making cities more interconnected and influential than ever. Christians need to learn how to reach the city—because of the nature of the city, if we reach the city, we can reach the suburbs and the world. Cities are disproportionately home to the younger generation, the cultural elites, immigrants from closed countries, and the poor. All of these key groups can be reached if Christians target the city.

In cities, productivity and innovation increases exponentially due to agglomeration (i.e. people in tight proximity working together and learning from each other). In cities we are pushed to excel by people who are like us and by people who are different from us. Christians need to develop positive attitudes towards the city, rather than looking at it as an enemy. Christians need to work to be a counterculture in the city, but a positive one rather than negative or reactionary. Urban churches that are fruitful have seven key traits. The first two are that they have respect for urban sensitivity and they are sensitive to cultural differences. The rest of the traits are that they are committed to social justice and their neighbourhood, they integrate faith and work, they engage in complex evangelism, they preach to attract and challenge city people, and they are committed to being artistic and creative.

Section 2: City

Part 5: Cultural Engagement

The Twentieth Century saw an enormous cultural shift away from Christianity in the West. In general the church responded by focusing on evangelizing individuals and personal salvation, rather than engaging the culture. This pietistic approach did not accomplish what many were hoping for, and in many places a renewed focus on the importance of the Christian worldview and cultural engagement occurred. Different models for church/culture relationships have been developed, and various approaches to culture have been implemented. One model is the Tranformationist model which emphasizes that Christians are to live out their Christian worldview in every area of their lives, thus transforming culture. Although there are nuances in the Transformationalist model, it has strong affinities with Kuyper, and adherents believe that Christians can do Christian work in any sphere and that secularism in the public square needs to be challenged. Transformationists have recognized certain problems and dangers in their model, including an understanding of worldviews that is too cognitive, underappreciating the church, pride and triumphalism, putting too much emphasis on politics, and not recognizing the dangers of power.

Another model is the Relevance model, which believes that God’s Spirit is at work in culture to bring about good and further his kingdom. Christians operating in this model are positive about cultural developments, emphasize the common good, seek to make the church more relevant to people’s needs and sensibilities, and call the church as a whole to engage in social justice. Churches that adopt the Relevance model can actually quickly become irrelevant when the culture changes. They also can minimize doctrine and preaching the gospel. The Counterculturalist model emphasizes the contrast between the church and culture. Culture is seen as being the enemy of God and the truth, and the church is called to shun politics and power, living in genuine community and caring for the poor. Criticisms of this model are that it is too pessimistic, it demonizes government and capitalism, it fails to see the inevitability of contextualization, it downplays doctrines like justification, and it minimizes articulating the gospel in evangelism. The “Two Kingdoms” model takes the position that God rules all of creation through natural revelation in a common kingdom, and he specially rules over a redemptive kingdom through special revelation. Christians are to serve God as citizens of both kingdoms and they are not to try to find a uniquely “Christian” way of doing their vocation or transforming culture (there are intramural debates about this latter point). Government and culture can restrain evil but they are limited in what they can achieve. Some problems with the Two Kingdoms model is that it puts more emphasis on common grace than the Bible does, it mistakenly attributes certain societal goods to natural revelation rather than the influence of special revelation in society, it sees life as too religiously neutral, it neglects proper societal engagement, and it places the work of clergy above the laity.

It is important not to caricature these models or their proponents. There is a lot of nuance and intramural debate in each of them. There is also a lot of modeling that is attempting to learn from others and become more balanced. Two fundamental questions that help clarify our views are: 1. Are we positive or negative about the possibility of cultural change? 2. Is culture redeemable or fundamentally fallen? We need to always keep biblical theology in mind when thinking about culture. We need to balance the goodness of creation with the Fall, sin, the curse, and common grace, as well as God’s redemptive and restorative work. We live in the tension of the already and the not yet. No matter which model we tend to gravitate towards, we need to be balanced and recognize the best of every view, eschewing either compromise or withdrawal. It is also necessary to recognize that not all cultures are equally hostile or favorable towards Christianity, and a culture’s view of the church can change over time. Because of differences in gifting, personality, and calling, we will resonate with the concerns and emphases of different models. Working from one model but appropriating the best of the others can be fruitful, but we need to guard against pride, blame, frustration, and being naïve.

Section 3: Movement

Section 3: Movement

Part 6: Missional Community

Lesslie Newbigin and David Bosch have called the church to see that Christendom in the West has passed, and a new idolatrous paganism is reigning. Mission needs to involve challenging the idol of autonomous rationality. The church is to be a countercultural society and also work for cultural renewal. Mission involves more than evangelism and seeking individual salvation. The word missional is used in a great variety of ways today and there are a diversity of approaches to being missional, but there is also a shared understanding at the core. Missional churches recognize that we are in a post-Christendom age, that our churches have too often capitulated to culture (sometimes without even realizing it) when what is needed is challenging culture by contextualizing the gospel, that we are sent out to be a blessing to the world, and that we need to be a positive countercultural community.

There are three problems with the way that some churches approach being missional. Some are not comprehensive enough and equate evangelism with being missional—evangelism is critical in mission, but it is not the entirety of mission. Others make the mistake of tying a missional community to a particular church form, rather than recognizing that all kinds of churches of all kinds of shapes and sizes can be missional. The most serious problem in some missional groups is that they minimize the nature of sin, the wrath of God, and the need for faith in Christ’s atonement (instead they can overemphasize works or adopting a new lifestyle). No matter what the size of the missional community, there are six things they need to do: 1. Challenge society’s idols; 2. Contextualize and communicate understandably; 3. Train and equip people to do missions in every sphere of their lives; 4. Work for the common good as a counterculture; 5. Expect nonbelievers to be present and part of the group’s life and ministry, and; 6. Be united.

In the early church evangelism was done by everyone and the gospel spread because of these informal missionaries. There are many ways of ministering to others, but lay ministry happens organically (rather than being a church program), it is based on personal relationships, it brings Scripture and life together, and it is active. Lay ministry brings Christian faith into the world. Many people in our culture are led by a long process of mini-steps to finally committing to Jesus. Believers must act in relational integrity, being both like and unlike those around them. We need to intentionally engage our neighbors, friends, and coworkers. Pastors are vital in lay ministry—they need to teach and show people how to live out their faith, pray for others, and share the gospel. Many times we can share our faith if we have some honesty and courage, looking to help and be open. Pastors need to model personal godliness and lay out a rich theological foundation for evangelism. Lay ministry is enhanced when the church provides safe venues for thoughtful and sensitive outreach, too.

Section 3: Movement

Part 7: Integrative Ministry

Churches need to be balanced and have integrative ministries. Too often churches will emphasize discipleship, or evangelism, or teaching, or social justice, etc., rather than seeing that one area of ministry cannot be done well unless it is balanced with other emphases. The Bible uses scores of metaphors and images to describe the church, and it prescribes many things the church should be doing. There are four broad areas where the church needs to be working. First, the church needs to connect people with God. To do this we need a solid biblical theology that grounds our worship services. We should be grounded in a historical tradition yet open to adaptation. The form of our services should be conducive to the culture and people that are present. Weekly services can be geared simultaneously for both edification and evangelism. Such a service will make worship comprehensible to both believers and unbelievers. People should be invited to respond to Christ during the service and in follow-up meetings.

The second broad front the church needs to work on involves connecting people to one another. The gospel creates a community where the quality of our relationships and love serves as a witness. Nothing shapes Christian character more than deep engagement in Christian community. Sharing life with other believers helps us learn how to behave and it also helps us learn more about God through the knowledge and experience of others. Our churches need to evangelize and aim for conversions, but they also need to assimilate people into a deeper life of teaching, doctrinal instruction, and engagement with the sacraments. Deep relationships are formed through sharing deep experiences, and nothing is more significant than experiencing salvation from sin by the grace of God.

Third, the church needs to connect people to the city. This requires involvement in ministries of justice and mercy. We are to love our neighbors, which does not mean people who are just like us, but anyone we come in contact with who has needs. We must be servants who are willing to perform menial tasks. We must also support compassion projects and fight for social justice. There are immediate needs to relieve, but we also need to help people become self-sufficient rather than dependent. There are also deeper structural reforms to work for in society. These kinds of ministries can be very expensive and require personnel, so every church will have to see what they can do and who they should focus on helping.

The fourth front is connecting people to the culture. Now that Christendom has passed in the West, believers need to learn how to live out their faith in a hostile environment. Our faith provides us with motivation in our work and allows us to see that our work matters to God and his plan for the world. Christians should work with the highest ethics and values, resisting work-place priorities that are legal but unbiblical. The church needs to connect people with other Christians of the same vocation, and then train members in worldview thinking. Christians are to serve the Lord at work, not just when they evangelize explicitly, but in how they envision every aspect of their vocations. They must work to the best of their ability and aim for excellence.

Section 3: Movement

Part 8: Movement Dynamics

Although we need some institutional structure, institutions stagnate without movement dynamics. A movement is characterized by a clear vision rather than being governed by rules. The vision is so compelling that people commit and sacrifice for it. Movements are open to partnering with others who can help accomplish their goals, and they have the freedom to recognize new ideas and leaders. Institutionalism needs to be avoided, but every movement needs some marks of an institution in order to be well organized for long-term effectiveness. Every church should be an institution and a movement, an organization and an organism. Jesus is the great prophet, priest, and king, and his followers have these roles, too (speaking the word of God, offering spiritual sacrifices, having authority). There are also special offices in the church, where the Spirit equips certain Christians for special leadership and responsibility. A local church that has movement dynamics will have unity that is created around the vision, it will demonstrate self-sacrifice and eschew tribalism, there will be a willingness to partner groups that have overlapping visions (without compromising on essentials), and there will spontaneity and ideas that come from the bottom-up. It is very difficult to maintain the proper balance between being an institution and being a movement, but we naturally gravitate towards institutionalism over time.

Churches with movement dynamics will want to see growth beyond themselves—this leads to church planting. In the Book of Acts, church planting was a natural part of the spread of Christianity, and it needs to be a natural part of our church life today. A church planting mindset requires being willing to give away control of resources and personnel. It also requires giving the church plant freedom to develop its own distinctive style. This can only be done if we are more interested in the kingdom than in our own tribe. New churches see far higher rates of conversion growth than established ones. They are also one of the best means for renewing and sharpening existing churches. Cities need far more churches than most people think. Planting a church requires learning about the community, loving God and our neighbors, linking the church to the community through contextualization, and launching the plant.

Church planting is required if the city is going to be reached, and this requires churches practicing a proper catholicity and willingness to help other groups that differ on secondary issues. Every church has strengths and weaknesses, and although each should try to be as balanced as possible, different models and emphases will work better in some congregations than in others. A gospel city movement changes a city through the involvement of multiple churches and agencies, providentially empowered by the Holy Spirit to create a gospel ecosystem. A gospel ecosystem can be envisioned as three concentric circles: in the center is the contextualized theological vision, in the next circle are the church planting and church renewal ministries, and in the outer circle there are specialized ministries where churches and agencies partner together. These ministries include prayer gatherings, evangelistic strategies to reach particular groups, social justice initiatives, networking professionals together, education, and more. Church leaders need to have a high degree of unity for this to succeed. Cities can be transformed when a high enough percentage of the population knows Christ—we need to pray and work to see this occur.