Tim Keller is one of leading voices in church planting today. He has thought long and hard about how to do gospel ministry in today’s urban contexts, and is the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, a thriving ministry in the heart of New York City. Redeemer has helped mentor other church planters in New York and beyond through Redeemer City to City, a ministry which has helped launch over 200 churches in 35 global cities so far.
Keller’s latest book is Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Zondervan, 2012) which is a manual for how to think about doing church. His aim is to explain how “theological vision,” as distinct from doctrine or methodology, should drive how we bring the message of the gospel to the communities we are called to serve. Just from reading through the introductory chapter, I know I am going to want to read through this manual in depth—highlighter in hand. Keller uses diagrams and sidebars, and yes, even some footnotes, to present his information in an understandable format. And what he has to say is definitely worth hearing. He talks about the inevitability of contextualizing and chides preachers who don’t intentionally think through how their church must speak to the culture around them.
This post is not going to be a full review. I’ll save that for after I’ve had time to examine this work at length. Instead I want to focus in on an excerpt from the introduction on how the Church should adapt to culture. As a former independent fundamental Baptist (IFB), I read these words with great interest:
We will show [in this book] that to reach people we must appreciate and adapt to their culture, but we must also challenge and confront it. This is based on the biblical teaching that all cultures have God’s grace and natural revelation in them, yet they are also in rebellious idolatry. If we overadapt to a culture, we have accepted the culture’s idols. If, however, we underadapt to a culture, we may have turned our own culture into an idol, an absolute. If we underadapt to a culture, no one will be changed because no one will listen to us; we will be confusing, offensive, or simply unpersuasive. To the degree a ministry is overadapted or underadapted to a culture, it loses life-changing power. (pg. 24, emphasis added)
I think there is a wealth of wisdom in this brief except. I particularly appreciated the section that I bolded. This seems to be the case with most conservative IFB churches I know. By and large, the wider culture looks at them with bewilderment. Their version of Christianity—complete with Stoic worship, an archaic Bible and outdated fashion—is totally foreign to the average citizen in the community. And the churchly phrases and Christian lingo confuse the message even more.
In a later section in the book, Keller talks of Anglo Christians who are “often culturally clueless”:
They don’t see any part of how they express or live the gospel to be “Anglo”—it is just the way things are. They feel that any change in how they preach, worship, or minister is somehow a compromise of the gospel. In this they may be doing what Jesus warns against—elevating the “traditions of men” to the same level as biblical truth (Mark 7:8). This happens when one’s cultural approach to time or emotional expressiveness or way to communicate becomes enshrined as the Christian way to act and live. (pg. 96)
Keller goes on to discuss how our culture shapes our view of individualism and community. He also decries how church planters or missionaries tend to reproduce the cultural methodology of ministries that have impacted them.
If they have been moved by a ministry that has forty-five-minute verse-by-verse expository sermons, a particular kind of singing, or a specific order and length to the services, they reproduce it down to the smallest detail. 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. (pg. 97, emphasis added)
Keller’s point should not be ignored. While we must not overadapt to culture and compromise the gospel, we nevertheless have a responsibility to analyze the culture we find ourselves in and seek to communicate in such a way, that the offense that arises in response to our teaching, is an offense directed at the gospel itself, and not our own idiosyncrasies and cultural traditions.
I recommend that pastors and church leaders everywhere pick up a copy of this important book from Tim Keller. The book is carefully written and the principles are clearly explained. Even if you disagree with some of what he has to say, his book will provide an opportunity to systematically walk through all of the issues related to doing ministry in a given culture. If we recognize that some sort of “theological vision” exists and undergirds what we do, then focusing on what that vision is and how it is developed will have lasting impact in how we do church in the twenty-first century.
You can learn more about Center Church at Zondervan’s Engaging Church Blog this week or from CenterChurch.com. You can see a book excerpt or watch a video trailer at Westminster Bookstore’s product page. Pick up a copy of the book at any of the following retailers: Monergism Books, Westminster Bookstore, CBD, Amazon, Barnes&Noble, or direct from Zondervan.
Disclaimer: This book was provided by Zondervan. I was under no obligation to offer a favorable review.