Tim Keller’s Magnum Opus, Center Church, is impressive. You can find it here. He has a comprehensive grasp on what is going on in the church and scholarship today. Keller is a synthesizer. He draws from many traditions in order to present us with a church that is well-balanced in relation to the city and its culture. He continually demonstrates both psychological and cultural savvy.
Keller’s grasp of human psychology is the most valuable thing you will go away with. It is particularly evident in the section on contextualization. He argues that in any culture we can separate Christian beliefs into “A” and “B” categories. The “A” category are those beliefs that our culture will easily agree with. The “B” category are those beliefs which offend our culture. Different cultures will gravitate toward certain doctrines in the Christian faith. This is not only true of cultures. Persons with different backgrounds will find Jesus attractive in different ways, but they need the presentation of the whole Christ.
Quite simply, it is wise to start with agreement. You don’t begin with conflict. That will come. If your friend does not confess the truth of Jesus Christ, the question of his existence will eventually come up. Find the “A” doctrines and work to the “B” doctrines. Find out why Jesus is attractive to the people you are ministering to. Why is it possible to do this? It is because the gospel is cohesive. The teachings of scripture are united in the person of Christ. If your audience, or your friend, find some teaching of scripture compelling, work from that to the rest of the doctrines of Christ.
For example, people in Canada, find the love and sacrifice of Christ compelling. They don’t like the doctrine of hell. But if Christ is truly loving, how can he ignore those who hate and ignore his church? You might try to get them to imagine a society where crime gets no punishment. Some type of justice is necessary. In this way, you can bring the whole gospel to a person in a winsome and helpful manner.
Keller’s comments on movement are also very helpful. He sets movement at odds with institutions. To keep it simple: movements are about growth and revival. Institutions are about stability. Keller argues that the church must always include both.
He applies this to church planting. Church planting has to be a movement. Church planting, after all, is about growth. We plant a church in order to bring the good news to a new area. Church planting itself gives the church an opportunity for how we do church. As a byproduct church planting strengthens the institutions of other churches that are already in the area.
He also warns against institutions that are so rigid that they don’t allow for movement. I think this is a helpful warning to the more conservative denominations of today. It is good for their own health. It is very easy to use one’s power to hold an unhealthy control over churches within one’s own group.
Unfortunately, he assumes denominationalism. This is helpful in so far as the church deals with the reality of denominationalism today. However, Keller’s assumption seems to be more than a reckoning with the realities of today. He is largely content with denominationalism. Perhaps he sees it as a necessary evil in that denominationalism creates competition, which forces churches to produce effective ministers. It is hard to tell, since Keller rarely deals with denominationalism directly. When he does he has a light touch.
He forgets that there are other models from the past such as the Medieval European church, the Anglican church and the state churches of Europe. All of these have been effective as institutions and at the same time have had their renewal movements. As an aside, I should add that I do not favor state churches. But neither do I accept denominationalism. I believe that the church may well take on new structures in the future that go beyond a simple dichotomy between state churches and denominational churches.
A Major Criticism: an ill-defined church
But I have a much harsher criticism of Keller’s book. I believe this criticism applies to every part of the book.
Keller has an invisible center church. His center church has faith, but it is hard to tell how exactly it is a center church. Keller fundamentally downplays the marks of the church. It may also play into how he downplays the institutional nature of the church. He downplays the sacraments. He seems to see them as merely an aid to faith, rather than ritual signs that create a fundamental boundary between the church and the world. Throughout the book, he talks about the importance of sacraments, and of different metaphors for the church, but he does not have a strong sacramental boundary between the church and the world. I believe we end up with a center church that isn’t really a center church.
Attention to the sacraments would reveal that the church is a counter-polity a counter-city to the city. The sacraments give the Christian confidence in knowing that they are citizens of heaven. Others have argued that Keller is compromising in the way he reaches out to the city. A strong emphasis on sacraments would demonstrate that the church is a holy people. It would demonstrate that the church is the truly just society. It would also keep the antithesis between the church and the world strong, while allowing the members of the church to interact freely and graciously with all men. This is because the members of the church would know their true citizenship.
One could argue that this is not the real concern of Tim Keller for he is dealing with the church relative to mission. I would argue that this is impossible. For a large part of the book, Tim Keller is talking about the sociology of the church. He is defining the church in relation to the city and to society more generally. His inattention to the role of the sacraments in defining the Christian community is inexcusable: especially for a Presbyterian minister. Yes, the essence of the church is important, the church needs to be understood as the community of believers. But sociologically, the church is a sacramental body. This does not undermine the church as a movement. The sacraments are such that they are easily done among believers wherever the Spirit moves. You ignore that at the peril of the stability of the church itself.
As they say, “it is what it is.” Keller is a man of his time. Our times are not times where sacraments are emphasized. This is particularly true among the evangelical establishment. In many ways, he is the best that contemporary evangelicalism has to offer. His book is a gift to the Christian community and it should not be ignored.