What it’s about:
After doing mission work in Paris for three years and being frustrated by the methods we were using, this is the city-strategy book I needed. Center Church is not a how-to manual for Christian ministry in cities but rather a guide to help the city pastor, church planter, and missionary think through the issues important to their specific context. Keller, as is customary for him, commends balance in all the issues he discusses, urging ministry to stay in the center of the road and to avoid ditches that can be found on either side. This book also can be seen as an apologetic for the strategic importance of cities to global Christianity, a cause that needs to be emphasized to evangelicals today.
Why this book is important:
There are so many reasons why this book is important, and I’ll try to highlight a few of them. First, this book seeks to place the gospel at the center of all ministry. In order to do that, the gospel must be biblically defined, and its implications must be applied in every area of our ministries. The gospel is the death and resurrection of Jesus, and this message makes people right with God when they trust it in faith. This must be remembered in order to avoid a works-based righteousness that becomes the default for people when the gospel is not preached. If the gospel is not continually put before the people in preaching, in teaching, and in the vision of the church, people will start believing that they relate to God based on their performance and not his grace. The gospel is the seed by which all fruit grows. To quote Keller, “Because the gospel is endlessly rich, it can handle the burden of being the ‘main thing’ of a church.”
With the gospel established as the lens by which all things are viewed, Keller writes sections on gospel renewal, contextualization, city vision, cultural engagement, missional community, integrative ministry, and movement dynamics. Each of these sections has 3-5 chapters, and I found each to be insightful. With there being so much to say, I’ll limit myself to comments on three of my favorite sections.
The issue of contextualization is important for all ministers, especially those doing ministry cross-culturally. Keller defines contextualization like this: “…giving people the Bible’s answers, which they may not at all want to hear, to questions about life that people in their particular time and place are asking, in language and forms they can comprehend, and through appeals and arguments with force they can feel, even if they reject them.” The job of ministers is to communicate the gospel, and therefore the minister must consider how best that message will be received by those who hear. This issue, however, can become tricky in urban contexts, as often the congregations are filled with multiple cultures (mine can have over 40 countries on an average Sunday). Keller’s section on contextualization is helpful both in terms of understanding your own culture and helping you think through how to bring the gospel to other cultures simultaneously in an understandable way.
I mentioned earlier about how this book is important for promoting ministry in cities. A section of four chapters is given to this end. I served in Paris, and a few years ago I went back home to Alabama and spent a lot of time speaking to churches and Christian schools about missions. I found that, while many of these Great Commission Christians had partnerships with missionaries and ministries, nearly every time these partnerships were with work in rural areas. As Keller points out, the world is urbanizing quickly. Cities attract the younger generation, assemble the nations in one area, and influence the world in a way that rural areas don’t. While I do not want to discount ministry in rural areas, there needs to be a bigger influx of missions to cities in the 21st century. Keller’s arguments to this end need to be considered, especially if you are a student who is trying to find out how to give your life to the Lord. Perhaps God has called you to a secular vocation where you will intentionally live in a city for the sake of the gospel.
A third section that I found especially helpful was on Cultural Engagement. Christians throughout history have had many differing views on how a Christian relates to a secular culture. This is a pertinent issue for any church, especially one in a city. Keller presents a helpful history of Christian thought on this topic and wisely encourages us to stay balanced. As is the norm for this book, rather than telling us what to do or think, he gives us the factors that we must consider in coming to a stance on our practices in cultural engagement. In a previous blog post, I made reference to one of these factors, namely, knowing the season of a culture concerning where it stands in relation to the gospel. You can read that post here: http://parkerwindle.blogspot.fr/2012/11/is-europe-post-christian.html .
I don’t have any serious criticisms with this book. I go through Center Church with Interns who come to do mission work in Paris, and often I don’t have time to go through the whole book with them. There aren’t any chapters that I consider to be unimportant, so it becomes difficult for me to make decisions on what to leave out.
As with any book, I have minor disagreements here and there, but I don’t consider those worth mentioning. I will say that the book is written from a western, American perspective. While I agree with Keller when he says, “World cities are more connected to others around the world than they are to their own nations,” we must still understand that there is a difference between London and New York and Tokyo culturally. Keller is fighting the tendency to emphasize the discontinuity between these cities rather than how they are alike, and I believe this is much needed today. At the same time, there will be times that the New York perspective that he comes from may not be a perfect fit if you are serving in Beijing or Rome.
What this book did for me personally:
After I finished seminary I began a short-term (3 years) mission stint in Paris. My ministry was people group focused and was using a strategy that had been developed (and been very successful) in rural China. Exploding with seminary training and a desire to reach the nations for Christ, I launched myself heart and soul into this work. It didn’t take long, however, before I became strongly critical of our methodology in my mind. I was trying to be a good follower and didn’t rebel against my leadership, but I must confess that little about our approach made sense to me. We were people group focused; yet most of the growing churches I saw were multicultural. We were trying to start house churches, yet most of the different ethnic groups seemed to have their own particular problems with having church in their homes. We had a strong emphasis on evangelism; and while that is good, we emphasized it to the point that we often neglected ministries that would impact the larger culture as a whole. In short, my frustrations were by and large due to the fact that we were approaching missions in Paris the same way missions is approached in rural third-world situations.
When I read Center Church, I found myself constantly shouting a mental “YES!” Coming from his New York perspective, Keller was able to identify many of the issues I was having in Paris and to help me to think through it. We would all like to have a trump card methodology of missions that will work in every culture and context in the world, but this does not exist. Center Church does not attempt to provide a methodology for you; rather, it wants to give you a framework for thinking through your cultural context, your church, and biblical theology in order to help you determine how to faithfully accomplish the great commission where you are.
After my mission stint, I came back to Paris to serve in a local international church. I love every minute of serving here, yet the issues in an urban multicultural church have not gotten any simpler. Serving the Lord in a city church is exciting, rewarding, and complicated. Center Church has been invaluable for me in thinking through ministry in the context where I am called.
When evangelicals talk about missions, often the first thing that pops into our heads is unreached people groups and the cause of global evangelism. This is not bad; however, I believe this can sometimes lead to an extreme emphasis on doing missions in rural hard-to-reach areas to the neglect of cities. True, cities are more expensive, complicated, and busy. But they are also more multicultural, as many unreached people groups find their ways to these major urban centers. They attract the young, and are therefore important in reaching the next generation. They are more influential, as the cities seem to dictate the direction that the culture of the whole country takes. They have a higher concentration of the poor, giving the church a great opportunity to bear witness through social justice. And, on top of all this, the world is urbanizing quickly. This is the direction the world is going in. Christians must take seriously the call of cities and provide a strong and faithful witness there. Center Church is an important contribution to this cause.