Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Center Church, by Tim Keller: A Review

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: .


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.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The 2013 "Books I Read" Awards

At the beginning of 2013 I made a goal to try to discipline myself to average reading one book a week. I averaged slightly higher than that, reading 53 books this year. I have tried to read widely, as one must be disciplined to keep educating oneself after finishing school. On top of that, I am trying to avoid becoming a cookie-cutter of what I read, as often happens with ministers. While I give lip service to that, I admittedly say that I have a tendency to bias myself towards C.S. Lewis and Tim Keller. Nevertheless, I did not read more than four books by any one author. I tried to include new books and old books, fiction and non-fiction, classics and obscure, and Christian and non-fiction, as well as books that it was time for me to re-read. I have provided the list of books at the bottom and given awards out to some of my favorites. What do these books win? Nothing but the pride of being mentioned. Nevertheless, feel free to leave your comments and disagree with me, especially my heretical opinions concerning Charles Dickens.

Best Fiction Book

The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini

This Category was a tough call, but in the end The Kite Runner just edged out The Age of Innocence  (where else other than this blog could those two be in competition?). I really appreciated Wharton’s descriptions of this era in New York society and the way she honored traditional marriage, but I absolutely couldn’t put The Kite Runner down. I could easily relate to the real and appropriate feelings of guilt that the protagonist was plagued with and was touched about the way he found some relief in being able to love. While certainly not a Christian book, there are many places this could be bridged to the gospel. It is a great read.

2nd place: The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton
Honorable mentions: Sanctuary, William Faulkner; The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho

Best Re-Read

Recalling the Hope of Glory, Allen Ross

This is kind of an odd category, but some books simply must be re-read. Given my love of C.S. Lewis, many of the books that qualify for this award belong to him. This fact, however, may have hurt his prospects of winning it, as it would be hard to choose which one. Mere Christianity, for example, is one of my all-time favorites and has probably influenced me more than any book other than the Bible. I read it every year, and this year I read it in French (Les Fondements du Christianisme). It is also a difficult category, as every book I would re-read I obviously liked.

That being said, the award goes to Allen Ross’ Recalling the Hope of Glory. Ross is a professor at Beeson Divinity School, of which I am an alumni. This was his textbook for his class on Worship Leadership. He has a brilliant Old Testament mind and he leads the reader through all the Bible has to say about worship. He makes difficult concepts concerning Israel’s traditions very accessible and easy to apply to the modern worshipper. This book is an absolute must read for the pastor who wants his congregation have a deeper understanding of worship than whatever the new Chris Tomlin CD says (with all due respect to Mr. Tomlin). Here is a little nugget from the book to entice you to read it: “Holiness is not one of many descriptions of God; it is the summary designation of all that God is and is known to be in contrast to all creation.”

2nd Place - Les Trois Mousquetaires, Alexandre Dumas (The Three Muskateers, read it in French this time)
Honorable Mention – The Screwtape Letters, CS Lewis; Notes Freom the Underground, Fyodor Dostoevsky

Best Christian Nonfiction

The Insanity of God, by Nik Ripken

I absolutely loved this book. In fact, I loved it so much that I wrote a review of it, which you can see here:  . In short, I loved the tough questions it asks about suffering and persecution in the Christian life, as well as the struggles of a missionary who wants to bring people to faith in Christ while observing the dangers that this prospect would bring. Ripken is humble in his questions and thorough in his attempts to answer them. I found this book extremely edifying and would recommend it.

2nd place: Mere Apologetics, Alister McGrath
Honorable Mention: Preaching to a Post Everything Word, Zack Eswine; The Meaning of Marriage, Tim Keller; Bloodlines, John Piper

Best Scholarly

The Age of Reform:1250-1550, Steven Ozment

If this seems like a bizarre category, then know that I pretty much made it up so I could say how much I liked this book. Steven Ozment, a professor at Harvard, writes a terrific introduction to the study of the Reformation. He gives great background on the Monastic and Scholastic movements which really help to understand the mindsets of figures like Luther and Calvin when they hit the scene. Ozment is also a good writer, and I enjoyed his work so much that I also read his When Father’s Ruled: Family Life in Reformation Europe. If you are interested in going deep into the Reformation, this one is a must read.

2nd Place: Christ and Culture, H. Richard Neibuhr
Honorable mention: When Father’s Ruled: Family Life in Reformation Europe, Steven Ozment

Biggest Disappointment

Great Expectations, Charles Dickens

This year I made my second attempt to try to get through this one, and, though it was grueling and sometimes excruciating, I finally made it. Put me in the camp with those who don’t understand why Dickens is heralded as such a genius. Sure, there are flashes of brilliance, but unfortunately those flashes are hidden within hundreds of pages of boredom. The one book of his that I do love, A Tale of Two Cities, I only really loved after I had finished it. While I did enjoy the tension of the tragic misplaced love of Pip for Estella, I had a hard time caring about the characters or the story as a whole. This is a classic, and Dickens is widely renowned as a genius, so I am sure he will survive my criticism here. Assuredly I will discipline myself to read another big Dickens novel sometime (note I said discipline myself), but I am not looking forward to it.

2nd place: The Book of Acts, Frank Stagg
Honorable Mention: Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy; God on Sex, Danny Akin

Book of the Year

Center Church, by Tim Keller

This book stands way above and beyond any other book I read this year, and it is perhaps the best book I have read since I have gotten out of school. If you are a missionary and/or pastor in an urban setting, or need to be convinced of the necessity of gospel witness to cities, this book is an absolute must read. A consistent theme in the book is that the church/Christian ought to seek to stay balanced, or in the center, regarding the different questions that surround urban churches. The gospel ought to be
seed by which all ministry grows out of and flame through which all theological convictions are purged. Keller, as always, presents well-researched, scholarly material in ways that are accessible to the average layman, and he provides insightful wisdom that comes from years of experience. Refreshingly, he does not offer quick fixes or a step by step program; rather, he provides questions by which we can evaluate how we do things and what is appropriate for our contexts. The book is divided into 8 parts, which can be purchased separately on Kindle. I particularly enjoyed the sections on contextualization and cultural engagement.

2nd place: The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini
Honorable Mention: The Insanity of God, Nik Ripken; Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton

Book list:

Eyes Wide Open, Steve Dewitt
Jonathan Edwards: Lover of God, Douglas Sweeney
Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho
The Meaning of Marriage, Tim Keller
The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis (Reread)
Tortured for Christ, Richard Wurmbrand
Louis XIV, Makers of History, John Abbot
The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini
The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis (reread)
Recalling the Hope of Glory, Allen Ross (reread)
Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
Wittgenstein in 90 Minutes, Paul Strathern
Heidegger in 90 Minutes, Paul Strathern
The Epistle to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, NICNT, by F.F. Bruce
The Praise of Folly, Erasmus
Notes From the Underground, Dostoyevsky (reread)
When I don't Desire God, John Piper
The Kreutxer Sonata, Tolstoy
The Book of Acts, Frank Stagg
Young, Restless, and Reformed, Collin Hansen
How Should I Live in This World, RC Sproul
The Empire of Austria: Its Rise and Present Power, John S.C. Abbott
The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness, Tim Keller
Selections From the Table Talk of Martin Luther, Martin Luther
Les Trois Mousquetaires, Alexandre Dumas (reread)
Christ and Culture, H. Richard Neibuhr
Letters to a Young Pastor, Calvin Miller
The Man with Two Left Feet, and Other Stories, P.G. Wodehouse
The Power of Suffering, John MacArther
Sanctuary, William Faulkner
Surprised By Joy, C.S. Lewis (reread)
The Age of Reform:1250-1550, Steven Ozment
The Insanity of God, Nik Ripken
The Story of the Amulet, Edith Nesbit
God on Sex, Danny Akin
Les Fondements du Christianisme, C.S. Lewis (reread)
Bloodlines, John Piper
Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Thmas Hardy
Worldviews in Conflict, Ronald Nash (reread)
The Happy Prince and Other Tales, Oscar Wilde
The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton
Wisdom and Wonder: Common Grace in Science and Art, Abraham Kuyper
A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams
L'humanite de Calvin, Richard Stauffer
Free Grace Broadcaster: Babies, multiple authors
Mere Apologetics, Alister McGrath
C is for Christmas, Warren Wiersbe
Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
Center Church, Tim Keller
When Father's Ruled: Family Life in Reformation Europe, Steven Ozment
Preaching to a Post Everything Word, Zack Eswine
Derrida in 90 Minutes, Paul Strathern