Foundations: No.64 Spring 2013

Review Article: Constructing Theological Vision

 

Center Church: Doing Balanced Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City
Timothy Keller, Zondervan, 2012, 352 pp, £18.99

Tim Keller’s philosophy of ministry, as laid out in Center Church, deserves to be carefully read and reflected on by all those seeking to minister in the city in the twenty-first century. This review article summarises the main arguments of the book, interacting with some key issues. The book’s central thesis is then assessed and while affirming the approach the reader is urged not to substitute this book for the hard task of constructing one’s own theological vision.

Tim Keller, the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, has in this excellent book put us in his debt. I want in this review article to briefly summarise the main arguments of the book, interact with some issues I have with it on the way, and conclude with a reflection on his central thesis. Before I get going, though, I want to dispense with a few words on the book’s presentation. Although this is the work of a particularly scholarly reflective practitioner the book is not, strictly, an academic work, as authors are often cited but not referenced and there is no bibliography. The format of the book has a couple of drawbacks for this reader. I can understand the desire to keep the book from busting the 400-page barrier but why do the footnotes have to be so eye-strainingly miniscule and printed on a grey background? For the most part the book is very well written but even native English-speaking outsiders to the peculiarities of the US tax system will struggle to imagine what a “501(c)(3)” is (325)! (Most of us call it a charity or NGO.) Having dealt with minor quibbles I now turn to the argument. [1] 

Theological vision

In introducing us to the subject of the book Keller briefly describes his own pilgrimage in ministry (small town pastor followed by a spell teaching at Westminster Seminary) and how he came to pursue his vision for church planting in New York City. As people began to ask the author what it was that gave their church such remarkable fruitfulness, Keller came to understand that it was neither merely their biblical and Reformed approach to doctrine, nor merely their evangelistic and teaching methods that were responsible for the fruit, under God. It was something else that stood between their doctrinal foundation and the particular forms of ministry they employed. This was “the space where we reflect deeply on our theology and our culture to understand how both of them can shape our ministry” (17) and is identical to what Richard Lints, on whom he clearly leans heavily, calls a “theological vision”. [2] He shows how variations in this “middleware” lead to churches in similar situations with the same theology being deeply divided over ministry expressions and methods. Redeemer City to City, the organisation that is based at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, centres its training and coaching of urban church planting on this. Theological vision (how to see) comes between doctrinal foundation (what to believe) and ministry expression (what to do) (20). It is this theological vision that Keller calls “Center Church” (21).

Keller acknowledges the plethora of books to be published on the church in recent years and explains that his first concern in adding to them is that the term “centre church” may be used as a label or diagnostic tool as in “This is a centre church, but that one isn’t”. He has chosen this term for four reasons: the gospel is at its centre; the centre is the place of balance; this theological vision is shaped by and for urban and cultural centres; the theological vision is at the centre of ministry.

Keller goes on to express the theological vision that is Center Church in terms of three basic commitments: gospel, city and movement. These can be thought of as three axes, which Keller diagrams as continua (23). It might be better, however, to diagram it three dimensionally, thus:

Gospel, City and Movement Axes Diagram

Keller believes that “the more that ministry comes ‘from the center’ of all the axes, the more dynamism and fruitfulness it will have” (24). His concern in this book is not to lay out a “Redeemer model” of church but rather to lay out “a particular theological vision for ministry that... will enable many churches to reach people in our day and time, particularly where late-modern Western globalization is influencing culture” (25).

The structure of the book then reflects this tripartite vision. Each section – gospel, city, movement – is further divided into two or three parts and each of these into a few chapters making 30 in all, along with the introduction and epilogue. Throughout the book Keller gives us his mature reflections on gospel ministry and in particular how that works out in the city – the sphere of his own ministry since 1989.

Gospel

Parts 1 and 2 constitute the first major division of Keller’s book – Gospel. In part 1, Gospel Theology, Keller addresses a number of current discussions and conflicts over the nature of the gospel. Drawing on the writings of J. I. Packer, D. A. Carson, C. S. Lewis, John Piper, Francis Schaeffer, D. M. Lloyd-Jones, Peter Berger and others, and engaging with key passages of Scripture (references are given but there is no Scripture index at the end) the author outlines what the gospel is and is not and its relation to the overall storyline of the Bible. He then argues that the gospel has two equal and opposite enemies: what he calls “religion” and “irreligion”, or as he also labels them, “legalism” and “antinomianism” (the ends of the gospel axis). Keller is at pains to point out that the gospel is not a simple thing: “it cannot be tamed into a single simple formula with a number of points” (39). A proper understanding of the gospel, rather, must draw on both synchronic (systematic-theological method) and diachronic (redemptive-historical method) views of Scripture (40), which he proceeds to unpack. Furthermore, says Keller, the gospel must be contextualised, something he works out in a later section.

Keller uses the term “religion” in an entirely negative way. Religion is contrasted with gospel in a complete antithesis (65, 76). “‘Religion’, or moralism,” he says, “is avoiding God as Lord and Savior by developing a moral righteousness and then presenting it to God in an effort to show that he ‘owes’ you” (63). Strange, then, that a few pages later he should commend Jonathan Edwards’ Religious Affections. Edwards’ thesis was, of course, that “True religion, in great part, consists in Holy Affections”. [3] If there is such a thing as “true religion” as Keller would surely affirm then why does he use the term in contrast with gospel? This might seem a strange question to ask as we all know, we think, that Keller means something different from Edwards. After all, 266 years have passed between the publications’ first printing. So why don’t we just accept that he is using the word in a different way and ignore it? Because, whether we like it or not the term is used in many different ways, including by evangelicals on a daily basis. Evangelicals in the West often use the term “religion” in a pejorative sense – we say things like “Christianity is a faith, not a religion”. But then we talk about the need for “freedom of religion” implicitly including our religion under that banner. Keller himself explicitly uses the term positively when he says that “syncretism... means not adapting the gospel to a particular culture, but rather surrendering the gospel entirely and morphing Christianity into a different religion by overadapting it to an alien worldview” (92-93, first two emphases his, last mine).

What is going on here? Why the inconsistency? It is widely recognised that the term “religion” is one of the most slippery and difficult to define terms in the English language. This is especially so since the nineteenth century and the inexorable working out of the Enlightenment in our universities at a time when European nations were discovering “exotic” peoples with hugely varied beliefs and customs. Until this time the study of religion was largely construed as one of reflection on one’s own religion – hence Edwards’ use. The nineteenth century encounter with the “other”, then, led to the emergence of the discipline of comparative religions (plural). Religions, then, were the distinct traditions of different peoples as they reflected on their understanding of transcendent reality. The peoples of Europe and their colonies, in consequence, found that their religion was just one of many. It was not long before the rationalist project defined the religions in completely relativist terms. The church in the West was caught on the back foot and ever since has been struggling to respond to this phenomenon.

Keller’s use of the term, then, is inadequate for three reasons: (1) he can’t help but use the term in some contexts in a positive way and so fails to be consistent; (2) it leads to confusion when he tries to define syncretism (93); and (3), and most importantly, it leaves followers of Christ in much of the world facing impossible conundrums (e.g. do I have to call myself a “Christian” now that I follow Christ when my family and village will completely misunderstand that term and think I have rejected them and joined a foreign organisation with “Made in the USA” stamped all over it?). Keller’s use of the term, then, is inadequate for mission in the twenty-first century world – even in his own NYC where communities of immigrants from hundreds of unreached peoples are ready to be engaged with the gospel (161). But perhaps Keller is not so far from appreciating this. In the quote above on syncretism he introduces the concept of worldview. Keller owes much to Harvie Conn. But Conn viewed religion as “the human response to the revelation of God...” [4] To Conn, religion “permeates the whole of life. It is the core in the structuring of culture, the integrating and radical response of humanity to the revelation of God.” [5] Our religion, then, consists chiefly in our affections and works itself out in our lifestyle and cultural activity. So Keller’s insistence that the gospel has two equal and opposite enemies, religion and irreligion, is inadequate because irreligion is just another form of religion, a commitment in this case to relativism (Keller’s other term for this concept). Moralism (the other term Keller uses for religion) is wrong because, like relativism, it is a commitment to orient one’s life in a direction other than the gospel. Both moralism and relativism, then, amount to idolatry (as Keller indeed understands, 71). The gospel is not midway between the two but in stark antithesis to them both because they are one. That is a problem for Keller’s theological construct but I would argue it is not only more consistent with the message of the Bible but also with the multifarious phenomena we observe in humanity without God.

In part 2, Gospel Renewal, Keller argues that gospel renewal is a life-changing recovery of the gospel which may be personal or corporate. Drawing on the work of Packer, Richard F. Lovelace, William Sprague, Archibald Alexander and Mark Noll he then demonstrates that a revival is not primarily the adding of the extraordinary operations of the Holy Spirit or an especially vigorous season of preaching but an intensification of the normal operations of the Spirit (54). Keller is happy, nevertheless, to show how revivals of the past, such as the Great Awakening of the eighteenth century were also a response to social and cultural realities such as the Industrial Revolution and market capitalism (56). The author goes on to argue against two serious criticisms of past revivals – that they were excessive and that they were fake – and argues that ongoing criticism in either vein is wrong because gospel renewal (which he sees as synonymous) fits our times and focuses on the heart. By arguing that revival fits our times he is affirming the need of the work of the Spirit today to “convert nominal church members” and to “bring the gospel home” to the hearts of all believers “for deepened experiences of Christ’s love and power” (60). He argues, then for a “balanced” approach (his emphasis) to revival that does not undermine the work of the church (by focussing exclusively on the individual) but is the work of the church.

Throughout this part Keller repeatedly uses the term “revivalism”. I understand by this he is talking of an approach to gospel work that looks to the work of the Holy Spirit to regenerate individuals and renew churches that have become moribund. As such the term may be useful. But my concern here is that the approach of Charles Finney (a particularly mechanical one) might be conflated with Keller’s approach (one very much leaning on the insights of Edwards, Sprague and Alexander). Although there are difficulties with Iain Murray’s analysis of the phenomena it would have been good to see the insights that he gives brought into the discussion and a correspondingly nuanced use of terms. [6] 

On the significance of idolatry Keller argues, after Luther, that “the root of every sin is a failure to believe the gospel message” (71). Where does this leave the person who has not had the opportunity to hear the gospel? Is he or she still guilty of failure to believe it? Adam and Eve sinned by breaking the command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 3). There are many today who stand condemned, not because they have heard and rejected the gospel message but because they have not heard the gospel message at all. Idolatry, then, is not merely “a failure to look to Jesus for salvation and justification” but a more general setting up of surrogates for our devotion (Rom 1:18 – 2:16).

City

Parts 3-5 constitute the second major division of Keller’s book – City. In part 3, Gospel Contextualization, Keller explains his approach to the interaction between gospel and culture. The theological vision of Center Church recognises that “center cities are wonderful, strategic, and underserved places for gospel ministry and... that virtually all ministry contexts are increasingly shaped by urban and global forces” (88). Keller’s understanding of contextualisation draws on the works of Craig Blomberg, David Wells, David Hesslegrave, Scott Moreau, Natee Tanchanpongs, Bruce Nicholls, and especially Harvie Conn. He both argues for the necessity of contextualisation and warns of the dangers involved. The danger highlighted is that of syncretism, the result of “surrendering the gospel entirely and morphing Christianity into a different religion by overadapting it to an alien worldview” (93, original emphasis). But syncretism is more subtle than many of us think, says the author. “Harvie Conn,” Keller’s former colleague (and mentor it would seem) at Westminster, “argued that syncretism is most likely to occur when (in the name of culture) we forbid the whole of Scripture to speak” (93, no reference given). That can happen in our comfortable homogeneous churches at home just as much as in frontline missionary congregations. Indeed Keller, after Cornelius Van Til, argues that the great Princeton theologians B. B. Warfield and Gresham Machen were guilty of syncretism in relying too heavily on unaided human reason in their ministries (100, n23)!

Keller bases his understanding of culture and contextualisation on three key passages from Paul’s letters: Romans 1 and 2 providing the basis, 1 Corinthians 9 the motive, and 1 Corinthians 1 the basic formula for contextualisation. He then goes on to look at Paul’s messages in Acts for case studies as to how he worked these principles out in practice. He asserts, rightly, that a biblical view of culture “should be one of critical enjoyment and an appropriate wariness” (109). This perspective is founded on a Reformed view of creation and common grace – such that Keller has a high view of humanity’s creative genius – and on the doctrine of total depravity – such that he has a high view of humanity’s potential for corruption. Keller sees Paul’s “formula” for contextualisation as “to confront and complete each society’s baseline cultural narrative” (112). [7] 

Keller then goes on to instruct his readers how to “enter a culture” and learn its ways. [8] In communicating with the community you have entered you will need to “adapt to a culture in the way it persuades, appeals, and reasons with people” (122). He draws on the work of missiologist David Hesselgrave to describe three basic ways to reason: conceptual, concrete relational, and intuitional. I think Keller’s adoption of Hesselgrave’s trisystemic typology of cognitive style is uncritical and simplistic. [9] 

Keller goes on to the task of discerning the dominant worldview or belief system of the community we have entered, looking in particular for two kinds of beliefs: “A” beliefs, which roughly correspond to biblical teaching, and “B” beliefs (“defeater beliefs”) that “lead listeners to find some truth implausible or overtly offensive” (123). Keller’s apologetic, then, consists of challenging and confronting B beliefs by demonstrating how they cannot be held consistently with the society’s A beliefs (124). He then looks at some examples of that in contemporary Western urban society. This is an excellent account of Keller’s apologetic approach for which he has become particularly appreciated through his books, e.g. The Reason for God.

In part 4, City Vision, Keller goes on to address the phenomenon of the city from biblical, theological and sociological perspectives. Many Christians, he points out, are indifferent or even hostile towards cities (135) but Keller takes pains to demonstrate that the biblical view of cities is neither hostile nor romantic. Nevertheless, Keller’s exposition of the city in the Bible is overwhelmingly positive, owing more again to Harvie Conn than to his naysayer Jacques Ellul. [10] The city, he says, is “humanity intensified” (ibid.). Referring to Psalm 122:3, Keller argues that, according to the Bible, the “essence of a city” is its close proximity, its density. Out of this flows three “signal features” that mark urban life: greater stability, greater diversity and, lastly, greater productivity and creativity. I am not convinced. The city, it seems to me, is first of all a humanly-created artefact of a society, and one that enables close proximity, greater stability, diversity and creativity, and is expressed by a flowering of symbols and, in particular, those symbols we call institutions. So density is a product of the city as much as is stability etc. This may seem like splitting hairs but if Keller’s “essential” criterion of a city – density – is accepted then the crowd at the Millennium Stadium in the Six Nations tournament is also a city and so is the mob. Keller’s assertion that “The city is an intrinsically positive social form with a checkered past and a beautiful future” (one that I would affirm, 151) makes no sense if it is essentially a densely-packed group of people. If it is expressed in symbols then it demands painstaking and sustained sociological reflection to understand those symbols and relate the Bible to them.

Throughout this section of the book Keller demonstrates, persuasively, the strategic importance of cities both in the Bible (especially in the book of Acts) and today, with the world’s population having recently become majority urban for the first time in human history. In Redeemer’s experience, church planting throughout the New York metropolitan area was made possible only because they first focussed on Manhattan, the city centre; “Cities are like a giant heart – drawing people in and then sending them out” (159). There are great challenges with reaching the city but along with them there are unique opportunities. Keller discusses four of these in relation to American cities: the younger generation; the “cultural elites”; accessible “unreached” people groups (diaspora communities of people from Majority World places where the gospel has not yet made a significant impact); and the poor. “I am not saying that all Christians should pack up and go to live and minister in urban areas. What I am saying is that the cities of the world are grievously underserved by the church because, in general, the people of the world are moving into cities faster than churches are” (166). Keller wants to address this deficit.

In part 5, Cultural Engagement, Keller focuses on the cultural crisis of the church in the twenty-first century as she finds herself in a world that no longer “tilts” in the direction of traditional Christianity (183). As he does so he introduces the reader to the emergence of models of relating to culture touching on the American “Religious Right” with its aggressively political approach, the approach advocated by Lesslie Newbigin – a “missionary encounter with Western culture” which he calls the “Relevance” model – favoured by a number who would identify themselves as “emerging” or “missional” (the latter is an especially fluid term that is definitely wider than the former), and two distinct approaches that are advocated by Reformed theologians – Kuyper’s “Transformationist” worldview approach and the approach Keller calls the “Two Kingdoms” model.

Keller then reviews the typology advanced by Richard Niebuhr more than half a century ago in his classic book Christ and Culture and aligns his fourfold typology with this. [11] 

Keller Niebuhr
Counterculturalist Christ against Culture
Relevance

Church
of the
Centre

The Christ of Culture
Christ above Culture
Two Kingdoms Christ and Culture in Paradox
Transformationist Christ the Transformer of Culture


Keller mentions a number of critiques of Niebuhr’s typology but thinks, nevertheless, that it is still helpful today. Among these critiques is D. A. Carson’s book-length critique which Keller mentions but, disappointingly, hardly engages with (196). [12] Keller is certainly at pains to combine what he sees as the best of the views of other theologians on the issue. Each of the four models is described and some of their key proponents introduced. Then each, in turn, is critiqued. Keller then seeks to lead the reader to be “balanced” (a term Keller uses a lot in this book) by adopting the best insights of all four positions and avoiding their extremes (see graphic illustration on page 231). Each model has a “‘tool kit’ of biblical themes and approaches” that is more or less significant depending on the “season” in which the church in a particular place happens to find itself (238). The author is especially eager to seek an understanding between the recently polarised opinions of the Two Kingdoms and Transformationist positions, which are both advocated by Reformed theologians. [13] In doing so he highly recommends an older work by Geerhardus Vos, The Teaching of Jesus Concerning the Kingdom of God and the Church[14] 

Keller also discusses the ecclesiological factor in cultural engagement: that is, the difference, as he puts it (after Kuyper), between the church organised and organic (240). Though Christians are not called to engage in, for example, political action, as the church (organised, i.e. in its institutional manifestation), they nevertheless continue to be the body of Christ (organic) when they go to work, and are involved in cultural activities.

Movement

Parts 6-8 constitute the third major division of Keller’s book – Movement. Keller’s concern in this section is to foster appropriate alliances and relations between gospel ministries: “Our goal as Christians and Christian ministers is never simply to build our own tribe. Instead, we seek the peace and prosperity of the city or community in which we are placed, through a gospel movement led by the Holy Spirit” (250). Loosely following Paul Hiebert, Keller advocates a “centred-set” orientation rather than a “bounded-set” orientation, in which “you work most closely with those who face with you toward the same center” (ibid.). [15] 

Building on the discussion of the previous pages, in part 6, Missional Community, Keller looks at the church’s mission and its relation to the work of individual followers of Christ. In examining mission Keller engages with the works of key theologians who have had much influence on missiology over the past half-century or so: Karl Barth, David Bosch, and Lesslie Newbigin. Newbigin, and Bosch after him, are praised for rescuing mid-to-late twentieth century ecumenical discussions of the mission Dei and using it to help the church in the West come to terms with her place in the new situation of post-Christendom in which she finds herself.

Being missional means different things to different people and Keller helpfully constructs a typology of four different uses of the term: “evangelistic”, “incarnational”, “contextual”, and “reciprocal and communal” (256-58). Keller argues that despite big differences between the “missional streams” they have a number of strengths in common and that they can form a consensus on: the recognition that, first, we live in a post-Christendom age; second, that the church has been in a cultural captivity to the values and ideas of the Enlightenment; third, that mission should be central to the purpose of the church; and fourth, though this is not always conceded, that the church must be a “contrast community” in our present society (259-60). Keller then goes on to outline three concerns with the way some are taking the central ideas of missional church: firstly, that those that view the missional church in purely and simply evangelistic terms are not comprehensive enough; secondly, that those that are too tied to a particular form of church (smaller house church, usually arguing against any kind of “attractional” aspect to meetings) are short-sighted; and, thirdly, and most seriously, that those that emphasise the communal aspect of missional church often pay scant attention to the need for an individual response to the gospel (264-71). Keller then goes on to argue that “a church can robustly preach and teach the classic evangelical doctrines and still be missional. That is, it can still have a missionary encounter with Western culture and reach and disciple unchurched, non-traditional nonbelievers in our society” (271). That is done, he says by (1) confronting society’s idols, (2) properly contextualising our gospel presentations to avoid the simplistic and unnecessarily offensive, (3) affirming the role of all followers of Christ in mission (not just pastors and other “fulltime” workers), (4) understanding the church as a servant community for the common good, (5) allowing “porous” boundaries that enable outsiders to see the gospel fleshed out in the life of our communities, and (6) avoiding unnecessary divisions (271-74). These he calls the “marks of the missional church”. He then devotes a chapter to the third of these, “Equipping People for Missional Living”, aimed particularly at churches that overemphasise the role of the pastor, leaving the rest of the people of God feeling rather like extras than actors.

In part 7, Keller argues that “churches driven by a Center Church theological vision will pursue an integrative, balanced [there’s that word again] ministry” (291). Engaging on multiple fronts is required, Keller writes, by the nature of the gospel and the nature of the culture (because sacrificial service attracts outsiders to the gospel). After Ed Clowney, the author asserts that the plurality of metaphors for the church in the Bible suggests that focussing on any one of them will lead us to be unbalanced (292). [16] No church will have a perfectly balanced set of gifts and strengths, however, and therefore each church will have to supplement its strong ministries by working on its weaknesses. In contrast with Clowney, Keller proposes that the ministry of the church should be along four “fronts”: (1) connecting people to God (through evangelism and worship), (2) connecting people to one another (through community and discipleship), (3) connecting people to the city (through mercy and justice), and (4) connecting people to the culture (through the integration of faith and work). [17] These four ministry fronts are unpacked over the course of the following chapters. In so doing, Keller addresses among other issues, seeker-sensitive versus evangelistic worship, the Bible’s teaching on community, biblical foundations for ministries of mercy and justice, dualism versus “worldview Christianity” (Keller, as you may by now have predicted, affirms the latter), and the world of work.

Keller affirms both an integral (holistic)approach to mission – “Because the gospel renews not only individuals but also communities and culture, the church should disciple its people to seek personal conversion, deep Christian community, social justice, and cultural renewal in the city” (291) – and the priority of the ministry of the Word for the local church (324).

In part 8, Movement Dynamics, Keller contrasts movements and institutions and argues that, you guessed it, “organizations should have both institutional characteristics and movement dynamics... in the balance” (338). I think Keller’s exposition of this theme is very helpful. Movements and institutions are different in many ways but one must not automatically count institutions out while seeking a gospel movement in the city. Movements inevitably become institutions over time – “...[T]hough new churches and ministries work hard at remaining informal, noncodified, and noncentralized, institutionalization is unavoidable. As soon as we make a choice... and begin carrying it into the future... we have begun to institutionalize that value or belief” (341). “Movements rely heavily on the sacrificial commitment of their members, especially when they are just getting started. In this start-up mode, members may max out their credit cards and tap into their savings to get this going. But this way of living is unsustainable” (342). So Keller affirms institutions while warning of the dangers inherent in the process of institutionalisation and arguing that a “strong, dynamic movement... occupies [a] difficult space in the center – the place of tension and balance between being a freewheeling organism and a disciplined organization” (ibid.). Keller’s emphasis in these chapters, however, is on the importance of movement dynamics precisely because of this inevitable process of institutionalisation: “it is necessary for churches to intentionally cultivate the dynamics that characterize a healthy movement” (351). All churches should give careful thought to this issue. Much of the inertia that we experience in our churches, while understandable in terms of institutions is a serious obstacle to gospel ministry in our cities or wherever the Lord has placed us.

A key element in the movement dynamics of the Center Church theological vision is church planting. In encouraging the planting of new churches Keller, interacting with the writing of the missiologist and founder of Church Growth theory, Donald McGavran, John Stott and Tim Chester asserts, rightly in my view, that it can have a renewing impact on an established church. He argues that churches need to foster a natural church-planting mind-set in which the task is considered something that we do all the time rather than a cathartic experience that everyone is glad to be over with (356). He argues, even, that it should be regarded as a fifth “ministry front” (357). I find this odd. Is it a fifth front or not? If it is then perhaps he should have included it along with the other four he covered earlier. Perhaps he is wary of a “hardening of the categories” once such a construct is created but if that is so why is the rest of the structure of the theological vision so carefully defined? Or is Keller’s own theological vision still developing?

Theological vision revisited

Which brings me back to theological vision. Keller has worked hard to formulate a theological vision for ministry in the city in late modernity. In doing so he is concerned that readers (and visitors involved in the City to City organisation) do not simply take the vision as a “Redeemer model” and apply it to their context uncritically (25). In fact, he reports that he has been “disappointed to visit some congregations that have imitated our programs – even our bulletins – and haven’t grasped the underlying theological principles that animate us” (97). The imitators, says Keller, “haven’t done the hard work of contextualization, reflecting on their own cultural situation and perspective to seek to better communicate the gospel to their own context” (ibid.). But part of the problem may lie in the way this theological vision has been communicated. Perhaps the trip to Manhattan with its jaw-dropping skyscrapers and incredible wealth and power overawes the visitor from Caracas, Cairo or Kolkata. The formulation of a theological vision for any one of those cities will not be “Center Church”. It may look entirely different, for it will be borne out of a deep reflection not only on late modernity but on the many layers of religious tradition that are to be found there. So my advice to the reader, and one that I think Keller would, on reflection, affirm, is read Center Church carefully and prayerfully and then, don’t do as he says, do as he does – go and construct your own theological vision for the place and time that God has put you in his redemptive purposes.

Mark Pickett
Lecturer in missiology at Wales Evangelical School of Theology