If you want a philosophy of ministry, I’m not your guy. I’ve written them. I’ve even assigned and graded them. I don’t like most of them, though. Some are theological, but don’t tell me much about ministry. Some are programmatic, and end up becoming too prescriptive. Neither is helpful.
What we need, according to Tim Keller, is middleware. Middleware is like the operating system on your computer. It’s neither the hardware (like theology), nor is it the application (the programs). In the church, this middleware — a theological vision for ministry, really — is more practical than doctrinal beliefs alone, but more theological than “how-to” steps for ministry. It is, it turns out, exactly what we need, and it’s what Keller aims to deliver in his tome Center Church.
Center Church: Doing Balanced Gospel-Centered Ministry In Your CityBy Timothy Keller
Yes, it’s a tome. The book is almost 400 pages, and the audiobook is almost 23 hours long. It’s formatted like a textbook with lots of sidebars, and some tables and sidebars. As Mike Wittmer writes, “The only thing it’s missing is a few pictures of U.S. Presidents, and I’d be back in high school.” (The sidebars are one reason why the print version is superior to the audiobook or the ebook format. There’s no real way for the sidebars to have the same flow on a Kindle, much less an audiobook.)
The book delivers exactly what you’d expect from Tim Keller: a scholarly but practical look at ministry. The book is broken into three sections: Gospel, City, and Movement.
First, he begins with the gospel, helping us think carefully about what it is and what it isn’t. He also describes how the gospel renews the church. Chapter 6, “The Work of Gospel Renewal,” is worth the price of the book itself for any pastor who wants to see the church revived.
Second, Keller writes on the city. Keller describes what it means to contextualize our ministries appropriately, and then gives us a basic understanding of urban theology. Keller is the best thing to happen to urban theology since Ray Bakke, who wrote The Urban Christian years ago. Keller makes a compelling case for the importance of ministry in the urban core, without devaluing the significance of ministry elsewhere. He then deals with the complex topic of the church’s relationship to culture. Entire books have been written on this topic, but Keller bravely tackles it, providing a good synthesis of the various views. Keller reminds me of why I love cities, and why I’m glad to be pastoring in a city like Toronto.
Finally, Keller writes on movement. The Church, he writes, is both an organism and an organization. It requires that we join God on mission, that we integrate a number of ministry fronts, and that we act as an organized organism.
We need, he writes, more than sound doctrine, although sound doctrine is necessary. We need more than a magic-bullet program that will reach people. We need something in the middle: a theological vision that enables us to communicate the gospel to our time and place. “You can do this ministry with God’s help,” Keller writes, “so give it all you’ve got. You can’t do this ministry without God’s help — so be at peace.”
I can’t tell you how much I appreciated this book. It’s meaty, but it re-energized me at many points. When Keller writes about church planting, for instance, he both inspired me and encouraged me, and made me want to sign up to be a church planter all over again. He has a knack for communicating complex information in a pastorally helpful way.
This is one of those books that I’ll be reading again. It’s going to go on the shelf of books that are consulted often, because it covers so much material in a substantive, helpful way.
I did have a couple of mild criticisms. Keller likes finding the via media, the middle way. This is often helpful, but not always. Also, I also found that this book had a heavily edited feel. It ocassionally seemed to lack cohesiveness, which is perhaps understandable given all the ground it covers. Still, it seemed to be missing some of Keller’s voice. I could be imagining this, but it felt that way.
That being said, this book is gold. A few of Keller’s articles have had a profound influence on my life. Imagine, then, almost 400 pages of such material. If you’re in pastoral ministry, or if you are interested in a theological vision of the church, or any number of related topics such as church planting and cultural engagement, then this book is a must. Buy the print edition if you can, and refer to it often. You won’t be sorry.