Tim Keller, ‘Center Church,’ “Introduction,” Reflection

Chapter Summary

Keller calls for church leaders to move away from thinking about their ministry purpose in the false binary of either simple faithfulness to God, or “successful” with growing sunday attendance.  The problem lies in the fact that one can be faithful and see little “success” (like the missionary who commits his life to a people and sees no converts), or one could be unfaithful but because of some reason or another, your church grows exponentially.  Therefore, Keller advocates that pastors should aim for “fruitfulness” in their churches and he uses the garden metaphor to explain.

Screen Shot 2013-01-15 at 12.59.29 PMPastors need to be faithful in their work and skilful at what they do – but ultimately the gardener cannot control the success, only God can.  Other key variables for the pastor/gardener are: soil conditions (the receptiveness of the people to the gospel) and weather conditions (what the Holy Spirit is doing).  Therefore, “When fruitfulness is our criterion for evaluation, we are held accountable but not crushed by the expectation that a certain number of lives will be changed dramatically under our ministry.” (p.14)

To discover a pathway to fruitfulness Keller invites us to learn how to integrate the different types of books in the “how to do church” library.  Instead of looking for techniques for ministry effectiveness, learn how to make your own decisions that are centered on the gospel.  Be wary of attaching models of ministry to your church divorced from their doctrine and cultural context.   Keller uses a computer metaphor of Hardware which is your doctrine, software as ministry, and middleware as the software between the hardware and operating system.  In the case of the church, one’s middleware is the vision for how “how to bring the gospel to bear on the particular cultural setting and historical moment.” (p17)

Keller Illustrates it this way (p. 20),

Doctrinal Foundation (What to believe, theological tradition…)   -> 

Theological Vision (How to see, ministry dna, emphases, philosophy of min)  ->  

What to do (Ministry expression, local and cultural adaptation, style etc…)


I will be planting out of a flagship evangelical Anglican Melbourne church, which attracts church goers (in part) because of its popular mainstream ministry model: strong children’s and youth programs, a big network of small groups, and relatively “safe” low-church worship services (five songs, a sermon, and some occasional prayerbook liturgy).  It would be easy for me to try and repeat this model in the inner-city in the thought that I could attract other mainstream Anglican evangelicals.  Or, I might try and improve on the model by sending my leadership team out to do some reconnaissance to ten other key churches in the area to borrow their best ideas.  Or, like many church planters, maybe I’ll try and emulate my transatlantic ministry role model?

Keller is arguing that before I get into focussing on programs and models, I should clarify my doctrinal foundation, then work out my theological vision, and then after that look at programs and models.

8 thoughts on “Tim Keller, ‘Center Church,’ “Introduction,” Reflection

  1. Great reflections.

    I think the church growth industry has been geared around numbers. Ed Stezer says we never hear from the failed church planter but we hear stories of the church plant that grew by 200% every year. A fruitful servant will grow the church that God desires for the area even if it doesn’t produce fruit for seven years like the vine or olive tree. This generation of ministry leaders need heroes, such as Tim Keller, who have been faithful in the longevity service to their church.

    • Mark, I agree with your point that sometimes we are too obsessed with bums on seats. But in Australia we also have a problem with knocking down the pastors who can grow their churches: it’s a kind of professional jealousy. I’ve heard clerics from the smaller or mid-sized churches joke about the leaders of the new faster growing churches, explaining away their fruit as “transfer” or “because they are conservative” or “because they are good looking.” It would be so much healthier and godly if they praised and prayed for their gifted colleagues. Maybe, instead of our heroes being from the US or UK, we should have heroes from our home city?

  2. The idea that we can (or should) move sequentially / logically from Doctrine to Ministry Vision to Application may be premised on a view of humans as rational, cognitive individuals. We aren’t. I realise that Keller may be making artificial distinctions for the sake of clarity but the approach obscures the way eg ‘Application’ heavily shapes Ministry Vision and Doctrine. Ie. it perpetuates a fallacy among evangelicals that we do / can / must avoid allowing experience to shape our doctrinal positions. The question is actually not whether our ministry / life experience affects our exegesis but how.
    I not denying that Doctrine is fundamental as an explicit (propositional) articulation of the other elements. Doctrines matter a great deal in many ways. But they play a limited, non-linear and co-dependent role (with other elements) in shaping what we end up doing. People work out what we do primarily through social, intuitive and emotional means, which is not to disparage these, but simply to acknowledge that’s what we are really doing as doctrine is given form and substance.

    • Angus, I think Keller would actually agree with much of what you are saying. My summary has left out some his important nuance. And yes, I think he is simplifying his codification of ideas for the sake of clarity.

      Nevertheless, can you explain a bit more why “we do / can / must avoid allowing experience to shape our doctrinal positions” is a fallacy? Do you think evangelicals have simply gone too far?

      Are you saying we need to be wary of trying to force a ministry and exegesis logic that doesn’t allow for intuition and the inexplicable power of the sub-conscious to find truth? If so, I agree but I need to think about how to also prevent a ministry and exegesis logic that pulls ultimate authority into our hands.

      Also, if we accept that we develop doctrine through “social, intuitive and emotional means” surely this is a good argument to have linear systems to help sharpen our ministry approach?

      • “…surely this is a good argument to have linear systems to help sharpen our ministry approach?”
        — the answer is ‘yes’ if you regard rational, cognitive systems as inherently superior to other forms of knowing. (I’m taking “sharpen” to mean ‘improve’ and that implies a hierarchy of ways of knowing, rationality at the top, emotion below). The alternative is to recognise that rational analysis plays one important, valuable role *alongside* other ways we know stuff. ie. knowing something emotionally is no less important or valuable than knowing it rationally. In fact the general view in cognitive research is that ‘non-emotional’ rational knowledge is psychopathic!
        Evangelicalism was born out of an amalgam of 18th century Romanticism and Enlightenment rationalism (one being a reaction against the other). But 20th century (Reformed) evangelicalism came to be dominated by Rationalist categories. So yes, we have gone too far in the sense of creating an implicit hierarchy / split which causes suspicion of emotional(ism) and overtly prioritizes rational thought. In other words the ‘Center Church’ (as Keller describes it) should balance our rational with our emotional selves (although I would still say the non-rational is far more important overall).

  3. Surely content and form influence each other, and if that is the case, surely this means we should think carefully about content (ie. doctrine)?

  4. I think middleware is more about the method of applying rather than translating the gospel to culture. I understand contextualisation to mean to culturally translate.

    I like your point of hierarchies of knowing, you’ve made we wonder if there really is a separation between the “rational” and “emotional”? Are they more connected than we realise?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s