Tim Keller, ‘Center Church,’ “Ch. 3, The Gospel Affects Everything.” Reflection


We have seen that the gospel is not everything, meaning it must be distinguished as an announcement of news, distinct from its results and implications, and that the gospel is not a simple thing, meaning it cannot be packaged in a single standard form.  My third contention, that the gospel affects virtually everything, builds on these two statements. (p.46)

In this chapter Keller shows how the gospel is not supposed to be a conceptual end in itself, but rather, as Leslie Newbigin writes, it functions like “a set of lenses, not something we look at, but for us to look through.”    Keller continues, “…the gospel creates an entire way of life and affects literally everything about us.  It is a power that creates new life in us (Colossians 1:5-6; 1 Peter 1:23-25).

The Richness of the Gospel

Keller presents a gospel summary from scholar Simon Gathercole which is based on Paul and the Gospel writers.

1. The Son of God emptied himself and came into the world in Jesus Christ, becoming a servant.

2. He died on the cross as a substitutionary sacrifice

3. He rose from the grave as the first-fruits of a whole renewed world.

This summary is then expanded on with a neat three part idea:

The incarnation and the “Upside-down” aspect of the Gospel:

    • Jesus was the King who became a servant
    • His kingdom had an upside-down economy (the first shall be last etc…)
    • This pattern imitates Christ’s salvation (Phil 2:1-11)
    • He “won” by losing everything
    • The gospel creates a new kind of servant community
    • This challenges worldly notions of class, racial, and economic superiority

The atonement and the “Inside-out” aspect of the Gospel

    •  The outward signs of covenant matter less than the inward transformation that occurs
    • God’s kingdom “is not a matter of eating or drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17)
    • Not obey God so that he will love and accept me…
    • But know that God loves me so that I want to obey.
    • “Religion is outside in, but the gospel is inside out”

The resurrection and the “Forward-back” aspect of the Gospel

    • “Jesus is resurrected but we are not.  He has inaugurated the kingdom of God, but it is not fully present.”
    • The coming of the Messiah stage 1:
      • “he saved us from the penalty of sin and gave us the presence of the Holy Spirit, the down payment of the age to come (2 Corinthians 1:21-22; Ephesians 1:13-14)”
    • The coming of the Messiah stage 2:
      • “He will come to complete what he began at the first coming, saving us from the dominion and very presence of sin and evil.  He will bring a new creation, a material world cleansed of all brokenness.”
    • “Christians now live in light of the future reality”
    • Evangelism should be telling the gospel and preparing for the judgment
    • Justice is motivated by the view that God will ultimately end all suffering
    • This understanding should prevent Christians from “dominion theology” which is the triumphalist delusion that the Church should (and can) take over society.  It should also prevent Christians from hiding away in a religious cave.

Keller then applies all this to suggest the ministry and values threads that should be evident in a church that takes this seriously. The inside-out atonement views of the church should lead it to want to do evangelism and church planting (making it look evangelical charismatic); the upside-down incarnation views should lead it to put emphasis on community, small groups, financial giving, sharing of resources, living with the poor (making it look anabaptist); and the forward-back resurrection views should lead it to want to get involved in the city, the neighbourhood, workplace ministry, and cultural engagement (leading it to look like a mainline church).   The message of the Center Church hypothesis is that churches should aim to embrace all of these qualities.

Keller then finishes the chapter by showing how “the gospel is not the ABC but the A-Z of the Christian life.”  He reminds us of the common errors made with the gospel (discussed in an earlier chapter) that it is not legalistic nor is it antinomian (law avoiding).  The gospel involves simultaneously realising  your utter sinfulness and your utter acceptance before God because of Jesus.

The gospel addresses everything.  Keller gives a series of test examples:

  • Discouragement and depression, Love and relationships, Sexuality, Family, Self-control, Race and culture, Witness, Human authority, Guilt and self-image, Joy and humour, Attitudes toward class.

The question is, “how do I get our church to embrace this kind of thinking?”  Keller’s answer, “There must first be a life-changing recovery of the gospel – a renewal in the life of the church and in the hearts of individuals.  We call this gospel renewal.”

The challenge for churches

Whether it’s an established church or a church plant, it is difficult to embrace and live out the whole vision that Keller is suggesting.  It requires highly gifted leadership and a commitment to disciple first, and implement programs later.  The danger is that churches will try and be a “Center Church” by starting a justice or evangelism program, or run a workplace ministry conference etc…  Programming a correction has always been a popular but not very effective strategy for mainline churches.  What I want to do when I plant the church in Northcote, is have a very well planned and executed discipleship strategy for the church, with the goal of seeing people find joy in Jesus, love for the church, and ultimately gospel renewal.     I guess this discipleship strategy will involve some programming, but the idea is that this will go to the source of the problem which is the need for renewal in the hearts of the people.  To mix pastoral ministry metaphors: for the people who have “dry toast” faith (joyless), they need to have the concrete smashed by gospel renewal.

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.

Reflections on Tim Keller’s Center Church

Every now and then a ministry book comes a long that is a game changer.  I think Timothy Keller’s Center Church is one such book.

While most ministry books  have one good idea that is padded out with anecdotes over 150 pages, Center Church is concise and yet not overly academic, well paced: gold on every page.  I am interested in this book because I am engaged in church planting.  Eighteen months ago I planted a congregation, but later this year I plan to plant a new church in the inner-city of Melbourne.  Center Church attracted me because it is a packaging of Keller’s ministry ideas developed in the Redeemer Presbyterian church planting organisation called City to City.  Therefore, it’s not simply someone’s latest idea on church planting, but a codification of 25 years of idea development and testing.  I identify with Keller’s context in New York as there are similarities with mine in inner-Melbourne.  Both contexts are deeply secular, academic, wealthy, artistic, cynical towards the Church and multi-cultural.  What I will seek to do in my blog posts is summarise chapters, and then comment and apply Keller’s thoughts to my own setting.  Please feel free to add your own comments.