In an era when many thoughtful Christians struggle to adapt their message to a post-Christian world, without selling their doctrinal birthright for the sake of cultural relevance, Timothy Keller has steadfastly maintained that the gospel can bloom in the unlikeliest of places. In Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Zondervan), Keller, pastor of New York City's Redeemer Presbyterian Church, draws on decades of pastoral experience and cultural reflection to outline a theological vision for engaging modern urban societies. Chris Castaldo, director of the Ministry for Gospel Renewal at Wheaton College's Billy Graham Center, recently spoke with Pastor Keller about how the church can plant seeds of genuine gospel transformation in even the hardest of soil.
Why did you write Center Church?
The book is an accumulation of the kind of material that I've been teaching since the mid-1980s, when I was on faculty at Westminster Theological Seminary. As the years unfolded, I began to realize that in between our doctrinal confession and church programming is a "middle space." It is here, in this space, where we reflect upon the relationship of theology and culture to comprehend how they mutually impact ministry. In Center Church, I call this integrated reflection "theological vision." Simply put, it refers to a faithful restatement of the gospel with rich implications for life, ministry, and mission in a specific culture and historical moment.
Is this book only for people who minister in the city?
It has been remarkable to observe how many people outside of the city have benefited from the lessons that we offer urban leaders through the Redeemer City to City project. The main reason, I believe, is that late modern culture presents non-urban communities with many of the same challenges. These are the issues to which Center Church is addressed. If you live in a small college town in the middle of Iowa, for instance, you probably face many of the same opportunities for gospel witness that we encounter here in New York.
IfThe Village Voiceoffered you a feature article in which to articulate Redeemer's vision for serving the Big Apple, what would be the gist of your message?
I would expect the Voice to be hostile to the notion that evangelical Christians would have a significant presence (to say nothing of a prophetic voice) in the city. Unfortunately, we're not viewed as part of the beautiful mosaic that is New York. In such a newspaper, I would lead with three things: First, that Christ changes the way we use wealth and power. Our understanding of work must reflect what Robert Bellah (from his book, Habits of the Heart) describes as a contribution to the common good. Along this line, I'd express a desire to populate the city with people who embody this vision. I'd want to see an explosion of philanthropy, in which we don't spend money on ourselves, but instead cooperate with others who want to make the city a desirable place to live. Much like Wilberforce did in the early part of 19th-century England, we would pursue healing and redemption.
Second, I would address artists and thought-leaders, emphasizing that Christians have a positive outlook for the future over and against the dystopian pessimism that so often characterizes evangelicals. We are not naïve about suffering and evil, but we have a long term hope for society that can seize an ordinary life.
Third, we'd like to encourage growing civility and true pluralism in our society, that is, to counteract anger and contribute to the creation of an atmosphere of mutual respect among people of differing beliefs.