The premise of the book Center Church is that the church should be balanced. Keller has three areas he addresses where the church should strive to find a balance, which form the structure of the entire book: the Gospel, The City and Movements. The three subjects are placed on axes with two extremes on each side that need to be avoided and then he challenges us to find the church somewhere near the center where there is balance. Thus a "centered church."
The balance on the three axes, and in fact the visual summary of the book, are as follows:
only challenge-----------City------------only appreciate
Structured organization/ Fluid organism/
tradition & authority---------Movement---------cooperation & unity
What I found most troubling about Center Church by Keller is his first category–his axis on the gospel. Who in their right mind would challenge Keller theologically on the subject of the Gospel? Well, in this case I will at least make an observation.
Frankly, I have a problem with positioning the gospel as a balance between religious “legalism” and “relativistic irreligion.” The gospel does not belong in such a place as though it is finding the balance between enough bass and treble with your spiritual equalizer.
Yes, the gospel should be at the center of all we think and do, and Keller is right on target in what he says about this. I whole heartedly agree with that premise, but the Gospel is not a balance between legalism and licentiousness; in fact the Gospel is an extreme in and of itself. You cannot get more extreme than the substitutionary atonement found delivered in Jesus’ sacrifice. Salvation by grace through faith is not a balanced compromise in any sense of the word. It is called “the stumbling block of the cross” for a reason and is not a balanced approach between self-righteous works and reckless abandonment to sin. The Gospel is not partly legalism and partly licentiousness. It is none of the above, it contains none of the above, and you cannot find the Gospel by balancing the two. The Gospel is the defeat of sin, whether that sin is legalism or lawlessness.
Dr. Keller knows this. In fact he states as much in a footnote where he says, “putting the gospel between these two extremes is simply a visual shorthand.” Keller says, “The gospel is neither religion nor irreligion, but something else entirely—a third way of relating to God through grace. Because of this, we minister in a uniquely balanced way that avoids the errors of either extreme and faithfully communicates the sharpness of the gospel.”
So I know he understands this, why then would he even posture the gospel on such an axis? Personally, I am a visual learner and that is why this jumped out at me so much. If one reads the book and pays no attention to the diagrams I do not think there would be as much problem. Perhaps that explains why there seems to be nearly 100% positive reviews of the book.
I contend, however, that this “visual shorthand” gives the reader polluted non-verbal signals that can be confusing and can also lead to some very unhealthy reactions. While much of what is said in the book is fantastic, one cannot escape the fact that the entire design of Center Church is built around the premise that we are to find a balance between the extremes on the axes that are presented. This is not a minor mistake; it is the predominant theme of the book, both its title and structure are built entirely on this very premise. For that reason I am very uncomfortable with this “visual shorthand”.
There is much value in the book and I do recommend it. If you are a missionary this book can help you to work through how to redeem the image of God in a culture while also remaining countercultural with the life-transforming Gospel. If you are a pastor but not a missionary you should read this book and start being a pastor and a missionary. Personally, I found the center section of Center Church to be most helpful.
It is just unfortunate that the book is organized with a “visual shorthand” that places the Gospel precariously between two doctrinal heresies. There is none better than Keller at communicating to a highly educated, secular audience the goodness of the Gospel, and he will help you think this through in Center Church. I just wish he didn’t put the gospel between legalism and relativism. The Gospel should be presented in many more places in this world, but not there.