Saturday, May 25, 2013

Critique of the Center Church by Tim Keller [Part Two]


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:

Legalism/                                          Relativsim/

Underadapted/                                          Overadapted/
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.

Critique of the Center Church by Tim Keller [Part One]

I greatly respect Tim Keller and always have. He is incredibly intelligent. He is always kind and gentle, but never compromising on what is true and right. I have always felt a kinship with him because he is a missionary to the city with a passion for fresh expressions of the church being planted in all kinds of places and means. Keller is not just a thinker, but also a practitioner. I have learned much from him and have come to value the Gospel more than ever because of his influence (if that is even possible).

Center Church is a large tome designed more like an expensive textbook. But do not be discouraged from reading it; it is some of the best material available to help a pastor to think like a missionary regarding church, culture and the gospel. I highly recommend it for that reason. I read it on Kindle which presents a problem for the nice layout you find in a bound copy, but the content is just as good even if the pages are not as pretty.

I do not often critique books and delayed doing so in this case. After seeing so many embrace this book unquestioned in its entirety, I felt compelled to at least raise a couple questions myself. The last thing I want is for this to turn out to be a Keller vs Cole debate. I have always seen myself as standing behind Dr. Keller in his corner. I still do. This critique is merely a supportive friend asking a couple questions; and I do fully offer these questions in respect and honor. I would discourage anyone making it about the two of us.

In this review (broken into three parts), I will briefly explain the premise of the book, discuss some distinctions of the language that raises questions for me and then raise a couple other important issues that I have with the content of the book (in the second and third posts). At first I want to say that overall the content was terrific and I would not discourage anyone from reading the book.

The premise of the Center Church is that the church should be balanced. Who can argue with that? Keller has three areas he addresses where the church should strive to find a balance: the Gospel, The City and Movements. These three areas are almost a comprehensive summary of his philosophy of ministry at Redeemer Presbyterian Church. 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:

Legalism/                                                                             Relativsim/


Underadapted/                                                            Overadapted/

only challenge-------------------City--------------------only appreciate

Structured organization/                                                  Fluid organism/

tradition & authority-----------Movement-----------cooperation & unity

In some of the categories I would personally change the language. Keller–who is very precise and masterful in his use of language–makes choices that are strange to me. Some I can explain even if I would say it differently, but other choices I cannot explain or understand and will mention a bit later.

I would use the term "Culture" rather than "City" for the second category (which Keller also suggests as a possible option). This would only serve to widen the application of the concepts found in what I believe to be the best part of the book. I have always appreciated and shared Keller's commitment to urban mission, so I can live with the language of “city” and he does devote some content to urbanization and the complexities and opportunities in the city.

A true missionary is always trying to find a balance between irrelevance and syncretism with a culture, and Keller actually does a fine job on this subject and also of elaborating the variety of views concerning contextualization. It is my view that Christian leaders today must all see themselves as foreign ambassadors and view their world through the lens of a cross cultural missionary. Keller does that better than just about anyone in the US and all leaders would be wise to learn from his example and teaching on this. I will recommend this book to any who desire to work as a missionary. He explains contextualization fully and in language that all can understand.

It was his third category (his axis regarding movement) that first tripped me up. Of course this subject is my own passion, which explains why I turned so quickly to that part of the book. What first caught my attention were the extremes that he is espousing that we should avoid.

We find on one side structured organization, tradition and authority. Another term he uses throughout the book describing this extreme is institutionalism. I agree this is to be avoided. On the other side of the axis the extreme to be avoided is described as fluid organism/cooperation and unity.

When I first read that description of an out of balance extreme I felt the air sucked from my lungs and heat rising on the back of my neck. I asked myself: Why on earth is “fluid organism, cooperation and unity” considered a bad thing that is to be avoided much like abandonment to sin and syncretism (the other right hand extremes from the three sections)? This caused me to go back and read that entire section more thoroughly assuming he would explain this. After reading the section (twice now) I was still left wondering how Keller could say that we need to avoid becoming a fluid organism as well as cooperation and unity.

To be fair, he did mention that in this particular axis we should find ourselves more toward the organic side than the organizational side. I was left wondering, however, how far to the right should we go? How much unity is too much? He doesn't say. What he does say is that, “ministry that is out toward the end of any of the spectrums or axes will drain a ministry of life-changing power with the people in and around it.” So if I am to understand this correctly, Keller feels that if we are too close to fluid structure, unity and cooperation we will lose life-changing power. So less unity and less cooperation combined with more static structure will result in life-changing power? Really? So then, are we to assume that too much unity and cooperation is a dangerous thing?

We can certainly sacrifice truth in our pursuit of cooperation and end up compromising the Gospel. That should be avoided, but I think Keller covers that fully in the first and second sections of the book. I imagine it is an attempt to defend the idea that some unbending organizational structure is necessary to be the church and that we can go too far in eliminating such a structure. Some of the more reformed leaders of the church (and Keller would be among them) have a need to defend the dogma of a clergy that have received a special calling to preach, which is so central to their ecclesia. Keller does basically say as much defending the need for what he terms “top leaders”. Perhaps he is resistant to fluid organism, cooperation and unity in a movement as an attempt to maintain a static structure with the church’s top tier leadership holding some measure of control.

I understand that we can become so fluid and organic that all organizational distinction, such as a denomination or church brand, can lose meaning. I would argue that this does not sap life but that the preservation of the institution can and does, but we are likely to differ some on that. I have to assume that this lack of organizational definition and structure is what Keller is struggling with, but I can only guess, as this is not clearly explained. He would be uncomfortable with my own non-hierarchical view of ecclesia and probably sees it as an extreme to be avoided.

It just strikes me, then, that he didn’t use words such as “chaotic” “non-hierarchical” or “anarchistic” to describe the extreme rather than the positive language of “fluid organism, cooperation and unity.” I am still open to hearing more about this particular choice of words. Do we actually want to discourage cooperation and unity in a citywide church expression?

I happen to know that Keller and Redeemer Pres are very cooperative and promote unity in NYC. In fact I am proud of them for their kingdom values and the example they set for so many in the way they embrace differing expressions of the church there. Some of our own organic church planters in the five boroughs of NYC find warm acceptance and supportive encouragement from Redeemer Pres, and for that I have always been grateful. Even in this section of the book he emphatically encourages more unity and cooperation in order to reach a city. All the more reason for scratching my head on the language he uses here to describe an extreme we must avoid.

At this point all my observations are simply questions of semantics. In my next posts I will share what I find most troubling about the book.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Young People Are Not Just the Future...They are Now!

I received this letter from a youth pastor in Texas. It really encouraged me so I thought it could encourage more of you as well.

When a child receives Jesus he or she do not get a junior sized Holy Spirit and a Jesus action figure. When you marry the filling of the Holy Spirit with true childlike faith you have a potent agent of God's kingdom. I always say: if you treat kids like they need a baby sitter they will act like it, but if you treat them like they can be agents of God's kingdom they will step up and be that! 

Adam Clay, a youth pastor, sent me this note last week to encourage me about the use of Life Transformation Groups among students on high school campuses in the DFW area:
You probably get a lot of these, but wanted to give you a quick update...Last August, you suggested my high school students at Fort Worth Christian School this year read Search & Rescue, and I assigned that for the class. Several LTG groups were started, which were called Fight Clubs. As they experienced spiritual community birthed with the DNA, they became passionate for more, and started investigating organic church.

This Sunday I have two of these students starting a new organic church reaching out to unchurched high school and University of Texas Arlington. One of these students will be starting at Texas A&M in the fall, and is already in the plans of starting another organic church with some other freshmen he knows in August.

It is really exciting for me to see people that God has brought to me take advantage of the opportunity to go out and begin discipling others and impacting the Kingdom of God.

I know that you don't know me at all, as we have only had a few conversations in person at conferences, and a couple of emails back and forth, but thank you for being a Paul in my life and being obedient to what God has called you to do. Without you even knowing it, God has used you to help shape and impact my Kingdom thinking, and has allowed me to pass that to others.

I get this opportunity all over again next year with 9 new students...they will be reading Search & Rescue, and I will be pointing them to our Savior who knows the plans that He has for them.

Thanks again,
Adam Clay

If you would like to read more about Life Transformation Groups (LTGs) you can read Search & Rescue or  Cultivating a Life For God. We have a variety of LTG cards available as well.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Advice on Church Growth & Assimilation: Open the Back Door!

For a long time now, the church growth world has told us to get as many people to our church services as possible and keep them there as long as possible. The thought is that if they are in church they will hear the Word, be saved and go to heaven.

We even classified people in two categories: "the churched" and "the unchurched" as if they were those in Christ and those who are not. But of course this is wrong and now we are realizing it. Lately the fasted growing segment when it comes to attending church is the "uncommitted." These may actually be highly committed when it comes to Christ, just not church service attenders. I for one fall into this rising category.

In church growth speak we used to hear about assimilating visitors so that they become attenders, and hopefully, members of the church. The language we used was that we need to "close the back door" to the church–implying that we need to keep people from leaving. Wow, when I say that it sounds awful doesn't it? [Cue the sinister Vincent Price laugh–ha ha haaaa!] While it sounds like a mouse trap offering cheese at the end–but no escape–nevertheless (much to the chagrin of the fire department) that is the language that we pastor-types would use.

Lately, however, I am of a different opinion on the matter. Having become more familiar with the important parable of the soils (Mark 4:1-20; Matt13:3-23; Luke 8:4-15) I have come to think we ought to open the back door as wide as possible and let the people go. Actually, I've come to realize that this is the Jesus way.

According to Jesus' words, two thirds of the people are not good soil and will not bear fruit (Okay, I know the passage is not prescribing a percentage, but it is clear that more will be bad soil than good). Keeping them in the church really may not be the best solution if you desire a fruitful church.

I think that if people want to leave, let them leave. Don't waste your life trying to make people want something that they don't really want. I often say: If the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus isn't enough to motivate these people, my sermon isn't likely to do it.

Jesus let the rich, young, ruler walk away, even though He loved him very much (Mark 10:17-22). He never tried to convince people to follow Him, in fact, He did the opposite. He intentionally tried to thin the crowd on more than one occasion (Luke 11:29; 14:25-26; John 6:60-71). When a large crowd was gathered He would tell the few disciples it is time to leave and go somewhere else (Matt 8:18; Mark 1:36-38). Jesus invested in a few disciples and never gave his affection and trust to the larger gatherings (John 2: 23-25)

I've said for years: what you win them with is what you win them to. If you entice people to come with entertaining services you need to keep them the same way. Suddenly you find yourself competing with other entertaining churches to keep people attending your service–people that only want to be entertained. Open the back door!

Too often, in our desire to keep people, we change church to accommodate bad soil and end up with larger fruitless congregations that want all their needs met and have no desire to serve others. Open the back door!

Jesus drew huge crowds. But the Gospel accounts specifically tell us that He never gave His heart to the crowd because He knew that their motives were selfish. Open the back door!

Large crowds never changed the world. Real movements always are ignited with a few highly committed people. Open the back door!

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Two of the Most Often Asked Questions From Pastors & Missionaries [Part Two]

This is the second post looking at the two questions I most often get asked by pastors when I speak about organic church movements.

Question Two: I often get asked by preachers when they begin to understand that Sunday morning worship services are not the best/only avenue for changing lives and equipping the saints: "But what do I do with my gift?" Granted, some of the people asking are not actually THAT gifted, so its likely the world would not notice if they stopped speaking every Sunday. But I remember when Francis Chan asked me that same question. No one can argue that Francis is not made by God to speak to an audience, but even he had to count this cost...and he did.

My usual answer to this question goes something like this: If God has given you a gift He wants you to use it and will give you the opportunity to do so. But one thing I am sure of, He doesn't want you to use your gift at the expense of everyone else in the room not using theirs. That is not the way it is supposed to be.

I used to love preaching every Sunday. I would spend 20-30 hours a week preparing my sermons. If you were to tell me back then that I would give up preaching from a pulpit every Sunday I would not have believed you. I distinctly remember early one Sunday morning, however, as I was putting the finishing touches on another "great" sermon that I felt the Lord's presence with me. He whispered in my ear (not audible), "You know, Neil, you are never going to start the 3rd great awakening by preaching a sermon." That was all I heard Him say to me and with that He challenged me to understand that it is much more than preaching sermons that is needed to awaken the kingdom of God in people and start a movement. From that point on, I counted the cost and became open to other ways of equipping the saints. I became discontent with only challenging a few people and would pursue something that would launch movements of people. I also became a better preacher.

It seems that I am teaching and speaking more now than I ever did before (and to a whole lot more people) it just isn't in a worship service on Sunday mornings. So if God designed you to do a work He will figure it out. Paul wrote of us: "For we are His workmanship (masterpiece), created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them."(Eph. 2:10)

No matter how good you are at preaching (and lets face it, you're probably not as good as Francis Chan), you need to weigh your own personal fulfillment against the fulfillment of the ministry of the Saints in the body. Are you willing to surrender your gift for the sake of the people you are preaching at? That is a true test of your faith and your calling if you ask me. I would imagine that if you count the cost and are willing to pay the price for the sake of others then you do have something valuable to say and God will find a way to use your gift.

If preaching is more important to you than the people you are preaching at then you should probably prepare yourself to find another line of work. Its not just what you say that makes you significant; it is the life within you–that you live out between services–that makes what you have to say significant. Living with Jesus among His people and on His mission is more important than just preaching about Jesus. If you live a courageous life of faith in Christ then you will not only find you have lots to say, but that others want to hear it.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Two of the Most Often Asked Questions From Pastors & Missionaries [Part One]

In all my travels and speaking about organic church movements there are certain questions that are asked all the time. Two questions in particular are predictable when addressing a room full of pastors or missionaries. In this blog post and the next I want to briefly address them both.

Question One: The most frequently asked question of organic church movements by pastor-types is: "How am I going to make a living and support my family?" It doesn't take long for pastors hearing me talk about organic church movements to start doing the math silently in their head. They quickly realize that their way of making a living may soon come to an end. Truthfully, this is not much different than most the people sitting in the pews every Sunday.

My answer is always the same: "Your Father in heaven loves your family more than you do and will care for them. He cares for the sparrows, how much more for you." I usually say, "It doesn't matter what logo is on the upper left hand corner of your pay check, your support is coming from your heavenly Father and He is not going out of business anytime soon."

I let them know that this is something I have to believe every day myself. If you thought that writing books makes someone wealthy and secure you do not know much about the Christian leadership book market. Just like most of you there are many times when there is still more month at the end of my paycheck. God always provides. I often will say in a sly manner, "You know, I've been walking with Jesus for 33 years now–you would think that by now I wouldn't have to live by faith anymore!" Usually people laugh with a sigh of realization that we are to always live by faith. In fact, that is true security, isn't it? When all is said and done, knowing that I lived every day in faith is what will really matter.

I can tell you story after story of how pastor types have made a living following Christ in rather creative ways–post church employment. Usually their "real job" ends up being more fruitful for the kingdom than when they used to get paid by a church.

One friend used to be (and still is) a pastor and a missionary but has incredible stories of how he has found ways to make a living. When I first met John he was a church planter. John has been a carpenter (like Jesus) and a cage fighter (not so much like Jesus). This pacifist once opened up a Jiu Jitsu Studio. He's also an artist. He went overseas as a missionary. Lately he has been leading a construction team that is revitalizing a historic home in Long Beach–but John is always looking for the next thing. Now he wants to blend his wood working skills and his artistic talent in a way that can bless many others. He wants to make pipes (yes, tobacco smoking pipes). John is one of a kind. In fact, he is planning on doing an apprenticeship with a master craftsman to better his skills at this trade (and you can help him do so if you like). Here is his website that explains what he wants to do and offers a variety of ways to help him (and also get something nice in return).

After knowing John for 20 years I can say that his family has always had food on the table and a roof over their heads. They are blessed and wealthy where it counts. This venture is creative, unique, artistic and a blessing to others. I also know that John will bring Jesus into his work and share Him with others. This is very John Jensen-ish. That is how our God is–each of us is a unique masterpiece. Is it secure? Does it include a retirement plan? Well, only in Christ. But then that's true with every job when you think of it. Does this provide a model for you to follow...unlikely. But then the world would be boring if we were all pacifistic cage fighting, Christian anarchist, artistic pipe smoking followers of Jesus. What an adventure it is to discover the unique plan God has for your life as well.