Saturday, May 25, 2013

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.


Chris said...

Hey Neil, as I read through your post I was thinking (as you point out near the end) that the antithesis of highly structured would be "chaos," and that organic would be the balanced, more effective, "centered" approach. Then again, I agree with your views of the church!

On the topic I have appreciated the metaphor used in The Trellis and the Vine, that a massive trellis will overpower and kill the vine, while a flimsy, weak trellis will just collapse and likewise cause its demise. What is needed is just enough structure to support the life of the vine. The analogy, of course, agrees with yours of the endoskeleton. (Which, by the way, I just discussed with one of our resident apprentices this week as we go through Organic Church.)

Peace, brother, thanks for continuing to serve the King!

Neil Cole said...

Great comment Chris...and thanks for using OC!

Unknown said...

In regards to the organic and structured comments. Along the same lines check out the Nicholas Taleb thoughts on antifragility. It addresses systems that are fragile versus not. And while the reading is deep helps us think in new ways about what is really fragile vs. what is flexible.

But save that reading for when you have time to really think!

Neil Cole said...

Thanks Dave, I'll look for it. Hope u r well friend. Thnx stopping by the blog!

Unknown said...

Hi Neil
I read your post and for the most part I agree with your thoughts. But, this said I'm not sure organic/liquid is some where in the middle. It all rests on the viewer.

I'm based in Denmark, and NO KIDDING - here organic is viewed as the uttermost-counter part to tradition.

Organic is a tough sell!

The ironic part is that I'm a pastor in a pentecostal movement in which we have never had any sort of system/organization/leadership but only a network and every pastor is sort of captain on his own ship...

Let this be said though. You had me at OC and I believe it is an important issue you are pressing in this post. I think I see this issue from almost the same angle as you ...

I'm still selling the organic-drug here in my neighborhood and LTG has caught on and this fall we'll start our first organic-church/missional-community. Thanks for being a great inspiration!

Blessings from Denmark.
- Michael

Neil Cole said...

Michael, we've been praying for Denmark. I hope to visit sometime next year.