Center Church

I picked up Tim Keller‘s newest book, Center Church.  It hit the bookstore shelves this morning.  I have as yet read only a few chapters. But as expected it is an excellent expression of holistic gospel-centered ministry.  In short it is a book about forming a Theological Vision for ministry, and living out that vision faithfully in whatever context one may live and serve in such a way as to be fruitful.

In particular I appreciate how from the outset Keller explains the difference and navigates between the two common ministry measuring sticks, success & faithfulness.  It seems to me that too many act as if we should assume these are mutually exclusive  – as if either is a sufficient goal or gauge.  Keller instead prefers fruitfulness, seeing both benefits and limitations of success and faithfulness as the simple objectives.  Fruitfulness is the end result of the complex web of faithfulness, competence, and the work of God’s Spirit. Success, whatever that really is, is not eschewed, but seen in light of the components of fruitfulness within a particular social context.

Now while I have not read the entire book, I did have one criticism from the outset.  While the book is less than 400 pages, and the chapters are easily readable (in other words, one need not be a theological scholar to follow along), the size of the book has the odd dimensions of a textbook.  This will look strange among most of the other books on my shelf.  But, I guess, if that remains my chief gripe, there is not much to complain about.

7 thoughts on “Center Church

  1. Thanks for posting these thoughts. I was just reading Scot McKnight’s blog yesterday and he was having a discussion there about Keller’s use of “fruitfulness” over success.

    Do you have a theological vision for your ministry already, or do you think you’ll form one as a result of this book?


  2. Andrew,

    Thanks for posting your comment. And thank you for asking your question. Yes, I do have a theological vision. And my theological vision has been shaped over the years with help of Tim Keller, among others. Much of what Keller provides in this book is offered in his other works, written & messages. But this book is a good synthesis and presentation of his work, which will enable many to develop a theological vision – and enable folks like me to think through what has already been developed.

    As far as my theological vision, one of the axes that shapes the theological vision (as Keller calls them) will be changing for me in the coming weeks. I will be moving to a new church in a new community, and will have to learn how to connect the Gospel & Missional (Movement) axes with a new Context (i.e. City) axis. And I will be doing so with a whole different group of people. The gospel principles remain the same, but the context is different, and the missional/movement opportunies will also be different. So I will be rethinking all of this for the next several months, and beyond.

  3. Sounds like an interesting book Dennis. Your comments above sound interesting to me as well. The idea of Fruitfulness and Success are especially thought provoking. While many Churches measure Success and I suppose fruitfulness by butts in the seats and dollars as tthose are easy measures and don’t require much thought. They also don’t tell too much about either one.

    So with that in mind, (and maybe Keller will address this later in the book) what and how do you measure outcomes such as fruitfulness and success what ever that means ?

    If your serious about fruitfulness then it (I would think) must be part of deliberate planned outcomes and measured as well. Issue is finding the metric which provides hard data in which to measure. Then does what your looking for really match up and is it tied into the Mission and Vision of the particular Church? If that makes sense

    Might have to read the book….

    • David, Keller makes a clear distinction between success – which is measured by the 3 B’s: Bucks, Butts, and Buildings – and fruitfulness. Fruitfulness is Biblically defined as 1) Conversions (see Romans 1.13); 2) Godly Character (see Galatians 5.22); and 3) Good Deeds/Mercy Ministry (see Romans 15.28).

      As far as outcomes, certainly these are rightly measured. But it is precisely at this point where problems arise. Once measured, what do you compare results with? To compare mere numbers (3 B’s) is not a reliable gauge because context is different from one place to another; and many are producing numbers with little faithfulness, which means no real fruitfulness, if fruitfulness is actually produced by the Holy Spirit. Further, when outcomes become the goal in their own right, then success is valued above faithfulness and fruitfulness.

      I think one must ask what were the Biblical measurable objectives? Did Peter set out with a goal of a few thousand conversions at Pentecost? What were Paul’s numerical objectives in each of the churches he planted? Do we have any hint that he set measurable goals, and then evaluated his ministry effectiveness by what the numbers told him? I see no evidence of any of this in Scripture.

      This is not to say that measure is inappropriate. We do know the result of Peter’s preaching at Pentecost. And the book of Acts is full of Stats. So numbers do tell us something. But I suggest that they primarily show the action of the Holy Spirit. And that is the issue, in my opinion. Fruitfulness is dependent upon the Holy Spirit. “Success” merely measures and compares outcomes, which may or may not be an indication of the Spirit at work.

      Now, understand, this is my synopsis. Not everything I wrote in this comment is directly reflective of Keller’s new book – though I think I am in line with his premise. If you click the link in the post, you can find and read the Intro & Chapter 1, for yourself. These chapters outline and define Keller’s distinctions. I think you will be challenged and benefit from even just these pages. But I do commend the whole book.

  4. I’ll take a look for sure. Downloaded the firts 115 pages from I books last night. (for free)

    Interesting subject. Numbers do tell lots if your looking at the right metrices and drilling down from the simple head counts into Spiritual Pathways that make up various ministries.

    I think the failure in the growth of many Churches is that they have no idea what in fact brings fruitfulness in every sense of the Word.

    Looking to marry mission / vison to Spiritual Pathways (getting people from point A to point B) tells you somthing about effectiveness of ministry. If the fields are ripe and ready for harvest and we are not participating in “much fruit” as is almost directed and naturally expected, but tied to only being faithful in Sunday Worship expecting something different and alive I think is dead wrong.

    The metrics and measure are only tools to indicate if we are are on the right track and help let us know what is fruitful I think.

    Looking forward to reading this book

    • Question: Are your “metrics” Biblical? I am not asking if they avoid violating any Biblical standard, but rather if they can be derived from systematic study of Scripture. We must never fall into the mistaken notion that Biblical is the default status, as if anything that is not contrary to Scripture is automatically Biblical. If that were the case there would be little reason for us to “Renew our minds”. (Romans 12.2) The fact that they work, or produce success, does not make them Biblical, nor necessarily Fruitful.

      Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting that your metrics are not Biblical. I am only asking if you can explain them Biblically. This is in line with Keller’s theme of developing a Theological Vision; and it is what distinguishes what he (and others) are expressing from the assertions of the Church Growth Movement. No doubt there are some helpful ideas from the CGM. But simple godless – or maybe better expressed as Theologically Disconnected – tactics and measures cannot be the blueprint for Christ’s Church. “Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain.” ` Psalm 127.1

      Again, this is not a criticism, it is a challenge. Please share the Biblical basis for the metrics you feel should be used.

  5. I think there is not only Biblical bases Dennis but just common sense that tells us “where there is no Vision the people perish”.

    If you aim at nothing you hit it every time ! You should check out a book written by Andy Stanley titled 7 practices of effective ministry. He wrote it a few years ago and it deals directly with the issue of fruitfulness of ministry.

    There is a direct link between ministry and Mission / Vision. I don’t think you would disagree with that. Trouble many do not intergrate pathways in ministry to Mission and Vision and so people basically sit in pews and minister to each other while enjoying their pot luck ! ( I know thats a cheap shot) 🙂 but it’s kinda of funny. But sad too.

    You may not agree with it but you can not deny the fact of so many coming to not only know Jesus but have in fact transformed lives as a result of the Ministry of Rick Warren’s Church there at Saddleback. He uses pathways to get people from point A to point B and it’s directly intergrated in within their Mission & Vision. Is it Biblical ? Absolutely, So many verses about making Disciples From Matt 28: 18-20, II Tim 2:2, and a host of others. As far as Metrics all they are is a tool in which to understand how what your doing and when effects fruitfulness are present. You don’t know what you don’t know until you look ! So If I’m wondering how the Church is doing from a contributions stand point for example, I look at amount given over those who attend Worship. If the figuars fall betweem 18 to 20 dollars per person then the Church is probably doing ok.

    If dollras come from a few only you have an issue. But you don’t know if you don’t measure. That metric alone can tell you significate things. Is it a good measure. It servs it’s purpose there are better ones on finances.

    And by the way, Just because a metric used may not have a Biblical sense about it doesn’t mean it’s bad.

    I’m looking forward to reading Kellers book. I respect his approach to the Gospel and from what I understand his Ministry as well. God has used Keller to help the Church in so many ways. Great writter, speaker and man of God.

    I’ll write you an e-mail on the metrics I think should be used by Churches. But they do no good unless your ready to use them….

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