I don’t know a time when there have been so many different voices in the world about church ministry, let alone Christian living. Perhaps it is because Christians and church leaders find themselves struggling with how to communicate the age-old story about Jesus in a world that seems increasingly preoccupied with itself. Though evidently there is wide-spread interest in spirituality in our part of the world, church attendance is definitely in decline. But this is not true of all churches. There are churches of every denomination that are seeing a good response so that attendance is actually increasing. On one hand I think it is evident that Christians are discouraged and grasping for understanding about how to live authentically and relevantly in the world; on the other it is obvious that there is a great thirst for a genuine experience and witness to the biblical message.
In the midst of this anguish, it is heartening to find leaders and writers that have figured out how to come to terms with the current realities, both within the church and the culture of our times, and are able to provide an explanation of how the church can once again recover its edge for effective ministry in these times.
I’m thinking of a book, recently written and published by Dr. Timothy Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. It is called Center Church: Doing Balanced Gospel Centered Ministry in Your City. I came across it in preparation for a Doctor of Ministry course that I am planning to audit this week at The Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Il. The course is on the Theology, History, and Practice of Evangelism to be taught by Dr. David Gustafson, associate professor of pastoral theology at TEDS. I’m taking it for the very reasons outlined in the first paragraph of this article. Though I am more confident than ever about the truth and significance of the Good News concerning Jesus, I feel the need to sharpen my own pastoral skills on how we in the church can be more effective in publishing this great news and in making disciples. I must say that I have been deeply impressed, stimulated and inspired by Keller’s writing in this book about these matters.
What I like about Keller is that he doesn’t compromise on the very nature of the Gospel concerning the significance of Jesus’ atonement for our sins, but he agrees with the newer emphasis that takes us back to a New Testament faith that focuses on the entire story of Jesus including His reign and call to authentic discipleship. Authentic gospel witness, writes Keller, not only calls us to repentance and faith in Christ for eternal salvation but also goes on to lead us into a life of witness and service with and for Jesus Christ. This inevitably means that our lives are truly transformed by the grace of God so that we invest them in service to our neighbours, communities, cities, and world with a view to inviting them to faith in Him and the possibility of real change in the culture to which we belong.
Keller insists that we need to find balance in our theology and practice of Christian faith and ministry. Too often we find ourselves fighting against legitimate concerns expressed by other components of God’s larger church. For example, many evangelicals have steered clear of the social implication of the Gospel that has been the emphasis of more theologically liberal parts of the church. But the truth, in Keller’s view and excellent explanation, is closer to the centre of this debate. God has indeed called the church to love her neighbours in word and deed, and as we begin to take this aspect of Christ’s lordship in our lives seriously, no doubt we will also be more effective in our witness to the Gospel.
In this book, Keller has no end of practical wisdom and ideas about how the church can balance its theology and practice in order for it to be more like God intended and more effective in gaining a hearing for the Gospel. I was especially impressed with his chapter (21) on Equipping People for Missional Living. This chapter alone is well worth the price of the book because it offers many practical ideas about pastoring the church toward more effective evangelism. Keller does point to a specific way of sharing the Gospel. But the new paradigm of evangelism is definitely more focused on relationship building and living/sharing authentically about the whole story of Jesus. It is more likely that people will embrace faith in Christ through a process of understanding than through a short, four-point presentation of the Gospel. I know this is new for many of us, but it’s probably more in keeping with the stories of faith in the New Testament and the discipleship model of faith.
Keller’s thesis calls for a balanced approach to ministry in many different ways: not trying to create a Christian society but not withdrawing from society either; appreciating the missional motivation for ministry “without abandoning the classic doctrines of sin and grace that create joy in the heart and an urgency for evangelism;” recognizing the need for Gospel witness that emphasizes deed as well as word; seeing that the church needs to function as an institution while also being a movement; doing ministry with theological and practical distinctiveness while also working positively with churches that have different theological and practical perspectives; and so on.
I am sure that Keller’s book will be a very welcome and useful guide to pastors, elders and church leaders in the immediate future. While everyone won’t agree with all points of Keller’s perspective, church leaders will undoubtedly profit greatly from reflection and discussion on the principles that he addresses for more effective ministry in these times.