Churches in the 21st century are being swayed into two extremes that have impeded them from engaging the culture biblically. It appears that some churches today either classify themselves as being doctrine-driven or culturally sensitive. The call to be doctrine-driven in ministry has been embraced by churches who seek to be faithful adherents to sound theology. Keller notes, “All that matters in this view is that a minister be sound in doctrine, godly in character, and faithful in preaching and in pastoring people.” On the other hand, churches that seek to be relevant to the culture have not given sound theology a significant role in the way they do ministry and have majored on pragmatism and social justice as ministry expressions. Keller identified a serious problem with this group: “Many churches, in the name of adapting to the culture, have lost their distinctiveness and consequently, the cultural power of Christianity.” In relation to the different views and approaches churches take in ministry, Keller states: “Most church leaders are somewhere in the middle, but they can’t agree on where we should confront or where we should adapt.” Hence, such churches are looking ways to do ministry that is both faithful to truth and fruitful in mission.
Timothy Keller provides a framework that removes the tension between the two. In his book, The Center Church, Keller argues that there is a way for a church to be doctrine-driven and culturally sensitive at the same time. He provides an alternative that not only takes away the tension but also develops a bridge that can move either group to “the center” — giving them a biblical and balanced approach to ministry. This is a timely solution that urges churches to face the undeniable relationship between being doctrinally pure and culturally sensitive.
In light of this, Keller believes that a more biblical theme for ministerial evaluation than either success or faithfulness is fruitfulness. He starts by showing the need for churches to have a theological vision — a faithful restatement of the gospel with rich implications for life, ministry, and mission in a type of culture at a moment in history. The first half of this article will summarize and analyze two aspects on Keller’s theological vision: Gospel Renewal and City Vision. The second half of this article will apply these aspects to our ministry in Living Word I.T. Park, demonstrating how they can impact a church and a city.
Keller observed that both the Bible and church history show us that it is possible to hold all the correct individual biblical doctrines and yet functionally lose our grasp on the gospel. Church leaders know that it is not a rare occurrence for Christians to articulate the gospel biblically and be completely detached from it emotionally and spiritually. To counter this crisis, Keller speaks of two kinds of gospel renewals that can lead to real and lasting change:
1. Personal gospel renewal means the gospel doctrines of sin and grace are actually experienced, not just known intellectually.
2. Corporate gospel renewal — what has sometimes been called “revival” — is a season in which a whole body of believers experience personal gospel renewal together.
We see this kind of renewal taking place in the book of Acts. Christians and churches who were captivated by the gospel became faithful and fruitful witnesses for Christ in their cities. People were saved and churches were planted across the Roman Empire, not mainly because of strategies that were developed but because of a spiritual awakening that was brought about by the faithful proclamation of the gospel. Hence, the gospel must not be seen as an option that churches build or center on. Rather, they must see it as the only way they can grow spiritually and live missionaly. It is the central component that makes spiritual vitality and cultural engagement a reality. No wonder the Apostle Paul considers the gospel to be of first importance (1 Cor 15:3-4). In his letters, it is evident that Paul’s commands to individuals and churches were preceded by a reminder of the gospel as the motivation for their obedience (2 Cor 8-9-11; Eph 4:32; Phi 2:1-11). The reason why Paul motivates them with the gospel reveals that obedience to God is not a matter of strict compliance but is a grateful response to what Christ has achieved for us on the cross. Moreover, gospel renewal is not just a way to keep Christians motivated to obey God but it is also a way for them to be protected from error. Keller believes that the gospel has two equal opposites and enemies that constantly seek to corrupt the message and steal away from us the power of the gospel. Keller notes, “Legalism says that we have to live a holy, good life in order to be saved. Antinomianism says that because we are saved, we don’t have to live a holy, good life.” Once the church negates the need for gospel-centrality and renewal, there will be a shift in motivation that would either be based on legalism or relativism. Keller states, “In the end, legalism and relativism in churches are not just equally wrong; they are basically the same thing. They are just different strategies of self-salvation built on human effort.” By unmasking legalism and relativism, Keller not only exposed their lies but also their inferiority to the gospel. Keller states, “The only way into a ministry that sees people’s lives changed, that brings joy and power and electricity without authoritarianism, is through preaching the gospel to deconstruct both legalism and relativism.” Hence, the gospel is not just a message for non-believers but it is also the driving force that motivates the church to fulfill her mission.
Keller believes that by having a biblical perspective on cities, churches can rediscover the joy of engaging the city in ways that lead to fruitfulness in gospel work. He masterfully provided a balanced view on how a church should relate to its city. He does this by pointing out two extremes churches must avoid. He notes, “If we over-adapt to a culture, we aren’t able to change people because we are not calling them to change. If we under-adapt to a culture, no one will be changed because no one will listen to us; we will be confusing, offensive, or simply unpersuasive.” Keller uses Jeremiah’s letter to the Jewish exiles in Babylon to show this balanced approach: “On the one hand, God tells his people to increase in number there; to retain their distinct community identity and to grow, but he also tells them to settle down and engage in the life of the great city (Jer 29:6-7).” By retaining their distinct identity as a nation they are able to challenge and confront the pagan and immoral culture of Babylon. Furthermore, it exposes the sins in Babylonian culture and protects them from being contaminated by it. By seeking the welfare of the city, they can communicate God’s love and compassion to a culture that is ignorant about it. Keller notes, “Loving and serving the city not only shows love and compassion; doing so also strengthens the hands of the people of God, who bear the message of the gospel to the world.” Keller then went on to show how the exilic model helps us understand the relationship of the church to the city in the New Testament. He states, “In a similar way, Peter calls Christians to live in the midst of pagan society in such a way that others will see their ‘good deeds and glorify God’ (1 Pet 2:12), but he warns them to expect persecution nonetheless.” While the Jews in the Old Testament had a different calling than Christians, one cannot deny the similarities in the way they were to confront the culture and seek the good of the people. They provide an alternative on how to live, and relate to others – a kind of living that forces a culture to question its beliefs and practices in light of their distinctiveness. In showing the relationship between the gospel and sound contextualization, Keller notes: “The gospel makes us both humble and confident at once. And these two attitudes are critical for doing faithful and sound contextualization. If we need the approval of the receiving culture too much, we will compromise in order to be liked. If we are too proudly rooted in any one culture, we will be rigid and unable to adapt. Only the gospel gives us the balance we need.” With the insights I have gleaned from Keller on Gospel Renewal and City Vision, I have identified some ways I can apply them to our ministry context in Living Word I.T. Park.
Gospel Renewal Application
First, I want to show how gospel theology and renewal should influence our pulpit ministry. Keller notes, “First, a church recovers the gospel through preaching. Preaching is the single venue of information and teaching to which the greatest number of church people are exposed.” Since preaching plays a vital role in the health of the church, I have to see to it that the messages I preach provide an opportunity for people to grow in gospel theology and renewal. Hence, when I preach about an aspect of Christian ethics, I need to be careful that I don’t fall into the error of moralism or relativism. Rather, I must present it in such a way that doesn’t lead to behavior modification but to heart transformation. Keller shows how the gospel leads to heart transformation by using Paul’s life as an example: “The renewal and heart change in Paul’s life came only when he transferred his trust from law keeping to Christ’s imputed righteousness for his confidence before God (Phi 3:4b, 7-9)." Hence, it is only through the gospel a person can experience real and lasting change. Secondly, I want to show how gospel theology and renewal should relate to our counseling ministry. Keller notes “The root of every sin is idolatry, and idolatry is a failure to look to Jesus for our salvation and justification, then the root of every sin is a failure to believe the gospel message that Jesus, and Jesus alone, is our justification, righteousness, and redemption.” By having a gospel-centered approach in counseling, I can help them identify the root of their sin and show them how the gospel can overcome it. When our "false saviors" are exposed, the superiority of the gospel will be clearly seen since it is the only message that provides true hope and eternal security.
City Vision Application
Keller gave two reasons why cities can be a place where human life thrives. I have identified these benefits as opportunities for our church to love and serve our city.
Keller states, “Because minorities find them to be safe places to live, cities tend to become racially and culturally diverse.” In an entry posted to Bloomberg Opinion on December 3, 2019, Tyler Cowen noted that Cebu is the most typical place in the world. He states, “On a variety of measures — economic, demographic and cultural, to name a few — Cebu is remarkably representative of the world as a whole. . . . Now consider some non-economic factors. Along with the native Cebuano and Tagalog, English is widely spoken in Cebu, and present on most of the signs. And what about religion? Christianity is the dominant religion in Cebu. Islam, Hinduism and various native religions are also represented, as well as variants of folk Catholicism and folk Islam, mirroring the syncretic nature of religious belief in so many other countries. Through Keller’s perspective on diversity, I now have a better understanding on how Cebu’s cultural and religious diversity can open many opportunities for our church to reach more people for Christ.
2. Productivity and Creativity
Keller notes, “The city features street life and marketplaces, bringing about more person-to-person interactions and exchanges in a day than are possible anywhere else.” Our church is located in I.T. Park. It considered to be the busiest business center in southern Philippines. Cowen states, “As for its economy, Cebu is a major center for business outsourcing, such as call centers, and thus has a close relationship with the global technology industry.” As we seek to engage our city with the gospel, may the Holy Spirit empower us to be faithful to the truth and fruitful in mission so that Christ may be treasured above all.
Keller, Timothy. The Center Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 2012.
Cowen, Tyler. “This Philippine City Is the Most Typical Place in the World.” bloomberg.com https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2019-12-02/cebu-this-philippine-city-is-the-most-typical-place-in-the-world?fbclid (accessed December 9, 2019).
 Timothy Keller, The Center Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 11.
 Timothy Keller, The Center Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 11.
 Timothy Keller, The Center Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 29.
 Timothy Keller, The Center Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 64.
 Timothy Keller, The Center Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 146-147.
 Timothy Keller, The Center Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 57.
 Timothy Keller, The Center Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 138.