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Tim Keller’s new book, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City may be the most important book he has written. It’s the size of a textbook because of how expansive its vision is. These 400 pages capture the essence of Keller’s theological vision, worked out over decades of pastoral ministry in New York City. As I read the book, I had to keep sharpening pencils because of my extensive underlining.

Today, I welcome Tim to the blog for a conversation about some of the important topics addressed in Center Church. (Those who comment on this blog post will be eligible to receive one of five giveaway copies of Center Church, provided by Zondervan.)

Trevin Wax: Tim, you speak of “gospel renewal” as something bestowed by the Spirit and also something we work toward. How would you define “gospel renewal” and how do we seek something only God can give?

Tim Keller: We who are Calvinists that believe in the free offer of the gospel regularly ask people to seek something only God can give. Not only would we say only God can give salvation, but we would say that you can’t even want salvation unless God gives it. Yet we call people to repent and believe. I see no reason why we can’t call people to seek gospel renewal and revival even though only God can give it.

If you look back at theologians who have written on revival, they wrestle with this very issue. Is it merely something you can pray for (which, by the way, is something you are doing to seek revival), or are there other things you can do (like recover clear gospel preaching, etc.)?

As in all ministry, a balance must be struck between pessimistic passivity on the one hand and the frantic assumption that you can create revival on the other.

Trevin Wax: In a recent comment on your book, Scot McKnight described your definition of the gospel as thoroughly “soterian” – meaning, it is focused on individual salvation that comes by grace through faith. In your defense, I’d say you give significant space to unpacking the gospel’s implications in light of Christ’s lordship.

Why is it important to keep individual salvation at the center of our thinking about the gospel? And do you sense a tension between a focus on individual salvation and the resurrection-centered, kingship-focused sermons we see in Acts?

Tim Keller: Scot and I disagree on this. But yes, I do think individual salvation needs to be kept central.

In Romans 8 Paul speaks of the renewal of creation—its liberation from decay—something that shows that ultimately God’s salvation means the renewal of the whole world, not just the salvation of individual souls. Yet in verse 21 Paul says that the creation will be brought into our freedom and glory as children of God—the glory that we as individuals have received through faith in Jesus Christ.

So rather than saying—as many do—that the main point of the gospel is cosmic salvation, and our individual salvation(s) are just part of that, it might be more accurate to say it’s the other way around. It may be that cosmic renewal is a fruit of our individual, personal salvation.

Because I read Romans 8 the way I do—I see substitutionary atonement and justification as not something that comes along with the bigger story but as the point of the spear of the Big Story.

Trevin Wax: You argue that in our evangelistic efforts, we should put forth a compelling challenge of competing worldviews. Along these lines, you recommend distinguishing between a culture’s “A” doctrines from its “B” doctrines as we make a case for Christianity. Can you elaborate on what you mean by “A” and “B” doctrines? 

Tim Keller: What I mean is that a genuinely persuasive argument does not merely tell you that you are wrong about everything. It doesn’t just beat on you from the outside. It comes inside your belief system, as it were, and affirms something you believe strongly. And then it says—well if you believe this (A) then why in the world can’t you see that B is true?

So for example when speaking to a group of atheists who believe strongly in human rights, you make the case that if we simply evolved by accident there is no scientific or other basis for a belief that every human being is equal in dignity—in fact, science gives evidence of the opposite. Then you conclude “if your premise (that there is no God) leads you to conclude something you know isn’t true (that human beings do not all have equal rights and dignity) then why not change your premise?” If you take time to listen to persuasive arguments, you will see they usually do this.

Trevin Wax: I benefited from the balance on display in your explanation of four common ways many Christians relate to culture (Transformationists, Relevants, Counterculturalists, Two Kingdoms). At the end of this section, you left the question open-ended, advocating for different strategies based on cultural context and personal giftings. How did you come to the conclusion that all four views have strengths and weaknesses that need to be held in tension with the others?

Tim Keller: Don Carson’s book Christ and Culture Revisited looks at the 5 models of Christ-and-culture laid out by Niebuhr. They don’t perfectly line up with my four, but Don’s argument was that outside of the “Christ of Culture” model (the view of older Liberal Christianity) all the models had biblical warrant, yet that meant that any of the models taken too exclusively would be leaving out the biblical insights of the other models.

So in the end I say that you should choose the model that seems to best fit your time, place, and personal affinities, but be very careful to use the insights and tools of the other models to keep yourself from imbalance.

Trevin Wax: The term “missional” is often used today in a variety of ways – some of which contradict each other. You maintain a place for the word “missional,” but want to be specific about what it means and does not mean. How would you define “missional?”

Tim Keller: I think that the word “missional” is useful because it means something more (though not less) than being very evangelistic. It means recognizing the post-Christian character of our western society, and revamping everything we do in accord with that.

We no longer have cultural institutions imparting respect for the Bible and the church in the general population so that the average person:

  1. pays attention to the church,
  2. seeks it out for milestone moments like baptisms, weddings, funerals, and
  3. understands what you mean by terms like God, sin, heaven, hell, right and wrong.

This means revamping how you preach, how you instruct, how you evangelize—everything. Notice how differently Paul (in Acts) preached to pagans than he did in synagogues where people were steeped in the Scripture.

So I’m not ready to abandon the term missional.  There are very different views of how to be the church now in our post-Christian culture, but we should be making the effort rather than simply doing business as usual.

Trevin Wax: There is a current discussion going on in gospel-centered circles about the “mission of the church,” and particularly, the nature of “making disciples.” What aspects of this discussion have encouraged you? How would you weigh in and speak to some of the deficiencies you see in this discussion?

Tim Keller: I’m good with saying that the mission of the church is basically to “make disciples.” I like it because it safeguards the centrality of what the church alone can really do—bring people to faith in Christ. But I might differ with others on what those disciples look like.

I’d say you haven’t discipled someone if they only have been equipped to evangelize and bring people to church.  If they are truly discipled, they must be motivated and equipped to love their neighbors, to do justice and mercy.  And they also must be equipped to integrate their faith with their work, namely, to engage culture.

One problem I see is that many churches that insist that the church’s job is to only to make disciples do virtually nothing to help disciples grow in these areas, even though it is clearly part of the biblical job description for individual believers.  Put another way—the job of the institutional church gathered is not to change social structures/culture, but to create disciples (who comprise the ‘organic’ church dispersed) who will change social structures and the culture.


Visit next Friday, October 19, from 3 to 5 p.m. EDT for a live broadcast of Tim Keller speaking on the Center Church vision from The Gospel Coalition New England Regional Conference. Keller will also be joined by Richard Lints, David Wells, and Stephen Um for a panel discussion on contextualization and theological vision.

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72 thoughts on “Gospel, Culture, and Mission: An Interview with Tim Keller”

  1. Great interview, and sounds like a great book! I’d love to see Scot and Tim talk more about the disagreement you highlighted … Put me down for a free copy :)

    1. Rick says:

      “I’d love to see Scot and Tim talk more about the disagreement you highlighted”

      Totally agree. They are both widely respected, liked, etc… beyond just their own “camps”, and such a discussion would be very beneficial.

  2. Stephen H says:

    Great interview with Tim about his new book. Would love a free copy of the book!

  3. Chad Whitley says:

    Great interview! I was especially interested in Dr. Keller’s take on disciple-making, especially since many churches seem to think that making disciples ONLY means “teaching Christians more about Jesus.” While such teaching is a component of discipleship, limiting the latter to such an understanding would run the risk of creating cloistered environments that sanitize believers from the world, rather than challenging and training them to engage it. I would LOVE to read this book, and a free copy would certainly bless this financially strapped youth minister. ;)

  4. Dave Vander Laan says:

    I’m grateful for the chance to be selected to win a copy of Tim’s new book.

    If I’m selected, the money I would have spent on the book will be spent on pencils…

  5. Trevor says:

    Thanks for the interview. Looking forward to pouring through the book as our church seeks to be part of a gospel movement in our city.

  6. Craig Dusek says:

    I’ve always been impressed by Pastor Keller’s work and the simple idea that if you listen to the questions non-believer’s ask and engage in discussion with them, you can often get them to start thinking outside their own boxes. I think sometimes I get too trapped in my own box to try that.

  7. Alex Bradley says:

    Love Tim Keller! I haven’t had a chance to read through Center Church, but now I am going to have to make time!

  8. Andy Williamson says:

    Thanks for the interview.
    I read a bit of blurb about this book elsewhere (which was good BTW) but I very much appreciate being able to get a feel for the book from your discussion with Tim Keller.

    Have to say this is a must read for me, free or otherwise.
    Love the emphases on engaging with the culture, where people are, and being able to challenge worldviews.

  9. Matt Capps says:

    Thanks for posting the interview Trevin. Good stuff.

  10. Great interview! I have a heart for urban missions and would love a copy. Thanks for bringing this vision to so many people!

  11. Joel says:

    Tim is right on in his understanding of being “missional” as, partly, doing ministry in a post-western context. I was listening to NPR yesterday, and it only reinforced what Tim is saying. A new poll shows that 30% of Americans would identify themselves as not religious at all (ie. atheist, agnostic, and don’t care). This requires a re-thinking of how we communicate and the groundwork we are laying that will address these people more and more in our ministries.

  12. Ellery says:

    Wow! Found myself saying ‘what a short interview!’ Lookiing forward to the live broadcast!

  13. Bob Wiegers says:

    very much looking forward to diving into this resource. thanks for the interview

  14. Corey says:

    Great interview. Thank you. Loved hearing Tim Keller’s response on revival and the offering of a gift that only God can give.

  15. I’m nearly finished the book and it is great.’

    If I win the book because of this comment, I’ll give it away to another minister.

  16. CJ says:

    Excited to read the book. Thanks for the interview Trevin.

  17. Dave Moore says:

    Thanks for doing this Trevin. It is a good and balanced exchange.

  18. Stephen says:

    Looking forward to reading the book. Thanks for the post.

  19. Scott says:

    Great thoughts. Tim Keller has helped me immensely think about gospel Contextualization particularly in urban areas.

  20. Benji Carlson says:

    I especially enjoyed the part in which Keller talked about being missional and he noted that we no longer have cultural institutions that support respect for scripture or the church. In recent years I have been convicted to change my whole approach to evangelism and culture. As Francis Schaeffer said, “We must declare the gospel in the open market place of freedom.”

  21. I think this interview is a great synopsis and preview of Keller’s “Center Church.” Again and again, Keller does an excellent job of point to the ways of how the church’s embodiment of the gospel should be understood in light of the Christ-centered gospel and then of the cultural issues of our days. Many friends of mine in Brazil are now just waiting for a good translation of this material! Just spectacular!

  22. Eugene Lim says:

    I like how Keller says that in discipleship, churches must equip people to be motivated AND equipped to love their neighbors, to do justice and mercy. And they also must be equipped to integrate their faith with their work, namely, to engage culture.

    Keller’s new book coming out in November! Rather than see this as a plug for his book, I see it as a pastor who wants to do whatever he can to supply the needs of the church.

  23. Chris Talbot says:

    I’ve been indebted to Dr. Keller over the years on a host of different issues. From the way he simplified the sin of idolatry, to his exhortations against moralism, I sincerely thank him for his God-given wisdom, and the effect that it has made in my life. I look forward to reading his new book soon.

  24. Austin Ross says:

    Tim Keller is a huge influence on Christian culture, and this book may be hist most important yet. (I have no idea, as I’ve not read it.) This is perhaps the most significant issue facing Christianity today – how to effectively minister within a city.

  25. David Brinkley says:

    I appreciated Keller’s answer to Scot McKnight’s thoughts. I think in an either/or world the both/and aspects of salvation need to be interested. Would love to have a copy of this book.

  26. britton wesson says:

    Love the section on the term “missional”. For awhile I’ve been against that term, but, Keller gives a god defense of why the term is important. Blessings!

  27. Dan Wuthrich says:

    Keller’s writings have helped me to better understand and apply the gospel to every aspect of my life and to demonstrate grace in my apologetic conversations with unbelievers.

  28. Carlos says:

    I’d love to read this! Thank you for the interview!

  29. George Oyuke says:

    Always intrigued by Tim Keller’s thoughts on how to be a good influence in the city for Jesus sake. The message is necessary in every city in the world. Posting from Nairobi, Kenya. Would love to win the book and read it :)

  30. Paul says:

    Great interview!
    I think it’s great to see so many recent books on being “gospel-centered”, “Jesus-centered”, etc.!
    Far too many things in this world (none more so than our own sin) try to pull us away from what we should be centered on, namely Jesus, the gospel, and the Bible.

  31. Craig Hurst says:

    Great interview! Would love to win a copy of this for my pastor!

    1. Monkey says:

      I’m out of league here. Too much brain power on diapsly!

  32. Chris Tenny says:

    I am eager to read this book and help sort out the practical implications in a local church of encouraging a theological vision that fuels ministry and does not create fruitless debates and arguments. I hope our own leadership can identity our assumptions in our philosophy of ministry that have not been clear.

  33. Greg says:

    Helpful interview!!

  34. Benji Thomas says:

    Love the A and B doctrines approach. My sister-in-law, a believer, used the example mentioned with her atheist roommate when both were doing NGO work with refugees. It left the roommate rather stunned.

  35. Jesse Benack says:

    Great interview. I love Tim Keller and would love to win a copy of this book.

  36. Jeremy Rogers says:

    Greatly appreciated this interview! Looking forward to reading this book…loved Dr. Keller’s distinction of disciples being more than those who can evangelize and invite people to church but they must be able to love their neighbors and do justice and mercy. Going to be a great read!!

  37. Dan Stump says:

    I enjoyed Keller’s response to Scot McKnight. I think it hit the nail on the head. I like some of McKnight’s stuff and he makes me think but I don’t like how soterian is a bad word of sorts on his blog.

  38. Alistair McNaughton says:

    Tim Kellers perspectives are always thought & action provoking. Looking forward to exploring his vision for cities.

  39. Would be an interesting read; I wonder if ‘family’ is addressed much in Center Church…seems that the epidemic of broken homes in the city needs to see intact, godly gospel families in their midst, as a testimony of Trinitarian communion & wholeness.

  40. Great interview. Thanks Trevin!

  41. Alan Olson says:

    “Tim Keller’s new book, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City may be the most important book he has written.”

    Considering how well acclaimed his other books are, this is pretty impressive. Good interview. Look forward to reading this.

  42. Matt Brown says:

    Keller’s responses are extremely insightful. Looking forward to this book!

  43. jonathan skeen says:

    Good interview.. Reading Reason for God right now.. Dig it!!

  44. What an insightful and helpful piece. I especially like how he brings clarity to the topic of the church’s mission, such a crucial distinction for someone struggling to live this out in a culture making context. I appreciate the ministry of Tim Keller already but this article encourages me to dive deeper into his books.

  45. Dan says:

    Thanks for posting this interview. I really like what Tim had to say about individual salvation and also his comments on what it means to be and make a disciple.

  46. Bradley Geno says:

    Great information! I have looked at this book and thought about buying it. Based on the info from this interview I can’t wait to read Center Church.

  47. Caleb B says:

    Thanks for doing this interview, and for the chance to win Center Church!

  48. Marcella Franseen says:

    Thank you for this interview. This book is now on my need to purchase list.

  49. Nate says:

    Great interview! TK always brings great balance and wisdom. Free book? Yes, please.

  50. Derek Ross says:

    I did not get past question one Gospel Renewal and I had to comment. So…. I may comment again, in order to receive a 2nd book Ha ha. I’m not sure about the city you live in, but in 2003 I moved from Medina Texas population 1000 to Manila Philippines population 20 million. It was obvious in Medina because of the small size and its obvious in Manila because of the large size of the city that there is a need for Gospel Renewal. It seems to me that aligning ourselves with God’s word, we would have to wake up each day with a desire to seek gospel renewal for our cities whether thousands or millions.

  51. Alex Hong says:

    I love Tim Keller. Definitely want to read up on his new book!

  52. Ezra Shim says:

    I find Tim Keller’s view of discipleship especially clarifying. To those who embrace the model of one-to-one discipleship, it is more than just a series of training sessions that equip one to evangelize. At the same time, to those who abandon any form of discipleship approach, the mission of the church is more than just a personal discipleship but never less.

  53. Wesley says:

    Man Trev –
    you offer up a free book and look at all the comments here! Anyways, for us faithful followers, great interview (i’m pietistically jealous of you for getting to interview TKO). I’m just into the gospel section of the book and already, like you, i’ve underlined WAY too much – like i need to underline the stuff i don’t want to remember maybe instead ;)

  54. Paul says:

    I grew up in the conservative Mennonite church, where I was strongly influenced in the “Two Kingdom” mentality. In recent years I have realized that our efforts at shielding our congregations from the onslaughts of an increasingly immoral world has begun to crack from the strain. What was intended as a safety has become a wall preventing believers from effectively engaging non-Christians with a correct understanding of God’s Law as a schoolmaster, and a correct understanding of grace. The other 3 methods of engaging culture offer, as Tim shared, balance in how I, still a conservative Mennonite, can preach the Gospel to the lost without fear of being unduly influenced by the spirit of the age.

  55. Michael says:

    I love this interview! Looking forward to next Fridays interview! I am also excited to read this new book by Tim Keller!

  56. Michael says:

    Thankful for Tim Keller’s ministry.

  57. Daniel says:

    This was a good read especially being at Westminster seminary

  58. Guillermo says:

    Like to read what else Mr.Keller has to say.

  59. Julian says:

    Great interview, Trevin. Definitely would enjoy a free copy of the book. As a member of Redeemer, I’m praying to press toward the vision of fruitfulness over mere numbers or mere doctrinal faithfulness.

  60. Phom Sisoukrath says:

    Great interview and insightful. Looking forward to reading through Center Church.

  61. Tyler Smith says:

    Interesting thoughts from Professor X.

  62. Greg Sharpe says:

    Thanks for the interview! This looks like a great book. Keller’s approach to evangelism – namely, finding out what questions resonate in a particular culture, and then showing how the gospel answers them – has been instrumental in my ministry among unreached people in remote Africa.

  63. Trevin Wax says:

    Randomly drawn winners for the book are:

    Dave Vander Laan (comment 5)
    Joel (comment 12)
    Benji Carlson (comment 21)
    Dan (comment 46)
    Paul (comment 55)

    Thanks all for participating!

  64. Gregg Coniglio says:

    Thanks for the interview. Mr. Keller touched on the topic of evolution in his response. I have read of his involvement with the Biologos organization, that promotes theistic evolution. I would have liked to hear more of his views on it and why he apparently supports that view.Thanks.

  65. Josh Robertson says:

    Thanks for doing the interview. Looks like another book that will need to be added to my reading list!

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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