The theological vision is at the center of ministry. A theological vision creates a bridge between doctrine and expression. It is central to how all ministry happens. Two churches can have different doctrinal frameworks and ministry expressions but the same theological vision — and they will feel like sister ministries. On the other hand, two churches can have similar doctrinal frameworks and ministry expressions but different theological visions — and they will feel distinct.
The Center Church theological vision can be expressed most simply in three basic commitments: Gospel, City, and Movement. Each book in the Center Church series covers one of these three commitments.
- 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. It is critical, therefore, in every new generation and setting to find ways to communicate the gospel clearly and strikingly, distinguishing it from its opposites and counterfeits. (Explore this commitment in Shaped by the Gospel.)
- All churches must understand, love, and identify with their local community and social setting, and yet at the same time be able and willing to critique and challenge it. Every church, whether located in a city, suburb, or rural area (and there are many permutations and combinations of these settings), must become wise about and conversant with the distinctives of human life in those places. But we must also think about how Christianity and the church engage and interact with culture in general. This has become an acute issue as Western culture has become increasingly post-Christian.
(Explore this commitment in Loving the City.)
Movement. The last area of theological vision has to do with your church’s relationships — with its community, with its recent and deeper past, and with other churches and ministries. Some churches are highly institutional, with a strong emphasis on their own past, while others are anti-institutional, fluid, and marked by constant innovation and change. Some churches see themselves as being loyal to a particular ecclesiastical tradition — and so they cherish historical and traditional liturgy and ministry practices. Those that identify very strongly with a particular denomination or newer tradition often resist change. At the other end of the spectrum are churches with little sense of a theological and ecclesiastical past that tend to relate easily to a wide variety of other churches and ministries. All of these different perspectives have an enormous impact on how we actually do ministry. (Explore this commitment in Serving a Movement.)
The Balance of Three Axes
One of the simplest ways to convey the need for wisdom and balance in formulating principles of theological vision is to think of three axes.
1. The Gospel axis. At one end of the axis is legalism, the teaching that asserts or the spirit that implies we can save ourselves by how we live. At the other end is antinomianism or, in popular parlance, relativism — the view that it doesn’t matter how we live; that God, if he exists, loves everyone the same. But the gospel is neither legalism nor relativism. We are saved by faith and grace alone, but not by a faith that remains alone. True grace always results in changed lives of holiness and justice. It is, of course, possible to lose the gospel because of heterodoxy. That is, if we no longer believe in the deity of Christ or the doctrine of justification, we will necessarily slide toward relativism. But it is also possible to hold sound doctrine and yet be marked by dead orthodoxy (a spirit of self-righteousness), imbalanced orthodoxy (overemphasis on some doctrines that obscure the gospel call), or even “clueless orthodoxy,” which results when doctrines are expounded as in a theology class but aren’t brought together to penetrate people’s hearts so they experience conviction of sin and the beauty of grace. Our communication and practices must not tend toward either law or license. To the degree that they do, they lose life-changing power.
2. The City axis (which could also be called a Culture axis). We will show that to reach people we must appreciate and adapt to their culture, but we must also challenge and confront it. This is based on the biblical teaching that all cultures have God’s grace and natural revelation in them, yet they are also in rebellious idolatry. If we overadapt to a culture, we have accepted the culture’s idols. If, however, we underadapt to a culture, we may have turned our own culture into an idol, an absolute. If we overadapt to a culture, we aren’t able to change people because we are not calling them to change. If we underadapt to a culture, no one will be changed because no one will listen to us; we will be confusing, offensive, or simply unpersuasive. To the degree a ministry is overadapted or underadapted to a culture, it loses life-changing power.
3. The Movement axis. Some churches identify so strongly with their own theological tradition that they cannot make common cause with other evangelical churches or other institutions to reach a city or work for the common good. They also tend to cling strongly to forms of ministry from the past and are highly structured and institutional. Other churches are strongly anti-institutional. They have almost no identification with a particular heritage or denomination, nor do they have much of a relationship to a Christian past. Sometimes they have virtually no institutional character, being completely fluid and informal. A church at either extreme will stifle the development of leadership and strangle the health of the church as a corporate body, as a community. To the degree that it commits either of these errors, it loses its life-giving power.
The more that ministry comes “from the center” of all the axes, the more dynamism and fruitfulness it will have. Ministry that is toward the end of any of the spectrums or axes will drain a ministry of lifechanging power with the people in and around it.
— Timothy Keller, Shaped by the Gospel
How to Use This Book
Shaped by the Gospel will help you recover a biblical view of the gospel; grow in gospel-theological depth; avoid doctrinal shallowness, and more.
Shaped by the Gospel has two companion volumes by Timothy Keller:
- Loving the City will help you examine how to develop a vision for your own church’s context, and see how to engage the culture without becoming either too triumphalistic or too withdrawn and subcultural.
- Serving a Movement will help you make every ministry of your church “outward facing,” expecting the presence of nonbelievers and supporting laypeople in their ministry in the world. You will also see the need for integrative ministry where you minister in word and deed.