"Gospel Theology" As The Launchpad For Theological Vision: A New eBook From Tim Keller
What's your theological vision? Where does it begin? Where does it go?
Over the last year I've been thinking a lot about these questions, because last May I agreed to take over a struggling church plant in the blue-collar city of Muskegon, MI. Having recently graduated with an M.Div. in Church Planting/Development, I thought I was ready to work my ministry mojo and resuscitate this dying church. It didn't take long for me to realize that it's one thing to learn about resuscitating, it's a whole other thing to actually do it—much like a medical student on their first day in the ER, I'd imagine.
So these questions about theological vision—what is it, what launches it, what sustains it, where does it take us—have consumed me for several months. And time and time again I've returned to Tim Keller's ministry magnum opus, Center Church, which exudes theological vision.
From my estimation Center Church was one of the most talked about ministry books of 2012, garnering both ebullient praise and cautious criticism from around the evangelical community. Given its breadth and scope, it's no wonder. Some reviews I read said it was one of the best two or three books on ministry ever. While others both applauded it and wanted to chuck it out the window.
I understand the latter reaction: at times I praised, at times I poopooed! But as I've re-read sections of the book over the past year, I've grown to appreciate more and more what Keller has provided us ministers: a theological vision of ministry that's gospel-centered, city-centered, and movement-centered.
Theological vision is a "faithful restatement of the gospel with rich implications for life, ministry, and mission in a type of culture at a moment in history." Such a vision, Keller insists, "is the most immediate cause of our decisions and choices regarding ministry expression." (19) A ministry cannot function without one; a minister cannot function without one, either.
Again, what's your theological vision? More importantly what's its launchpad?
Keller roots theological vision in the only thing that matters for our ministries: the gospel, for it and it alone is what carries "rich implications for life, ministry, and mission" in whatever context we find ourselves ministering.
In other words, the gospel is our launchpad for ministry, which is why I'm thrilled Zondervan and Keller have released the first part of this important ministry resource as a separate eBook, called Gospel Theology. In it, Keller examines what the gospel is and is not, and how churches can be shaped by, centered on, and empowered through the gospel.
Keller begins this important section on gospel-centerdness with a rather sober assessment of ministry:
It is quite easy to assume that if we understand the gospel accurately and preach it faithfully, our ministry will necessarily be shaped by it—but this is not true. Many churches subscribe to gospel doctrines but do not have a ministry that is shaped by, centered on, and empowered through the gospel. Its implications have not yet worked their way into the fabric of how the church actually does ministry. These churches’ theological vision has likely arisen from something other than sustained reflection on the gospel.
To ensure that the gospel truly is the launchpad for our ministry's theological vision, "we must spend time reflecting on the essence, the truths, and the very pattern of the gospel itself." Keller helps us do just this with 3 targeted sections:
- The Gospel Is Not Everything: "The gospel is 'heraldic proclamation' before it is anything else," Keller writes. "The gospel is not everything we believe, do, or say. The gospel must primarily be understood as good news." This chapter is a crucial one for helping us answer the question for ourselves and for our church, "What do we mean by 'the gospel'?"
- The Gospel Is Not a Simple Thing: Keller insists that "There is no such thing as a 'one size fits all' understanding of the gospel." It is not a simple thing, and we know this because 1) "its expression on the themes of the Bible is inexhaustibly deep and rich;" and 2) "humanity, in both its perfect design and fallen nature, is also complex and varied. The gospel has supernatural versatility to address the particular hopes, fears, and idols of every culture and every person." While the gospel has a singular message, it is not a simple one.
- The Gospel Affects Everything: Keller quotes the great missiologist Lesslie Newbigin to remind us that the gospel cannot remain a set of beliefs if it is truly believed and understood: "The Christian story provides us with such a set of lenses, not something for us to look at, but for us to look through."
This final chapter is a highly significant one, as it brings us back to Keller's definition of theological vision. If what Keller says is true—that the gospel has rich implications for life, ministry, and mission—then restating the good news of Christ's life, death, resurrection, and ascension in a way that's faithful to Scripture and the historic Christian faith is crucial if we hope to affect change in our communities, in this moment in time.
Cultural engagement matters not if we get the gospel wrong. Contextualization goes awry when we begin with an unfaithful restatement of the gospel. Attempts at redeeming our cities will fall flat without a proper understand of Christ's good news. Equipping our people for missional living will be pointless without properly rooting them in the gospel—all of which will be impossible without properly reflecting on its essence at the outset.
The gospel truly is the single launchpad for the theological vision of our ministries. If you're like me you long to bring the rescuing and re-creating power of Christ to bear on your community. But without a gospel-centered orientation, such longings and efforts will be fruitless.
I trust this eBook on Gospel Theology will help infuse your own ministry with gospel-centeredness as much as it has mine the past year. In fact, each of Center Church's 8 parts are available as separate $2.99 eBooks. Do yourself a favor—do your church and your community a favor—and read through these guides to help enrich, shape, and inform your ministry.
Jeremy Bouma (ThM) is a pastor with the Evangelical Covenant Church in West Michigan. He is the founder of THEOKLESIA, a content curator dedicated to helping the 21st century church rediscover the historic Christian faith; holds a Master of Theology in historical theology; and writes about faith and life at www.jeremybouma.com.
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