Overemphasizing the City?

I recently finished Timothy Keller’s Center Church and I really appreciated it.  It was thought-provoking, insightful, motivating, and helpful in many ways.  I do recommend it.  In the next few months I hope to engage it here from time to time and I’ve also written a review for another venue.  In this post, I want to point out one area of the book with which I’m not totally comfortable.

In around seven out of the thirty chapters, Keller focuses on the city.  He begins his section on the city by giving a brief biblical-theological overview of the city, drawing on earlier work by Harvie Conn, Meredith Kline, and Robert Linthicum (among others).  He rightly notes that the Bible doesn’t view cities in a hostile light nor does it view them in a romantic way.  Rather, biblically speaking, cities are places of sin and violence but also places of refuge and protection.  Since the city is important to Keller’s church/ministry vision, this book, Center Church, has almost everything to do with the city.

For Keller (and others) cities are significant because of the population density that rural areas do not have.  Keller also notes that “we have reached the point where over 50 percent of the world population now lives in cities, compared to around 5 percent two centuries ago” (p. 154).  He explains how large cities and urban centers profoundly influence entire countries and civilizations.  For these reasons – since the city is a dense population center and since it influences countries and civilizations, Keller argues that the church should focus on the city and city renewal.

I agree that we should be planting solid churches in large cities and urban areas.  We need to focus on population centers for sure when we consider church planting.  However, we have to be careful not to overstate the importance of the city at the expense of rural areas and smaller towns.  In my opinion, Keller overemphasizes the city.  Here are two examples.

“‘…The country is where there are more plants than people; the city is where there are more people than plants.  And since God loves people more than plants, he loves the city more than the country.’ I think this is solid theological logic.  …Cities…are absolutely crammed full of what God considers the most beautiful sight in his creation.  As we have noted before, cities have more ‘image of God’ per square inch than anywhere else, and so we must not idealize the country as somehow a more spiritual place than the city.  Even those (like Wendell Berry) who lift up the virtues of rural living outline a form of community just as achievable in cities as in small towns” (p. 170).

“Christians should seek to live in the city, not to use the city to build great churches, but to use the resources of the church to seek a great, flourishing city.  We refer to this as a ‘city growth’ model of ministry rather than a strictly ‘church growth’ model.  It is the ministry posture that arises out of a Center Church theological vision” (p. 172).

There are other similar statements about the city in this book that I think are debatable.  I don’t just say this because I live in a rural area (though I am quite close to a metropolitan area – St. Paul/Minneapolis).  I also say this because, in my opinion, Keller’s “Center Church” vision overemphasizes the city at the expense of smaller towns and rural areas.  I still do like and recommend this book, but I hesitate to put as much emphasis on the city and urban renewal as Keller does.

rev shane lems
covenant presbyterian church (OPC)
hammond, wi

10 Replies to “Overemphasizing the City?”

  1. Keller seems to think that God loves all in a city and i”m sure believes in universal atonement as well. I would remind him of: “I will take you one of a city and two of a family Jer 3:14 to show the scarcity of the elect “a very small remnant” Isa 1:9 one out of Sodom, right?


  2. One of Keller’s problems is a confusion of the church’s relation to saving grace and common grace. He said we should “use the resources of the church to seek a great, flourishing city.” This is not what we see of the church in Acts; that was not the objective of the apostles at all. Moreover, the optimism we see here and with both the religious right and the church growth movement of the 90’s is out of line with what Scripture says about the course of man’s depravity.

    I don’t know if this is common – I certainly hope not – but from the pulpit a PCA pastor said the equivalent to the apostles healing in Acts is for us to plant trees. My immediate reaction to this was that the only tree the church is concerned with is the tree Christ was crucified on. Such an abuse of Scripture should be publicly rebuked. It also strikes me as a great deterrent of Satan from the church growing in faith and the knowledge of Christ (saving grace).

    When traffic is good, I live 10 minutes from the corner of Hollywood and Vine. A church tried to plant itself in Hollywood and after 7 years, it had to give up. I’m in favor of a Bible believing church in Hollywood – I actually first learned of TULIP at a church right off of Hollywood Blvd in 1989 – but one of the reasons the church could not take root is because it was comprised of young, mostly single people. In other words, no families. There are no families in urban areas and when you have mostly young, single people, they are not really receptive to families. The church is made of families (Eph 5-6).


    1. Dante wrote:
      “One of Keller’s problems is a confusion of the church’s relation to saving grace and common grace. He said we should “use the resources of the church to seek a great, flourishing city.”

      Another way of putting that is to say that Pastor Keller seems to confuse the mission (and means for it) given by Scipture to the organized visible church under it’s officers to prosecute the Great Commission on the one hand, with the great swath of good works that individual Christians living out their salvation in their daily lives are free (and even commanded via the Spirit’s conviction) to do on the other hand. In Pastor Keller’s defense, he has indicated that a lot of what he suggests should be done by separate 501(c)3 organizations ( ala ‘Generous Justice”) rather than by the officers of the church lording it over members to adopt the officers’ personal favorite good works. Part of the problem is that in practice these lines are blurred. Also many of Pastor Keller’s acolytes, especially in the PCA, are ‘more Keller than Keller’ himself, and ignore the line altogether. If I hear one more sermon telling me that the local visible church should make participating with ‘Habitat for Humanity’, supporting indiscrimate secular local ‘food banks’, and solving problems with local schools essential parts of our church’s work in fullfilling it’s purpose in the Great Commissioin, I am going to go blind and deaf.


      1. Keller sounds like he could use a good dose of Kuyper’s distinction between the “institutional” church” and the “organic church.” Admittedly, this distinction doesn’t solve all the problems, but it is a good reminder that as an institution the church’s business is the preaching of the gospel and administration of the sacraments. Individual Christians (i.e., the organic church) are free to work for the kingdom outside the walls of the institutional church according to conscience.

        One of the things that frustrates me to no end as a Kuyperian/neo-Calvinist, is that I constantly have to fight a rearguard battle with people who think they are being Kuyperian when they try to use the “institutional” church to promote specific political agendas. (“Kuyperians” on both the right and the left do this all the time.)


        1. Nevada wrote: “One of the things that frustrates me to no end as a Kuyperian/neo-Calvinist, is that I constantly have to fight a rearguard battle with people who think they are being Kuyperian when they try to use the “institutional” church to promote specific political agendas. (“Kuyperians” on both the right and the left do this all the time.)”.

          BTW, lets not limit that to political agendas. Social work agendas for our culture fit there as well.


        2. Nevada:
          Keller does use those terms (sort of). He talks about the church as organism (similar to organic) and the church as institution. He says that the church should be an organized organism. Or, in other words, an institution and an organism. I don’t have time to muse on this, but I did want to point it out (to be fair to Keller).

          I do like the distinction you made in your opening sentence. I have a bit of Kuyper in my blood I suppose!


  3. Hi Shane,
    Okay. Then he’s using the Kuyperian terminology (which, of course, is not the same thing as understanding it, but I will give him the benefit of the doubt). I suppose I was reacting more to Warren’s description of Keller disciples, and reading into the discussion some of my own frustrations with alleged Kuyperians in my own denomination who regularly ignore the organism/institute distinction to try and promote non-institute related causes with denominational funds. (I also realize that my comment was tangential considering that your post wasn’t really about that). Mea culpa.

    Thanks for being fair to Keller. (I actually really like everything I’ve read by Keller.) Again, mea culpa.


  4. Keller is to be commended for loving the place God is using him. Aside from the relative weight that rural and urban should get theologically, historically cities have been important for setting the pace for the rural areas around them; in earlier times, I suppose that was because more people (by definition!) lived in the city, there was more business there, so people from outlying areas circulated through the cities on business and were exposed to the practices and preaching of the churches in the cities; the ethos or peculiarities of the city gradually became the ethos or peculiarity of the region round about–think of Alexandria, Antioich, Byzantium, Rome, etc., in the ancient world, Geneva, London, New York, etc.
    Also, I guess larger churches in the cities could sustain larger numbers of priests or preachers which became a sort of critical mass, and which then provided leaders for outlying areas.
    (I leave out the influence of monasteries, which probably weakens my above argument.)
    So, with all our mobility, and electronic media, why do cities still provide centers of influence?
    Mark Dever is in Wash, DC, Rick Warren in LA area, John Piper in Minneapolis, Mark Driscoll, etc. Can anyone help me here?


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