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