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A View of Keller’s Center Church from the Farmstand

Of those celebrity pastors who have influenced me most deeply, Tim Keller ranks near the top. My spiritual and pastoral debt to Keller is quite immense. It was he, in collusion with other voices such as Martin Luther, that brought me round to a “gospel-centered” view of things back in seminary days. I have adopted, or at least make the valiant attempt to adopt, his method and approach to preaching. I have utilized his materials and insights in many counseling situations, always with encouraging results. I have incorporated one of his diagrams contrasting “religion” vs. the “gospel” as part of my devotional routine. His intellectual vigor, aesthetic sensibility, and down-to-earth practicality provides an inspiriting model for any pastoral hopeful.

I say all this up front because I’m writing to make one point of friendly critique. I have just finished reading his most recent tour-de-force, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City, and can’t help but think it will rank as one of the definitive books on ministry philosophy for the 21st century. As Jonathan Leeman noted in his review, Center Church represents Keller’s Magnum Opus. All the threads and snippets of things Keller has talked about elsewhere are now contained and organized into this one volume. It’s a one-stop Keller shop.

However, this post is not a review, but an interaction with one particular aspect of his ministry philosophy, namely, his impassioned defense for “city” ministry. In the spirit of Keller, I want to provide a bit of balance to the discussion. I really do not have any bone to pick with Keller’s enthusiasm for urban ministry. Everything he has to say about the strategic importance of cities can hardly be gainsaid. Nonetheless, it’s how he neglects and otherwise portrays rural life that is a bit one-sided. Granted, Keller has spoken positively elsewhere about pastors taking rural ministry seriously. Much appreciated. Considered as a pastoral calling, Keller is wonderfully balanced. But what’s lacking is an equally robust theology of the country to match his theology of the city.[1] The key is not to swing the pendulum too far in any direction, as it seems to have done in one thoughtful but slightly vitriolic critique of Keller on this issue. What we need is a symbiotic relationship between a city-theology and a country-theology.

Thankfully, Keller does not view the “city” through utopian spectacles. He understands that it is a mixed bag, a force for either tremendous good or tremendous evil. It’s the “tremendous” part, however, that reveals Keller’s preference. Precisely because the city does have such tremendous potential, it needs to receive the lion share of the church’s missionary investment.

Keller mounts a very impressive argument for urban ministry, on both sociological and biblical grounds. I would summarize the main sociological reasons in terms of the following points. At the most general level, cities are defined by population density and mixed-use space (e.g., residential apartments above storefronts). From this core definition flows several beneficial qualities:1) “diversity.” Many things come under this heading. Due to their population density, cities promote economic, racial, and cultural diversity. The competition fuels 2) “innovation,” which accounts for why most technological advancements originate in urban centers. 3) Many forms of art can only be sustained by the stable flow of capital a city can provide—e.g., most theatrical troupes can only survive in urban contexts. 4) “Safety and stability.” To illustrate this benefit, Keller uses the example of the cities of refuge in the OT where an accused person could flee for disinterested justice. The idea being that justice in less urban environments tends to rely on tribal prejudice and vendetta. Think Hatfields and McCoys. By contrast, in dense urban centers, minorities have a chance to thrive and find justice more readily than they would in a rural setting where they couldn’t as easily hide from the disapproving glares of the locals.

Of course, Keller also offers biblical grounds for promoting urban ministry. Chiefly, this consists in the fact that “city-life” is the trajectory of the redemptive storyline of Scripture. As Keller says, “As redemptive history progresses, the bible moves from a largely negative view of the city (emphasizing the city’s rebellion) to a more positive one (emphasizing the city’s strength, power, and strategic importance)” (pg. 138). The most pronounced feature of this trajectory is how the Bible begins and ends; we start in a garden paradise (Eden) and end with an urban paradise (New Jerusalem).

Again, I don’t really disagree with anything Keller says in the city’s defense. I’m not going to offer a “reaction” to Keller by swinging the pendulum in the opposite direction. City life, in the abstract, is certainly not an aberration of God’s original design. Yes, in that abstract sense, I fully agree with Keller’s call for urban involvement, but when we get into the details I think his case needs careful qualification. Keller routinely refers to a book written by Edward Glaeser entitled, The Triumph of the City, to put meat on the bones of his argument. Coincidentally I have read Glaeser’s book myself. Keller, I believe, has carried over one of Glaeser’s key weaknesses:  the absence of any discussion on the role of agriculture and need for rural economy in the life and survival of cities.

This is really quite an astonishing omission if one reads Glaeser’s Triumph of the City.[2] Glaeser comes very close to saying all people should live in cities and that rural life is a dead-end that will produce nothing but boredom, ignorance, and impoverishment. He doesn’t envision or at least doesn’t suggest any harmonious interaction, relationship, or levels of dependence between cities and their surrounding rural communities. It’s simply a very one-sided treatment. In fact, the question of food supply never comes up once in his ode to the ascendancy of the city. And yet, urban centers, or “civilization” as we most commonly conceive of it, has historically been built on the achievement and stabilization of agriculture. Civilization only arose in Mesopotamia and Mesoamerica after a steady food supply was established.

Despite all their glittering technologies, innovations, and beautiful people, food is the one thing that cities cannot produce for themselves. And even if they could produce food in large, high-rise, hydroponic food factories, the question of quality and the biological resilience of such sterilized food would remain. Cities need healthy rural economies; someone has to produce food for them. Instead of being thoughtful about this necessary relationship, many urban populations, like Glaeser himself, are entirely ignorant not only about the critical importance of their food supply but also the quality of that food. Having bought into the ideas of globalism and efficiency economics, most cities are entirely ignorant about how dependent they are on fragile, far-flung supply routes and the (often) irresponsible, industrial, and unhealthy methods used by big agribusiness and meat processors.

At best, Glaeser displays tremendous ignorance of this fact. At worst, he see rural life as a necessary evil. Deeply imbedded in Glaeser’s argument are certain assumptions about what constitutes the “good life.” He simply assumes that cities offer a better existence for rural populations and that everyone is flocking to them to escape the drudgery of rural existence. One of his key explanations of this phenomena seems at first quite plausible: “cities don’t create poor people, they attract poor people.” However, this should not be taken at face value. There is a mass of extenuating circumstances to consider.

Chiefly, Glaeser doesn’t grapple with the fact that one of the main reason why the rural poor move into the city “to find something better” is because their rural economies have been decimated by an industrial model of food production and government interventions that favor land barons but not small farm holders. Their local cultures have been systematically marginalized by an economy that imposes goods and cultural values that fundamentally contradict the idea of a local, agrarian economy. America used to be dotted with thousands of mid-sized, bustling towns nestled among 160-acre family farm parcels. Those days are long gone, and with them, the cultural diversity. All that’s left are decrepit ghost towns.

It goes without question that the city, being what it is, impacts culture in a heightened way and therefore demands particular attention from the church. I get that. However, the irony here is that most great art in the world is and has been inspired by pastoral scenes of bubbling brooks and rolling fields of grain. From Horace to Tolkein, urbanites have found their greatest inspiration (better, admiration) from nature and rural community life (think Hobbiton). This could be pursued further, but I just wanted to note this cultural irony.

Again, my point is not to denigrate urban life. Rural and urban life are both vital aspects of any healthy civilization. They both need each other. I’m a big fan of diversity: diversity means strength both in nature and culture. There is a unity and diversity to Scripture, a beautiful, harmonious symphony. A gospel-centered mission model should reflect that. I think Wendell Berry captured this balance well (even if his theology is questionable in other respects):

 “the local economists … are the true decentralizers and downsizers, for they seek an appropriate degree of self-determination and independence for localities. They seem to be moving toward a radical and necessary revision of our idea of a city. They are learning to see the city, not just as a built and paved municipality set apart by ‘city limits’ to live by trade and transportation from the world at large, but rather as a part of a community which includes also the city’s rural neighbors, its surrounding landscape and its watershed, on which it might depend for at least some of its necessities.

“At this point, I want to say point-blank what I hope is already clear: though agrarianism proposes that everybody has agrarian responsibilities, it does not propose that everybody should be a farmer or that we do not need cities. Nor does it propose that every product should be a necessity. Furthermore, any thinkable human economy would have to grant to manufacturing an appropriate and honorable place. Agrarians would insist only that any manufacturing enterprise should be formed and scaled to fit the local landscape, the local ecosystem, and the local community, and that it should be locally owned and employ local people. They would insist, in other words, that the shop or factory owner should not be an outsider, but rather a sharer in the fate of the place and its community. The deciders should live with the results of their decisions.” (Art of the Commonplace, 243-44)

Obviously, there is more to be said on this matter. If Keller requires an entire section of his book to develop his “urban ministry philosophy,” nothing less is needed in developing a “rural ministry philosophy.” Pastors and missionaries need to develop a love for their local rural communities and not view them as backwaters or stepping stones to the Big Apple. There needs to be a theology, a philosophy, an aesthetic that draws our hearts to the hearth. I recommend rural pastors start reading 17th-19th century English works by country rectors, parsons, vicars, and pastors whether Anglican or non-conformist. Their vision of their role in rural life is extraordinary. George Herbert’s The Country Parson, is a good place to start (more famous for his theologically rich and evocative poetry). Read Spurgeon’s Farm Sermons and Wordsworth’s Ecclesiastical Sonnets. Become familiar with the work of Joel Salatin, a conscientious evangelical Christian farmer who has become something of a lightning rod in the “back to the land” movement of this generation. He is neither a reactionary Luddite wanting to return to “the good ole days” nor a victim of chronological snobbery who think what’s “new” is always best. He is modeling what a balanced relationship with technology, economics, and rural-urban interaction can practically look like (Keller himself extols him in his message on a gospel centered ecology). Watch this recent video produced by the Storyframe Collective. Like this missionary, perhaps the best thing recent seminarians leaving for rural ministry can do is roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty—not just in the difficult work of gospel ministry, but in the difficult work of bringing forth bread from the recalcitrant soil. I think Keller would agree with me that this is a good example of “contextualization.”


[1] Again, I know Keller has thought more about this, but it does not come through in Center Church. For instance, in a message he preached on the subject of the gospel and ecolology, Keller provided a compelling vision for how the gospel impacts ecological stewardship.

[2] Given my purpose here, my interaction with Glaeser is rather critical. However, there is much excellent material and food for thought in Glaeser’s book in other respects.

Matthew Claridge is an editor for Credo Magazine and is Senior Pastor of Mt. Idaho Baptist Church in Grangeville, ID. He has earned degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is married to Cassandra and has three children, Alec , Nora, and Grace.

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