Tim Keller, “Ministry in the Middle Space,” City to City Blog (August 31, 2012)
Another book by Keller has recently been published: Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012). In this work Keller commiserates that many churches misunderstand the “relationship between doctrine and ministry.” The church can have a sound doctrinal statement, but it has very little effect on ministry practice. In other words, the church is orthodox in its orthodoxy, but it is “whatever” when it comes to orthopraxy. Keller’s argument for and plea to churches is that orthodoxy is foundational for orthopraxy, and orthopraxy is grounded in orthopraxy. (Michael Bullmore, former Professor of Pastoral Theology (Homiletics) at TEDS, helpfully explained the necessity of the latter as the “functional centrality of the gospel” in life and ministry.)
Keller refers to the connection between the two as “middle space,” i.e. the importance of developing a “theological vision” that bridges the gap between doctrine and ministry practice, the latter being influenced by tradition, culture, time and place. That is to say, it will require each local church must remain grounded in the gospel, but then they must humbly and wisely consider what this means in their particular instance at this particular time in this particular location. Keller gives some helpful examples, which I encourage you to read.Keller has the final word explaining the problem and the reason he wrote Center Church.
It has become clear to me that while most Christian leaders do very deliberate, conscious study and thinking to arrive at their doctrinal beliefs, they are almost blind to the process of developing a theological vision. They often just “catch” their convictions about culture, reason, and tradition without really thinking them out. They come upon a ministry that they admire or that helps them personally and then they adopt it wholesale without recognizing the presuppositions, convictions and decisions that went into it.
To be faithful and fruitful, more Christian leaders should pay attention to this “middle space” between believing doctrine and choosing methods. The vast majority of resources on “how to do church” discuss either the Biblical basics of church belief and practice or specific ways to adopt certain ministry programs. I don’t know of any book that, instead of asking “what should our doctrine be?” or “what should our programs look like?” instead asks “what is our theological vision for ministry in our time and place?” That’s why I wrote Center Church.