On what will likely be a cold and wet Thursday morning in July, a small group of church planters will gather in the side hall of one of the oldest churches in the city centre of Cape Town, South Africa. Scattered on the table in front of them will lie copies of a book entitled Center Church. Over coffee, these church planters will talk about “grace renewal dynamics,” “intentional contextualisation,” “preaching to the heart,” and building “evangelistic pathways.” They’ll mention names such as Harvie Conn, Michael Horton, Lesslie Newbigin, and South Africa’s own David Bosch.
This is the once-a-month church planting cohort I lead. It’s a group made up of a few Presbyterians, a Baptist, and an Anglican. It’s a group as racially and ethnically diverse as the global city that is Cape Town. The group also isn’t unique. In global cities—as well as suburbs and small towns—around the world, groups like this meet together, praying, studying, encouraging, and plotting how to reach their small patch with the gospel that changes everything. Many of these groups of church planters, including my own, are hugely indebted to Timothy Keller.
The Great Commission is a Call to Plant Churches
Timothy Keller’s legacy extends to many different areas of church life. There are few areas that he hasn’t given voice to. And this is completely understandable, given his conviction that for the gospel tide to rise in a given city or region an ecosystem of interconnected churches, ministries, and institutions is needed. However, at the heart of that vision is the “the vigorous, continual planting of new congregations.” For Keller, church planting was necessarily the focal point of Christ’s call, in the Great Commission, to make disciples of all nations.
For Keller, church planting was the focal point of Christ’s call, in the Great Commission.
Keller would point out that it’s not a naked call for conversions but rather a call for people to encounter the gospel and be baptised, which “means incorporation into a worshiping community with accountability and boundaries.” He’d be adamant that the applicability of this call extends beyond the first few centuries of the church and remains an urgent task, even in cities with churches on almost every corner that are struggling and in need of revitalisation.
Why Not Rather Revitalise Churches?
Why not put the energy, effort and resources into reviving these congregations you might ask him. In reply he’d offer this provocative statement: “The vigorous, continual planting of new congregations is the single most crucial strategy for (1) the numerical growth of the body of Christ in a city and (2) the continual corporate renewal and revival of the existing churches in a city. Nothing else—not crusades, outreach programs, parachurch ministries, growing megachurches, congregational consulting, nor church renewal processes—will have the consistent impact of dynamic, extensive church planting. This is an eyebrow-raising statement, but to those who have done any study at all, it is not even controversial.”
Church planting wasn’t about empire building. It was about saturating cities with gospel-centred communities.
Being the meticulous thinker and voracious reader that he was he’d easily be able to back up his claim with citation after citation. And it’s a claim that God has used to capture the heart and imagination of many a young church planter. This claim captured my heart more than 16 years ago, when I discovered a copy of an old Redeemer Church Planting Manual—plastic binders and all—in the library of my theological college. The flame found further fuel when my wife and I were privileged to attend an international church planter intensive at Redeemer Presbyterian in New York over several weeks. Every Friday morning Tim would indulge the questions of our small group. We’d sit and linger on every word.
Through the literature, the sermons, and those intimate sessions it became crystal clear that for Keller, church planting wasn’t about empire building, and it wasn’t about brand promotion. It was about saturating cities with gospel-centred communities—communities that clearly, without compromise, and in culturally intelligible ways, proclaimed the saving message of Christ, while at the same time demonstrating the transforming power of that gospel through loving community, as well as deeds of mercy and justice.
Many More Churches Will Be Planted, Because of This Vision
It’s because of that simple, yet powerful vision, that I’ve been pastoring a city centre church plant for more than 10 years now. It’s because of that vision I’m able to connect with countless other planters across the world and across the denominational spectrum who are undertaking the same task. And it’s because of that vision that concepts like “grace renewal dynamics,” “intentional contextualisation,” “preaching to the heart,” and building “evangelistic pathways” are being discussed, dissected, and applied in living, breathing church plants in Lagos, London, Dubai, Singapore, and Cape Town.
On behalf of countless church planters the world around, I thank God for Timothy Keller.
The Lord has seen fit to take his servant home. And for many like me, there is a deep sense of loss. There will never be a second volume of Center Church. But then again, it’s being written in the lives of the hundreds and even thousands of church planters in cities and towns around the world engaging in the “vigorous, continual planting of new congregations.” On behalf of countless church planters the world around, I thank God for Timothy Keller.