NEW YORK: God Isn't Dead in Gotham
david at virtueonline.org
Wed Dec 24 16:26:39 EST 2014
NEW YORK: God Isn't Dead in Gotham
Thousands pack the services of the evangelical Redeemer Presbyterian
Church, most of them single and under 35
By KATE BACHELDER
December 19, 2014
'Cheer up, you're worse than you think," Rev. Timothy Keller says with a
smile. He's explaining that humans are more weak, more fallen, more
warped than they "ever dare admit or even believe." Then comes the good
news: At the same time people are "more loved in Christ and more
accepted than they could ever imagine or hope."
Do you know many New Yorkers who believe that? Perhaps not, but on
Sundays some 5,500 city folk file into the church Mr. Keller founded 25
years ago, Redeemer Presbyterian, at eight packed services across three
Manhattan locations, the Greenwich Village campus of which I attend on
Sundays. The service is traditional, the congregation less so: Most who
show up, if you can believe it, are single and under 35, whether
bankers, lawyers, actors or artists.
Mr. Keller has a growing national following and is often described as a
Christian intellectual who takes on the likes of Nietzsche, Marx and
Freud in a sermon rooted in a specific Biblical text. He'll sprinkle in
references from popular culture--something about contentment he read in
the Atlantic, a poignant passage from "Lord of the Rings." His fruitful
work has multiplied. Redeemer efforts have helped plant more than 300
churches in 45 cities, from Santiago to Dubai.
I met the 64-year-old Mr. Keller this week at the church's offices in
midtown Manhattan. He's at least six-feet tall, bespectacled and I don't
have a chance to notice much else before I realize he's asking me
questions. We sit down in his office to discuss how he's revived
Christian orthodoxy in the naked city and how he sees religion changing
in the modern world.
"Everyone has a God, everyone has a way of salvation, we just don't use
the term," he says. "St. Augustine would say: What makes you what you
really are is what you love the most." Mr. Keller adds that he likes "to
show secular people that they're not quite as unreligious as they think.
They're putting their hopes in something, and they're living for it."
For ambitious, driven New Yorkers, it's often a career, he says. "I try
to tell people: The only reason you're laying yourself out like this is
because you're not really just working. This is very much your
If there's no God, he says in sermons, then everything you do at work
will be forgotten, and nothing you can do in your career will earn
lasting significance. But if Christianity is true, then "every good
endeavor," he likes to say, no matter how small, "can matter forever."
One tough part for people, he says, is coming under "God's authority,"
because "you have to find your identity in Christ, and not in just
fulling yourself," That "completely collides with what the culture is
The skeptics in his audience--about 15% of the people in the audience,
he estimates, tell the church they aren't sure what they believe about
Christianity--are often "attracted to the idea of sacrificial love," he
says. But he says his preaching can also bother people, and Mr. Keller's
Dec. 7 sermon offers one example. He preached on a passage in Matthew,
when Joseph learns that his wife-to-be Mary is pregnant with Jesus.
Christianity, he says, will never be "a" good religion among many good
religions, one that works for some and doesn't work for others.
"Every other religion has a founder that says: 'I'll show you the way to
God. Only Christianity of all the major world religions has a founder
that says: 'I'm God, come to find you.' If that's right, he has to be
the superior way to find God." If it's wrong, he says, "then it's an
inferior religion." Not a lot of wiggle room there, even on Christmas.
One of Mr. Keller's golden rules is: Use plain English. "Evangelicalism
has developed a very sentimental vocabulary," he says, pointing to an
overuse of the word "blessing" and other "tribe" lingo. He says of
prayer: "When I pray, I think people who don't believe say: If I did
believe, I could pray like that." That is important when converting
people in New York City, where Mr. Keller says he hopes to break down
stereotypes that highly religious people aren't intellectuals.
Mr. Keller looks less like a pastor than a professor, and in an earlier
life he was one. In the mid-1980s he taught theology at Westminster
Theological Seminary in Glenside, Pa., working part time for the
church-planting arm of Presbyterian Church in America, a conservative
The organization's then-director asked Mr. Keller in 1986 if he would be
interested in starting a church in Manhattan. He said no. He thought it
too soon to leave his teaching job. He'd go to New York, he said, to do
some networking and field work to help secure the right minister.
Every plausible candidate fell through, and so he packed up his young
family--wife Kathy and three sons under 11--and moved to New York in
1989. Everyone from family to fellow ministers thought he was crazy.
"Churches die in Manhattan," he was told.
Often he was asked by fellow Christians: Are you sure you're called to
this? His answer: "I have no idea." His uncertainty rattled people he
knew, but it is part of what he teaches: God is "not under any
obligation to make me succeed."
By any standard he has succeeded. Redeemer held its first official
morning worship service on Sept. 24, 1989 in a rented Seventh-Day
Adventist church. It took off: 200 congregants after a year, 700 after
two years and 1,200 after three. About a third of the early attendees,
Mr. Keller says, did not attend church at all before finding Redeemer.
They wandered in with friends or heard through word-of-mouth. The church
doesn't advertise. Mr. Keller calls it "an impersonal way to bring
someone to church." With a friend, he says, "the person is processing
what's happening in the church in a relationship, rather than simply
being a consumer who says: If I like this, and I like this, then I'll
come back." He resisted getting a website until a former official at the
Federal Communications Commission who attended the church convinced him
to purchase the domain name "redeemer.com" before someone else snapped
About 2,900 people attended Redeemer on the Sunday before Sept. 11,
2001. The Sunday after? 5,700. The church had begun to meet in an
auditorium owned by Hunter College on the Upper East Side that seated
about 2,000. The lobby was teeming with people, the place so overwhelmed
that Mr. Keller announced on the spot that there would be a spontaneous
second service for anyone who came back in two hours. About 800 people
Churches all over Manhattan were packed then, he says, but "here's what
was interesting to me: Every other church I know--because I checked it
out--over about another month, slowly the numbers went down to where
they were before," he says. "Redeemer never went back under 3,700
Then there was the 2008 financial crisis, when the urban professionals
who make up Mr. Keller's church learned through experience that wealth
can be fleeting. Did the crash create a spiritual crisis? "If you're
trying to win people to Christ, if you're trying to say this world is
not enough and you need faith--I hate to say it, recessions are
wonderful times for that message to fall on more open people." He adds:
"I wish the number of conversions and Christian growth would go along
with prosperity and giving--but they usually don't."
Redeemer's success puts a dent in the narrative that organized religion
is on the way out. "Religion is not in decline so much as inherited
religion is in decline--religion that you're born into. So if you're
Swedish, you're Lutheran, If you're Polish, you're Catholic. If you're
Scottish, you're Presbyterian. If you're American," Mr. Keller adds,
"You go to the church of your choice; that's what it means to be an
American." He notes that "evangelicalism fits that quite nicely," in
part because it's a religion of conversion--of choice.
Mr. Keller talks about a few problems for evangelicals, and one of them
is politics. "A significant percentage of evangelical churches have been
too aligned with certain political movements," he says. He doesn't go
into detail, but it's no secret that white evangelicals in the Bible
Belt tend to vote with the GOP. Almost 50% of non-Hispanic evangelicals
told Pew Research in 2012 that they're Republicans, up from 43% as
recently as 2009. In this sense Redeemer is unusual: The congregation
splits about 50-50 for both parties in the straw polls the church has
conducted, Mr. Keller says.
He can't always avoid the intersection of religion and politics,
however. A couple of Sundays ago a man stood up mid-sermon and asked Mr.
Keller to address racial tensions amid recent grand-jury decisions not
to indict police officers in Missouri and New York. He tried to defuse
the situation by saying he doesn't preach on political current events
because you "can't read out of the Bible a simple answer to these
issues." The man asked again.
Mr. Keller remembers how he replied: "Let me tell you what I think the
Gospel does to people in power, to people with resources: It humbles
them. It tells them to listen to people without. But here's what the
Gospel says to people who do not have resources and might be tempted to
be bitter and angry: It tells them to forgive." The man said thank you
and sat back down.
He's cheerful, but the way Mr. Keller describes his own efforts proves
what he preaches about the emptiness of seemingly fulfilled ambitions.
He admits readily that he can get discouraged, with more ideas and less
time. "I very often feel like I'm barely getting a leaf out, in spite of
the fact that Redeemer is vastly more successful than I ever thought it
would be," he says.
"Barely getting a leaf out" is a reference to a short story by J.R.R.
Tolkien about a painter named Niggle who spent his whole life trying to
paint "a tree, a beautiful tree, and behind it snowcapped mountains, and
forest marching off," Mr. Keller says. When Niggle dies, he's only
finished painting one leaf. "He's going into the afterlife, and he sees
something off in the distance and jumps off the train, runs to the top
and there's the tree, his tree, that he had always felt."
What Tolkien is getting across, Mr. Keller says, "is that we have a
vision for justice, a vision for beauty--and as artists, lawyers and
city planners, in this life we can only ever get out as much as a leaf,
but we are actually being inspired by some vision that God's going to
make it a reality."
"What you're working on, and what you're hoping to get, in the
resurrection, in Christ, you will get. But you need to be willing to
live with the reality that in this life you're probably only going to
get a couple of leaves out."
Ms. Bachelder is an assistant editorial features editor at the Journal.
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