Dr. Keller’s Influence and Significance
Although Dr. Keller, 55, is hardly a household name among believers outside New York — in part because he has avoided the Christian speaking circuit — his renown is growing in pastoral circles and in the movement to establish or “plant” new churches, a trend among evangelicals these days.
Pastors from around the world are beginning to come in a steady stream to New York City to glean what they can from Dr. Keller and Redeemer. Their goal is to learn how to create similarly effective churches in cosmopolitan cities like New York, which exert outsize influence on the prevailing culture but have traditionally been neglected by evangelicals in favor of the suburbs.
Dr. Keller’s Method
The Rev. Stephen Um, whose church in Boston, Citylife, began four years ago and now attracts about 500 people every Sunday, said he and other pastors had embraced Dr. Keller’s emphasis on delving into the prevailing culture almost as much as into the biblical text. Along these lines, Dr. Um is just as likely to cite a postmodern philosopher like Richard Rorty or Michel Foucault in his sermons, as he is, say, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians.
“This is Tim’s thing,” said Dr. Um. “He said, ‘You need to enter into a person’s worldview, challenge that worldview and retell the story based on the Gospel.’ The problem is evangelicals have always started with challenging the worldview. We don’t have any credibility.”
An Example of Dr. Keller’s Style
Unlike most suburban megachurches, much of Redeemer is remarkably traditional — there is no loud rock band or flashy video. What is not traditional is Dr. Keller’s skill in speaking the language of his urbane audience. On the day of the snowstorm, Dr. Keller tackled a passage from the Gospel of Mark in which the friends of a paralyzed man carry him to Jesus. At least initially, however, Jesus does not heal the man but offers him a puzzling line about his sins being forgiven.
Part of the point, said Dr. Keller, is people do not realize that their deepest desires often do not match up with their deepest needs.
“We’re asking God to get us over that little hump so we can save ourselves,” he said. “It doesn’t occur to us that we’re looking for something besides Jesus to save us.”
Dr. Keller’s Presence and Philosophy
Observing Dr. Keller’s professorial pose on stage, it is easy to understand his appeal. While he hardly shrinks from difficult Christian truths, he sounds different from many of the shrill evangelical voices in the public sphere. “A big part is he preaches on such an intellectual level,” said Suzanne Perron, 37, a fashion designer who is one of many who had stopped going to church before she discovered Redeemer several years ago. “You can go to Redeemer and you can not be a Christian and listen to that sermon and be completely engaged.”
Dr. Keller shies away from the label evangelical, which is often used to describe theologically conservative Protestant Christians like him, because of the political and fundamentalist connotations that now come with it. He prefers the term orthodox instead, because he believes in the importance of personal conversion or being “born again,” and the full authority of the Bible.
An important lesson that Dr. Keller said he had tried to convey to other pastors is that the hard sell rarely works in the city. Becoming a Christian in a place like New York, he said, is more often the product not of one decision but of many little decisions.
“One decision might be Christianity is more relevant than I think,” he said. “Or, here’s two Christians that I don’t think are idiots.”
Timing is Everything (and God’s Time is always the Right Time)
Dr. Keller was offered the post [as pastor at Redeemer] only after two other candidates turned it down. Within a year of its founding in 1989, however, Redeemer had grown from 50 people to more than 400. By the end of 1992, the church had swelled to more than 1,000 people. Since then, it has continued to grow steadily, all while renting space in several locations.
Sept. 11 proved to be a defining moment for the church. On the Sunday after the terrorist attack, more than 5,000 people showed up. So many people packed the church’s Sunday morning service that Dr. Keller called another service on the spot, and 700 people came back to attend. While attendance returned to normal in other churches after several weeks, Redeemer kept attracting about 800 more people a week than it had drawn before the attack.
“For the next five years, I would talk to people about when they joined the church, and they said right after 9/11,” Dr. Keller said.
Greatness is Serving
“If you seek power before service, you’ll neither get power, nor serve,” he said. “If you seek to serve people more than to gain power, you will not only serve people, you will gain influence. That’s very much the way Jesus did it.”
As a result, one of Redeemer’s hallmarks has always been its focus on charity, something it emphasizes in its training of urban pastors. It operates a program called Hope for New York that arranges volunteer opportunities for people from Redeemer with 35 different partner organizations. Last year, 3,300 people from the church volunteered their time.
What About the Future?
A looming question for Redeemer, though, is how much of what Dr. Keller and his team have built can be maintained when he ultimately exits the stage. When he was out for several months in the summer of 2002 while undergoing treatment for thyroid cancer, attendance dipped noticeably.
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(HT: Ancient Hebrew Poetry)