Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Dr. Tim Keller: Pastor to the City

Tim Keller, senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, was highlighted in last Sunday's New York Times as a leader among evangelicals planting churches in urban areas. Redeemer is composed of over 4,000 attendees, most of whom are young professionals and artists who, as the article notes, "do not fit the prototypical evangelical mold." Prior to taking the pastorate, Dr. Keller was a professor at Westminster Seminary. According to the article, his only other pulpit experience was at a small blue-collar church in rural Virginia.

I was intrigued by the ways those who know Dr. Keller, described him. Here are some excerpts. I've italicized the points I found particularly noteworthy:
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."


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.


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."


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."


After the [9/11] attack, the church also began to increase its training for those working to found churches. His church's main goal, Dr. Keller said, is to teach pastors how to truly love the city, rather than fear its worldly influences. Unlike many evangelicals, Dr. Keller advocates an indirect approach to change.

"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."
There is much to admire about Dr. Keller's philosophy of ministry. First, he exemplifies how important it is that we be students of the Word as well as students of the culture to which we are seeking to communicate it. I'm frequently puzzled by the fact that when it comes to preparing people to do missionary work in foreign countries, believers see the benefit and necessity of understanding the language, thought patterns, and customs of the native people groups. Yet, for some reason, when it comes to being ambassadors of Christ on our own soil, taking the time to understand the worldviews according to which our contemporaries are living is often regarded as an endeavor that, at best, is reserved for scholars and, at worst, is a waste of time that could be better used "preaching the gospel." Certainly, we are to be about bearing witness to Christ. However, doing all things for the sake of the gospel entails understanding how those we hope to win, live and think.

So much of what Dr. Keller says is in keeping with points made by Randy Newman, the author of the book I reviewed in the previous post. Both stress how our failure to enter non-Christian worldviews diminishes our credibility. People are more prone to hear our biblical alternative when they see that we have taken the time to understand their perspective and, in some cases, understand it even better than they do. As Newman notes, trying to see things from another's perspective is one way of cultivating compassion:
"We usually zero in on the second part of Proverbs14:12: 'There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.' We simply see people as lost and headed for hell. But the first half of the proverb is worth equal reflection. We should ask, 'Why does this way seem right to them?' Even if we fail to accurately identify their motivation, compassion for them is bound to be stirred."
After giving a few reasons why Buddhism, Islam, and New Age beliefs "seem right" to many, Newman concludes: "We could go on and on, citing valid attractions of each competing worldview. And indeed, we should, if we are ever to display respect for our hearers as we declare the superiority of the gospel." Investing time and mental energy into learning about the philosophies that make the gospel implausible to the modern mind should result in far more than our saying "You're wrong!" with greater confidence. It should lead to our being able to genuinely say "I understand."

Two elements of Keller's ministry strike me as flying in the face of much conventional wisdom about church growth. First, he doesn't shy away from dealing with difficult doctrines publicly. It's refreshing to see a preacher who doesn't treat the Bible's hard teachings like dirty laundry to be aired only among the members of the family. If Jesus didn't do this, neither should his followers.

The second thing that stands out is that Dr. Keller is apparently unafraid to exercise the cognitive muscles of his congregation by preaching at a level that requires some stretching. If the fashion designer quoted in the article is representative of the rest of the congregation, this dimension of his preaching is appreciated by those who regularly attend. I suspect that we all too frequently underestimate the capacity of those in the pew to follow intellectually challenging messages. Failing to engage people's minds with the gospel's claims and implications leaves them with the mistaken notion that the faith is tailored to only a portion of our humanness.

If, like me, you'd like to find out more about Tim Keller, Steve McCoy has assembled a list of resources by and about him at Reformissionary
(HT: Justin Taylor).

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read with open eyes said...

I guess I believe in this approach. It is what I have tried to do in moving from one sub-culture to another. It makes sense. I would like it to be the right choice. The apostle Paul is credited with doing this in Acts 17 by mentioning the altar to the unkown god and by quoting Greek poets. But what about Acts 14? Paul doesn't show much sensitivity to what seems right at Lystra when he tells them to turn from "these worthless things" to the living God. I suppose we could say that when he didn't show sensitivity, he got stoned (?)

KP said...

Hey, Jerry. I think there may be a problem with the word "sensitive." Though, when I used it, I didn't mean it this way, many conceive of sensitivity as meaning never saying anything severe. What I had in mind was more along the lines of 1 Cor. 9:20-23; understanding our audience's forms of life so that we can avoid unnecessary offense and convey the gospel message as effectively as possible. But that's not to say that we remove the offense of the cross. The call to faith in Christ is also a call to repentance. Paul was doing this in both Athens and Lystra. I don't think sensitivity precludes telling people the truth that whatever, besides Christ, they are hoping in, is worthless.

GL said...

You usually do good work here. This is excellent work. Thank you.

KP said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
KP said...

Thanks for the encouragement, Glenn. I appreciate it.

djchuang said...

Good comments! There are many preachers who are not afraid to deal with difficult doctrines, e.g. fundamentalists, theologian-bent preachers, but where Keller is distinct is that he demonstrates a lucid knowledge of how the prevailing culture works, deconstructs it, and can intellectually and authentically show where the culture's values are not able to fulfill the dreams, desires, and aspirations that people really want for themselves. Doctrine left in the metaphysical realm doesn't gain a compelling listener; but doctrine presented as an alternative narrative of a greater hope that meets people's deepest longings, that's another story!