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, Wall Street Journal
‘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 religion.”
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 telling people.”
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 presbyterian denomination.
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 it up.
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 returned.
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 people.”
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.