How Tim Keller Found Manhattan
Keller's final words: "Have you accepted Jesus into your life as your Creator?"
Journey to the City
In the late 1980s, Keller was happily teaching at Westminster, the staunchly Reformed Philadelphia seminary, while working for his denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). Two things happened. At Westminster, he came under the influence of a small band of urban missiologists led by Harvie Conn. At the PCA's home missions department, he was recruited by its head, Terry Gyger, who wanted to start a church in Manhattan.
Actually, Gyger had already tried to start one, a flop. And those who felt called to Sodom and Gomorrah, er, New York City, were scarce. Gyger latched on to Keller, a Tolkien-fascinated son of eastern Pennsylvania. When Keller begged off, Gyger asked him to visit New York once a week to do research to lay the groundwork for somebody else.
Keller found some signs of life in the churches of the outer boroughs. Manhattan itself, however, with its artists and musicians and 80-hours-a-week doctors and financial service personnel, had mostly gloomy, half-empty church buildings. Manhattan, a financial and cultural hub that today is home to 70,000 people per square mile, had suffered a series of painful setbacks in the 1960s and '70s, from race riots to crime waves, that had made putting down roots there a sheer act of faith.
One hopeful sign: On the Upper East Side, an offshoot of Campus Crusade for Christ had opened the DeMoss House to reach New York executives, and scores of them were coming to faith. They needed a church. DeMoss was a starting place.
Keller began talking to anyone who would sit still, asking questions he had learned from the urbanists at Westminster: "What would be a New Yorker's worst disaster?" and "What kind of church would a New Yorker want to attend?" For months he sat in restaurants, learning New Yorkers' ways.
Working with Gyger, Keller identified two PCA pastors to lead the start-up. Both, after consideration, turned him down. Keller returned from a trip to England to find a message on his answering machine. It was Tim Keller or nothing.
The months of research and relationship-building in Gotham had an unexpected effect on Keller: He discovered that the prospect of starting a church excited him. His heart for the city had been plowed for years by his mentors and colleagues at Westminster. Daily interactions with fellow teachers who worked in urban ministry, such as Conn, planted in him a growing urban theology. Through his involvement with inner-city ministries in Philadelphia, most notably Tenth Presbyterian Church, he had developed a positive view of the city. However, he was a suburban man by lifestyle, and the thought of raising kids in Manhattan was daunting.
And terrifying to his wife, Kathy, who focused on their three boys, ages 5, 9, and 11, a.k.a. "the hellions." She couldn't imagine her unruly children surviving New York. "My mother said, 'All your kids will be in gangs by the end of the first week.'"
Besides, plenty of counselors doubted the family's fitness for sophisticated Manhattan. "Tim doesn't know what he has on most of the time," friends worried, "and Kathy is pure Pittsburgh."