How Tim Keller Found Manhattan
Kathy had become a Christian after reading the Chronicles of Narnia as a girl; the books opened her to a wider world in which the unthinkable was true. (She wrote to C. S. Lewis, and his replies, among her most precious possessions, are included in C. S. Lewis' Letters to Children, by Lyle Dorsett and Marjorie Lamp Mead.) Later, while preparing for ordained ministry, Kathy became convinced that women's ordination is unbiblical. She wields plenty of influence without being ordained, however.
"He really depends on her," says Scot Sherman, who joined the Kellers' team that first year and planted their first New York daughter church, in Greenwich Village. Later, he launched a Redeemer-inspired start-up in San Francisco. "They were both nerds who read Tolkien," Sherman says, "and probably know more Elvish than they would like you to know. He is inexplicable apart from her. She has her fingerprints all over his brain, and I mean that in a very good way."
Kathy had a meeting with God in which she concluded that she would go and live in a cardboard box, if God told her to. The Kellers were finally ready to leave the suburbs and head for what they had thought of as hell.
But it wasn't hell. They had caught a vision for Manhattan as a place terribly underserved by the church, and a place with gigantic multipliers of influence throughout society. It was both needy and strategic.
Just as important, the Kellers discovered that they liked Manhattan. The kids thrived on the freedom of going anywhere by themselves via the subway. They were desperately proud of their dad and would tell checkout clerks about his new church. No longer was their rowdiness a problem. Kathy says they could never be the worst kids in their classes, "because the worst kids had jail time." They found a new group of heroes in the young adults who began attending Redeemer.
Tim found Manhattan non-Christians amazingly, sometimes naïvely, curious. Though the borough's 1.6 million people were used to religious diversity, many had never talked to an evangelical. Tim's interest in art and music was an indispensable gift in communicating. His omnivorous reading also helped. New York is a city of high achievers to whom, Keller says, it made sense that a minister should be a scholar of ancient texts, exposing them to ideas and information beyond their experience. They needed someone who spoke their language, though, and Keller was a quick learner. "I saw New York mentor Tim," Sherman says. "There's something about the density of the city, the way your lives get intertwined with a secular culture."
In the spring of 1989, the Kellers and a small team of locals launched the church in a Seventh-day Adventist building. They eschewed advertising, believing New Yorkers would be skeptical of someone selling them something. Only personal invitations brought new people. That was part of the vision: "We want to start a church for you, but also for your friends that you want to introduce to Christ." According to Jeff White, another early associate who went on to start New Song Community Church in Harlem, those who came from the DeMoss House were wonderfully evangelistic.
"Every single week," Kathy remembers, "we wondered, will anybody come? Often there was nobody there when we arrived. But 10 minutes into the service, it was full."
New York City, of which Manhattan is the hub, has experienced significant demographic changes in recent years. According to the American Society of Criminology, the city's crime rate dropped sharply between 1996 and 2005. The New York Police Department reports that in north Manhattan, where Redeemer is situated, the number of murders dropped from 379 in 1990 to 43 in 2008; rapes, from 482 to 180. However, nyc's poverty rate remained high from 1969 to 1999, as wages stagnated at the bottom of the economic ladder. Manufacturing jobs have been disappearing, as in the rest of the U.S., while there has been a boom in knowledge-based employment, particularly on the wealthy Upper East Side. Many of these highly educated workers, now under economic stress because of the recession, have found their way to Redeemer.