When Tim Keller came to Manhattan in 1989, New York City had a well-deserved reputation as a snarling, scary place. Violent crime, drug dealing, and other urban pathologies had weakened or chased off many of the faithful. While a barely perceptible renewal was under way, it seemed as if the few remaining orthodox Protestants were huddled together in historic buildings. All of Keller's formal pastoral experience had happened in a small, blue-collar town in Virginia.

Yet today, almost 20 years later, he steps onstage before a packed auditorium at Hunter College on Manhattan's Upper East Side. His church, Redeemer Presbyterian, has five crowded Sunday services in three rented locations—Keller dashes between them—with an average total attendance of 5,000. The service at Hunter is the largest, the "tourist service." (For many years, Redeemer deliberately avoided publicity, but word has spread lately, and Keller estimates that hundreds of out-of-towners show up each Sunday.) Well over 2,000 people—mainly young whites and Asians you would expect to be sleeping off a late Saturday night—have come to this morning's service.

Redeemer's worship is seemly and traditional. Instead of using video monitors, casually dressed worshipers follow a 20-page bulletin that includes hymns, prayers, and Bible texts. Organ and a brass quartet lead the music. For evening services, jazz musicians play contemporary Christian songs.

Standing 6'4", with a bald head, glasses, and a coat and tie, Keller, 58, does not look hip. Nor is his sermon funny, charming, or daring. He preaches from the first chapter of Genesis, on the doctrine of Creation.

Keller speaks like a college professor, absorbed in his ...

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