How Tim Keller Found Manhattan
"The most interesting people came," Tim says. "It was astounding how easy it was to have curious nonbelievers come to church. Before too long there were people in the aisles. There was enthusiasm. There was enormous energy after the service." By the end of 1989, they had an average of 250 people attending, which was as many as they had hoped to attract in the long run. The next fall, they had 600.
The Kellers stick to a few rules. They never talk about politics. Tim always preaches with a non-Christian audience in mind, not merely avoiding offense, but exploring the text to find its good news for unbelievers as well as believers. The church emphasizes excellence in music and art, to the point of paying their musicians well (though not union scale). And it calls people to love and bless the city. It isn't an appeal based on guilt toward a poor, lost community.
Influencing the Influential
"Most churches look at New York as a cesspool," says Charles Osewalt, a Bronx high school principal and Redeemer elder. A big, bearded man, Osewalt often wears basketball jerseys to church and talks with the accent of a lifetime New Yorker. "There's something ugly about people coming into New York and saying, 'we're going to save you.'"
By contrast, Keller enjoyed New York's lack of ceremony and openness to the new. In Manhattan he wasn't competing with other preachers. Gordon MacDonald came to Manhattan's Trinity Baptist Church at about the same time the Kellers arrived. One major financial supporter almost pulled out when he heard the news, thinking that Trinity would be the big draw. But Keller looked on MacDonald's coming as an advantage: MacDonald's name drew many New York Christians, leaving Redeemer to focus on non-Christians. Longtime believers joined Redeemer only if they caught the vision of creating a church that appealed to their non-Christian friends.
Keller recalls a "Wall Street guy" who found Christ at the DeMoss House. "I said, 'What in the world led you to come here and go to the Bible study?' He said, 'I lacked a spiritual center. But it wasn't until I came to New York and came under the pressure of New York that I realized it. New York is so big and scary and difficult. And I realized that I really didn't know what I was living for.'
"Suppose," Keller says, "you are the best violist in Tupelo, Mississippi. You go to Manhattan, and when you get out of the subway, you hear a beggar playing, and he's better than you are." New York attracts the best and the most ambitious. The sheer density of competition, along with the diversity of points of view, makes for a "culture-forming engine," says Keller. It also exposes the weaknesses of those caught in it.
Sherman relates Keller's vision to the apostle Paul. "Paul had this sense of, I really should go talk to Caesar. He's not above caring for Onesimus the slave, but somebody should go to talk to Caesar. When you go to New York, that's what you're doing. Somebody should talk to the editorial committee of The New York Times; somebody should talk to Barnard, to Columbia. Somebody should talk to Wall Street."