How Tim Keller Found Manhattan
The Kellers became absolute enthusiasts for the city. Artist Makoto Fujimura had returned from years of study in Japan to join the New York art scene, but he lived with his wife and young children in a safe New Jersey suburb. "Tim was the first to say, 'Live in the city.' That was really compelling. I'd never heard that before. It was a crazy idea."
Keller's reading of Scripture fueled his enthusiasm. Conn had taught him a positive biblical view of cities. As he studied New York, he began to draw out that understanding. Surely God's command to exiled Israelites applied to Christians in New York: "seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you" (Jer. 29:7). Long before that, God had designated cities as places of refuge when Israel entered the Promised Land. They remain so today, Keller noted—which explains why poor people, immigrants, and vulnerable minorities such as homosexuals cluster in cities. They attract people who are open to change. Paul did most of his missionary work in cities, and early Christianity flourished within them. Revelation portrays the final descent of the kingdom of God to earth as a city, although a garden city, with fruit trees and a life-giving river at its center. Keller suggests that, had Adam and Eve lived sinlessly and obeyed God's directions, they would have made Eden into just such a city.
Keller, however, isn't blind to the ugliness that often blights urban life. Keller says the city has a "powerful magnifying glass effect"—emphasizing the best and the worst aspects of human nature.
"Redeemer was the first to lead this change of posture to the city," says Andy Crouch, Christianity Today's Global Conversation editor and author of Culture Making, "[to take Christians] from being a beleaguered minority to being a confident minority."
The city has changed in a way unimaginable to an older generation, who knew it as a good place to get mugged. Nowadays, Manhattan's crowded streets feel safe and exciting day and night, and New York is a magnet for young people. Crouch says the renewal of cities—not just New York, but cities all over America—is one of the most interesting phenomena of his lifetime. "Where is the cause and effect in this? To what extent has Redeemer been pushed along by the tailwind of demographic change? Probably a lot. At the same time, you have to have a sail. Tim came to New York and put his sails up."
What has Redeemer accomplished after 20 years? Keller pauses. "We have a beachhead. A beachhead means we have a pretty significant, balanced ministry from which you can get a lot of things done." But the work itself isn't done. "I feel there is a way of doing ministry with this particular balance that other people can do, and right now I feel other people aren't doing it. How can we leave behind a generation of people who know how to do this—and will do it?"
Redeemer has a dense array of innovative ministries, but these are not particularly what Keller wants to share. He's talking about theological vision, what he calls Redeemer's "gospel DNA."
On a recent trip to England, Keller carried a one-page summary of gospel DNA notes to himself under nine headings, such as "contextual and missional" and "unity and catholicity of spirit." The unifying theme is grace, just as Keller lays it out in his latest book, The Prodigal God, an exposition of the parable of the Prodigal Son.