Tim Keller: where have you been and where are you now?

Tim Keller. Photo: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

The advantage of Baby Boomers is that they see today in yesterday. They have been through one cycle of history, so they are able to recognize how it is being repeated now.

New York City pastor Tim Keller lived through the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the venomous presidential campaign of segregationist George Wallace, the days of rage in the 1970s, the Jesus Movement, the bombing of the United States Senate by extreme leftists in 1983, a presidential confession to adultery on the White House desk, the rise of the Moral Majority, two wars in the Middle East, and the revival of evangelicalism in his city.

So, as one who became a Christian in those tumultuous times, Keller says that he also feels akin to the youth today who believe that they are coming of age in a time of momentous social, political, and religious change.

The first book-length biography of the famous pastor, Tim Keller: His Spiritual and Intellectual Formation has just come out. The author Collin Hansen, a millennial, takes the approach, “To understand Keller is to read his books’ footnotes.” The result is a fascinating look at the last fifty years of Reformed evangelical intellectual history suffused with interesting and previously unknown personal anecdotes from Keller’s life.

After a stint of lecturing on preaching and practical ministry at a Philadelphia seminary, Keller decided to try putting into practice his lessons by founding Redeemer Presbyterian Church in 1989. By the time he stepped down as lead pastor in 2017, the church was renowned for urban ministry with several meeting sites in Manhattan and about 5,000 congregants.

Keller’s urbane, winsome style is exemplary for many pastors. The church also set up a non-profit that funnels millions of dollars and thousands of volunteers to ministries serving the poor and downtrodden. His church-planting organization Redeemer City to City has guided the establishment of 978 churches in global cities and trained  79,349 church leaders in the Redeemer-way. Keller’s two dozen books are augmented by popular online series like his current one, How to Reach the West Again.

However, now there is quite a bit of debate over whether Keller’s vision of America and the world is still relevant.  The biography is a well-timed contribution.

The world feels all shook up. What is the nature of our apocalypse? Is it the curtain rising on a new secularist era? Or for a starring role by the nonreligious, those with religious attention disorder? Is America now or is becoming a post-Christian society? Or is it a more menacing era of the “negative world” of cultural genocide through the pressing of Christians to forsake their faith or, at least, their public voice — unless they engage in a desperate, last-minute Gotterdammerung culture war before the curtain comes down on them? What kind of leaders are in the offing—Mary, mother of Jesus, or Cersei Lannister?

Once you have indicated to yourself the definition of our era, it will have a pervasive influence on your thinking, feelings, and actions. You will urge others to join you as like-minded, fellow-feeling marchers toward a certain and necessary destination. Those who don’t join you in defining the world in the same way may be pitied as misguided or dismissed as knaves and fools.

The results may be quite good, leading to celebrations about how one made the right bet in the race for social and cultural influence. Everything may seem to be working for the good, your mind is at peace, and your feelings are so good that you try mightily to restrain chortling. But if you start looking clumsy, foolish, and uncertain—the reality will seem quite different from what you expected.

Then, muddled thinking and wavering actions may lead to a fear creeping up that you are on the SS Titanic of cultural disasters. The apocalypse is not the end of the era but of you! Friendships disintegrate, publishers no longer want your missives, your books are remaindered, and religious leaders tut-tut over misspent youth while closing doors and selling off their buildings.

We have had epochal definitional wars before. It was commonly believed in the 1960s-1970s that New York City was the quintessential secular city that was leading the way to global secularization. But the river of history did not flow that way. For several decades now, the city has been a swamp of croaking secularists covered with joyous flash floods of religionists. We call this a postsecular society, because the secularists have, at least momentarily, lost the argument about the future, but the religionists can’t assuredly promise the rising of a new Jerusalem, Mecca, or other sacred firmament out of the watery mess. Neither side is very happy drifting with each other in this liminal state.

The public square has inched toward a free market competition of ideologies: Christianity and Judaism as the historic majority faiths, many new religions, and multiple secularities. It can feel rather chaotic as one group gains a temporary advantage or stumbles into unpopular positions. The nominal religious identities are the ones most up for grabs because they can be changed with less cost and maybe with some social rewards. The conservative faiths cost a lot to adhere to and so are not easily given up. In fact, the very cost of belief is attractive and strengthens a sense of destiny and special status.

Keller’s pastorate has now stretched over several generations and multiple waves of immigration. So, the upheaval of generations and migrations have also played a special part in his ministry.

To critics who say that Keller’s style was only effective in that bygone age when Christians were treated benignly, Keller says that idea is a misreading of recent history. He notes that he felt plenty of pushback when he arrived in New York City to plant a church in 1989.

Keller claims that his winsome intellectual style fits right into a discussion of the current hopes and fears of Christians and non-Christians alike. The pastor has perfected entering into the stream of secularist contradictions and unresolved existential questions as a way of showing the way to resolution and inner peace.

However, the New York pastor does admit that times have changed enough so that he needs to retool. He has told associates that his earlier writings are no longer so relevant to the current age. Keller believes that we are in an age when Christianity has lost its normative presence in society and will need to justify itself with language that assumes that there is little shared knowledge about faith. He also says that the substance of his talks needs to change to include more attention to such things as identities, racial injustice, and sexuality, but he is convinced that with effort, his basic optimistic, friendly style will be effective. However, in recent times, even some of his rhetoric has veered toward the confrontational.

The Early Years

Timothy James Keller was born on September 23, 1950, in Allentown, Pennsylvania. From the beginning, his Mom, Louise Anne, was the boss of the family. She was always right. Tim’s father Bill was a shadow in the home. Tim’s sister Sharon escaped into daydreaming. Although he received detailed bossing, Tim refused to bend. Perhaps, his penchant for telling stories, doing comedy routines, and even singing musicals with his siblings was his own deflection. The young boy had a wide imagination that traveled further than his upbringing. His sister says that her mom didn’t really understand Tim, “Tim’s a global thinker. She wasn’t.”

His Mom was an Italian American Catholic, so he was baptized as a Catholic, but his father was a German Protestant, so he was confirmed as a Lutheran. Tim’s Mom was actually on a journey away from the Roman Catholic Church and ended up in an Evangelical Congregational Church. This denomination fit her temperament as it emphasized strict human discipline with an aim to be as perfect as one can. She hoped her son would become a pastor in the church.

Attending public schools, Tim was sent to a poor neighborhood to go to a class for precocious children. It was a terrible experience in which the “egghead” students were marked for bullying. The young Keller became lonely with few sustainable friendships. The experienced certainly challenged the idea of empathetic dealing with lower and working-class African and White Americans.

Although Keller grew up in a religious home, the zeitgeist was trending away from religion. In the 1960s and 1970s, it was just assumed that secularization was inevitable, as proclaimed with exaltation by Harvey Cox in his 1965 The Secular City. Secularization theory, which underlay the joys of secularists, predicted that religion would play a decreasing role in the world.

The Jesus Movement

In 1968, Keller went to Bucknell University. The campus was in full 1960s mode. Some students were easily identified as hippies with long hair, wild music, doing drugs, and sexual experimentation. The traditional students sported Greek letters, business school haircuts, or pocket protectors among the engineers and science majors. Keller didn’t fully identify with either cultural group. Still holding a residual interest in religion, he became a religion major.

Which meant Freud and the death of God. Keller read the current love squeeze of the religion department, John A. T. Robinson’s ode to the god of your imagination in his Honest to God. The professorial line was that Jesus was an interesting fable about social justice. Long before the current uproar over critical race theory, Keller picked up a smattering of Frankfurt School critical theory mashups of Freud and Marx. Keller believed the narrative that orthodox Christians were indifferent to civil rights and wanted to put Martin Luther King, Jr. in jail. Keller recalls, “Christianity began to lose its appeal to me.”

The college student still believed in a God of love, not exactly an unpopular trend coming off the 1967 “Summer of Love.” He also was too conservative to believe that social justice could just arise like Creation out of nothing. He believed in the importance of a rooted moral life but didn’t really know this life or a God of love. Naturally, in the religion department, he came across the cosmic consciousness of Hinduism, the gentle empty nothingness of Buddhism, the moralism of Confucius, the legalism of Judaism, and the submissive life of the Muslim. None of these seem to have had much long-lasting impact on Keller. I don’t recall any references to these religious traditions in Keller’s many sermons in New York City, though there may be some somewhere.

In the end, Keller was dissatisfied with his professors’ assertive self-assurance. But isolated in the department’s cultural milieu, where could he look for love and friendship? A dorm mate invited him to a tiny meeting of Christians held with the encouragement of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. In the 1960s and 1970s, “IV,” as it was called on campus, was the more intellectual evangelical Christian outreach. Its growth tended to come through small group meetings. With roots in England, IV’s reading list leaned toward that country’s evangelicals like J.I. Packer and his Knowing God and John Stott, who wrote the first primer on Christianity for many college students, his Basic Christianity.

Francis Schaeffer, who left America to found the L’Abri Christian community and study center in Switzerland, was also a popular IV author. On the whole, this more reserved, intellectual approach appealed to Keller. Schaeffer’s counter-cultural feel was embedded in a close community that many college students were searching for. In 1971, a disciple of Schaeffer, R.C. Sproul, started something in Pennsylvania similar to L’Abri called the Ligonier Valley Study Center. Keller and his future wife Kathy Kristy were very influenced by Sproul, who officiated at their wedding. He also introduced them to a denomination, the Presbyterian Church of America, that was spreading from the Southern United States. Generally speaking, IV was not the choice of jocks and business students. Though not very political, the student organization was more left than right.

Keller learned the concept “worldview” from Schaeffer. This concept, which emerged from German idealist thinkers like Hegel, emphasized that every historical epoch had a set of leading, interconnected ideas that were so influential that they determined the general shape of culture and society. Evangelists, then, need to understand the current worldview if they are to have meaningful conversations. “Worldviews” is more focused on the mindset of a society than the emotions and is a broader, more neutral term than the Biblical idea of “idols,” So, such a term facilitated open conversations with doubters.

At first, desperate for fellowship, Keller pretended that he was a Christian just like the others. But that was sort of a dead-end experience. However, he engaged by asking lots of questions. Then, Keller’s discovery of C.S. Lewis and John Stott had a particular impact on him. By 1970, he was ready to come face to face with his own failures and flaws in order to see Jesus. He found love.

Keller, according to his biographer, still finds it hard to describe how he became to feel so differently toward God, Jesus, and others. A friend noticed that he had become emotionally available and kinder.

The result was that Keller grew into Christian activism on campus. He found a good grove for himself. He literally visited scores, even hundreds of students to talk about Jesus. He and a friend proliferated small group discussions and prayers across the campus. This led to a quadrupling of attenders at the campus-wide IV meetings. By 1972, fueled by an influx of born-again freshmen, the campus exploded into a Jesus Movement. The meetings became ten times larger than they were in Keller’s own freshman year.

The intensity and expectation of revival stayed in Keller’s memory. Interestingly, future leaders of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, artist Mako Fujimura, and pastor Dick Kaufmann, also attended Bucknell, though at different times from Keller’s attendance.

Keller developed a life-long appreciation of English Christian intellectuals and preachers. He synched with the intellectual and literary style of C.S. Lewis and found emotional heroism in the fantasy writer-scholar J.R.R. Tolkien. Keller’s biographer believes that Tolkien provided a language of the heart for Keller, who interwove the masculine heroism of Tolkien and Lewis with a fine emotional sensitivity of English poets and American writers like Flannery O’Conner. Keller also liked the way that Lewis pictured Christian faith, calling him “the illustration king.”

Religious joy

The college student latched onto the joyful tradition in Christianity that Lewis described in his autobiography Surprised by Joy and his writing on fairy tales. Tolkien called the appearance of Jesus Christ an “eucatastrophe.” In a later sermon, Keller said that the word, which he translated as “joyful catastrophe,” describes “when victory seems to emerge from nowhere in the least likely way.”

Young Americans were searching for joyfulness after the late 1960s and 1970s turmoil. It was the time of the Jesus Movement and the Age of Aquarius. What most struck the Time reporters about “the Jesus Movement” in June 1971 was “the extraordinary sense of joy that they are able to communicate.”

Christian theologians also were trying to absorb the lessons of how spiritual vitality was so often linked to a sense of emotional vitality. The Charismatic movement’s emphasis on the presence and power of the Holy Spirit started to impact evangelicals around 1985, according to church growth expert C. Peter Wagner.

In Reformed circles, there was also a shift from a theology that seemed to produce dry tomes to a return to the effervescence of what Jonathan Edwards called “religious affections.” Keller developed an early admiration of Edmund Clowney who in 1969 declared that Westminister Theological Seminary had moved from a culture of a “clenched fist” defending the faith against heretics and political oppressors to one of a “bowed head” in prayer. Clowney supported Jay Adams’ transformation and expansion of the counseling program at the seminary. Adams would publish the paradigmatic text of the biblical counseling movement called Competent to Counsel in 1970.

Fresh off his experience of the counter-culture in San Francisco in the 1970s, Jack Miller came to Westminster circles with a “New Life” message of joy. Miller’s brush with the counter-culture brought on charges that he was turning the Reformed seminarians into hippies. If you look at pictures of the seminarians in those days, you can see that wasn’t true. Rather, what later appealed to Keller was Miller’s orthodoxy with love. He summed up Miller’s emphasis with a proverb, “We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared to hope.” In 1972, Harvie Conn also brought a like-minded interest in the urban world and the poor.

Keller came out of the intense college ministry experiences with a conviction to enter pastoral training. In 1972, he entered Gordon-Conwell Seminary. The young lady Kathy Kristy, who was also influenced by Sproul, entered that year to study for the pastorate.  This was a seminary promoted by evangelist Billy Graham and millionaire J. Howard Pew, who built a new campus and a new building as a gospel launch pad onto the spiritually chilly waters of New England.

Keller soon joined the fan club of the professor of joy, Richard Lovelace. His class “Dynamics of Spiritual Life” was the most popular class in the school. Here, Keller was introduced to the emotionally gushy Puritan Jonathan Edwards as found in his book Religious Affections. Edwards wrote about the outpouring of the Spirit of God in a revival of Americans as “joy unspeakable and full of glory,” citing Peter’s first letter, chapter 1, verse 8, to the poor Christians scattered in the Roman Empire.

Keller tells people that if they read Lovelace’s 1979 book Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An evangelical theology of renewal then they will know the source of many of his ideas. By the end of his seminary training, Keller had left singleness for a new wife Kathy, married by Sproul on January 4, 1975, and a set of ideas that became seminal to the rest of his ministry, according to his biographer. However, the biographer doesn’t stop there, with good reason. Keller didn’t just take a cluster of ideas from Gordon Conwell and then live off of them for the rest of his ministry. He was constantly developing. First, he put into practice his training at a small-town church in Virginia. Then, his move to Westminster Theological Seminary in 1976 at the same time as counseling-orientated theologian David Powilson heralded further development of an emotionally balanced theology.

The addition of the emotional dimension into theology continued around the country. Among Southern Baptists, Henry Blackaby introduced “experiencing God.” In 1991 Powilson started publishing his influential work on the effect of idolatries upon one’s heart.  Keller has likened the effervescence of spirituality at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in its early years was like what he experienced in the 1970-1971 campus revival. In 2003, former IV staffer and Queens pastor Pete Scazzero published his influential The Emotionally Healthy Church.

David Powilson delivering a lecture on idolatries of the heart at a Redeemer-sponsored conference, 1991. Photo: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

During his college and immediate post-college years, Keller was perhaps most influenced by the English preacher John Stott. The two are a lot alike. Stott taught in a relatively plain style the message of Jesus Christ. He avoided direct theological debates, leaning toward a sort of English muddle between liberal and conservative evangelicals. Stott was not very political, though he served as chaplain to Queen Elizabeth from 1959 to 1991. Keller recalled, “He was the perfect creator of this middle space.”

David Brooks wrote in The New York Times that Stott believed, “In many cases the truth is not found in the middle of apparent opposites, but on both extremes simultaneously.” Stott’s idea of the middle as being made up of the best parts of the extremes is similar to Keller’s sermons which often triangulates between opposites.

The Times’ opinion writer observed that Stott was the pastor Americans “never heard of…” Stott was allergic to publicity as is Keller to some extent. Yet, the Englishman’s influence among evangelicals is great. He published more than 40 books in his lifetime. They were immensely popular among American evangelical college students. As rector at All-Souls in London, he also launched an evangelical revival in the Anglican church. Then, he guided into being an international coalition of evangelicals to meet every couple of years and to issue the Lausanne Statement of their common principles and hopes.  Keller too would create an international network called City to City though it specifically specialized in church-planting.

Stott’s diplomacy was gently guided by a voice, Brook estimates, that “is friendly, courteous and natural. It is humble and self-critical, but also confident, joyful, optimistic.” Stott’s world “is like being in ‘Mr. Roger’s neighborhood, except he has a backbone of steel.”  In 2006, Stott came to preach in New York City. Though frail, he powerfully shared “I declare myself an impenitent believer in the power of preaching.”

At a memorial gathering for Stott in 2011, Keller observed that the English pastor “was prophetic from the center.”  Another quality that Keller liked about Stott was that he didn’t seek publicity. He preached, he didn’t publicize.

Hopewell, Virginia

Keller accepted a call to try out for pastor starting in May 1975 at a church in Hopewell, Virginia. An errant pastor had left this blue-collar church in a disturbed state. Keller had to unlearn much of what he had studied at seminary. Hansen, who has a penchant for Southern history,  provides much insight into this period of Keller’s ministry. This was a working-class church that favored direct, clear, and practical sermons, not intellectual masterpieces. And there was much counseling needed and racism bubbled up in places of this town with a memorial dedicated to God to honor Confederate soldiers. Keller almost burnt out. Yet, he survived and flourished. The church grew to about 300 attenders.

He learned a lot about navigating Southern White working-class culture but perhaps was relieved when he and his family moved in the Summer of 1984 to teach at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.  He brought with him a heightened awareness about how hard it is to cross over social-cultural boundaries. Hopewell had taught Keller that what he had learned wasn’t immediately relevant unless translated into the Southern blue-collar context. He had to learn anew and become almost a new person, loving talk about football more than intellectual debates. But he seems to have quickly shucked his blue-collar styles in his move back to a college campus. A friend observed, “That was not the Tim Keller when he arrived, and it ceased to be Tim Keller when he left West Hopewell.”

Edmund Clowney, who Keller knew from Bucknell days, invited the young pastor to Westminster Theological Seminary to teach pastoral leadership and preaching.

At Westminster, Keller found that the institution was trying to get out of its White middle-class ghetto. Harvie Conn helped Keller to understand urban ministry and to change his perspective from the popular “church growth” approach to one more widely focused on “city growth.” Keller himself had become intensely interested in social compassion ministries of the church as represented by the work of “deacons,” a Biblical word meaning “servants.” He did his doctorate of ministry on the Puritan deacons of Edinburgh, Scotland, and published his first book in 1985, Resources for Deacons.

New York City

Among the scholarly and public policy elites in New York City, most in the 1970s still thought that the mullahs, pastors, and rabbis were swarming out of the secular city. In August 1975, The New York Times published a series on the gloomy picture of the future of religion in New York City. Little did they realize that religious congregations, particularly evangelical ones, were starting to grow back.

In 1976, Keller’s denomination, the southern-based Presbyterian Church of America, sent an ill-prepared pastor on an ill-conceived, under-funded journey to plant a church in Manhattan. It moved around with a small band of followers until it petered out, forgotten by almost everyone. So, for most church people outside of New York, the city was still considered the graveyard of missionaries. The Presbyterians didn’t try this again for over a decade.

The city was in a meltdown. With a shotgun, a friend of mine faced down a carload of marauders in the Upper West Side. Pastors in Harlem kept shotguns under their podiums in order to protect the offerings. Like so many other precincts, the police commanders in my neighborhood were corrupt, violent, and ineffective. There were dreadful problems in the schools. Columbia University was in a state of shocking dilapidation and the public schools often produced more dropouts than graduates. The loud noise of riots and smoke of burning buildings accompanied the destruction of 40% of all buildings in Harlem, parts of Brooklyn, and the South Bronx. The secular city was dying.

Pressed by a torrent of bad news about the failure of secular ways of urbanization, secularism was losing its rosy cheeks. Its optimism about life without religion was declining. New questions presented themselves: was this disappearance of religion a good thing for the city? And is it coming back here and around the world? What of the evidence that religion was making a comeback with noisy adherents claiming that they had been saved from urban personal disasters like drug addiction, aimlessness, etc.?

Of course, secularism still had a large warlike clan of secularists at the control of most city institutions. Big changes in traditionalist secular ways weren’t easy to accept. But their intellectual foundations were crumbling, losing prestige, and adherents among the non-religious.

What was unnoticed—maybe it was unnoticeable in the chaos, was religion rising in the city. In 1978, the city actually passed into a postsecular era. The number of new churches being opened per year significantly increased, particularly in the boroughs outside of Manhattan.  Crime fighting was being abetted by salvation stories. In Washington Heights, Manhattan, for instance, smart and ruthless, cocaine king Salvador Sabino was caught, which put him on a road to an unusual salvation.

The city situation might be called a “eucatastrophe” as far as religion went. Facing chaos and evil, some New Yorkers had fled; some had snuggled down into small islands of traditional secularist society and liberal religion; but others decided to search for something distinctly different. In politics, it was a turn toward a chastened, more conservative, and morally stronger liberalism of Ed Koch. Soon, Rudolph Giuliani would bring accountability back into the police department. The crime rates started to significantly drop after 1993. Multiple reasons have been advanced for this change, but the most overlooked reasons were the religious and moral changes that were taking place.  

In religion, it was a new urban evangelical Christianity, mainly, and other new faiths. Outsiders to the establishment, and those coming from outside of the city, provided a different approach that reconfigured the city into a nascent new Jerusalem.

Around every corner in the city, there was growing up a rebuke to secularist dogmas. For example, former drug king Sabino became a pastor around 1986. However, secularists reassured themselves that New York City was not yet—and would never be – a New Jerusalem, Rome, or Mecca. But the city was a simulacrum of urban secularism, lurching forward like a golem into a surprising resurrection. The tin men were getting hearts. Keller would play no small role in the carpeting of evangelical churches in Manhattan, but like Jonah, he at first said, send somebody else.

A reluctant Keller comes to New York City

The Presbyterians had decided to try again and asked Tim Keller in 1987 to scope out church-planting prospects. Declining to go himself, he volunteered two other bodies for the sacrifice. They refused and the southerners came back to Keller. As insecure as he felt going into the big city, church elders in the South saw Keller as a guy who could cross all boundaries. After all, he came as a Northerner to a southern blue-collar church and succeeded. He also had ventured into the center city of Philadelphia, reaching out in its ghettos, to Muslims and homosexuals. To their eyes, he was the Jonah, the one who could cross the Hudson to America’s Babylon, New York City.

The denomination planned to devote three or more times the usual amount of money given to a church planter. Keller also insisted on living among the New Yorkers, not floating in from some cheaper suburban harbor each weekend. He, New York City Chinese pastor Samuel Ling, and denominational church-planting czar Terry Gyger waded through the hot tubs of Florida to make their pitches. The idea started to grab ahold of the Southerners.

Keller came to define his mission field as Manhattan Center City, which reached up to 125th Street on the West Side and 96th Street on the East Side. (At first, he got up to 40% of his audience from the Outer Boros and the burbs.)  There were only a few evangelical Protestant churches that were bringing a feeble focus on serving the professionals and cultural creators of Manhattan, maybe fewer than eight, including traditional gospel-orientated Calvary Baptist and 1st Christian Missionary Alliance, Trinity Baptist, charismatically inspired All-Angels Episcopal and The Lamb’s, and several tiny congregations like One Flock, First Reformed Episcopal and Isaiah 53 Fellowship. Because of various weaknesses in the ministry options, evangelicals tended to erratically rotate going to the different churches. A few drifted over to Catholic, Orthodox, or other religious options.

A wealthy Philadelphia supporter of Campus Crusade for Christ (now called CRU), Nancy DeMoss bought a building on East 73rd Street and started hosting dinners and Bible studies for professionals. The basic idea was to treat outreach like a moderately high-class exclusive Upper East Side social club that didn’t cost very much to join.  That effort was pretty successful in spiritually resuscitating New Yorkers and accumulated a list of 250 people who might be interested in attending a church that was professionally and intellectually stimulating. She and her group encouraged Keller to come.  Canny missionaries like Glen and Carol Kleinkneck and their colleagues at Here’s Life Inner City and Campus Crusade jumped on board. Here’s Life was a group with a network all around the city that specialized in conducting bus tours to convince people to come minister here, particularly through its feed the hungry program.

Keller set himself up at the Tramway Diner at East 59th Street and Second Avenue to host three or four people a day to discuss their questions about the Christian faith and feelings about being New Yorkers. He even picked up a copy of the hard-bitten secularist, socialist Dissent Magazine to study like a Bible in New York City. Keller credits this time as foundational for his being able to talk “New York.”

Redeemer Presbyterian Church was launched on April 9th, 1989, two Sundays after Easter. The worship service started with almost no one showing up, but in a fashionably late way, about fifty finally flowed into the auditorium. There were different reactions to Keller and the new church. There was some excitement from supporters around the city and in Manhattan: some really liked Keller’s vision and theology, and some thought he was a good speaker. Others said that Keller wasn’t that good of a speaker, a little cool interpersonally, objected to some Christian beliefs that he held and wondered if the enterprise could sustain itself.

 Keller and his family moved to the city in June. The church quickly grew to over 150 people.

The church focused on ministry in the city, not overseas missions; Keller didn’t take outside speaking engagements; the sermon content was filled with references to New York intellectuals; there was no politics; and Keller didn’t wear his college sweater or made references to popular suburban pop culture icons like the Dallas Cowboys.

According to Hansen, Keller wanted to serve up a philosophically-orientated apologetic like that practiced by Francis Schaeffer in his Swiss community L’Abri. However, Keller’s approach would better be characterized as intelligent, not that of an intellectual.

His focus was on taking up tough intellectual issues found in secularist thinking about existence, life, and the cosmos in a question-and-answer format. In this case, the sermons were initially based on answering questions that Keller had received at the Tramway Diner and later. Keller would identify the contradiction or gaps in Left or Right thinking and show how the gospel would answer these questions, hopes, and fears. It is hard to do this type of work because of the need for a high intuitive, analytical approach based on deep intellectual knowledge. It also took a tremendous effort to communicate deep wisdom in plain sentences, something that Keller was learning to do.

Hansen describes how Keller could listen to a lecture, a conversation, or a book and quickly grasp its core points, its subtle implications, gaps in it reasoning, and hidden contradictions. He then would very clearly outline them to his audience and contribute something fresh and original. Hansen gives examples from Keller’s time in seminary and elsewhere. This ability was shared by other legendary New York intellectuals. Such insight was recognized by New Yorkers as a rare and precious commodity.

Keller’s message was the medium through which the church’s outreach was propelled. He spent an immense amount of time preparing his sermons, probably neglecting needed organizational and mentoring work. His rhetoric was orthodox Christianity told in a fresh way, a New York intellectual way. His sermons felt transparent with no hidden agenda or money-grabbing appeals. They were unsentimental without emotional exploitation, nuanced with intellectual depth but humble. Seeing London as having more in common with his situation in New York City, Keller devoured the sermons of the English pastor Martin Lloyd-Jones. These sermons are rather plain but humanly engaging. Lloyd-Jones always preached as if preaching to the unconverted and also to the unlearned Christian.

It seems that more city residents were seeking out venues to hear about this gospel faith. On September 22, 1991, over 250,000 people gathered in Central Park to hear the evangelist Billy Graham. This was the largest single gathering of all of Graham’s crusades in North America.

Tim Keller, 1991. Photo: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

By 1993, Redeemer had outgrown its meeting space and took the big step of renting the cavernous auditorium at Hunter College. At this point, Keller said that he didn’t believe in investing huge money into a church building because it would change Redeemer’s outward-facing focus to inward nest-building. Besides, Manhattan was economically out of reach for a new church.

Although he eschewed politics, he made an occasional exception to promote African American concerns and even supported the first large NYC evangelical conference on race relations, “What Color Is Your Idol?” in 1992. Friend and colleague from Westminster Theological Seminary, David Powilson, contributed his “Idols of the Heart and “Vanity Fair,” a presentation that informed Keller’s thinking over the years leading up to his book Counterfeit Gods.

The church’s growth continued at a fast pace until 1994 by which time he was burning out. The staff was too as Keller’s management was not too expert. Hansen claims Keller never became an effective manager of the church nor of one-on-one and small group relationships. Personally, Keller set a very high bar for ministering and preaching, but he was not always able to clearly translate that into mentoring young assistant pastors.  From time to time, Keller experienced staff rebellions, but he always found someone to help him out of the rocky waters.

 In 1994, it was Richard Kaufmann, who had been originally picked to come to plant Redeemer only to back out at the last moment. Kaufmann was an even-tempered efficient man. He was a Harvard-trained manager as well as a pastor. His quiet, humble, methodical style righted the ship and Redeemer’s audience grew like a rocket. It was in this period that I really got to know Keller which led us to work together on strategizing church planting in New York City.

By 1997, a social survey found that over 50% of the city’s evangelical churches in New York City were reporting growth in attendance in the previous year. Also, networks of evangelical churches and ministries were forming that Redeemer was able to use to establish its church-planting ministry that became known as Redeemer City to City. 

Evangelical Christianity is not a denomination but a movement that cuts across specific denominations and neighborhoods. Its unitary identity depends upon its theological commitments and nourishment of networks that connect its disparate believers. For example, Mac Pier created Concerts of Prayer of Greater New York to harness the churches together by holding gatherings of prayer. This led to annual network intensifying gatherings every Fall and eventually similar gatherings globally.

Unbeknownst to his congregation, Keller was himself dealing with a deep personal tragedy and triumph. His brother Billy had been an open homosexual for two decades and alienated from the family. However, Keller kept up regular friendly contact with him. After contracting AIDS, Billy was at death’s door in the late 1990s. Keller was a persistent visitor and comforter and opened the doors for Billy’s reconciliation with God before his death in May 22, 1998. All the while, the pastor was tending to a congregation that had grown into the thousands. His biographer says Keller didn’t make Billy’s struggle known because he didn’t want to use his brother as some sort of public honor badge for showing the pastor’s compassion.

Keller and the church leaders believed that they needed to open new branches to allow room for new people to feel comfortable in bringing more friends to church. In February 1999, Redeemer started its West Side service with the idea, never completely realized, that Redeemer would have services all around Central Park with Keller traveling around to each one to preach. The liberal Ethical Culture Society was generous in offering space. (A sign of the postsecular society at work)

Also in 1999, Redeemer kicked off its idea of creating a movement of new churches by the establishment of its church-planting center that became City to City. However, Redeemer was still not well known outside of New York.

Tim Keller preaching at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, Hunter College, Manhattan, 2004. Photo: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

The year 2001 opened optimistically. A summing up in January was published in the scholarly book New York Glory. Religions in the city: “The three big headlines about the new New York are that the economy is booming, crime is way down, and the soul is back. The number of churches, synagogues, temples and other religious institutions is growing at a record pace.” Redeemer’s attendance had passed the 3,500 mark.

Then on September 11, 2001, a catastrophe struck. Starting a little before 9 o’clock in the morning, Muslim terrorists delivered a sour religious note with attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. As the towers collapsed, there was a roar in south Manhattan like thunder mixed with crackling metal and a huge cloud of smoke rolled outward. New Yorkers were massively killed and deeply affected. They also struggled with how to respond to a religiously-inspired attack.

In some ways, the city was the perfect place to sort out the mixed emotions about religion and violence because New Yorkers couldn’t see Muslims as strangers since Muslims were neighbors and friends. The city had many other religious people contributing to our city’s love, too: how could we just throw them under the bus as religious extremists?

When I contacted Keller right after the bombings, he had, remarkably, already processed the event and grasped the spiritual challenges to New Yorkers. What he told me was more crystal clear and brilliant than almost any other comment that I received as I made my way interviewing from my office, three short blocks away from Ground Zero, to Washington Heights, thirteen miles away. Keller told me that the attack was “satanically brilliant. Now, every time that you see that empty space, you will not be able to put it out of your mind.”

He recounted the emotions that were rising up in himself and, presumably, other New Yorkers, “I felt a hatred well up in me, so I thought ‘Well, we are going to have to deal with that, too.’”

The biography fills in some more details of Keller’s reactions during the aftermath of 911. It recounts his famous sermon on Sunday, September 16th on the resurrection of Lazarus that was recalled in the Book of John, chapter 11; the harsh run-in that his wife Kathy had with a Christian Broadcasting Network television crew after one of their programs broadcast remarks that seemed to imply that the attacks were God’s judgment; and the large attendance bump and donations that required herculean efforts to organize services and counseling and keep an extra $2 million of donations accountable. There were 1600 more people than normal in the Sunday service and about 800 of them continued attending after the initial crisis.

The rule of thumb was that the nearer the catastrophe was to a church, the bigger the attendance bump and the longer lasting the deep upheaval of emotions. However, reports of lasting attendance gains came only from the evangelical churches. Many synagogues actually reported drops in attendance because of fears that attacks on them would come next.

Keller urged his members to not abandon the city but to stay as comforters. A popular sermon reference at that time was sociologist Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity which tied church growth to the early Christians’ bravery in caring for plague victims. His book became a wholesome holistic paradigm for church growth thinking.

The terrorist attacks of September 11th started U.S. and allied soldiers cartwheeling around the world, and it sent Christians scrambling toward New York City. Sometimes, they came under the belief that there were fewer churches in the city than there were in Afghanistan. Franklin Graham brought his relief efforts here, declaring, “We knew that there were no churches in the city so we needed to come to help.” He and the rest of American Christianity became aware of the fact that there was now a lot of Christian activity in the city and that you could plant churches here successfully. More and more people became interested in coming to New York City for ministry purposes. This brought more attention to Keller, which eventually changed the ministry context for him.

In 2008, several things started to change Keller’s vision. It was becoming clear that Redeemer congregants who lived in the city itself had a more positive attitude and commitment to city life than those who commuted from the suburbs. Several contemporary focus groups of Christian business executives in Manhattan discovered that suburban commuters tended to find Manhattan life, particularly its business life, rather killing. Members of one group said that going to Manhattan for work is like “throwing a switch” or “a crossover” to the killing fields, the “empty zone,” “the struggle,” a “dirty” and “tough” place, “deadening,” and “depression.”

This pattern re-emphasized the importance of Keller’s focus on increasing the proportion of congregants who lived in Manhattan. He also felt that this would make it easier to reach out to Manhattanites with a Christian message of salvation and compassionate social concerns.

The pastor also sensed a change in mood toward religion as a whole. Hansen reports that Keller wrote, “When I first came to New York City nearly twenty years ago, I more often heard the objection that all religions are equally true. Now, I’m more likely to be told that all religions are equally false.” Hansen connects this change to the rise of the so-called “New Atheists.”

Keller encountered more angry debunkers than doubters seeking truth. For the first time, Keller also started to experience himself as an outsider to the modern culture rather than an intelligent insider offering critique and self-reflection. Ironically, this situation was partly the result of the fame that he received after the publication of his finely reasoned outreach to non-believers in his 2008 book The Reason for God.

Now, he was more often seen as a “spokesman” for evangelical Christianity, not an accessible visitor with the secular tribe. His outsiderness was emphasized by the fact that he included not a single chapter on LGBTQ+, equity, and critical race theory. He became more popular among Christians but American progressives were already in motion toward extreme hostility to people not of their tribe (see John McWhorter’s Woke Racism). “As soon as Tim Keller published his bestseller apologetic book, he knew it was already obsolete,” Hansen writes. Younger church leaders started to murmur agreement with that sentiment.

Hansen doesn’t dwell as much upon the problems that Keller had as an “evangelical spokesman” but this made Keller a natural target for attacks by critics. Keller found that when he was invited to high-level meetings like those with politicians and community leaders, his role was not that of a friend or professor reasoning with inquirers but he was assigned a political role as “spokesman for his people.” If you look at other “spokesmen and women” like Reverend Al Sharpton, you will recognize that Sharpton acutely understands and embraces this role while Keller is very uncomfortable with it.

Ever since that time, Keller has been playing catch up with the changing identities and worldviews circulating in the postsecular culture. He was helped by his involvement with sociologist James Davison Hunter, who invited Keller to a small discussion group on how or whether culture can be changed. At first, the input into Keller’s thinking was that society can only be changed by elites who reside inside key institutions.

Hunter was skeptical that grass-roots change-orientated strategies like culture wars were successful since they were waged by outsiders with weak institutions trying to crash into the centers of power and influence. Rather at that time, Hunter favored a sort of elite institutional “presence” to use the levers of position and power to gradually bring about change. This strategy seems to say that Jesus the outsider with a motley band of fishermen and the like shouldn’t have succeeded. Perhaps, Hunter would have pointed to the high-status Paul as the real change agent. However, Paul is better seen as a defector from the power elite who follows the outsider Jesus to revolutionary consequences.

Keller seems to have backtracked somewhat from the elitism and is undoubtedly considering how to meet the demands for radical social change among some of his younger colleagues. But even those “radical” demands may reflect the elitism of their professors at elite universities. Social scientists have discovered that in New York City, most of the Black Lives Matters demonstrators are young White progressives, often from elite schools and high-status industries. So, maybe Hunter is right?

Still, the small group meetings were an “epochal experience” for Keller, according to his biographer. Their intellectual and spiritual stimulation reminded Keller of his college and seminary days. They rekindled an interest in utilizing the lessons of Francis Schaeffer’s Christian community in Switzerland that specialized in debates, no-holds-barred discussions, and an openness to new intellectual currents.

Tim Keller, Lausanne Consultation, 2010. Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

Keller tried a few debate forums at Columbia, Oxford, and his church, but the challenge was finding discussants that were intellectually strong enough to challenge Keller but also open to genuine dialogue.  At Oxford, he found that discussions leading up to his talks lead to better questions and answers. Schaeffer also found out that small discussion groups had positive outcomes but debates often just ended up drawing lines and risked being drawn into personal attacks.

The pastor’s next major apologetics book was Making Sense of God, published in 2016. It has a Schaefferian feel. But  It didn’t have as many sales as The Reasons for God, and it remains an open question whether Keller’s turn toward encouraging smaller intellectual discussions (and even smaller churches) is in touch with current conditions. And could they even be scaled to reach enough people?

Also, there are not many Tim Kellers around to lead such discussions. And maybe the audience is not there either.

The question of audience response came to a head in 2017 at Princeton Theological Seminary. The school awarded Keller the prestigious Abraham Kyuper Prize for being “an innovative theologian and church leader…and catalyst for urban mission in major cities around the world.” An uproar ensued sparked by militant progressives. A writer for the liberal Christian Century called Keller’s theology “toxic.” A prominent Princeton graduate living in Texas called Keller’s choice “offensive,” and a rich donor claimed Keller had been in “extremist circles.” The weak-willed administration rescinded the prize. It gave Keller a consolation invitation to come meet his critics, perhaps hoping he wouldn’t come. Instead, Keller came to be, in Hunter’s words, “a faithful presence within” his enemies.

Methodist Mark Tooley, head of the influential Institute on Religion and Democracy wrote, “Although its celebrants often don’t realize it, the universe of liberal Protestantism is very small and getting smaller.” He added, “Keller will speak at Princeton on church planting, and hopefully he will be heard.”

Keller proposed an agenda on how to reach the modern world, a trying out of his thinking phrased in the terms of theologian Stanley Hauerwas. If my memory serves rightly, Keller got some grudging respect but the critics did a search to see if they could find some crack in Keller’s defenses through which they could savage him. They failed, and Princeton seminary took a dive in the number of students choosing to attend. By the next year, enrollment had dropped 11%, and by 2021, it had dropped 41%. Princeton’s claim to bring “people together across lines of differences” seems like a promissory note issued in bad faith.

In the meantime, the number of evangelical churches in Manhattan continued to grow.

The Postsecular City

The postsecular city is a contested city between varieties of religion and nonreligion. New types of leaders, ethical questions, and communal identities raise all sorts of contested areas over which neither the secular nor the religious have exclusionary authority. While now even the mayor’s office in New York City has appointed an evangelical pastor as Faith-Based and Neighborhood Initiatives director, his appointment was contested by some secular left and LGTBQ activists. But the city’s public square is not the exclusive playground of the secularists, so they lost the fight. Yet, this doesn’t mean the inevitable, necessary rise of Christian dominance.

Rather, the postsecular city means that every religious and non-religious ideology feels it has a chance and necessity to compete. This condition has often taken secularists and Christians by surprise. Further, there is the legitimated competition of Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, etc. No religious or ideological competitor can assume that the postsecular condition will produce immanent forces for a smooth rise as a dominant voice. In fact, the sometimes dominant voice of Christianity, followed by a dominance of secular voices, poses a problem for the postsecular society in America: is it fair that one religion or one secularism determines the social framework for everyone? Both Christians and secularists are going through contrition for their past abuses of power. Our constitution says the public square is open (though the private world may not be).

Memories of past abuses of the religious by secularists live on in the over-wrought technicolor memories of believers. But the postsecular age requires at least forgiveness for the secularist abusers, and maybe a forgetting too. The contrition process is necessary for all: the religious and seculars alike. We perhaps can reach a release of the pressure on the triggers toward each other, yet this is not true peace. 

The postsecular society sometimes feels more like the truces of World War I. The old grudges and past imperial glories are hard to forget. Right now, the secularists are jumping back onto their crusader saddles to try to vanquish the religious, at least the evangelicals, whom they fear will do the same to the secularists.

Facing kickbacks in politics and social trends in the postsecular society, some Christians say that fleeing to the monasteries, or at least to the outer suburbs of Idaho, is necessary. Others say gird on your armor and pick up your sword for public combat in a series of culture war crusades. Keller is trying to find a way to stay in the competition without a fighting spirit. Keller has called this a “winsome presence.”

The postsecular pastors

Keller resembles Pope Francis’ modeling a way to live in and sustain the postsecular society against extreme secularism and sacerdotalism. As sociologist Michele Dillon has noted, Pope Francis is the leader of a “postsecular Catholicism,” which relishes a dialogue with the seculars without building walls based on psychological defensiveness. It seems Keller has charted a similar path.

The rise of the postsecular society means that the raucous debates over religion and secularity were almost inevitable. All religions and nonreligions were put on a more equal footing in the public square. No one was happy that their opponents had legitimate space. For example, the evangelical supporters of Trump and their evangelical opponents among Clinton supporters were sure that 2016 was going to bring the apocalyptic demise of their opponents or of themselves. This just turned out to be a fairy tale and both the victors and the losers were disorientated into some sort of cognitive dissonance. The postsecular era is a state of cognitive and emotional disorientation. There is not an arrival of a New Jerusalem or a riddance of pestilent priests.

The post-Roe era (or “Dobbs era”) has all the characteristics of a postsecular phenomenon. When Roe V. Wade was replaced by Dobbs V. Jackson, it seems that the pro-life forces were unprepared that it meant that now in every state they would have to compete for the affection of voters. In their haste to implement draconian laws against abortion, some pro-lifers provoked a backlash from a public that hadn’t been part of the debates. So, the prolifers ran into big losses. In the postsecular era, religionists and secularists have to provide persuasive reasons for their ideas. There is no establishment of religion nor of non-religion. Everything is a competition.

So, is Keller’s winsome reasoning the right approach for the current era, or should everyone hop into culture war armor or retreat to monastic fortresses?

Keller himself says that much of what he had written before 2017 is not relevant anymore. Among associates, there is a feeling that the big church model like Redeemer Presbyterian Church may need to be augmented by small communities of discussion and support much like that established by Francis Schaeffer at the L’Abri community. It hearkens back to Keller’s own experience in the 1960s and 1970s with Schaeffer and L’Abri.

The current mix of debates over war, race, sex, culture, and religion resemble those of the 1960s and 1970s. Of course, the current times are not quite the same. And the leaders and groups that are shaken out like so much salt on the era can be a strange mix and match.

So, the founder of the radical right Oath Keepers was first an anti-war progressive. He seems to have lashed together Trump’s opposition to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars with a libertarian, constitutional patriotism. Some people say that the Oath Keepers are evidence of the rise of White Christian Nationalism, but maybe the group is just another form of postsecular bricolage of public square contraries among the working class.

Keller himself has not given much attention to the suffering of the working and lower middle class in his city. These groups are not merely marginalized by the gentrifying congregants of Redeemer Presbyterian Church but are actually “disappeared” from the city by gentrification.

Also, Keller’s slight liberal bias means that he will have a harder time being relevant to many conservatives. In fact, he divides conservatives into two groups: the damned (he calls them “Fundamentalists”—others might call them “Trumpists”); and the salvageable (“the Conservatives”, whom others might call “Milquetoasts”). Does he want another Fundamentalist-Modernist War? Not very friendly.

Though quick to respond to Manhattan progressive complaints, he has yet, as far as I know, to address many of the interests of Outer Boro conservatives like: the need for more and better policing as a social justice issue; the rise of Orthodoxy as the majority form of Judaism in the city and the rise of antisemitism; the appearance of the New Wave Asian Americans concerned with crime, an eroded justice system and discrimination in the streets and the schools; the exit of the working class from churches led by pastors that never took a course on blue-collar culture, theology, and ethics; the epidemic of anti-White hate crime in the city; fentanyl trafficking and addiction; cruelly chaotic immigration policies; and the rise of a New American Mainstream made up of mixed racials, new and old Whites, Hispanics, and African American professionals. Whatever time God gives, I hope Keller has the interest to weave some of his postsecular wisdom into our understanding of these phenomena.

Tim Keller, 2019. Photo: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

In May 2020, the Kellers’ world narrowed down into their rooms. The pandemic threw them into an isolation unlike anything that they had experienced. Tim was also battling illness for pancreatic cancer. And there was a great unchurching due to fear of COVID.

The time since then has allowed Keller to read more than ever. He is also trying to figure out how to reconnect with younger leaders. His Baby Boomer look-back on the basics of Christianity led him to the tumultuous period of the Roman Empire faced with a rise of the indigenous peoples on the periphery, the corruption of the church by a hunger for power and money, theological controversies, and sexual scandals. He came upon an explanation of that age and the way forward for the Christian faith in the City of God by the early church father Augustine. Perhaps, this book provides the exemplar of what is needed now. Indeed, this is the saint whom President Joe Biden referred to in his inaugural address. As a step in this direction, Keller encouraged philosopher David Watkin to complete his massive Biblical Critical Theory published in 2022.

Charles Mathews of the University of Virginia noted in The Hedgehog Review, published by James Davison Hunter, that Augustine is crucial for understanding the deeper contexts of our modernity. Augustine “was the last major antique writer who knew what it was to be both not a Christian and a Christian–one of the last, and arguably the greatest, of the “native speakers” of both those rival idioms–and he thought about that difference in all he wrote. He embodied this transition… He was the first great thinker to struggle self-consciously with ambivalence about his transitional time. His reflections on the experience of his own transition deeply informed his efforts to shape the Christian transition for his own community, and later generations as well.”

Keller might well appreciate the sentiment that Augustine shared in one of his sermons, “The Emperor has been converted, but the devil has not.” There is more work to be done: now is the time to press forward. To paraphrase Mathews, Keller’s deepening appreciation of Augustine’s project can be of great value for helping us understand how to live in our new “postsecular understanding.”

Tim Keller, “Ask me a question.”, 2019. Photo: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

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