Timothy Keller (1950- )
(…continued) Timothy Keller is a pastor in the Presbyterian Church of America, the more conservative of the two largest Presbyterian denominations. In 1987, he moved to Manhattan to try and start a new church for a largely non-churchgoing population. During the research phase of the new church start, he was told by almost everyone that it was a foolish attempt. Keller was moderately conservative, New Yorkers were liberal and edgy. Church meant traditional families, the city was filled with singles and ‘non-traditional’ families. Church meant belief, but Manhattan was the land of skeptics, critics, and cynics. The middle class, the usual market for the church, was fleeing the city because of rising costs. That left the wealthy, the sophisticated, and the hip, most of whom just laughed at the idea of church. The congregations that were in the city were dwindling, most barely able to even maintain their buildings.
People also told Keller that the few congregations that were hanging on had done so by adapting their message to a more modern crowd. He was told that he must not tell New Yorkers they have to believe in Jesus, because that is considered narrow-minded there. Church consultants were convinced Keller was a fool when he told them he was going preach traditional, historic, orthodox Christianity. He was going to teach the infallibility of the Bible, the deity of Christ, and the necessity of conversion to faith in Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior—all doctrines considered hopelessly outdated by the majority of New Yorkers. He was also told by the experts that he would need to liven up the worship service with a contemporary music and an informal order of service; and, a few dancing bears, magicians, strobe lights, and other gimmicks wouldn’t hurt. Keller said he planned to do the traditional liturgy with organ music and old hymns. New Yorkers said, “fuggedaboutit.”
Nevertheless, Keller started Redeemer Presbyterian Church from scratch, and within 20 years it had grown to more than 5,000 attendees, along with spawning more than a dozen satellite congregations in the immediate metropolitan area. The churches are multi-ethnic, diverse, young (average age 30), and two-thirds of the members are single. The church in America is not dead, and that old-time religion can still speak and change hearts.
One of the things Keller does is he engages in conversation with his young and cynical attenders. He takes their questions seriously, and then he responds with questions of his own. Let me give you an example relating to this morning’s theme. Many young New Yorkers would consider offensive the very idea of Christ as King. First of all, the image of a King is too authoritarian for them, too much like the establishment. Second of all, it is too male-oriented; as is the rest of the Bible, they say, seeing no room for their strident feminism. And why all this emphasis on Christ in the first place? Sure, Jesus might have been a good guy, but what about all the other religious leaders? They say Christians act like they are the only ones who have the truth. And what about this dying on the cross business? If God wanted to forgive everyone, why didn’t he just say, “Okay, you are off the hook,” and leave it at that? And what does one man’s death on a cross 2,000 years ago have to do with me today? Besides, there are too many rules in Christianity. Why can’t it just be me and God? I have God in my heart and God is love and isn’t that enough? Oftentimes someone will say ‘God is Love,’ as if that settles it once and for all.
Keller will commend them for their questions and their interest, and then continues the conversation with questions of his own. He will ask, for example, “What makes you think God is a God of love? Where have you heard that? On what do you base that belief?” Then the conversation slows down a bit. Responses do not come as quickly as the questions, and the best he usually gets is something like, “Well, it’s just true, God is love—everyone knows that.”
Keller will then say, “No, not everyone does know that or believes that at all. What makes you think so? Is it obvious from the world around you that God is love? It doesn’t look that way to me– not without the Bible to explain a few things. Should we trust what the ‘God in our heart?’ tells us? The God in some people’s hearts tell them to kill other people. In what religion of the world do you see a God of love? Buddhism teaches a way of life, but not a god of love. Hinduism says the universe is god and god is the universe, so again, no god of love. Islam proclaims an all-powerful, all-knowing god that gives everything and determines everything, but definitely not a personal god of love. Where do you get the idea that God is love? Liberal New Yorkers might be all for that, but most people in the world don’t see God that way at all.
And then Keller reminds his listeners that they grew up in a culture that has for centuries been grounded in and shaped by Christianity, and whether they know it or not, their idea of a God of love comes from the old, old story of Jesus and his love. Such an idea is found nowhere else. They may think they have rejected the Christian faith, even as they cling to its most basic precept: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” No one or no other book has ever told such a story. (continued…)
–Tim Keller tells the story of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in his 2008 book The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. His conversations about how we can know God is a God of love can be found in chapter five of that book.