The Times salutes a smart evangelical

49480173 758136050c mThe Rev. Timothy J. Keller must be pretty smart.

You can tell that because, in reporter Michael Luo’s “Preaching the Word and Quoting the Voice” story, the New York Times stresses that the leader of the city’s Redeemer Presbyterian is not like those other evangelicals. Then the story tells the reader this again and again and again and again. (By the way, what does that headline mean? I’m lost.)

The only problem is that Keller (photo: www.djchuang.com) seems, at least to me as a reader, like a pretty typical, C.S. Lewis-reading, tuned-in, smart evangelical. There are lots of them. You run into entire seminaries full of them from time to time. I know that these people exist because I know lots of them myself, in a wide variety of denominations. Plus, I read it in the New York Times not that long ago.

Don’t get me wrong. This is a good story and I was glad to see it — finally — in the Times.

However, Redeemer Presbyterian has been a major story in that city — and several others — for a long, long time. It’s a good story, but it does contain a few “What?!?” moments that made we wonder what’s going on. Take, for example:

Over the last 16 years, Dr. Keller’s church, Redeemer Presbyterian, has swelled to 4,400 attendees, mostly young professionals and artists who do not fit the prototypical evangelical mold, spread out across four different services on Sundays. Although Dr. Keller, 55, is hardly a household name among believers outside New York — in part because he has avoided the Christian speaking circuit — his renown is growing in pastoral circles and in the movement to establish or “plant” new churches, a trend among evangelicals these days.

Let’s skip over the “prototypical evangelical mold” part, which is just another way of saying that this impressive church attracts smart New Yorkers, which is different since ordinary evangelical churches would attract, I assume, not-so-smart suburbanites. One would not read about those churches in the Times unless they sponsored voter drives or crisis-pregnancy centers.

What interests me is that part about a movement to “plant” churches being “a trend among evangelicals these days.” This is something like saying it is a trend among Roman Catholic priests to say Mass, or a trend among opera singers to sing opera. Evangelicals plant churches like runners run, or evangelists evangelize. In this story, we even meet an expert on this cutting-edge trend:

Believing new churches are the best way to produce new Christians, evangelicals are making a major push to start new churches around the world, said Edmund Gibbs, a professor of church growth at Fuller Theological Seminary outside Los Angeles. But only recently have some evangelicals begun to turn their focus to urban centers.

Dr. Keller “has grasped the strategic significance of the city, of the urban culture and the need to engage that very diverse culture at every level,” he said. “Our culture is urban-driven.”

By the way, this Gibbs guy is almost certainly Father Eddie Gibbs, an evangelical Anglican priest who has been doing church-planting workshops around the world for decades and is best known as an associate of former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey. I first heard Gibbs speak on the urgency of addressing church life in the mega-cities of the world about, oh, 20-something years ago.

Does the reader need to know another phrase or two worth of information about Gibbs? If you were writing an article that included a reference to Jack Nicklaus helping people improve their golf games, wouldn’t you want to know that he had won, oh, 18 major gold tournaments? I realize that Gibbs is not that famous. But if you are writing about church planting, Gibbs is a global leader in this arena. The reader needs to know that.

vision1Let’s look at one more passage in this story:

Observing Dr. Keller’s professorial pose on stage, it is easy to understand his appeal. While he hardly shrinks from difficult Christian truths, he sounds different from many of the shrill evangelical voices in the public sphere. “A big part is he preaches on such an intellectual level,” said Suzanne Perron, 37, a fashion designer who is one of many who had stopped going to church before she discovered Redeemer several years ago. “You can go to Redeemer and you can not be a Christian and listen to that sermon and be completely engaged.”

Dr. Keller shies away from the label evangelical, which is often used to describe theologically conservative Protestant Christians like him, because of the political and fundamentalist connotations that now come with it. He prefers the term orthodox instead, because he believes in the importance of personal conversion or being “born again,” and the full authority of the Bible.

Uh, so normal “evangelicals” do not believe in the “importance of personal conversion or being ‘born again,’ and the full authority of the Bible” but those who use the word “orthodox” do? (I ask this question as someone who was raised Southern Baptist and is now an Eastern Orthodox Christian, so I have lived with both of these words for a long time.)

In the end, this is the rare case in which I wish the Times had called up some church leaders on the religious left and let them tee off on Keller. Believe me, they would have. Or, the Times copy desk could have visited the Vision & Values section of the church’s website and informed readers that, even though Keller is a smart man, he is a traditional Christian when it comes to hot cultural issues. People can also read his blog.

Yes, Keller is a smart man and his church is important. Someone at the Times needs to hang out more with other smart evangelicals to get a sense of who he is. They might even try hiring some smart evangelicals who have earned their stripes as journalists and letting them have some input into stories of this kind.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Fayola Shakes

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. *Exactly* what I was thinking when I read that article. And to this comment…

    “They might even try hiring some smart evangelicals who have earned their stripes as journalists and letting them have some input into stories of this kind.”

    …I say “Amen!”. Pun intended. If the Times is going to scratch its God itch, it should at least have people personally familiar with the Godbeat writing theses stories….for the same reason you’d think there’d be more Muslims reporting on the war…but that’s already been discussed here, so I digress.

  • http://www.culture-makers.com/ Andy Crouch

    Ah, the New York Times. Of the making of “gee whiz, we found a smart evangelical!” stories there is no end. The point being, of course, that such creatures are so rare in the wild that the very uncovering of one serves to confirm our readers’ stereotypes of all the rest.

    Very well said, Terry.

  • http://proecclesia.blogspot.com/ Jay Anderson

    I have to shake my head when I read stories like the one in the Times. You know, because that “prototypical evangelical” Dr. Billy Graham isn’t very “smart”.

  • Marv

    And who might be your choice of nominees for evangelical counsel to the Times, tmatt? I really wonder.

    Sometimes the desire for accuracy around here seems to lurch into personal ambition–the importance of my personal perspectivism and those I say it represents. Isn’t it enough to inherit the mantle of Cal Thomas and meet Bono, etc?

    Fair and easy point about this Times article. Too easy. You end up getting it a tad wrong. General statements about Evangelicals are always false. Church plants are anathema to some self-described evangelicals. Generally the most independent non-denominational types are the most into church planting. They know nothing else. What they are is a startup, and if they grow, they will start up more churches. Growth is determined mainly by successful missionary activity–conversions. Many other “denominational” evangelical churches have handled startups rather differently, because they have been historically less conversion oriented. Growth had to do with birth rates, immigration, etc. Now a lot of churches like that (Reformed/Presbyterians being a good example) have to get more conversion-oriented (and in that sense “evangelical”) to survive, although among the conservative denominations, “Evangelical” is already an existing identity.

  • http://www.culture-makers.com/ Andy Crouch

    Marv, leaving aside the personal comments directed at tmatt, you’re right that Tim Keller’s approach to church planting, most especially the fact that his church supports “orthodox” churches of any denomination, is rather new for the PCA. That could have been clearer in the article, I think. But the PCA has been planting PCA churches aggressively (and creatively) for quite a while, hence the reference to Terry Gyger in the NYT piece. I am really struggling to think of a sizable group of soi-disant “evangelicals” for whom church planting would be “anathema.” Unfamiliar and unpracticed, perhaps, but everyone would pay it lip service, at the very least, these days.

  • Russ Pulliam

    Thanks for this commentary. I learned as much or more from Terry’s commentary as the original story.

  • http://caribouyah.blogspot.com Danny

    planting churches in cities…i wish the apostles would have thought of that!

    imagine what christianity would look like today if they would have considered places like rome, jerusalem and ephesus.

    man, keller is smart.

  • Walter

    We need to find a mad scientist with a lab that can join John McCandlish Phillips with someone like UNC-Chapel Hill’s Christian Smith.

  • tmatt

    MARV:

    “And who might be your choice of nominees for evangelical counsel to the Times, tmatt? I really wonder.”

    Way to snark!

    First of all, I assume it would help if they had members of evangelical churches, not ancient Orthodox churches.

    They also need some people who are working as journalists, don’t you think? Full time. They need an infusion of information, talent and brains. They need some diversity, don’t you think?

    I enjoy speaking to newspaper leaders. You get some nice questions and dialogue in that setting. I’m speaking at a national newspaper in a month or so, in fact.

    So, yes, Marv, I do enjoy being an advocate of religion news coverage in major media. I do enjoy being an advocate of diversity in journalism and, by the way, spending quite a bit of time defending the press in mainstream religious circles.

    Any other questions?

  • kelly

    Terry, the title of the piece is a reference to the Village Voice. I think it’s supposed to communicate that he’s a hip New Yorker: not only does Dr. Keller quote the voice but maybe he even knows hip way to abbreviate the name.

  • tmatt

    ANDY:

    I have known and covered PCA and EPC church planters for many years. They’re quite good at it. Is that a rare thing?

  • http://www.culture-makers.com/ Andy Crouch

    tmatt, we don’t disagree. No it’s not rare — that was my point, too. Terry Gyger is one of their church-planting geniuses.

    What is unique about what Redeemer is doing, in the context of the PCA, is that it is helping to plant non-PCA churches. That’s quite novel, even revolutionary, viz. this description on their “values” page: “We have no illusions that our single church or our Presbyterian tradition is sufficient to renew all of New York City spiritually, socially, and culturally” (emphasis mine). In many PCA circles, those would be fightin’ words.

  • Marv

    Hey, I’d probably vote for ya Terry. I think the NYT should have the whole GR crew as unpaid regular consultants.

    The most radical form of church planting comes from house church startups and urban black and latino pastors and missionaries who will set up shop in some old storefront and work from there. The if we build it, they will come attitude is very rare in the more traditional denominational churches. If some of their people were to try to push for the former planting strategy, it would be opposed. You do get outright hostility to church planting of a different sort not so much at the denominational level but at the congregational level. Some large churches like their largeness so much or whatever it is they fell they’ve got going, they resist planting projects. And there are other constraints as well. Most of the planting and growing is happening in suburbia/exurbia. Post-industrial cities with the whole “inner city” thing going on are especially prone to having big suburban churches that are opposed to urban “plants”. There has been some pushing and prodding here and there on this issue and some improvements in that regard, but to a large extent the predisposition to plant has a lot to do with prejudoice and perceived profitability.

  • http://www.redeemer.com Tim Keller

    In fairness to the reporter—-both Terry Gyger and I would say that church planting is a much more widespread trend today than formerly. When I was a seminarian at Gordon-Conwell in the 70s church planting was a pretty exotic subject—-none of the evangelical seminaries had courses on it. Books on the subject were extremely rare. (I only knew of 2 or 3.) By the 80s and 90s church planting was picking up and every seminary had courses on it. Dozens of books on church planting were being written. But the idea of planting city-center churches was still considered foolhardy. Today there is far greater interest and emphasis on city church planting then we’ve ever seen. I don’t think either Eddie Gibbs or Michael Luo (the reporter) is wrong to say that it is a strong and growing ‘trend.’

  • http://brad.boydston.us Brad Boydston

    Church planting was more or less on the back burner in evangelicalism from WWII to the late 70′s. Yes we did church planting during that era but not very aggressively or in step with population growth. (With perhaps the exception being the Southern Baptists.) In the late 70′s someone flipped on a switch and suddenly church planting was picking up steam. There were significant studies and advancements in methodology in the 80′s. We are just now, and with the help of a lot of people like Keller, figuring out how to be more effective in urban and metro church planting. In the 50′s and 60′s most evangelical church planting was in the suburbs — really a transplanting of formerly urban churches into the burbs — not necessarily evangelistically aggressive. Today church plants are as likely to be in a metro context as they are in the suburbs. And the newest wave of church plants have attempted to include a multi-cultural component in the DNA of the plant.

    Evangelical churches have not always relied on church planting as an evangelistic strategy. The reporter is right.

  • Daniel

    Given Keller and Boylston’s comments, maybe GR commentators should spend more time with smart Evangelicals who understand their movement. :)

  • tmatt

    “In the late 70’s someone flipped on a switch and suddenly church planting was picking up steam.”

    There actually is no contradiction.

    I said that the surge in church planting began about two decades ago and, using that frame of reference, questioned that this was some kind of brand new trend (as the NYTs article suggested). Like I said, Gibbs has been teaching this topic for that whole frame of time.

    I agree that the norm was simple suburban growth in the booming ’50s and ’60s. Then things began to get more complex.

    If the novelty is that Redeemer is planting churches in other denominations, then that is probably true.

    I read the NYTs piece very carefully. Please do the same with my post.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    Something that struck me was that the story waited until almost the end before identifying “his denomination”. (Although I remember a story about someone I think was him when he was sent to New York to start a church.)

    Another is that the PCA itself was called “evangelical”… a descriptor I do not think would be applied to say, the Missouri Synod or the erstwhile “Southern” Presbyterians.

  • Rudy

    Re: Will’s points, Luo nicely mirrors, whether intentionally or not, Redeemer’s (full dis.: I attend) own caginess about its affiliation and the “evangelical” label. Both the PCA (http://www.pcanet.org/general/beliefs.htm) and Redeemer, however, fit David Bebbington’s useful and popular definition of an Evangelical : Conversionism, Activism, Biblicism, Crucicentrism. I’d like to self-label as “orthodox,” and I’m perhaps part of the Arminian 5th column, but we are what we are…

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  • http://www.CigarVideoPodcast.com Calee

    When I lived in NYC, I attended Redeemer. Once I moved to suburbia, I was amazed at how often sermon examples were recycled email chain letters or Christian Urban Legends. I think the journalist, while making some uninformed statements- hit the annomaly of Redeemer and other urban churches with the headline. I’m sure there are educated, well-read men in the country’s seminaries. I just haven’t seen them in the non-denominational evangelical churches that seem to characterize the national perception of Christianity.

    Don’t forget, The Voice is 40% liberal commentary and 60% escort services. I’ve yet to see a pastor in my area be willing to embrace that culture before condemning it.

  • Carl

    I know I’m a little late to this discussion, but I wanted to put in a few cents of defense for the Times article.

    For one, I don’t think that “prototypical evangelical world” must read as “not-so-smart suburbanites.” It just as likely refers to a smart, suburban, Christian-product-consuming, modernity-embracing, and distinct evangelical subculture in America. Most young professionals and artists in Manhattan indeed do not fit that mold. It’s not about smarts as much as it is about worldview and experience. The preachers in the article quote the Village Voice and Foucault because those are points of contact. Redeemer is good at reaching an unsubcultured, post/non-Christian city that’s not necessarily smarter, just different—in fact, it may be culturally more similar to London or Tokyo than to other American cities.

    The article reaches a lot of the same people. Yeah, some interesting details are left out, and there’s not much new in the article for many of us. But that’s fine; it’s not meant for an audience of church planting students or historians. It’s the Times, right?, not a church growth journal.

    Articles like this one are good. They give Christians a platform in New York, introducing people who are unaware of “church planting”, and unaware of the church beyond right-wing politics and bestselling books, to a gospel-speaker that might appeal to them.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Gary Bowser

    As one who is looking at this issue from the “inside out”, which is to say, I pastor a downtown church in Denver, Colorado which has had a rich history (MLK Jr. spoke at our church). Making a clear, punctiliar choice to follow Christ’s way is not alien to me but I view a linear line of daily decisions as one’s validation of that punciliar decision. This is not “news”. I guess I wonder what drives the 3100 volunteers in Keller’s congregation to do whatever they do. It seems to me that something either implicit or explicit is being said somewhere about what it means to be a Christian in the world. Also, one’s view of scripture sends us off in one direction or another depending one what that view is. My Presbyterian seminiary Doctor of Ministry thesis centered on hospitality within the local church. As it turns out I am doing my thesis. I did not hear much about the comment in the Times article which referred to Keller’s absence having an effect upon the attendance. At First Baptist Church of Denver, we had a version of that with the former pastor who suddenly died of cancer. While he did not command large audiences, he did cast a large “shadow” in the City. Since his death, one symptom we have suffered has been “leadership dependency” and it has left a unholy hole…


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