Redeemer Presbyterian Church: Why Is It Thriving?

A Thriving Church in New York City . . . Why?

During a recent trip to New York, I had the opportunity to visit Redeemer Presbyterian Church. It was my first time at Redeemer, and I was pleased to join the congregation at one of its several Sunday worship services. I had heard about this church for years, and knew that it is one of the most influential and highly-regarded churches in America. Redeemer’s senior pastor, Timothy J. Keller, is one of the most respected pastors in the country as well. So I was eager to “check out” Redeemer. Why, I wondered, is this church thriving in the midst of New York City? . . . which is not exactly the Bible belt.

Before I offer some observations on why Redeemer is making such an impact, both in New York City and throughout the country, I’d like first to set up my thoughts by giving a bit of history and describing my visit to the church.

Redeemer Presbyterian Church, a congregation in the Presbyterian Church of America, a more conservative denomination than the PCUSA, was founded in 1989. Under the pastoral guidance of Tim Keller, the church has grown amazingly during the past two decades. It draws well over 4,000 people to worship each week, and has planted dozens of new churches in the New York City area. Redeemer has inspired other “Redeemer” church plants across the country, and has set an example for hundreds of other churches that are seeking to impact the cities in which they have been planted.

Here is Redeemer’s vision statement as found on its website:

To spread the gospel, first through ourselves and then through the city by word, deed, and community; To bring about personal changes, social healing, and cultural renewal through a movement of churches and ministries that change New York City and through it, the world.

I attended one of Redeemer’s five Sunday worship service, the 6:00 p.m. East Side Evening Worship at the Hunter College auditorium, a large venue that seats just over 2,000 people. It was a cold and rainy evening, but that didn’t stop well over 1,000 people from gathering for a 75-minute worship service.

The Hunter College auditorium, not surprisingly, did not feature any religious art or symbols. The church did not add any, at least not anything that I could see. In fact, other than the praise band set up on the stage and the nicely-printed bulletin handed out to all participants, the Redeemer worship service did not include any visual components: no religious symbols displayed, no artwork, no digital projection.

When we arrived at the auditorium, we were greeted by a friendly but not too-friendly person who welcomed us and gave us some material about the church. Because we were a half-hour early, we found our own seats, and were not escorted by an usher. As the people gathered, I was struck by their friendliness to each other. Nobody spoke to me and my family, however, until an official time of greeting in the service. Most of the people who gathered seemed happy to talk with their friends, or to sit quietly as they waited for the service to begin.

In most churches I attend, and I visit quite a few these days, there is no shortage of white hair in the pews. At Redeemer, I was one of few who had white hair. (Tim Keller seems to have white hair, but mostly he has none.)  The photo to the right shows a group of new members who were received that night. Though the picture is small, you can tell that the average age of these people appears to be late 20s. You’d also see some ethnic diversity, with a few Asian folk and one African-American, in addition to several Anglos. You won’t see any people over forty in the congregation, either. I don’t know whether Redeemer’s other worship services include more older people. But it is striking that this church includes so many younger folk, especially given the nature of the worship service, as I’ll explain in a moment.

The worship service began shortly after 6:00 p.m. with a jazz prelude. (Yes, it was called a “Prelude” in the bulletin.) Then one of the associate pastors, Matthew Paul Buccheri, came out to welcome us and call us to worship. He was a relatively young man (under 40, I think) with a New York accent. He wore a tie, but his shirt was untucked. His style was relaxed, but not overly casual. He didn’t tell jokes or warm up the crowd. Rather, he called us to worship in a theologically-solid statement of who God is and what worship is all about. There was an element of explantion in his preparatory comments, as if he was helping us understand what was coming so that we might participate.

The bulk of the worship time, prior to the sermon, included the singing of a variety of songs. There was a faint memory of the jazz feel of the prelude, but, for the most part, the worship band sounded like most other top-drawer worship bands I’ve heard. The main leader was a woman, who was joined by the associate pastor in leading the singing.

Most of the songs and hymns of worship were familiar to me, including: “How Great is Our God,” “Come Let Us Worship and Bow Down,” “Ancient of Days,” “He Knows My Name,” and “The Church’s One Foundation.” It struck me that only “How Great is Our God” was written within the last decade.  “Come Let Us Worship and Bow Down” is a classic praise song, having been published thirty years ago. I was singing this song in worship before most of the people in the Hunter College auditorium were born. As I’ve mentioned before, there was no digital projection of lyrics. They were printed in the bulletin. Quite clearly, there was nothing especially fancy or trendy or edgy about the musical portion of the worship at this Redeemer service, other than the unusual Jazz prelude (and postlude).

In my next post on Redeemer I’ll describe the sermon preached by Tim Keller. Then I’ll offer some observations on why this church is so successful, not only in terms of numbers, but also in terms of influence.

A Thriving Church in a Great City . . . Why? (Part 2) Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A couple of weeks ago I began a short series in response to a spring-break trip to New York City, in which my family and I visited Redeemer Presbyterian Church. As I explained in my first blog post in this series, Redeemer is an exceptional church in many ways. It has received plenty of attention because, among other things, it has grown in the last twenty years from nothing to a vibrant community of over 4,000 worshipers each Sunday. And all of this in New York City, not exactly the place we’d envision as a greenhouse for new church development and prodigious church growth.

Why? Why is Redeemer Presbyterian Church thriving today? And why is Redeemer attracting thousands of younger people, who, according to recent studies, are notoriously uninterested in church, even though they may have a warm spot in their hearts for “spirituality”?

You might think Redeemer is thriving because they feature cutting edge worship, with a hot band leading the latest worship music, lots of attention-grabbing visuals, encouragement of social media (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) during the service, and a trendy “worship in a dark warehouse lit only by candles” experience. It’s true that the worship service I attended was led by a high-quality band. Yet I wouldn’t call them “hot.” And some of the music they led was quite dated. We worshiped in a well-lit auditorium, and I could see no sign of liturgical art or mood-altering candles. There was no digital projection. Nor were we encouraged to exercise our texting thumbs during the service. What impressed me most about the worship service at Redeemer was its lack of cutting-edge gimmicks, combined with its solid theological integrity. The point was not for any of us to have a sweet experience. It was for God to be worshiped in Spirit and in truth.

The mention of truth makes for a nice segue to the sermon. It was preached by the Rev. Dr. Timothy J. Keller, the founding pastor of Redeemer. In addition to leading Redeemer for the past twenty years, Keller is a best-selling author and highly-regarded national church leader. Before my visit to Redeemer, I had read several of Keller’s works, but I had never heard him speak. (Photo: Tim Keller preaching at the Hunter College evening service of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, March 14, 2010)

When Tim Keller came to the front of the auditorium in order to preach, he didn’t look like the kind of charismatic figure who draws thousands of people, especially young people, each week. He looked rather professorial, actually, though dressed in black pants and a sweater rather than a tweed jacket. His almost completely bald head and pleasant visage reminded me of Professor Charles Xavier as played by Patrick Stewart in the X-Men films.

Patrick Stewart (Public Domain)

Like the worship service at Redeemer, Keller’s sermon didn’t utilize any bells and whistles. When the female worship leader finished reading the Scripture passage from which he was going to preach, Keller stood up and began to remind his congregation of the recent focus of his preaching, a series of sermons focusing on the Servant of God from the latter part of Isaiah.

A Thriving Church in a Great City . . . Why? (Part 3)

In yesterday’s post I began to describe my experience of Tim Keller’s preaching at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. Today I’ll give a summary of the sermon I heard, along with some observations.

The sermon I heard on March 14, 2010 was called “An Everlasting Name.” It was based on Isaiah 56:1-8, a passage that includes these verses:

For thus says the LORD: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls,
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off. (Isaiah 56:4-5)

If you’d like to listen to this sermon, you can purchase it from the Redeemer Sermon Store. The sermon lasted 36 minutes, almost twice the length of the average Presbyterian sermon. Yet I found the minutes passing quickly because I was so engaged in Keller’s preaching.

The sermon had a traditional three-point structure. When we experience God’s salvation (Isa 56:1), we will have:

1. A new concern for justice.
2. A new community of equality before God.
3. A new name.

Each of these three points were based on exposition of the text of Isaiah 56. Though Keller did not go verse-by-verse through the passage, he discussed in detail the parts of the text that were applicable to his points. It was clear that he found these points in the text (exegesis) and not the other way around (eisegesis).

In his discussion of point 1 – a new concern for justice – Keller spent quite a long time explaining the biblical notions of justice, focusing on the meaning of two main Hebrew words for justice: mishpat and tzedeq. His explanation would have been understandable to educated lay people, but reflected a solid understanding of biblical scholarship. He quoted from the Old Testament scholar Christopher Wright, who claims that mishpat and tzedeq capture what we would call social justice.

Keller continually related the biblical text to current concerns and issues. In addition to speaking of social justice, under point 2 – a new community of equality before God – he spoke clearly about racism and its inconsistency with God’s intention for us. Under point 3 – a new name – he addressed that which gives us our meaning and significance. When we know the Lord, we derive our name, our identity, not primarily from our family or from our accomplishments, but from God.

Observations

Times Square in New York City, only a few miles from where Tim Keller was preaching, yet a million miles away in terms of its values.

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, Keller’s preaching style is almost professorial. He is a teacher who explains rather than entertains. In fact, I was surprised that this sermon included very few illustrations or stories, and almost no humor, other than a couple of ironic comments about two-thirds of the way into the sermon. This was, in fact, one of the least entertaining sermons I have heard in a while.

But I am not criticizing Keller here. Not at all. I admire his commitment to focus on the text and its implications, without getting caught up in the culture of amusement. As I mentioned before, I was utterly engaged in this sermon, as were the others in the congregation, near as I could tell. Our attention was captured by the truthfulness and integrity of the presentation.

And also by its relevance to contemporary concerns. I would estimate that Keller spent at least a third of his thirty-six minutes, perhaps more, related Isaiah 56 to the issues of today: justice, equality, racism, reputation, family, meaning in life. This was not a teaching sermon that lived only in the biblical world. Rather, it built a bridge between that world and our own.

I was also impressed by the extent to which Keller addresses issues we’d associate with social justice. Christian faith, in his preaching, is not only or even primarily about me and my spiritual condition. Rather, it is a matter of living for justice in the world, and doing so in the context of a justice-seeking community.

Tim Keller swims against the tide of what many claim is essential for preaching today, especially preaching to the under-30 crowd. Many advisers insist that effective preaching must be multimedia, narrative-drenched, brief, and entertaining. Keller’s preaching uses no visuals and few stories. It is about twice as long as the average sermon in a mainline church, and would hardly be called entertaining. What Keller does with excellence is to unfold the meaning of the biblical text in an theologically-responsible way, connecting this meaning to the concerns and culture of the congregation. He does this in a way that helps people to engage with God in today’s world. And he does it without drawing undue attention to himself.

It’s clear that Keller has found a way to communicate with his audience, people, especially younger people, in New York City. Though I think his example is worthy of emulation, all preachers need to find the best way to communicate in their particular context. The forms and modes might differ in different places, but the fundamentals of Keller’s preaching are always worth imitating: wise engagement with the biblical text in its context that addresses the concerns of the congregation in its context. Keller helps us to understand God’s Word as it was spoken centuries ago so that we might understand and implement God’s Word for today.

In my next post in this series I’ll reflect a bit further on why I think Redeemer Presbyterian Church is thriving in a day when so many churches are failing.

A Thriving Church in a Great City . . . Why? (Part 4)

So for in this series I’ve described the worship service I attended last month at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. I also examined the sermon preached by Tim Keller. If you read these posts, you know that I have been complimentary of both the worship service and the sermon. But you also know that, in my opinion, neither the service nor the sermon were particularly flashy or edgy or trendy. They were not what you might expect from a church that is thriving in New York City, especially a church that is drawing thousands of people under thirty to worship services each week.

What was missing at Redeemer that I might have anticipated? Use of visual arts in worship; a darkened room with lit candles; use of digital projection of songs; mostly worship songs written in the last decade; encouragement of the use in worship of digital social media such as Twitter and/or Facebook; use of digital projection during the sermon; a narrative-based sermon with plenty of stories; a sermon that was mainly focused on practical application, a preacher with exceptional charisma.

What was included at Redeemer that I might not have expected? A worship band that was relatively low key (as worship bands go); a prelude; a fairly traditional call to worship; the majority of worship songs were at least fifteen years old; ushers; bulletins; lyrics and notes to all songs included in the bulletin; a prayer of confession; a sermon that was mostly a teaching sermon; a sermon that featured serious exposition of Scripture (the Old Testament, in fact); a preacher who was fairly professorial in tone; a postlude; a request in the bulletin to turn off electronic devices “at all times.”

Though the worship service and sermon at Redeemer were excellent, it seems obvious to me that the extraordinary success of Redeemer is not a result of this church having a “happening” worship service and a spellbinding preacher. Moreover, this church lacks what many “experts” claim to be essential if churches are going to reach the younger generations. So why is Redeemer thriving?

I don’t know this church well enough to offer any mature answer to this question. But here are my immature reflections.

Redeemer Presbyterian Church is thriving because, when it comes to the central gatherings of Redeemer, they major in the majors. Worship is focused on God. It is theologically sound and shaped. The band, however excellent, does not really take center stage. God does. People who worship at Redeemer may not have as many emotional experiences as folks in other churches, but they will regularly engage with the living God.

Redeemer Presbyterian Church is thriving because the sermons are biblically-based, careful expositions and interpretations of the biblical text. They are not based on the personality and panache of the preacher, unlike in many (most) large, successful churches. (In fact, Tim Keller doesn’t necessarily preach in all of Redeemer’s services on a given Sunday. Talk about decentralization of the main preacher!)

New York City, looking south from the top of the Empire State Building.

Redeemer Presbyterian Church is thriving because the sermons engage, not just the Scripture, but also the culture. They speak to the questions that people are really asking, to the issues that are truly pressing for people in New York (and beyond).

Redeemer Presbyterian Church is thriving because the teaching of the church, though respectful of folks who are not Christians, is unabashedly orthodox. This church is not afraid to be fully Christian, even and especially in ways that oppose cultural norms.

Redeemer Presbyterian Church is thriving because, as important as the worship services are to the life of the church, they are only one part of a whole, living community of believers that sees itself as a people in mission. Redeemer understands that the church is both gathered (in worship and fellowship) and scattered (in the world). The church actually seems to believe that it exists, not primarily for its own well-being, but for the flourishing of its neighbors. Redeemer embodies, in a way few churches do, a truly and thoroughly missional understanding of its existence. The church is living up to its compelling vision:

To spread the gospel, first through ourselves and then through the city by word, deed, and community; To bring about personal changes, social healing, and cultural renewal through a movement of churches and ministries that change New York City and through it, the world.

I’m sure I’ve missed much that is essential to the life and health of this church. But what I saw in just one visit, along with some browsing of the church website, encouraged me about the possibilities for the church, not just in New York, but everywhere.

Finally, let me close by saying that Redeemer Presbyterian Church is thriving because God is blessing this church. Though one can always point to aspects of a church’s life that put it in line for God’s blessing, in the end, it all comes down to the mercy, grace, and sovereignty of God. I have a sneaking suspicion that Tim Keller would agree.


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