Mark D. Roberts

Mark D. Roberts

Redeemer Presbyterian Church: Why Is It Thriving?

Click here for an updated and reformatted version of this series.

 

 

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

Friday, March 26, 2010

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.

 

Click here for an updated and reformatted version of this series.

 

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.

Tim Keller PreachingThe
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)

Patrick StewartWhen
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. (Photo: 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)
Wednesday, April 14, 2010

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 NYC at Night

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. (Photo: 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.)

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)
April 15, 2010

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!)
(Photo below: New York City, looking south from the top of the Empire
State Building)

New York City from 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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