Mark D. Roberts

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.