The 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.
Let'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.