On February 26, the Rev. Timothy Keller, 66, announced to parishioners at eight Sunday services that he’ll retire July 1 as the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church. Keller is no publicity-seeking celebrity preacher, but if U.S. evangelicals were to create a Mount Rushmore Keller’s carved visage would deserve a place.
So far as The Religion Guy can discover, national media and even reporters in Keller’s own town didn’t cover this milestone, so there’s ample room for follow-ups. A good place to begin research would be solid features in The New York Times (2006) and New York Magazine (2009).
When Keller began Redeemer with a handful of people in 1989, a Manhattan mission startup was considered so dicey that two prior candidates had rejected the job offer. Keller seemed an odd choice because his only pastoral experience was in far different Hopewell, Va. Moreover, latitudinarian “mainline” Protestantism would have seemed far more marketable in Gotham than the strict orthodoxy of Keller’s Presbyterian Church in America. Yet eventually thousands of young professionals were flocking to Redeemer each Sunday.
Significant themes reporters could pursue: While many evangelical congregations have forsaken downtown for the ease of suburbia, Redeemer offers dramatic proof that city centers are not only spiritually hungry places but that biblical conservatism can thrive there under the right conditions. Against stereotypes of evangelicalism, Redeemer members volunteer time and donations with 40 organizations to help society’s marginalized, and Keller shuns Religious Right politicking and pulpit-pounding, offering instead calm, content-rich sermons. Explore this link, for example.
Then this: While many congregations sit on their successes, Redeemer is all about fostering new congregations, including ones in New York City that could provide competition. Its “City to City” church-planting operation is not only local but international, spreading the New York techniques to a growing network of 381 newly launched congregations in 54 urban centers from Prague to Phnom Penh.
Post-Keller, Redeemer is applying such missional mitosis. The main congregation, which worships in the rented Hunter College auditorium, has held satellite services on the West Side and Downtown. If a membership vote on May 20 agrees, the three congregations will become fully independent with their own lead pastors and governing elders and then, in turn, plan new Manhattan branches.
Need a hook for the newsroom "tickler"? The process begins Easter Sunday with the launch of Redeemer Lincoln Square on Central Park West. Meanwhile, Redeemer is scouting for quarters to house a new congregation on the Upper East Side, part of a projected $80 million expansion plan toward which $62 million has been pledged.
A final story angle here is Keller’s own future. He’ll now train church planters through City to City, teach at a new extension campus of Reformed Theological Seminary that Redeemer sponsors (the first class graduates this spring) and do occasional teaching outside the pulpit for Redeemer. And he’ll likely add to his list of 11 books (Amazon.com page here) that exemplify a Redeemer slogan: “Skeptics Welcome.”
Upsumming, here’s the most important story theme: What do analysts think was the unexpected magic that produced success in secularized Manhattan and is now proving effective worldwide?