The church members gathered for coffee hour at Redeemer Presbyterian Church knew something was wrong when the polite man quickly shouldering his way through the crowd—“Excuse me, excuse me”—was followed seconds later by uniformed police.
The man had robbed an adjacent parking garage and then raced into an alley to get away—an alley ending in the open door of the fellowship room where pastor Tim Keller was chatting with congregants after the service.
“The only exit from the church was to come back up to street level and come out the front door,” Kathy Keller remembers. The man found it, tearing out of the church right in front of Kathy and her three sons, who were sitting in their minivan waiting for Tim.
All three Keller boys—ages 6, 10, and 12—flew into the back seat to watch as police caught the man, threw him across the hood of the car parked behind them, and cuffed him.
“Which I have to say is one of the reasons I loved raising our kids in New York,” Kathy said. “You didn’t have to lecture them about the evils of drink when they saw drunks vomiting on the sidewalk, nor on the dangers of theft when they saw thieves being cuffed six inches away from their noses.”
But to be honest, that wasn’t how she felt when Tim first suggested they move from Philadelphia to New York City to plant a church. In the late ’80s, New York was reaching the peak of its crack cocaine addiction. Violent crime rates had never been higher.
The spiritual scene wasn’t much better: Less than 1 percent of those in center city Manhattan self-identified as evangelicals. Without a lot more connections, experience, and money, you’ll have a really hard time, New York insiders told them. Odds are you won’t last five years.
But Keller’s plant has lasted nearly six times that long. When he preaches his last sermon on June 25, Redeemer will be 28 years old. Over nearly three decades, attendance has soared from around 50 to more than 5,000. The congregation expanded into two, then three locations. They ministered to thousands through Hope for New York, re-imagined employment through the Center for Faith and Work, and launched a church-planting hub now called City to City.
And Saturday, when the congregation voted to split Redeemer’s campuses into three distinct churches, it wasn’t an ending so much as another beginning. Redeemer, which has helped to plant hundreds of churches in New York and around the world, is replanting itself.
Starting from Scratch
Tim Keller was his own third choice to pastor Redeemer. He was a professor at Westminster Seminary when the then-14-year-old Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) asked him to start a church in New York City. The idea was ambitious, both for a teenage denomination and also a 30-something seminary professor.
He said no, offering to help them find somebody else. That turned out to be harder than it looked; both men he asked also said no.
At the same time, he felt both put off and drawn to “the arrogance, fierce secularity, diversity, power, and spiritual barrenness” of New York, he wrote in Center City Churches in 1993. He began to wonder if this wasn’t what attracted missionaries to a new field.
He mentioned it to his wife, Kathy, who laughed. “Take our three wild boys (the victims of below-average parenting, as well as indwelling sin) to the center of a big city?” she wrote in 2012. “Expose them to varieties of sin that I hoped they wouldn’t hear about until, say, their mid-30s? My list of answers to, ‘What is wrong with this picture?’ was a long, long one.”
She wasn’t wrong: New York circa 1990 wasn’t the ideal place to raise a family. Homicides peaked at 2,245 during Redeemer’s first full year, right in line with the rising violence in other American cities, as crack cocaine flooded the streets. (In comparison, New York had a record low 333 murders in 2014.)
The worship space the Kellers ended up renting, a Seventh-day Adventist church two blocks off Central Park, was in the most prosperous neighborhood in the city, the Upper East Side. Yet just three and a half weeks after Redeemer opened the doors, 28-year-old Trisha Meili was brutally raped and beaten as she jogged in the park; three years earlier, 18-year-old Jennifer Levin had been strangled and her body left there. The crime had spread everywhere.
“On a typical day in 1989, New Yorkers reported nine rapes, five murders, 255 robberies, and 194 aggravated assaults,” the New York Daily News reported. Carole Kleinknecht, who counted Redeemer’s offering for the first year or so, kept it safe between services by hiding it in paper lunch bags in the heating ducts in the back of the kitchen.
So it was no wonder that “New York was depopulating. Churches were selling their buildings,” said Carole’s husband, Glen, who moved to the city in the mid-’70s to work with Campus Crusade for Christ (now Cru). In 1980, Manhattan’s population fell to 1.4 million, the lowest in 100 years. By the end of the decade, apartment rents across the city were dropping—sometimes as much as 20 percent—for the first time since before World War II.
“Starting a church in New York City was something not just beyond my talent and ability, but pretty much beyond [the] talent or ability [of anybody] that I knew,” Keller said in a Redeemer video. “Therefore, if God was going to do it, he would not be doing it through the talent of the minister, but through . . . a person who loved and depended on him.”
Keller was reading The Christian in Complete Armor by Puritan William Gurnall, and came across Gurnall’s assertion that it takes more courage to be a Christian than an army captain. “I realized, ultimately—yes, I didn’t have the prayer life I should have, I didn’t have the love of God I should have—but ultimately, to not go was just simply cowardice. And it was not being faithful to the One who had the bravery to come from heaven to earth and go to the cross for me.”
So in February 1989, Tim and Kathy started driving up from Philadelphia to New York every Sunday afternoon. Keller led a Bible study with about a dozen people, a step of obedience that “broke open” his prayer life, he said.
They’d find a babysitter for the afternoon, but would always bring one son along. They wanted to acclimate the children to the city, and also to “show the people we were bringing our family here,” Keller said. “I wanted them to see our family, and not just me.”
It was a strong signal right off the bat: The Kellers were here to stay.
Their commitment to the city in turn inspired commitment to them. Congregants loved Keller’s vision for their home, his insistence that the city was valuable and worth reaching. Kleinknecht liked that view so much he committed to joining without ever hearing Keller speak.
He was in for a pleasant surprise.
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