Rev. Timothy Keller spent nearly 30 years reaching out to skeptics in New York City. Here’s what he’s learned.
After nearly 30 years at the helm of New York City’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church, Rev. Timothy Keller announced last week that he will be stepping down from the role of senior pastor at his church.
Keller, a New York Times bestselling author, is an influential voice within evangelical Christianity. His church grew from a 15-person prayer group on the Upper East Side to a community of more than 5,000 that holds multiple Sunday services at three Manhattan branches, and is affiliated with over 300 congregations around the world.
As the leader of a conservative congregation in the middle of a big city that tends to swing liberal, Keller has years of experience trying to bridge the gap between those two world views. And he’s become known for his outreach to the religiously unaffiliated ― the growing number of Americans who identify as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.”
In The Reason for God, published in 2008, Keller makes the case that Christianity is a rational belief system by tackling a few of the doubts that skeptics, both non-believers and those who question Christianity in particular, have about God. In one of his latest books, Making Sense of God, Keller steps further back and addresses questions that skeptics have about faith itself ― and whether any version of religion makes sense or has any relevance to modern life.
Keller told The Huffington Post that the job of an evangelist isn’t necessarily any harder than when he started Redeemer many decades ago ― but it’s different.
“Nowadays, I think the difficulty isn’t just the hostility; it’s also that we as a society are ill-equipped to really respect, dialogue and learn from each other when we disagree or have different political or religious views,” Keller told The Huffington Post. “I think many people want a pluralism that’s healthy and honoring of each other’s differences but we -– both the religious and the non-religious –- don’t know how to do this well.”
The Huffington Post caught up with Keller to speak about his upcoming career transition and about what he’s learned about the religiously unaffiliated during his 28 years of ministry at Redeemer.
Read on for the conversation.
What led you to step down as senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian at this particular moment?
Two main reasons. First, it is a way to make room within my church for new, younger leaders to develop and take charge. I was preaching four times a Sunday, 40-42 weeks a year. That is over 160 speaking opportunities that now several others can fill and that will help them grow greatly in their abilities. It also means that many will be given new authority and responsibility …
The second reason is closely related to the first. It frees me to teach others what I’ve learned about ministering in a secular environment, like some of the neighborhoods in Manhattan that we’ve been part of. I also want to invest in the larger community of churches in New York – there are really exciting things happening here related to growth in churches. That will be a more-than-full-time job, so I’m not retiring.
In short, my move is about helping and supporting future leaders at Redeemer and the community of churches in the city as a whole.
You have worked with and created spaces for people who doubt at Redeemer for close to 30 years. What have you discovered about religious seekers and skeptics during that time? What are the reasons some people reject religion and what are they generally searching for when they leave?
I’ve learned so much and I’m still learning.
One thing I’ve learned is that sociologist Peter Berger is right. The reasons for both embracing and rejecting religious faith are never merely intellectual and rational. Of course, the intellectual and rational play a role, but the reasons for all moves or paradigm shifts are also partly emotional and partly relational—dependent on positive and negative experiences with believers and non-believers. It is a great mistake to think that deep religious belief can’t be highly rational, or to think that non-belief can’t be largely a matter of feeling and experience rather than reason.
I don’t want to over-generalize, but I mention this pattern because I’ve learned a lot by processing with many people who reject religious faith because they were raised in an unusually rigid and close-minded setting. Later they find that they miss what philosopher Charles Taylor calls the “fullness”—an assurance that life has ultimate meaning and a hope that is strong enough to get you through suffering. When they realize they have lost something they begin looking in earnest for a different kind of religious faith than the one they had been raised in. Many never re-acquire faith, and some do. As I said, I don’t want to give the impression I am talking about all or even most people who have rejected religion, but, at least in my experience, there are many who have experienced something like this.
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SOURCE: The Huffington Post