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By Terry Mattingly
On the Sunday after 9/11, thousands of New Yorkers went to church, with many joining a line stretching outside the Redeemer Presbyterian services in a Hunter College auditorium.
The Rev. Tim Keller asked his staff if they could manage a second service — doubling the day’s attendance to 5,300. Keller’s sermon, “Truth, Tears, Anger and Grace,” began with Jesus weeping before raising Lazarus from the dead.
Many Americans were “coming to New York to fix things,” he noted. “We are glad for them. They will try to fix the buildings. We need that. And eventually they will leave. But when Jesus weeps, we see that he doesn’t believe that the ministry of truth — telling people how they should believe and turn to God — or the ministry of fixing things is enough, does he? He also is a proponent of the ministry of tears. The ministry of truth and power without tears isn’t Jesus.”
This sermon contained major themes from the life and work of Keller, who died on May 19 at age 72 after a three-year battle with pancreatic cancer. Instead of seeking quick fixes, especially through politics, he kept urging conservative Protestants to stress compassion and face-to-face ministry while continuing to defend centuries of Christian doctrine.
In Keller’s case, that meant building a church for New Yorkers that addressed their blunt, exhausting, even cynical concerns about life.
In that first sermon after 9/11, Keller noted that everyone had an opinion about New York City and America as a whole. Some were claiming that “God is punishing us” because of rampant immorality. Others said America had been judged because of social injustice and greed. Instead of blaming the victims, Keller said it was time to ask who would stand their ground and love their neighbors.
“Maybe we are going to have to be a little less concerned about our own careers and more concerned about the community,” he said. “So, let’s enter in. Let’s not just ‘fix it.’ Let’s weep with those who weep.”
Keller was more than aware that he was an outsider when he left the faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary near Philadelphia to accept a challenge from the Presbyterian Church in America to start a New York congregation. No one else wanted the job. The bookish preacher understood the depth of the “monolithic public philosophy of secularism” that dominated Manhattan culture, said Tony Carnes, leader of the influential A Journey through NYC Religions website.
“The church-planter mantra at that time was that you came to New York to die. … Tim came here to stay,” said Carnes, a longtime member of Redeemer who had a close working relationship with Keller.
Yes, only 1% of New York City was “evangelical” when Keller arrived in 1989, and homicides hit 2,245 during his first full year of ministry in the tense city.
Yet there was a “cracking in the ice” as immigrants from a variety of faiths poured into the city’s boroughs, said Carnes. Soon, many new churches were born. Also, waves of young professionals were arriving, and Keller “discovered that he could speak to that mindset. … Wall Street can be so empty and meaningless. Pressure: How do you cope with that? Tim started asking: ‘Where do we get the strength to survive in this city?’”
Keller’s sermons were low-key but witty. The former professor held Q&A sessions after services, facing the questions of seekers and skeptics. He tried to avoid partisan political wars and didn’t seek publicity. But both came his way as he began writing bestsellers, including “The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism.”
The bottom line: Redeemer’s City to City network has helped create 978 churches. That includes the five New York City congregations that grew out of Keller’s work before he retired as senior pastor in 2017.
In that post-9/11 sermon, Keller acknowledged that “New York is filled with people who don’t give a rip about New York.” The key is people finding the strength to stay and serve, seeking redemption amid the pressures, challenges and even tragedies found in a great city.
“What if New York became a community?” he asked. “Through this death couldn’t there be a resurrection? Instead of a bunch of self-aggrandizing individuals and individualists, what if we actually became a community? … We can be a better city, better people, a wiser and better country.”
(Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.)