May 2008 – Frank Sinatra sang it and millions of people have taken up the challenge: “If I make it [in New York], I’ll make it anywhere.”
While Tim Keller is not interested in making it on Broadway, Madison Avenue or Wall Street, he is certainly one who sees the city as vitally important to the nation’s culture and worth redeeming for the Kingdom of God. That’s why he brought his family to Manhattan in 1989 to establish a new church aimed at the most secular-minded people group in the nation – urban professionals.
From the earliest days of meeting in a rented Seventh Day Adventist Church building, God blessed the effort. Some have even used the word “revival” to describe how God has worked through Redeemer Presbyterian Church, a member of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). The PCA is an orthodox denomination that traces its theological roots back through the 16th century Reformation.
Today, an average of 4,500 New Yorkers meet regularly for Sunday worship at one of Redeemer’s four rented locations. And that doesn’t include a growing network of church-planting efforts in the New York metro area, as well as in several other major cities.
Seen by many as a model for mission-minded big city churches, Redeemer’s stated vision is: “To spread the Gospel, first through ourselves and then through the city by word, deed and community; To bring about personal changes, social healing and cultural renewal through a movement of churches and ministries that change New York City and through it, the world.”
One reason such a conservative brand of Christianity is thriving in the global city culture is Keller’s ability to unpack the Gospel in ways that meet the intellectual challenges of secularists. Keller says that requires, on one hand, respecting the skeptic’s objections, and on the other, a clear and full exposition of the claims of Christianity.
If that sounds like a theological thin line, it isn’t, and Keller’s new book, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (Dutton, 2008), proves it. He shows why it makes sense for skeptics to doubt their doubts. At the same time he shines a light on the path to faith.
AFA Journal recently talked to Keller about The Reason for God, sharing Christ with skeptics and the differences and similarities between how secular- and traditional-minded people respond to the Gospel.
AFA Journal: Broadly outline the book.
Tim Keller: The first half of the book focuses on problems people have with Christianity. The effort is to show that there is faith in people’s doubts. And it takes a lot of faith to disbelieve in God or in Christianity. That’s the first thesis.
You see, people who are negative about Christianity think they are just being rational and reasonable. They have trouble with faith, and the book attempts to show them that they have faith in other accounts of spiritual reality. What I am really trying to do is show that problems of skeptics are not insurmountable.
The second half of the book proposes that there is a lot of reason in our faith. It positively presents what Christianity believes and why. In that part, I am trying to give reasons why it makes sense to believe.
So, the first part is aimed at helping people deal with those problems so that they will listen to the positive exposition of Christianity in the second.
AFAJ: It’s been my experience that even here in the Bible Belt people are reluctant to discuss spiritual matters. Are people in New York City eager to talk about the things of God?
TK: It is generally easier to talk about these things in an overt way in the more secular parts of the country. I was a pastor in Virginia for a long time, so I know something about the South.
I think that the mushy middle of our country has atrophied. People go to church or synagogue and if you ask them if they believe, they would say, “Of course.” But they don’t want to talk about it because they don’t believe it very well. They have many doubts and may not be living consistently, so they don’t want to be exposed.
Up here in New York or on the West Coast, people are either religious or secular or into some kind of strange religion.
AFAJ: As you talk about the Biblical Gospel to New York skeptics, what is the thing that surprises them most about Christianity?
TK: That it’s much different than other religions. Almost everyone who does not know Christianity well believes that it is absolutely the same as other religions. Here’s Confucius, Buddha, Mohammed and Jesus. They all tell you that you should love your neighbor and go to church and pray to God and be a good person. And therefore, that lends credence to the idea that it’s wrong to be exclusive. Every religion produces good people and bad people, and every religion has hypocrites. So what’s the big deal?
And that’s another reason why they feel it’s not right to argue because all religions are really worshiping the same god. And so when you show them that the Christian approach to being saved is not just different but exactly the opposite of every other religion, they just get very quiet and they begin to realize, in a way, they are in trouble.
They thought they had tried Christianity out and now they are going to have to rethink it. As soon as they see that it is the opposite of every other claim, then they begin to realize why you are saying Christiainity is a superior way. That is a big shocker. And that’s true of those who live in the city, as well as others across the country.
AFAJ: How can believers profit from The Reason for God?
TK: I’m actually writing to skeptics and asking Christians to overhear my conversation. Yes, I am giving believers arguments. But I am also showing them a method that I don’t think most Christians are used to. And that method is that you listen to the doubter so sympathetically and so respectfully that you can actually articulate their doubts better than they can. When you get to that spot, then they are willing to listen to you much longer when you start to argue against them. And they feel cared for and taken seriously. The non-Christian people who have read the book appreciate that deeply.
AFAJ: As you look out across the church in America, what is the thing that evangelicals most need to understand about their unbelieving friends and neighbors?
TK: I think we have to take seriously the fact that in Europe, and to a great degree in North America, Christianity was once ascendant, and now it is in retreat. I don’t think we can just chalk that up to horrible rebellion. We must take some responsibility. We have to ask: “Why have so many people turned away from Christianity?” And I think the answer is not basically intellectual. And it’s not basically Darwinism. Frankly, I think it is what they say it is – the hypocrisy and abuse of power in the church.
When some mega-church pastor has a sex scandal and falls down, they say, “See, that’s what all those people are about.” [That judgment] certainly doesn’t seem fair, but on the other hand, how else are they going to make decisions about Christianity?
So, I think Christians need to realize that non-Christians have good reasons why they are doubting. We should look at them as a bunch of rebellious people with their heads in the sand.
REVIEW • BY RUSTY BENSON
The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism expands the reach of Pastor Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. That message is nothing less than the Good News that unbelievers are reconciled to God only through faith in Jesus Christ. It is the same straight-up Gospel preached by the Apostle Paul, the Reformers, the Puritans and the thousands of faithful, orthodox evangelists through the ages.
Keller’s contribution helps modern-day skeptics hear the timeless message by drawing from a deep reservoir of material from classic and contemporary literature, film, history, pop culture, politics, social sciences, philosophy and a lifetime of pastoring and teaching in both small towns and large cities.
In The Reason for God, skeptics will find a sympathetic restatement of their objections to Christianity. They will also find an exposition of Christianity that will likely challenge preconceived notions.
For believers, the book addresses two critical areas. First, it serves as a handbook on how to converse with unbelieving friends about Christianity. Secondly, Keller’s clear presentation of the Gospel can bring a renewed and joyous appreciation of the sufficiency of Christ alone to save sinners.
For a greater understanding of the ministry of Tim Keller and Redeemer Presbyterian Church:
• The free downloadable sermon titled “The Prodigal Sons” is a singularly profound presentation of the Biblical Gospel.
• www.redeemer.com The Web site of Redeemer Presbyterian Church