Tim Keller: A Vision to Reach the City

“Per capita, the cities are really underchurched, and they’re getting more underchurched all the time.”

Cities globally are attracting more people. More than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas today, and the global urban population is expected to almost double to 6.4 billion people by 2050, the World Health Organization estimates. Within the United States, recent census data indicate most of America’s largest cities are growing at a faster rate than their surrounding suburbs—for the first time in a century, the Associated Press reported in June.

This reality of global urbanization presents a challenge and an opportunity for Christian churches. Tim Keller, senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, noted in an interview with Outreach magazine that cities are growing in numbers and influence and that younger people disproportionately want to live in cities, creating an environment where churches are needed. But cities are difficult for churches because they are expensive, intimidating and no longer see the value of churches for the rest of civil society.

As a result, cities are underchurched, and churches, denominations and mission organizations must do more to try to reach the growing urban population around the world, Keller says.

Drawing on his experience at Redeemer and input from urban churches worldwide, Keller speaks to the challenges of reaching cities with the Gospel in his book Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City and in this Outreach magazine interview, highlighted in a feature in the magazine’s November/December 2012 issue:

What do you say to people about what Redeemer does within this modern context, or postmodern context, and in New York City? How are you presenting the Gospel in your unique time and place?

That’s why I wrote the book [Center Church]. … The way I’m answering that question is to say that as much as I could give you the Gospel in a nutshell—I could sit down with a child and talk about the Gospel—how it fleshes out in a particular place is complicated and it can’t be put into some slogans and a nutshell, an outline, bullet points, slide presentation. I’m actually trying to resist that. And I actually think, right now you basically have people who are, frankly, too innovative. That is to say, they tend to feel like we have to re-engineer theology and we have to re-engineer the way we do everything, including our beliefs, and [you have] people who are really responding to that and saying, “Forget about adapting to culture. All we need is orthodoxy and being true to the Word.” Both of those, the answer to that question you gave me, you can boil it down. It’s simple. It’s just, “This is how you do it.”

The more innovative people can give you the program. They say, “Here’s how you do the music. Here’s how we share the faith. Here’s how we do this. Here are the programs and curriculum we’re using.” And that kind of thing. You can put it in book that’s easy to read, fast to read, a page-turner, lots of, like I said, bullet points. Or it’s just a book of, “Here’s the doctrine; here’s the orthodoxy. We’ve always done it this way. Ignore the culture; just tell the truth.” And both of those are simplistic. … My answer is, it’s not that simple. And actually, either throwing out orthodoxy—to me, historic, Reformation, Protestant, classic evangelicalism orthodoxy—to throw that out is too simple. And to simply say, “We’re just going to do it the way we’ve always done it, and there’s really no change; we’re just faithful”— they’re both too simple.

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Obviously cultures are different in different locations and different times. How do you go about identifying essentially what your culture is and what the best way is to interact with it?

Basically, I think, what you have to do is, you have your doctrine; you have what you think the Bible teaches. Then you look at the culture, and basically there are three questions:

One is, what out here is common grace? What out here is pretty good—it approximates what the Bible teaches, it’s something that God has, a kind of wisdom that God has given this culture that’s a good thing? Obviously, some cultures put a high value on family. Confucianism puts a high value on family. Is there anything good about that? Yeah. Is that like what the Bible says? Yes, of course.

It’s also true that Confucianism makes an idol out of the family, which is the other side, which is the second question: What is it about the culture that’s toxic—that’s wrong according to the Bible, that we have to avoid, that we have to confront and challenge? So you might say the A parts of the culture, which are common grace that we can essentially affirm or use in a way and say, “Yeah, we agree with that as Christians.” Then there’s the B part, which is toxic—avoid, confront challenge. And then there’s C, which is, I think, indifferent. There’s definitely things you say, “Well, the Bible doesn’t speak to that sort of thing. It’s indifferent. We can probably adapt to it, adopt it, repurpose it,” that kind of thing.

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Then when you actually are presenting the Gospel, what you always have to do is do what Paul did on Mars Hill and other places you see in the book of Acts. You find the things that the culture believes that you believe too, and you build on that. You say, “Well if you believe that, and we agree with that, why don’t you believe this?” … When you argue like that, the people, even if they disagree and don’t like it, feel the power of that argument. Then you know, when you can see a look in their eyes, that you have contextualized. You’re still challenging them and telling them something they don’t want to hear, but they feel the force of the argument. To me, that is the key to really reaching somebody in a culture. It’s not the trappings. It’s not facial hair and music and being in a warehouse. That’s just incredibly superficial. You have to know where the people live and their aspirations and their hopes and beliefs so well that when you talk to them, they sense that you understand them and that you have put your finger on things that they know is something of a problem in their own lives.