Tim Keller: A Vision to Reach the City

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

In the book you touch on the idea of a missional church being a place where people can come and listen and not feel like they’re outsiders.

In other words, you actually always act as if there are non-Christians present. For example, you read The New Yorker. I do. Basically it’s written for intelligent typical Manhattanites. You can see it in the letters. You can see it in the articles. You can see how this is the way sophisticated New Yorkers feel about life. Then when you write the sermon, you just imagine the writer of these articles sitting in the pew. You say something about this point. and you say, “Well, they’re going to have a question about that.” So then you put it in a way that at least it would make it a little more comprehensible to them or would challenge them more directly, but would also make them think. Absolutely, you have to imagine that you’re neighborhood is in there listening to you. And if you don’t preach as if the neighbors are there, they’ll never be there because nobody will bring them because everybody will know—even the Christians will know instinctively—that though they like it, they could never bring their non-Christian friends to it. However, there are plenty of non-Christians who can’t just come to worship. They’re too far away. They need a process of relationship before they get there, but the worship service ought to be part of that process. I’ve just had many, many people say, “I love my church and I get so much out of it, but I could never bring any of my non-Christian family members or friends there because they’d be confused or offended.”

Why is it that cities are especially so important?

You need churches everywhere there’s people. But the people of the world are moving into cities faster than the church is. Therefore, we need to especially plant churches in cities. … People live everywhere, and you’ve got to have churches everywhere there’s people. But the reason I stress the cities is because per capita, the cities are really underchurched and they’re getting more underchurched all the time. And, by the way, cities are now very difficult places; cities do not value religious institutions. In the old days, people got together and built churches. It is so difficult to even find places to meet in cities because they don’t see the value for civil society for churches, and therefore it’s expensive. It’s difficult, it’s intimidating (cities are intimidating) and yet cities of the world are growing. In most of the world, cities are growing incredibly fast. In the Western world, cities are actually still growing somewhat in numbers, but certainly growing in influence, and it’s a place where disproportionately, young people want to live. So if you want to reach the younger generation, the younger people of the world are moving into cities way faster than the church is. So for all those reasons, I’m not trying to say, “Let’s be hip, and let’s go to cities, and let’s forget about everybody else.” I’m saying, “Let’s just keep up.” Let’s just keep up with the people flow. I don’t think anybody wants to admit how fast that is.

Is there something that the broader church should or can be doing to build awareness of the situation with cities?

I would say denominations and mission agencies everywhere ought to do more for cities than they are. It’s very simple. If you make an argument like, “You should put all your money into cities,” how can I justify that spiritually or biblically? You can’t. But if you say the cities are growing in influence and numbers much faster than the church is going in there to reach people—far faster—then if I just simply said that every single local congregation, every single denomination or mission agency in the world ought to do more for city ministry than it is currently doing now, I don’t know how anybody could say, “No.” Unless, of course, what if your mission agency works with rural churches? Or what if you work with rural Muslims in Africa? I’m not saying you can’t have a specialist ministry, but just in general, it seems to me that churches and denominations ought to be doing more. That’s all.