It’s a Sunday evening at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, and the pews are full. Redeemer is a conservative Evangelical Christian congregation, but the parishioners don’t fit the easy Bible Belt stereotypes. They are a cross-section of yuppie Manhattanites—doctors, bankers, lawyers, artists, actors, and designers, some of them older, most of them in their twenties or thirties. The peppy Christian-pop anthems, performed by Broadway-caliber singers and working jazz professionals, seem to go by in double time, the faster the better to get to the main event, the weekly sermon, delivered by pastor Tim Keller.
Keller is a 59-year-old bald, large-framed man, dressed today in a blue blazer and gray slacks. For those expecting hellfire and brimstone, the first surprise is the voice. Keller doesn’t speak in theatrical, over-the-top tones but in a soft, conversational manner, as if he’s sharing a confidence with a friend. For today’s sermon on a passage from the Old Testament Book of Habakkuk, in which a minor Jewish prophet rails about the misery brought on by the Babylonians in the seventh century B.C., Keller jumps to the recession and what he sees as shameful finger-pointing by both liberals and conservatives. “The Bible doesn’t let you do that,” Keller intones from the pulpit. “The Bible is nowhere near as simplistic, dare I say it, as either the New York Times’ or The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page. You can write that down. Put it on your blog, I don’t care.”
Now Keller takes Habakkuk’s rap against the Babylonians—their “need to clothe themselves with glory”—and aims it straight back at his ambitious, striving Upper West Side congregation. He notes that tennis legend Chris Evert once admitted in an interview that she was driven to win because “winning made her feel pretty” and that Madonna confessed she felt special only when she was breaking through to new levels of fame. Whether we’re athletes, artists, businesspeople, or preachers, Keller says, we all suffer from the same malady—trying to fill our empty spaces with achievement when only accepting God’s grace can do the job. “We want to feel beautiful, we want to feel loved. We want to feel significant and that’s why we’re working so hard and that’s the source of the evil.” In another sermon, on another Sunday, he asks the congregation point-blank: “Why are you in New York? Deep down, you think something is wrong with you.”
Although relatively few secular New Yorkers know about it—Keller prefers to keep Redeemer mostly under the media radar, in part for fear of generating hostile publicity—an Evangelical Christian megachurch is growing in the heart of Manhattan. In the late eighties, Keller came here on what at the time seemed close to a theological suicide mission—to create a strictly conservative Christian church in the heart of Sodom. Today, Redeemer Presbyterian holds five Sunday services at three packed rented venues (in the morning, there are services at the Ethical Culture Society auditorium at 64th Street and Central Park West and at Hunter College’s capacious, 2,000-seat auditorium on 69th Street, between Park and Lexington; in the evening, there’s another service at Hunter and two at the First Baptist Church at 79th Street and Broadway). On any given Sunday, some 5,000 Manhattanites and fellow travelers hear Keller preach in person, and roughly 25,000 download his sermons every week from the church’s sophisticated website, redeemer.com. Late last year, Redeemer closed the deal on a permanent home at 150 West 83rd Street. What is now a defunct four-story parking garage is, in two years, set to become a $50 million modern worship center. The project is believed to be the first significant new church to be built in Manhattan since St. Peter’s went up, more than 30 years ago, next to what used to be known as the Citigroup Center.
Keller has also been building his brand in print. Last year, after his book The Reason for God hit No. 7 on the New York Times’ nonfiction best-seller list, his publisher, Dutton, conceived the idea for a new Redeemer imprint. Keller’s latest book, Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters, out in October, speaks directly to the concerns of New York and New Yorkers. The book, like the sermons it’s derived from, delivers a sharp spiritual rebuke of the very things—ambition and achievement—that brought many, if not most, of us here. Keller’s message, in other words, is a slap in the face to our civic religion of success. And scores of us seem to be flocking to him.
On a sunny morning not long ago, Keller greets me at his upper-floor apartment on Roosevelt Island and ushers me into his study. Lined with overflowing bookcases, the office could belong to a professor or a shrink. On this day, Keller’s wife, Kathy, is recovering from surgery at New York–Cornell Hospital. Keller points at the large window just beyond his desk that opens onto the East River and, across it, the Upper East Side: “I know what window is hers. We can look window to window.”