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Tim Keller Wants to Save Your Yuppie Soul

Keller insists his church allows for political diversity. “There’s this foolish idea that if you believe in God and Jesus is the Son of God, you’re going to be against gun control,” he says. “Actually, I think you simply can’t get orthodox Christianity into one political mold.”

But when it comes to sexual morality and gender issues, Keller takes a strict, traditional Christian line. That is to say, he believes things that enlightened urban Americans generally do not: that women should not be ordained as ministers (Kathy Keller opted out of becoming a pastor when she decided that female ministers were unbiblical); that abortion is unequivocally wrong; that sex out of wedlock and homosexuality are sins. Keller treads this ground cautiously. He knows these positions make Redeemer a potential target. They have significance in his ministry, he insists, not as cultural litmus tests but as expressions of God’s will as revealed in the Bible. Redeemer represents a middle ground, he says, between the moralism of conventional right-wing Christianity and what he regards as the do-what-feels-right narcissism of secular culture. “Because these are ‘wedge issues,’ ” Keller says, “people will say, ‘You’ve got to be completely with me on this issue or you don’t love me.’ Well, we’re trying to say, ‘We can love you. We really can.’ ”

But especially for the parishioner who doesn’t come from a conservative Christian background, regarding homosexuality and premarital sex as sins, even so-called forgivable ones, is a challenge. “These areas are where a lot of people just stop,” concedes Demian Repucci, a 38-year-old design and branding consultant who leads one of the church’s many small fellowship groups. “They’re the wall. Which I think is an issue for the church at large, not just Redeemer.”

Longtime parishioner James Hornbeak, a 55-year-old screenwriter who for years worked in retail fashion, has chosen to surrender to what he regards as God’s will: “If you can trust God enough to say, ‘I will give you all this peripheral stuff, my feelings about abortion, women, feminism, and homosexuality, all of those little side buttons, if you can trust Him, I’d say you’re in for a real treat.”

Others struggle. Shani Barrett, who has brought a gay theater friend to church, simply rejects the conservative theological line on homosexuality: “Maybe I have the mentality ‘take some, leave some if I don’t like it,’ which is maybe not the best way to look at it.” For Beth Cannon, 32, a graduate student in film at Columbia who is active in her fellowship group, it’s Redeemer’s stance on not ordaining women that is the biggest impediment to her pursuing full church membership. “It’s one of those things like, which conviction do I hold dearer?” she says. “But I haven’t met many people at Redeemer unwilling to discuss it.”

At Redeemer, I tell Keller, you may teach that you should treat your gay, pro-choice, or, for that matter, atheist neighbor with respect, even love, but as a matter of belief, you know that he or she has the misfortune of being wrong. “Well, you know what,” he says, “you can’t teach what we teach—that you must be born again through belief in Jesus Christ—without saying most of the world is wrong.”

One morning in October, Keller addressed the congregation at Ethical Culture on the state of the church’s soul and its finances. Redeemer was at the end of a $20 million fund-raising drive intended to finance the new church building and eventually two more churches in town. The plan is wildly ambitious, but Keller was selling it with true believer’s zeal. “I’ve never been more excited except maybe when I started here,” he told the crowd. “In the last five years, we’ve prayed well but not desperately. Recently, my prayer life has gone through the roof.”

The three Redeemer churches, each with its own pastor, would serve as “regeneration centers,” Keller said, which would “plant” still more churches throughout Manhattan. Since coming to New York, Redeemer has helped start some 65 churches of various Protestant denominations, many of them of the small “storefront” variety, serving minority neighborhoods in and outside Manhattan. But the new ten-year “vision” is an order of magnitude grander, what Keller described as “almost a wall of services” at Redeemer or Redeemer-related churches serving the would-be spiritual seeker from 110th Street in Manhattan all the way downtown. “We want to be a movement,” he said at one point in the service. And he ended it, as he always does, with a prayer.