Tim Keller Wants to Save Your Yuppie Soul

Keller leading a Redeemer service.Photo: Anthony Suau

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.”

Parishioners outside a Redeemer service, Sunday November 8.Photo: Mordechai Rubinstein for New York Magazine

Keller and Kathy were bookish middle-class kids from Pennsylvania, he from Allentown, she from suburban Pittsburgh. It was at Bucknell University in the early seventies that Keller effected a self-transformation from “garden-variety nerd, filled with self-doubt and angst” to born-again Christian. (He’s still unashamedly nerdy. On discovering we both have late-September birthdays, he says, “You know, Frodo and Bilbo are the 22nd of September … very illustrious.”) Keller says he fell under the spell of religious writers, C. S. Lewis being the best known, whose faith in Jesus and the Bible was untainted by the anti-intellectualism of American fundamentalism. Tim and Kathy both attended the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts and were married just before graduation. The couple spent nine years in the small town of Hopewell, Virginia, before moving back to suburban Philadelphia in 1984, where Tim took a teaching post at Westminster Theological Seminary and expanded his pastoral range to include urban ministries downtown.

In the late eighties, Keller’s denomination, the conservative Presbyterian Church in America, asked him to oversee the building—or “planting,” in the Evangelical argot—of a church in Manhattan. The idea was that winning believers in New York would have an influence out of proportion to the group’s numbers. When Keller’s first two picks for the pastor’s job declined the offer, Keller, despite misgivings of his own, decided to move Kathy and their three young sons and take the position himself. “I just felt it would be cowardly of me not to,” he says. “But we had a kind of ‘sick in the pit of our stomach’ feeling every day.” I later asked Kathy, Tim’s soul mate and more blunt-spoken alter ego, whether the church ladies of the Atlanta-based PCA worried about the couple, as if they and their three young sons were being sent on a mission to a remote African village. “Oh, that would have been easier,” she said. “Big bad Whore of Babylon is where we were going.”

The church’s first New York service, in April 1989, drew 75 people to a rented Seventh-day Adventist facility on the Upper East Side. By that fall, Keller was leading two weekly Sunday services for up to 250 people. Redeemer had the luxury of a starter group of parishioners brought to the church by an offshoot of the Evangelical missionary organization Campus Crusade for Christ, mostly young professionals hungry for what Keller calls a “crunchy, believe-in-miracles” kind of Christianity. With its message that you can be a thinking person and a believer simultaneously, Redeemer became, in a phrase one hears with almost eerie frequency from parishioners, the ideal place for a believer to bring a nonbelieving friend. At the time, with Evangelical Christianity mired in the sex and money scandals of the Jimmy Swaggart–Jim Bakker era, “no one had ever met someone who had more than a third-grade education that believed the things that were being preached at Redeemer,” Kathy says. It didn’t hurt that Redeemer came to town just as the early-nineties recession began, when Keller’s blind-ambition-is-the-root-of-all-evil message was especially resonant.

“Why are you in New York? Deep down, you think something is wrong with you.”

Throughout the nineties, the church grew mostly by word-of-mouth. That was by design. The Kellers can be suspicious of the media, especially Kathy, who still hasn’t gotten over a 1998 Times article that emphasized Redeemer’s conservative take on homosexuality and premarital sex (more on those issues below). The story, Kathy says, “could have been entitled ‘Manhattanites More Stupid Than We Thought—Attend Christian Church.’ ”

September 11, 2001, brought a significant jump in Redeemer’s attendance. “We didn’t have two morning services then,” Keller recalls. “You could see the people couldn’t get in, and it was just jammed, so I went back to the organist and came back and said, ‘Everybody who can’t get in the doors right now, if you come back in two hours, I’ll do another service.’ And six or seven hundred people came back.” And last year’s historic economic collapse gave parishioners another reason to seek solace in the church. One congregant testified earlier this year that God “finally saw fit to relieve me from my job in banking” and how “in this season of drought … God will provide.”

Keller is on a promotional tour for Counterfeit Gods. Over the phone, in a car on the way to the St. Louis airport, he’s unpacking the Redeemer theology for me. His belief system is not the fundamentalist strain running through many of the Bible Belt megachurches—the “saved” us versus the “heathen” them. Nor is it the new-school “be a winner, praise the Lord,” Christian self-esteem-building ideology of Joel Osteen. Keller advocates something of a third option. He wants to call people’s attention to the emptiness of a way of living that overvalues worldly achievement and to help them see the spiritual benefits of accepting Jesus Christ, and all he stands for, as their savior. But Keller wants to do that in a way that’s not intellectually insulting or morally hectoring. What he refers to as “idols,” he says, are the things we’re so wrapped up in, it’s as if we worship them as gods, in place of the one true God. Traditional vices like sex and drink can be idols, he says, but more insidious can be traditional virtues like hard work and family—“good” things that we can mistake for “ultimate” ones. “The way you can tell your love for something has turned idolatrous is that you basically destroy the thing you love,” he says. “Overwork often leads to destruction—people who overreach and cheat or have health breakdowns. If you put too much on your children, your kids can be crushed by your expectations for their happiness and success.”

New York itself isn’t the problem, Keller says. “I basically revel in New York,” he says. He and Kathy maintain an out-of-towner’s love of museums, concerts, and restaurants, and like to explore neighborhoods they don’t know with their son Jonathan, an urban planner. The problem, Keller says, is a culture that values success above everything else. “There is an enormously sick pressure to perform and do well and make money. Companies essentially force people to make work more important than anything else.” Orthodox religious faith, he says, “is a hedge against the idolatry of success and what people are doing—almost selling their souls. I don’t have a Bible verse that says you’ve got to live the rest of your life in New York. But I say slow down and try to actually enjoy the city. People use the city to get ahead. And I’m saying no, have your life here.” Keller is conscious of the fact that while he is reproving us for our workaholism, he himself is putting in hours that could stand comparison to those of the most driven hedge-funder. “The people who know me best don’t think I’m a hypocrite,” he says. “They see me as one of them. A fellow struggler.” He says his faith was only strengthened by the tough-minded rationalism he faced when he came to his adopted hometown. “I talked to a lot of sharp New Yorkers who had a lot of tough questions,” he says. “I very often said, ‘Gee, I don’t know why,’ and I had to think and read until I could get back to them.”

The signature Keller sermon is a mix of biblical scholarship, pop culture, and whatever might have caught his eye in The New York Review of Books or on Salon.com that week. The intellectual component is the key to winning over New Yorkers, he says. “When you communicate in a way that touches a person’s heart culturally, you get growth,” he says. “I come here, and people say, ‘Oh, look, Tim quotes The New Yorker and Nietzsche and talks about the existentialists. He’s an intellectual.’ Another way to put it is: ‘He’s showing me what Christianity would look like if I believed. Because I think like him, and even though I’m not sure I agree, it resonates.’ ” Using the author of The Antichrist to get across a Christian message is a neat trick, and I confess to Keller that an old cynical expression popped into my head: “Running with the hares, hunting with the hounds.” He doesn’t smile. “It’s not too deliberate, otherwise it does become an act—‘That’ll get the New Yorkers,’ ” he says. “You have to live here so you’re a lot like New Yorkers, you live the same life, and you have the same concerns.”

“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.”

Keller’s effect on parishioners struggling to make sense of 80-hour workweeks or rejected theater auditions can be intoxicating. “I needed something to ground me and didn’t know what it was,” says 27-year-old Shani Barrett, who moved here from Southern California to make it in theater, so far with limited success. “He was, like, dead-on-balls accurate,” is how she describes the experience of hearing Keller speak for the first time. “I just felt he was talking to me and my situation.” These days, she says, “I pray after yoga class, I pray before auditions, and before I go onstage. I put it in God’s hands. What he wants to happen will happen.” Mark Tait, a 25-year-old private-equity analyst, says Keller’s teachings help him keep his demanding work life in balance. “I really don’t understand how people aren’t throwing themselves off the Brooklyn Bridge if they don’t have more to live for than earning six figures and going out every night and buying nice clothes.” Jonathan Tse, a 28-year-old investment analyst originally from Hong Kong, describes Redeemer’s emphasis on divine grace as a kind of liberation from the pressure that Manhattan, and the Asian community in particular (the Redeemer congregation has a disproportionately large Asian component), puts on its young people to perform. “Redeemer and the gospels themselves basically say, ‘You don’t earn your way into eternal life by working or by being good.’ ”

Keller doesn’t like to call himself an Evangelist because of the right-wing political overtones the term carries, but he certainly aims to convert others to his faith. He and his church also stress the importance of developing a personal relationship with God and Jesus Christ and generally take a conservative approach to interpreting the Bible. Keller does not believe the world was created in six days, but unlike his more mainstream Protestant counterparts, he does believe that the Genesis account of Adam and Eve is, in some real, nonmetaphorical sense, true. Imagine, he asks his congregation, “the grief God feels looking at us when we commit spiritual adultery? We’re the spouse from hell. God is in the longest bad marriage in history.” And for all their modern urban sparkle, his sermons unfailingly resolve into the same Evangelical endgame: Jesus died for our sins. Wake up New Yorkers and accept divine salvation.

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.

Tim Keller Wants to Save Your Yuppie Soul