Redeemer Presbyterian ChurchNew York, New York

Catching up with a few friends recently,
I mentioned that I planned
to attend Redeemer Presbyterian
Church within the coming weeks. “Oh, I
love Redeemer,” one said. “The sermons
are like a really good college lecture.” Another
added: “Is that the church with all
the really attractive people?”

One way or another, Redeemer Presbyterian
Church’s reputation precedes it.
Indeed, Redeemer has become nationally
known as
a booming, Tim Keller
solidly evangelical
church
that understands
the
needs of urban
professionals.
Founded
in 1989, the
church grew
quickly under
the leadership
of pastor Tim
Keller, who
had been designated
by the Presbyterian Church in
America (PCA) to investigate a church
plant in New York. It now draws thousands
of attendees each Sunday. Redeemer
remains a PCA church, but its
reach is so wide that it can feel like its
own denomination; it has planted many
other churches in the New York area,
including the Village Church in Greenwich
Village and New Song Fellowship
in Harlem.

Despite its influence, Redeemer itself
doesn’t have its own building. To
their credit, church leaders made the
decision in 1996 to be a “multi-site”
church rather than growing in a single
location in the megachurch model. Its
visitor pamphlet convincingly explains
this “decentralization” strategy as pursuing
the goal of fostering “smaller,
more community-based congregations
that ser ve the local neighborhood and
are welcoming to those exploring the
truth of the Gospel.”

Redeemer hosts five
ser vices in three
locations each Sunday.
I attended the
popular evening
ser vice that meets
at a large auditorium
on the Upper
East Side campus
of Hunter College.
The church won’t
divulge its preaching
schedule, and
its Web site explicitly
exhorts visitors
not to call the
church to request one. Members have
told me that this is because Keller is
such a draw that if it would be known
he’s not preaching, attendance would
suffer. On the night I attended in early
summer–and, based on the professional
efficiency of the fresh-faced ushers,
most nights–the service was packed.
(And in case you were wondering, yes, it
is the church with all the really attractive
people.)

The prelude was a worship song,
“You Are Everything,” performed by
an all-male band–piano, guitar, bass,
saxophone, and drums–and a twentysomething
female vocalist. Not counting the prelude, the service included seven
songs, with all lyrics and music printed
in the 16-page bulletin. Most were relatively
new worship songs, like the popular
Hillsong tune “Shout to the Lord.” But
two classic hymns, “Holy, Holy, Holy” and
“May the Mind of Christ, My Savior,” also
found their way in. More typical was a
newer tune called “He Knows My Name,”
which seems to transform Psalm 139 (“O
LORD, you have searched me and you
know me…”) into a hymn for the lonely
urbanite: “I have a Maker. He formed my
heart. …I have a Father. He calls me His
own. …He knows my name. He knows my
every thought. He sees each tear that falls.
…He’ll never leave me, no matter where I
go.” Many in the congregation closed their
eyes and lifted their faces in the universal
“worship” pose of twenty-first-century
Protestant churchgoers.

On this particular Sunday, the
church received nine new members,
several of whom were also baptized
at the same time. A fter two more
songs, Pastor Keller entered the auditorium
stage during a song that
came about halfway through the
ser vice. Until then, it hadn’t been
clear he would be in attendance; he
hadn’t been mentioned in the ser vice or
credited with the sermon in the bulletin.
 
Near the end of the sermon, the
crowd was so hushed that a single
“amen” from one parishioner
drew a flock of turned heads.
 

He stayed onstage during the announcements
and offertory (more contemporary songs), and then came the
scripture reading from 1 Samuel, the
passage in which the barren Hannah
breaks down before Eli the priest, vowing,
“O LORD Almighty, if you will only
look upon your servant’s miser y and
remember me, and not forget your servant
but give her a son, then I will give
him to the LORD for all the days of his
life, and no razor will ever be used on
his head.”

Then the four-point sermon, 33
minutes long but briskly paced; meaty
but completely accessible to visitors without
a church background. (After the service,
parishioners can buy a CD of the
sermon they just heard.) Comparing
childless Hannah to his urban twenty-first-century audience, Keller referred
to our culture’s “meaning system” that
demands success, money, and beauty–and how it always disappoints. Salvation
works through weakness, not through
strength, he said, and the “voice of our
culture” can easily lead us astray.

Mr. Keller concluded that the real
lesson of Hannah’s suffering is that,
obviously unknown to her, she was an
ancestor to Jesus. From that we can
deduce that our own suffering is not
meaningless, though we’ll probably
never know in our lifetimes what that
meaning is. It’s not hard to see why
such a message, delivered in such a
reassuring tone, would be a comfort to
young urbanites who work long hours
and live far from their families without
the reassurance that their risks will
turn into earthly rewards. Near the end
of the sermon, the crowd was so hushed
that a single “amen” from one parishioner
drew a flock of turned heads. Then,
after a song and a prayer, the congregation
filed out to rejoin the noisy city it
calls home.

In the end, the Redeemer experience,
even considering its attempts at
avoiding slickness–the rented auditorium,
the folksy tone–was somehow still
too polished for me. And then there’s
the way that the size of the church and
the personality of Mr. Keller dominates
the experience. In a way, that’s only
natural: he has built a thriving church
that has become a spiritual home for
thousands of New Yorkers, and his
thoughtful sermons are the centerpiece
of each ser vice. But the aura of
“celebrity preacher” and the size of the
congregation, despite the church’s sincere
efforts to def lect this, was still a
distraction to me. Give me yellowing
hymnbooks, not tidy bulletins; give me
cracked stained glass and a struggle to
raise funds to fix it; and instead of adoring
silence, give me a child I know crying
at the back of the sanctuary.

Ruth Graham is a writer and editor in Brooklyn, New
York.

Over the next several issues, Perspectives will be presenting “church reviews.” These reviews are intended to give a glimpse into what is happening in Reformed churches across North America. We have selected a wide variety of congregations within the broader Reformed tradition to be reviewed. Some are “tall-steeples,” others obscure. Some may be avant-garde, while others archetypal.

A review is meant to be more light-hearted than mean-spirited. No congregation is going to receive a hatchet-job or “three stars out of a possible five.” A reviewer visits the congregation on at least one Sunday, taking the role of both theologian and keen social observer. To relieve any anxiety and create a little distance, for both the reviewers and the congregation, some reviews will appear with a pen name in the byline. We owe a debt of gratitude to the British website Ship of Fools, www.shipoffools.com, for inspiring us with their “The Mystery Worshipper” feature. Visit their website for an archive full of interesting church reviews.