Keller Shifts from Preaching to Teaching
By Staff

On Feb. 26th, Tim Keller, senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, announced that he will be stepping down from the pulpit.

Keller was the founding pastor of Redeemer in 1989. Over the past 28 years, the church has grown to roughly 5,300 attenders who now meet in three locations.

Keller’s last day as senior pastor will be July 1.

The move is part of a larger vision laid out during the Rise Campaign. This long-term strategy is aimed at growing the body of Christ from 5 percent of New York’s center city population to 15 percent within the next decade. Keller’s new focus — training and mentoring men and women for urban ministry — is viewed as integral. The new role is critical, Keller says, because even though the financial costs of ministry in New York are daunting, the “greatest need is leaders.”

ByFaith asked Keller about his —and Redeemer’s — future.

This is a new role for you, but not retirement? 

Rumors of my retirement as senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church have been circulating since last summer. However, retirement is not a helpful term for describing the transition that Redeemer and I will experience this year.

In the first eight years of Redeemer’s life, we saw many surprising conversions and much growth. In 1997 our leaders wrote to the congregation “our current path would make us just another megachurch.”  The letter argued that this would mean that Redeemer would increasingly become “detached from any particular community,” would see rising passivity among lay people, and would “be basing the church on the senior pastor.”  Instead, that year Redeemer began a long journey toward eventually becoming not one large congregation for the entire city, but rather an expanding, collaborative family of churches that would meet in the various neighborhoods of Manhattan.


So twenty years ago we began the journey with two simple but important steps. We began holding Sunday worship on both the east and west sides of Central Park. We also established the Church Planting Center—later “Redeemer City to City”—that helps plant churches not only in New York City but also in other global cities. Later, another important decision was the determination to not create video venues where my sermons could be broadcast to different audiences. Rather, as the number of Sunday services grew to five, then six, and now eight, other Redeemer pastors also preached every Sunday. Today though I preach every week, I only appear in 40% of the total Sunday services in a year. This decision was crucial to the development of other preachers. In the last seven years, our strides toward the goal have been greater. We purchased and constructed a facility for the West Side congregation, and we launched Redeemer Downtown to be our third main congregation.

Then last year Redeemer kicked off the Rise Campaign, which is a key part of a ten-year strategy called the New York Project, the stated goal of which is to increase the population of those attending gospel-preaching churches in New York City from its current level of about 5% of the center city residents to 15% in the next 10 years. To do this will take new leaders, new churches, and new buildings—and more prayer than we have ever marshaled before. This ambitious mission is a joint venture partnership between the Redeemer churches and City to City.

I say the Redeemer churches because the time has come for our biggest step on the journey. The three Redeemer congregations—East Side, West Side, and Downtown — have matured under the leadership, respectively, of Abe Cho, David Bisgrove, and John Lin. At our May congregational meeting, Redeemer members will vote to request the Metro New York Presbytery to make them three particular churches, each with their own sessions and senior pastors.  And though “particular” (a great Presbyterian word!), yet they will be highly collaborative, and over the next decade will seek to start nine of their own sites and daughter churches, while working closely with City to City to help reach the goals of the New York Project.

“As these pastors assume the leadership of the churches and the weekly preaching, I will move into teaching and mentoring leaders for urban ministry.”

As these pastors assume the leadership of the churches and the weekly preaching, I will move into teaching and mentoring leaders for urban ministry. This role is crucial going forward because, while the financial cost of doing ministry in a city like New York is high, still the greatest shortage and need is leaders, not just money.  The New York Project is meant not only to raise funds for urban ministry, but also to inspire new leaders, both ordained and lay, to rise and be equipped at every ministry level. In partnership with Reformed Theological Seminary, Redeemer City to City is already offering ministry students a New York-based M.A. in Biblical Studies degree, which will be followed by a year of practical ministry training in urban preaching, mission, leadership, and pastoral theology called City Ministry Year. Accompanying these two components will be a number of internship and ministry residence programs. As a full-time staff member of Redeemer City to City after July 1 of this year, I will give the majority of my time to training these new leaders, while also continuing to do extensive public evangelism in the city.

So, Tim Keller is still in full-time ministry? 

Yes, I will no longer be the senior pastor of Redeemer, and I won’t be doing the preaching which is a major change after so many years. But because I will continue to be deeply involved in the gospel movement in New York City, and because I will be doing so much ministry and teaching in and around Redeemer, it will not feel that I am ‘leaving.’ Kathy and I have no plans to either move away from New York City or spend less time here.  We raised our children here and many of our grandchildren are here too. This is our city, and Redeemer is still our family.

Why leave the pulpit when you can still preach?

Well, my older body will not miss preaching four times on a Sunday, as I have for years, but it’s still a good question. The answer is all about the next generation of leaders. There is a need for a dramatic increase in church leaders who can be effective in New York City and other global cities. My stepping out of being senior pastor and main preacher creates a great deal of space for the growth of many other preachers and pastors who otherwise would not have the same opportunities.  And it’s time for me—when I still have the energy—to teach others what I have learned about ministry over my lifetime. Kathy and I believe that God has blessed and trained us with a life-long ‘curriculum’ of great teachers, colleagues, and experiences. I’ve also had almost three decades of ministry experience just in New York City alone. I should give significant time and effort to share all these goods with others rather than just using them myself.

These new churches and leaders will not all be Presbyterian. Have you heard some criticism about that?

Yes, though far more people are appreciative of it than critical. Here are a few clarifications that might help readers. First, it is Redeemer City to City (CTC) that has helped many churches with orthodox doctrine get started in New York from different denominations. CTC is full of PCA people, is committed to Reformed theology, and does its teaching and training out of that doctrinal framework. Yet it is a non-denominational mission agency, with its own board. In that sense it is much like any Reformed seminary. While it invests in students with scholarships and supervision and urges them toward the Reformed faith, in the end it sends some out into non-Reformed denominations and even, sadly, sees a few graduates go off in very different doctrinal directions.

CTC is willing to help a great variety of churches and church planters start new gospel preaching, orthodox churches in the city.  However, it may be of interest to byFaith readers to know that about a tenth of the churches we have started in NYC are Presbyterian, and that of course represents a much larger percentage than in the country as a whole. And it is, interestingly, because we don’t only help our own Presbyterian churches, and because we work with the whole Body of Christ in the city, that many younger urban leaders are showing interest in Presbyterianism.

Where did the idea for the Rise Campaign come from

I can honestly say that it was not simply my idea nor the result of some strategic task force or committee. It arose very organically out of much prayer and discussion among the leaders and staff of both Redeemer and City to City and others over a period of about two years—2013 to 2015. It came from a desire to draw together all the newer and older churches and various organizations that have sprung up in NYC in the last two decades to work together even more effectively to reach the city.

It’s nothing short of astonishing that the congregation of Redeemer would pledge over $32 million—far more than it has ever raised in any previous campaign—as its founding pastor is leaving the pulpit. I’ve had plenty of friends and associates tell me “that never happens. Usually people so tie their confidence to that pastor that, if he’s leaving, people just take a wait-and-see attitude. That did not happen here. I’ve been deeply moved and encouraged by this evidence that the people put their confidence in the gospel itself and not in any particular human leader.

What are you trying to impart to these new leaders you are training?

We want to form ministers and leaders who can minister the gospel in late modern culture and in urban centers. When it comes to our society today, some have argued that this one is harder to reach because it is post- and anti-Christian rather than simply non-Christian.  Getting across a concept of sin, or of self-giving discipleship, has never been more difficult.  Also a post- and anti-Christian culture does not simply oppose the gospel, but can also ‘colonize’ Christianity, producing hollowed out versions of the faith. All this presents unique challenges for ministry training that we want to address.  How do we preach, evangelize, and form solid Christians in such a culture?

“We want to form ministers and leaders who can minister the gospel in late modern culture and in urban centers.”

When it comes to the urban environment, ministry here requires also a knowledge of urban life dynamics, urban social systems, cross-cultural communication, non-western Christianity, and many other subjects not covered in ordinary seminary programs. I also want to give more than the usual help on both expository preaching, on developing a life of prayer, on leading the church in an adverse cultural and financial environment, and on reading that provides cultural analysis and insight.  The combination of the M.A. (which in two years covers all the academic material, including languages and exegesis) together with the City Ministry Year will provide much more space for these than an ordinary M.Div. can.

How will the church grow and change?

The three individual Redeemer churches will be better than the centralized, single Redeemer church was at reaching specific neighborhoods, at raising up new leaders (because so many more are now needed), and at planting new churches in center city.  Yet they will continue to share many ministries and services.  The growth of the network will be mainly through church planting. As I mentioned before, the goal is to have each church start three other sites or daughter churches over the next 10 years.

You talk a lot about having an influence on the city of New York. What would that look like?

If a critical mass of thoughtful, theologically grounded Christians were living and working in center city New York it would have a shaping influence on the city. Culture does not change in a simple, linear way, so I can’t predict the outcomes with any exactness. But I would hope for some of the following. 1) Recapturing the idea of vocation—working to serve God and the social good rather than just a means for advancement. This could also lead to more humane workplaces. 2) A movement toward greater civility in public discourse. Civility and mutual respect has never been more absent from the public square. 3) Christians well known for their financial generosity and non-paternalistic engagement with the poor and marginalized. 4) Christians in finance leading a movement to re-establish trust and transparency in capital markets. 5) Christians in the arts telling stories that provide hope and human solidarity rather than just individual liberation from social norms. 6) The establishment of a counter-culture in which the distinct Christian moral logic behind marriage and family—gender as a gift not a straitjacket, sex as part of whole life self-giving—becomes visible to the world.

Online you present this program with your wife Kathy. What’s Kathy’s role in all this?

Kathy’s formal job description for the future is still under construction.  But her on-going roles as my debate-partner and counselor, as a teacher and mentor, as editor and ‘Chief Reminding Officer’ are still intact and going strong.

Read more and watch Keller’s announcement here.

ByFaith will soon publish a story that details the rationale and history of Redeemer’s Rise Campaign. That story will be posted online shortly, and also appear in the summer issue of byFaith magazine.

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