West Side Gospel

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In addition to our weekly blog posts, Crown & Cross publishes a semesterly print issue, a compilation of 8 to 12 pieces based around a singular theme. To increase their circulation, our website will publish new pieces each week as individual essays in a thematic series. This semester’s weekly series will be titled “God and the City,” the theme of our most recent print issue. Below is the fifth of eight installments.

Cities are a unique nexus of human experience. Every day on the island of Manhattan, some of the world’s most powerful people pass by mendicants, service workers with lengthy commutes, and other humble members of society. These realities of urban life shape Christian missions in big cities like New York. It’s not enough to appeal to a “lowest common denominator;” ministries must somehow serve these two poles—and everything in between.

Tim Keller began Redeemer Presbyterian Church in 1989 as part of a denominational mission to put the Gospel in places of power. “The idea,” a New York Magazine profile of the church reads, “was that winning believers in New York would have an influence out of proportion to the group’s numbers.” At that time, the RISE campaign estimates that only about 1% of center-city New York belonged to the body of Christ. Since then, that number has grown to 5%, with Redeemer accounting for thousands of those new churchgoers. How did such a change happen in the “big bad Whore of Babylon?” More importantly, what can the story of Redeemer tell us about the future of the Gospel in New York City?

To examine Redeemer more closely, Crown & Cross sent several members of its staff to people on the inside. We spoke with Pastor David Bisgrove, who recently became the head of Redeemer’s West Side congregation, along with several other church members and frequent visitors. Our interactions with these individuals encouraged us to pursue more information on how the church has succeeded while remaining true to its theologically-traditional message. How is Redeemer effective in reaching out to the world around it? In our research, we discovered an impressively-planned, multi-front campaign to grow the Gospel in every corner of the city, and to appeal to every demographic, with astounding results.

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Redeemer’s West Side campus from 83rd Street.

On a typical Sunday morning at West 83rd and Amsterdam, hundreds of people crowd into the W83 Ministry Center, a “five-story, multi-function community and cultural center” owned by Redeemer Presbyterian Church. Once a parking garage, the building was designed specifically to host classrooms, a fellowship hall, and a sanctuary space, with 450 orchestra seats and 275 on a balcony level. Described as “a space for the Upper West Side community to seek spiritual, social and cultural renewal for our city,” the Ministry Center is home to a variety of events and four Sunday services.

The composition of the attendees at these services, along with services at Redeemer’s other locations in the Upper East Side, Downtown, and, most recently, Lincoln Square, is different from what might be expected of a church. The average age is a verdant 36 years old. An attendee is more likely than not to be in a high-end professional field like finance, health care, law, or the arts. Even the music, performed by what the aforementioned profile called “Broadway-caliber singers and working jazz professionals,” defies the typical Gospel- or hymnal-music church choir presence. Within a few moments, an attendee knows that these musicians can play.

This demographic is reflective of the typical New York Yuppie, which includes “techies and entrepreneurs” who “claim they want to ‘change the world’ but instead have a goal of ‘making money and leveraging power.’” Consumption, from social media to the newest technology, also defines Yuppie behavior, while religion typically has a weaker presence. Yet this reality is precisely what Redeemer aims to alter. Pastor Bisgrove explains: “The Gospel transforms a person from the inside out. … Our hope is that the Gospel would lead people of power, whatever their position, to embody the Gospel through word and deed and be agents for positive change in our culture.” Redeemer, as a church with the power to shape people’s lives through the Word, can create transformation by leading its entire congregation—filled with people in such influential vocations—to move away from negative influences and to become “more just and honest,” as Bisgrove puts it, in their areas of influence. In this way Redeemer expects its well-to-do congregants to become beacons of light for others.

The congregation also includes and caters to college students. Redeemer is affiliated with Reformed University Fellowship (RUF), the campus ministry organization of the Presbyterian Church in America, with chapters all across the country. “There are two RUF ‘chapters’ in NYC, namely Columbia and City Campus,” David Acevedo, a Columbia College junior and currently the Prayer Coordinator for RUF Columbia, notes. “Columbia is the only on-site location, and City Campus serves students that go to any other college in the city.”

RUF City Campus Ministry reaches New York City undergraduate students through weekly large group and small group gatherings that occur in various spaces and times throughout the city. These gatherings comprise students from universities such as CUNY, The New School, NYU, Juilliard, Fordham, and various others. Acevedo does not attend the large group meetings because of RUF Columbia’s own individualized service, but attends a session called Sunday Conversations, after the 5 p.m. Redeemer West Side service. He describes it as at time in which students “eat dinner together and partake in discussion about important topics related to scripture, particularly topics … that are, quite frankly, very scary and uncomfortable to talk about sometimes.”

“Redeemer is attractive for college students … to encounter a level of rigor in the exegetical teaching they hear at church that is analogous to what they will encounter in their classes at school.”

Dozens of other Columbia students are not a part of RUF but attend Redeemer services every Sunday, as the W83 Center is only a 30-minute walk or a 10-minute subway ride away. Lilian Chow, who graduated Columbia College in 2015, started attending Redeemer regularly as a freshman in fall 2011 and continued throughout her time at Columbia. “When I was in college and going to Redeemer, my community was still mainly my friends from college,” she says. “I loved my on-campus fellowship as well as the fellow Christians I interacted with daily at school. … I didn’t feel like a ‘real’ member of the congregation—apart from my friends from school, I didn’t really know anyone.”

Since she graduated Columbia two years ago, however, Chow has become more involved. She recently joined a Community Group, which she describes as giving her “a real glimpse of what at least a tiny percentage of other Redeemer-goers are like.” She explains further, “It’s such a huge blessing to be able to talk about the sermons and Scripture together and just be present for one another. … It’s so awesome to hear about all of our lives, how they intersect, as well as how they diverge in such beautiful ways—makes me realise God’s presence in our lives even more.” Chow also now sings with the Voices of Redeemer choir, allowing her to meet people outside of her Community Group and to feel more connected to the church.

Torrie Williams, who is part of Chow’s Community Group, echoes this sentiment about how CGs allow churchgoers to feel more connected and welcomed into the Redeemer community. Williams has been attending Redeemer since spring 2015, after a friend in her graduate school program invited her. The content of the sermons was important to her, and she emphasizes how she liked that they “related the Gospel to [the] modern day and living in New York.” This is a feeling shared by many Columbia undergraduates, including Acevedo, who says, “The style of teaching delivered by pastors like Tim Keller is significantly more intellectually focused or ‘heady’ than a lot of other churches.” He makes sure to clarify that he does not mean that this style is better, but continues, “Redeemer is attractive for college students, particularly at a prestigious school like Columbia, to encounter a level of rigor in the exegetical teaching they hear at church that is analogous to what they will encounter in their classes at school.”

The current demographics within Redeemer may suggest a focus upon people who fit a certain category, specifically those who are young, wealthy, and in professional vocations. But Redeemer does not ignore the other many residents of New York City. In fact, the church has attracted a wide range of members from all backgrounds, and is diverse, in terms of race, background, occupation, and spiritual walk. Redeemer also acknowledges the privileges that many members of the congregation have and emphasizes reaching out to those from low-income communities, in terms of sharing God’s word and inviting them to join the church, as well as through financial resources and a range of services.

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Indeed, Redeemer reaches beyond its church walls with a wide array of ministries, including Hope for New York, a nonprofit with a mission of mobilizing volunteers and financial resources to support other nonprofits serving the poor and marginalized in New York City. Founded in 1992 with one full-time staff member, three affiliate organizations, and a small group of volunteers, HFNY today has over 40 affiliates and hundreds of volunteers. The name, as suggested, indicates a “hope for a New York City in which all people experience spiritual, social, and economic flourishing through the demonstration of Christ’s love.”

The values and motivation for HFNY are rooted in the Gospel, which provides a unique perspective on mercy and justice. HFNY’s values can be seen through the parable of the unmerciful servant, about which the website explains, “Sacrificial service is motivated by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, rather than out of a desire to earn favor with God. Our motivation for serving others is a response to the grace shown us by Jesus, not an attempt to earn God’s favor through moral behavior.”

Additionally, New York City is in need; 28.6% of New York City children under 18 live in poverty, 60,000+ New Yorkers are homeless each night, and another 1.4 million don’t have enough food for their families. Juan Galloway, Executive Director of New York City Relief, one of HFNY’s affiliates, recently put it this way: “We aspire to not just feed the homeless but eat with them, talk with them, and do life with them. Our goal is to enter a journey with the poor where we aren’t seen as above them, but alongside them.” Sara Miller, Executive Director of A House on Beckman, added, “My hope for what our neighbors would experience when they walk through our doors is the love of Christ. That’s why we do this.”

Hope for New York aims to achieve its mission primarily through supporting its nonprofit affiliates, which involves mobilizing volunteers, making grants to fund programs, and training and consulting. Each of the steps for affiliate support is taken carefully and for a purpose. Volunteers invest their time and talent in HFNY’s affiliate programs, such as teaching ESL classes, or helping with administrative tasks. Through these partners, HFNY invests over $1 million in grants every year, to “meet the real, felt needs of New Yorkers through life-transforming programs.” HFNY emphasizes a comprehensive process, which promises to steward its donors’ dollars “by ensuring the most strategic deployment of their investment possible.” The organization also encourages its affiliates to become the strongest and most effective, working to promote organizational growth and facilitating leadership development.

Each of these affiliates is a microcosm of HFNY’s larger tripartite mission. One affiliate, His Toy Store, provides toys to families in financial need during the Christmas season. The entire store is volunteer-run, and HFNY partners with local churches that are committed to ministry, in both word and deed. Bisgrove states, “All three Redeemer churches and Lincoln Square partner with HFNY,” making it a Redeemer-wide organization.

Additionally, with Redeemer’s transition to four independent churches, Redeemer and HFNY are better positioned to reach out and serve, particularly to the neighborhoods surrounding the church. Says Bisgrove: “there was a fire recently in our neighborhood that displaced many residents. We reached out to those neighbors with financial, legal and counseling support. That is just one example of what we hope to continue to do as a church community, where our congregation is known for loving and serving our neighbors and caring about the community, regardless of whether they believe like we do or not.”

Name recognition—even denomination recognition—does not matter nearly as much as supporting the word of Jesus anywhere it can be preached.

Yet Redeemer’s greatest outreach success may be its expansion into other new churches. Planting and growing different congregations has been Redeemer’s calling card for decades. “In 1997,” Keller recently remarked, “the leaders [at Redeemer] said, ‘We do not want to end up as one single megachurch—we want to become a family of churches that meets all throughout the neighborhoods of the city.’ … In 1999, we sent people from our old campus at Hunter College to the West Side.” New York is not a single enormous city whose needs would be best met by a single enormous church; instead, like a cosmopolitan family reunion, New York comprises dozens of distinct neighborhoods. Although they all claims the surname of the Greatest City in the World, each community owns idiosyncrasies and individualities that make it difficult for a single citywide church to meet all of their needs at once. Keller and his team realized this two decades ago and were moved to action: they sought to build an extensive network, one that would eventually extend all over New York and beyond.

Twenty years later, Redeemer is reestablishing its church-planting roots. Its City to City ministry has breathed life into churches in some of the world’s largest cities—thanks to the co-opting of the ministry, in 2016, 11 theologically conservative churches opened their doors in the New York City metro area, and another 19 around the world in Asia, Africa, Europe, and Latin America. Cumulatively, City to City has created 423 churches and established a training program that has equipped 13,000 young men and women to serve as leaders in their own congregations. These churches and leaders come Redeemer-approved, but not necessarily bearing the “Redeemer” title. Redeemer may “elevate their brand” more effectively if they had churches all over the world called “Redeemer Queens” or “Redeemer Kuala Lumpur.” Why don’t they follow this strategy?

You’ve probably heard it said that, if you want to know what people value, you should “Follow the money.” A great sum of the money in Redeemer’s coffers goes to projects and developments that will bear only very loose ties to the church—any group with half the church’s brain-trust would consider this a waste of funds if branding was their primary goal. Leaders at Redeemer know that they are sacrificing their own wealth on enterprises that will rarely help their own congregation’s reputation. But it seems incredibly clear that their leaders see the forest for the trees. “We believe that the best thing for the impact of Christianity in the long run is increasing the number of churches,” Bisgrove notes. “This of course means not just Presbyterian churches (like Redeemer), but all kinds of Gospel-affirming churches.” Name recognition—even denomination recognition—does not matter nearly as much as supporting the word of Jesus anywhere it can be preached. The message trumps the medium. “That’s the Gospel,” says Keller. “The way up is to go down.”

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Dr. Timothy Keller.

As Redeemer expands, it will do so without its founding father. Its four sister churches (East Side, West Side, Downtown, and a new plant in Lincoln Square) will each become independent congregations in the coming months as Dr. Keller, a man nearing 70, stepped down this past July from his role in overseeing all four. Bisgrove, who has taken over as senior pastor of the West Side congregation, feels comfortable with the transition process. “Anyone attending Redeemer over the last 5-6 years has never experienced Tim Keller as their primary preacher, so the seeds of this transition were sown years ago,” he says. Yet again, Redeemer is following through on a project that was meticulously planned years in advance.

Though Bisgrove’s elevation may have been expected, he has enormous shoes to fill as Keller’s successor. The founder of Redeemer has built an extensive legacy of promoting winsome conservative theology, both in his work as pastor and in his role as a public voice on behalf of traditional Christian values. Aside from his multiple bestselling books, which have been read by millions all over the world, he continues to dialogue with some of the city’s most prominent intellectuals. In a 2016 interview with New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, for example, he was asked about the nature of Christian orthodoxy. “I deeply admire Jesus and his message, but am also skeptical of themes that have been integral to Christianity—the virgin birth, the Resurrection, the miracles and so on,” Kristof said. “[Are those] essential belief[s], or can I mix and match?”

Some Christian authorities would have struggled to respond to this question properly. Many ministers, especially in the ardently secular, skeptical New York culture, may have affirmed that Kristof could believe anything he wanted to while wearing the moniker of Christianity, while many conservative pastors would have vindictively told the questioning journalist that his beliefs would lead him to an eternity in Hell. Keller opts for neither extreme, instead ornamenting orthodox theology in language that makes sense for pluralistic readers.

If something is truly integral to a body of thought, you can’t remove it without destabilizing the whole thing. A religion can’t be whatever we desire it to be. If I’m a member of the board of Greenpeace and I come out and say climate change is a hoax, they will ask me to resign. I could call them narrow-minded, but they would rightly say that there have to be some boundaries for dissent or you couldn’t have a cohesive, integrated organization. And they’d be right. It’s the same with any religious faith.

Kristof bristled at this answer, but he couldn’t accuse his theological foil of problematic language or poor argumentation. He tried to deflect because he knew Keller was right.

So much was made even clearer recently as Princeton Theological Seminary, a long-time affiliate of the Presbyterian Church, chose not to give out its esteemed Kuyper Prize in 2016. The seminary’s leadership had initially planned to honor Dr. Keller, perhaps the most famous Presbyterian in the United States, with the award, but outcry over his hermeneutics convinced them to demur. “Many regard awarding the Kuyper Prize as an affirmation of Reverend Keller’s belief that women and LGBTQ+ persons should not be ordained,”  PTS President Craig Barnes announced to his students. Barnes and his seminary’s liberal brand of Presbyterianism strongly support LGBTQ+ persons and women in ministry, so Keller’s more orthodox stances posed a problem. When Barnes ultimately rescinded the prize, Keller did not complain; as he had said to Kristof, a church’s doctrinal positions are not meant to be all-inclusive. Beliefs and boundaries exist, and Keller’s church has steadily grown despite the fact that most of his city ardently disagrees with him about what those beliefs and boundaries are.

Keller’s stance on the role of LGBTQ+ persons and women in ministry is clear. Redeemer, he once wrote on the topic of women in ministry, has a commitment to “the authority of the Bible” as well as “the liberation of all Christians to use their gifts in ministry.” He concluded by emphasizing his and Redeemer’s goal: “to create a community that even non-believing feminists recognize as not oppressive, yet one that honors the Biblical distinction between the genders.” The founding documents of Gospel Coalition, a network of churches created by Keller and D. A. Carson, also state that “both men and women are encouraged to serve Christ and to be developed to their full potential in the manifold ministries of the people of God. The distinctive leadership role within the church given to qualified men is grounded in creation, fall, and redemption and must not be sidelined by appeals to cultural developments”—an affirmation of Redeemer’s commitment to biblical authority despite its existence in the middle of Manhattan (275).

Redeemer’s size has made it possible for many people over the years to process the Gospel, either for the first time or as part of a spiritual journey in which they are returning to God.

Let us be honest with ourselves: biblical interpretation on topics such as these is often more about personal worldview than scriptural exegesis. Keller values the way that the Bible has been interpreted for thousands of years, while Barnes and other liberal Presbyterians choose to provide “appeals to cultural developments” instead. A casual observer might consider these worldview differences to be the greatest challenge Redeemer has in a place like New York, but Bisgrove believes the church has built a sound model for handling people’s questions when they arise. “Anonymity is important,” he says. “Redeemer’s size has made it possible for many people over the years to process the Gospel, either for the first time or as part of a spiritual journey in which they are returning to God.” Because of its sizable attendance base, skeptics and truth-seekers can sit in the pews on a weekly basis and never get those judgmental glances that they may have grown up with in their small-town congregation. Redeemer regularly caters to these wondering souls: on each communion Sunday, for example, they place a personal “prayer for those seeking truth” on their order-of-worship pamphlet. In this way, Redeemer can challenge the cultural liturgies of the city while not making folks who are genuinely seeking the truth uncomfortable. They endorse a different set of values than most New Yorkers live with, but they do it with a hortatory pat on the shoulder, not a driving whip.

Even still, the church’s size is a two-edged sword. For each individual who enjoys the license to spend their Sundays trying to understand new beliefs, there are others who feel alone and unreached amid the multitudes. “Community at Redeemer can be difficult at times because it’s a big church and it’s really up to you to reach out and get involved,” Chow said. Bisgrove agrees: “It is very easy at a large church for individuals to slip in and out and never deepen their engagement with the church or those sitting around them.” Redeemer’s greatest challenge going forward, outside of replacing the massive impact left by Pastor Keller, may be maintaining the community feel to which most churches aspire. The new breakdown into four distinct churches certainly took place with that goal in mind.

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Megachurches are not uncommon in American cities—Rick Warren preaches to tens of thousands every Sunday in Los Angeles; Matt Chandler spent his thirties building a multi-campus empire in Dallas; and even New York’s four-year-old Hillsong plant draws massive numbers. Considered against these congregations, Redeemer is hardly anything special. However, Redeemer is unique among these (and almost every other church its size in the United States) in that it maintains a traditional theology in the Big Apple, where concepts like original sin and biblical inerrancy are often laughed out of the room. Chandler’s church proclaims similar doctrines, but it meets far less resistance in less-secular Dallas. Hillsong appeases its Manhattan base by typically ducking doctrinal conflicts. Warren’s Orange County-based location is a bit bolder than Hillsong, but its immediate surroundings are a bit less hostile. Redeemer stands strong for their message in a city that largely dismisses it, and has for almost thirty years, with great success.

“We affirm the Apostle’s Creed; the authority of Scripture; [and] the bodily resurrection and deity of Jesus in a culture that is increasingly skeptical and distant from that story,” Bisgrove says. This is Redeemer’s unique impact on Christian outreach in the secular city: they have proven that it can be done without compromising beliefs or re-packaging the salvific message of Jesus. From the RUF events hosted on college campuses to the work Hope for New York does on the streets of Queens to Dr. Keller’s decades of sermons on the West Side, the church has adhered to the Gospel above all else. Pastor Bisgrove concluded our interview by reaffirming the Redeemer mission. “The New Testament is clear,” he says, “that proclaiming the good news of Jesus, primarily His sacrificial and substitutionary death on the cross, is transculturally powerful. That remains our core focus regardless of how the culture around us changes.” For Redeemer to continue to reach the world around it in this time of transition, they will undoubtedly stick with what got them here. Bisgrove—and thousands of other New Yorkers who love to attend on a weekly basis—seem up to the challenge.

This piece was researched, drafted, and revised by several of the journal’s editors, including Nathan Barlow, Chris Bolton, Tiffany Li, Lina Tian, and Titus Willis.