Can We Reach Them (and Can We Afford To)?

Are sounds of doubt and uncertainty beginning to echo out of the Big Apple?

First, Tim Keller writes a book notice on Matthew Bowman’s The Urban Pulpit: New York City and the Fate of Liberal Evangelicalism. Although he sounds confident that New York City now has churches who teach “historic orthodox doctrine” and are “also intellectually robust and socially engaged,” he also seems worried.

There are at least 100 churches that we can discern that have been begun over the last 20 years in center city New York (and some older churches renewed) that are closer to the older kind of Christianity that used to flourish here. However, we too face the issue of a culture that is not interested in what we have to say. How do we reach them?

Add to that the recent reflections of an Englishman, Andrew Wilson, about Christianity and the churches in New York and you begin to wonder if all the money spent on Redeemer PCA is going to amount to much (aside from pastoral celebrity):

One of the pastors at Redeemer Presbyterian Church was interviewed on his/their ways of doing youth ministry. His first comment was that, because it is hard to believe in New York City – only around 3% of Manhattan is made up of evangelical Christians, although it is closer to 8-9% in the other boroughs – they affirm doubt. They acknowledge the force of objections to Christianity, and encourage people simply for being in the city and remaining Christian, because they recognise how hard it is. . . .

although the Christian world has mostly heard of Tim Keller and Redeemer, they are tiny in the city. (One of their assistant pastors said that Dimas Salaberrios, an Ethiopian pastor from the Bronx who spoke at the conference, is more well known in the city itself than Keller, even though most Christians outside the city have never heard of him.) A church of six thousand in eight million is a drop in the ocean. But another pastor mentioned the disproportionate influence they have had, simply by demystifying and detoxifying the city for evangelicals. “If they weren’t there, we could never do what we’re doing,” he said. . . .

New York seems both incredibly exciting and incredibly difficult as a place to live, and to plant and lead churches. The energy, creativity and diversity of the city are unparalleled, but the city is less Christian than the rest of the nation (in contrast to London, which is more Christian than the rest of the UK), and the pressures on price and space are even more intense in Manhattan than they are in other global cities. The fact that Manhattan is a separate island makes a big difference here: in London, you can lead a church in the West End, live in Brixton and have your offices in Fulham – and some previous contributors to this blog do – but in New York the equivalent is virtually impossible, because it would mean living, working and leading on three different islands. I’ve just mentioned the six-person family in a two-bedroom flat, and church premises are just as extortionate: many churches share their buildings with (at least) one other congregation, and the one recent building purchase I heard about cost $50 million. (By way of comparison, Kings Church London just opened their newly refurbished building in Lee, which used to be a school, and it cost them around £6 million.) All of which makes church planting here spiritually demanding, financially challenging and emotionally draining, but also exhilarating and rewarding.

If these comments reflect a trend, then they may signal that if you can affirm doubts about Christianity to show you are not a Stepford Christian, you are also allowed to have second thoughts about TKNY and Redeemer PCA.

33 thoughts on “Can We Reach Them (and Can We Afford To)?

  1. Abby, if you read the linked article you would have to ask “How could she afford not to unless Redeemer is paying the Kellers a small (or medium) fortune?”

    I was simply staggered when I heard a New York pastor, who lives in the Upper East Side, explain the expense of living in the city by telling me he pays $4000 per month in rent for a two bedroom apartment, in which he and his wife live with their four children. I knew cities were expensive, but I had no way of computing a number like that, nor how churches could raise sufficient income to pay pastors enough to live on.

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  2. Abby, being a newcomer you won’t get this, but at least some of KK’s stuff must come from The Sharper Image or Hammacher Schlemmer‎ since Wally World probably doesn’t carry the world’s largest B.S. detector.

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  3. I could talk myself into the Manhattan lifesty…errr…incarnational necessities of ministry in New York. It’d be my cross to bear but I’d do it for jesus.

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  4. TKNY – There are at least 100 churches that we can discern that have been begun over the last 20 years in center city New York (and some older churches renewed) that are closer to the older kind of Christianity that used to flourish here. However, we too face the issue of a culture that is not interested in what we have to say. How do we reach them?

    Erik – Serve a higher quality cheese at your mixers?

    If Ebola hits NYC I predict TKNY will rediscover the relevance of the non-City.

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  5. The key to doing church in Manhattan would be renting some space from a dying Mainline church. Don’t know if that’s viable or not. If you insist on buying land and building you had better have some really wealthy members. If this is about reaching the unchurched, I get it. If it’s about a bunch of churched (and those who grew up in church but have wandered away) moving to Manhattan and finding each other so they can impress the rest of us slobs in the sticks, then don’t bother. Stay where you are and send money to plant churches in Africa.

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  6. Keller’s last paragraph would seem a false binary.

    We must not make the same mistake again. We must not respond with either withdrawal nor with assimilation to the spirit of the age.

    The assimilation to the age, protestant liberalism, I get, but withdrawal I don’t. His “old life” churches and even the fundamentalist/Baptists that he disdains didn’t really withdraw. They still met. They still proclaimed the gospel to anyone who had ears. Isn’t a better question than “how do we reach them” something like “are the ears of this generation closed” and why?

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  7. In general those who live in NYC are either (1) born there, (2) looking to disappear, (3) are looking for all the best that this world has to offer.

    Now presumably (3) is who TKNY is seeking to reach — the movers and shakers. The problem is, moving and shaking isn’t exactly inline with Word & Sacrament ministry or even with Bible study. After all, what does studying 1 John offer to compete with snorting blow off of a hooker? Most people who want to give that life up are probably leaving the City — moving to Ossinging or Rye with the wife & kids.

    Church planting in Ossining or Rye isn’t much more sexy that church planting in Charlotte, though, so phooey on that.

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  8. This stuff all reeks a bit of Marc Driscoll transforming Seattle — until he wasn’t any more.

    The model for mover & shaker ministry should probably not be TKNY, but Brian Lee in Washington D.C.. Haven’t heard of him? That’s because he’s doing it the right way.

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  9. The biggest lesson the PCA should learn is how un-normative anything a church does to reach NYC (especially Manhattan) is. To view those efforts as a model for anything (except maybe reaching Paris) is foolhardy. World class cities have no peers. Don’t try this in Nashville, Orlando, or Atlanta — you’ll spend a lot of money and it won’t work.

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  10. Mark, if they proclaimed the gospel and were still in the world (but not of it), those were confessionally Protestant churches. American made Fundamentalism is glorified moralism (no gospel) and world-denying pietism. Or are seriously telling us that fundies happily attended secular universities and partook of “worldly amusements”?

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  11. Zrim, not sure what that last sentence is saying, but before that. Yes, much of Fundamentalism often got reduced to moralism, hello Baptist/Methodist theology. But I don’t think you can say it was without gospel. An assuming of the gospel to hurry on to the holy life, yes; a sometimes awful mixture of law and gospel, yes, but not without. After all, most of what it consisted of was a creedal statement for a non-creedal tradition. The original five “fundamentals” were: inspiration and inerrancy, virgin birth, substitutionary atonement, bodily resurrection and real miracles. Those are just basically: who spoke by the prophets, born of the virgin Mary, for us men and our salvation…was crucified, on the third day he rose again according to the scriptures, and by whom all things were made. (That last one might be a stretch, but the creator can certainly perform small acts of power). The fact that non-believers are still kicking the fundies long after the last of the species has died and become evangelical should tell us they got something right.

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  12. Mark, if much of it was reduced to moralism and an awful mixture of law and gospel then how can fundamentalism be said to have retained the gospel? Might as well say the same thing of the FV. Maybe you mean a lot of gospelese in which the word was sentimentalized and thrown around liberally, but that’s not the gospel. And who needed the five fundamentals when all that is contained in the confessions and creeds anyway? Just another version of parachurch thinking it can do better than the ordinary church.

    As far as the last statement, that’s in connection to the withdrawal point, which is a cultural point. You said Fundamentalism didn’t withdrawal. Wow, really? Not sure with which what sort of Fundamentalism you’re familiar, but my mine (IFCA) was all about Christian ghetto from schools to music to leisure. And no accounting for taste, it was the five and dime version of what the more versed Kuyperians were doing with every square inch of common life.

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  13. Moody’s “I prefer the way we do it to the way you don’t do it” seems to apply. TK is reaching some people, and providing a beachhead for others. Yea, he also gets a lot of nods in conferences and book blurbs. So what? So do a whole lot of other very mediocre people. We can’t all be exemplary evangelists getting “A”s on our Reformed report cards, but we can all try to be faithful. The ongoing resentment or disdain he is subjected to here mystifies me a bit. He gets Rick Warren-like hype AND he’s Reformed? Then he has to be problematic! What famous preacher from Church history wasn’t? It’s not like he’s Joel Osteen or even RC Sproul, Jr.

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  14. Mr. Lee,
    Thanks for the tip; I had dinner with Zac W. last night. I’m actually a “competitor” (kidding) – I’m planting for the OPC (Good Shepherd) in the northern part of the Queen City. Above, I was asking if I should change my means of grace planting for something more hip and costly.

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  15. joe m, so you’re cool with his order shenanigans (no longer ordains any deacons since they “accidentally” ordained some fe-males), his hospitality to theistic evolutionists, his planting of baptist churches, and his Clintonesque weasel words on sexuality?

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  16. Let he who does not give aid and comfort to deviant creation views which strike at the heart of doctrine, who does not play fast and loose with the Book of Church Order, and who does not use normal English words and phrases when talking about sexuality cast the first shade-grown, bird-friendly, free range, organic, gluten-free New York City paving stone.

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  17. Jeff,

    That’s good – my heart is for the people even when I disagree with them. The GRN intersects with good folk, as you related, and there are, I believe, so many in the GRN that are good folks, too. It’s just those GRN ringleaders and their bad theology/practices who want to drive us Old-Side/Old Schoolers out of the PCA to a ‘Reformed Purgatory’ that gets to me.

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  18. This thread may have dies, but I’ll add my two cents anyway.

    I suspect that the TKNY model will die off mainly because its institutional soil doesn’t fit with the theological convictions of its adherents.

    In my experience, the TKNY model mainly appeals to conservative-leaning mainliners and mainline-leaning conservatives. I attended a TKNY knockoff church in the DC area. The church’s members were largely from conservative Southern PC(USA) churches, e.g., like those that are joining the ECO. They’re basically Reformed in theology. And despite all the transformational talk from the church’s pastors, few of the members seemed to buying into it. Instead, the church’s members were interested in things like ordaining women leaders and taking a more nuanced opposition to same-sex relationships.

    When the TKNY model took off in the ’90s, you could tell people, “We’re working toward ordaining women in the PCA; be patient.” But that just doesn’t fly these days for several reasons. First, there has been no substantial movement on the issue in the PCA since that time. Second, the influx of YRRs into the PCA has reduced the likelihood that there will be movement on gender-related issues anytime soon. Third, the EPC and ECO have emerged as viable rivals to the PCA, and offer a flexible approach to gender roles that is more in line with the views of those who are members of TKNY churches.

    Keller seems to be fairly committed to remaining in the PCA, but, in my experience, the members of TKNY churches aren’t. If the TKNY pastors can transplant the movement into the ECO or EPC, then it will probably continue to grow. If the TKNY churches remain in the PCA, I suspect that many members will begin to move on to other venues.

    I think the transplant option makes more sense. After all, I’ve never understood why certain mainline-leaning PCA pastors remain in the PCA. I can think of at least five PCA pastors who are not inerrantists, who are open to women’s ordination, and who take a much more nuanced opposition to homosexuality (i.e., more akin to that of third-wave feminism’s critiques of homosexuality). In public, they claim to hold to the PCA’s positions, even while they undermine those positions in private. And even though I don’t agree theologically with the TRs in the PCA, I understand why they’re frustrated. These pastors could easily move themselves and their churches into the EPC (or now, the ECO) and find themselves in denominations where they can stop engaging in duplicitous double-speak (e.g., “commissioning” women elders instead of ordaining them). But they don’t do that. Instead, for reasons that escape me, they remain in the PCA.

    If anyone in the PCA has any explanation for this, I’m interested. I don’t see why these guys are so intent on transforming the PCA into a more mainline-friendly denomination, especially where that tack runs expressly against the PCA’s official positions.

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  19. @cw

    Some number of PCA churches have a Steering Committee to which people are commissioned and which includes men and women. The Steering Committee functions as a de facto session. Then, one male member of the Steering Committee is designated as a Presbytery Liaison (aka ruling elder) for purposes of having at least one ruling elder. In reality, the Presbytery Liaison never attends any presbytery meetings because they’re generally held at times that are inconvenient for anyone who isn’t in full-time ministry (e.g., 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on a Tuesday). If anyone ever asks about the church’s denominational affiliation, the pastors emphasize that the church is not part of the PCA, but is rather part of the XYZ Presbytery of the PCA. They then wax long about how the local presbytery is nothing like the PCA at all. In some cases, they don’t even acknowledge the church’s PCA affiliation.

    I was sitting through a membership class at a PCA church in the Fall of 2012. Someone asked whether the church was in the same denomination as the church of Missouri Senate candidate Todd “Legitimate Rape” Akin. The pastor replied, “No, that church is part of a different organization.” After the class, I asked him about his answer. He explained that he treats each presbytery as its own sovereign body, and views the the denominational umbrella as something more akin to a mutual reciprocity agreement. Knowing that I was a lawyer, he analogized it to a state bar. Our presbytery is like the Virginia bar and Akin’s presbytery is like the Missouri bar. Even though the Virginia bar and the Missouri bar may have some measure of reciprocity, you would never say that someone who is only a member of the Virginia bar is part of the same organization as someone who is only a member of the Missouri bar.

    The PCA contains some number of pastors who, if they were being honest, would admit to favoring the ordination of women to the offices of deacon and elder and favoring an approach to Scripture similar to that promoted by Pete Enns. I happen to agree with them on these points. Even so, I think it’s duplicitous to pay lip service to the PCA’s official position (which lies squarely counter to these views) and then work to undermine those views within one’s immediate ministry context. To those of us from outside of the bubble, this just looks ridiculous and foolish. I don’t understand why these guys don’t just give up on the charade and affiliate with the EPC and ECO.

    In some ways, I think that the leaders in question get a sense of excitement out of feeling like they’re doing something radical. In contrast to the members of these churches, nearly all of these leaders grew up in fairly conservative, if not fundamentalist, backgrounds. Things like rejecting inerrancy and ordaining women still seems like an exciting novelty. They can sit around together, drink craft beer, and feel like they’re “special” within the PCA. If the moved to the EPC or ECO, that would all be gone. Then, they’d just be the guys who went to a seminary that no one’s heard of: “Covenant Seminary? Is that kind of like Fuller?”

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