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A New Kind of Urban Preacher (part 1)

How to communicate in a way that lifts your whole community.

In 2006, The Christian Vision Project addressed the question, How can the church be a counterculture for the common good? Timothy Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, wrote one of the articles, titled "A New Kind of Urban Christian." In this two-part interview, PreachingToday.com speaks with Keller about how the ideas in his article relate in particular to the preacher.

PreachingToday.com: What part has preaching played in shaping a different sort of urban Christian at Redeemer Presbyterian?

Tim Keller: The Sunday preaching has been pivotal for two reasons. It has provided the basic idea of what it means to be an urban Christian—its definition, why the city is important, and why being a Christian in a city is important. However, preaching is also a way of modeling for people. The preacher is being an urban Christian. Preaching is a way of showing that the preacher is processing and assimilating the urban environment. I, as the preacher, interact with books, magazines, ideas, and issues that everybody else in New York City is interacting with.

I often will put forward statements by non-Christian New Yorkers who have problems with Christianity and interact with them, and I'm modeling how you should interact with and help your friend who doesn't believe in Christianity. So I'm not just giving people information about how to live as an urban Christian; I'm actually being the urban Christian in front of them, and being one in such a way that they can envision being that themselves.

Can this be practiced whether preaching in Manhattan or in a small town in the Midwest?

Yes, the weak Christian, the nominal Christian, and the non-Christian have to be able to say: "I could see myself being a Christian like that person." If you are preaching, and your audience is learning truth, but they could never imagine being like you—responding to the world like you, thinking like you, and feeling like you—that's not good. This is important regardless of the setting.

If you are preaching, and your audience is learning truth, but they could never imagine being like you, that's not good.

In your Christian Vision Project article, you mention that we need to build a countercultural community where sex, money, and power are not used in destructive ways. What part can preaching play in building that sort of community?

A biblical theology of sex is neither the prudishness of the traditional culture nor the commoditization of sex in a consumer culture. When you're preaching, instead of simply saying, "Here's what the Bible says about sex," it's your job to contrast Christian sexual ethics and practice with what's out there. It's important to say, "In the world today, here are the alternative narratives that people are using to understand sex."

Give illustrations. Quote magazines. Give illustrations from movies. You have to say, "Here's what the Bible says about sex," but you also have to say, "Here's what the culture says, and it's different."

I have to do the same thing with money and power. I not only have to expound positively what Scripture says, I also have to show that I understand, even sympathetically, the strengths and weaknesses of alternative accounts—and what those accounts are, because there are usually more than one. I have to show people I live in their world; I know what those alternative accounts are and how Christianity and the Bible's approach are different.

In this sense, I follow Abraham Kuyper and the Dutch Calvinist approach. They would say that any account of sex, money, or power that isn't God-centered makes an idol out of sex, money, or power. And there are different ways of doing that: In a traditional culture, marriage is the idol. In our culture, it's the sexual experience itself. But if you make anything an idol, it leads to destruction. When you make a good thing into an ultimate thing, it leads to destruction.

For example, if I love my child, that's a good thing. But if I make an idol of my child, so that I'm either living my life through my child or favoring my one child over another child, that leads to destruction. It leads to breakdown.

You must identify the particular way the culture makes idols of sex, money, and power. Show how they lead to destruction, and show how it is only when you demote sex, money, and power by sticking them into a Christian account of reality that they are no longer destructive.

You say in your article that Christians should be a community radically committed to the good of the city as a whole. How does your preaching at Redeemer bring good to the city at large?

If preaching is really confusing or offensive to non-Christians, then that preaching is pretty tribal. If it's confusing or offensive because the preacher is just not careful about how he says things, he's not showing that he remembers what it's like not to believe. And a lot of preachers do not give their hearers the impression that they have any idea what it's like not to believe or to have doubts.

Some preachers with a liberal bent like to talk about the doubts they struggle with to make doubters feel welcome. I don't think that helps doubters much, because the preacher is not leading them. Some people of a more conservative bent preach as if doubts are the worst thing in the world—"Who in their right mind would ever doubt?" and "How dare you doubt!"

There is a way of expressing the verities of the faith with love and assurance, yet also in a way that shows you respect people's doubts and remember what it's like to doubt. Verse 22 of Jude says, "Be merciful to them that doubt."

If you've got that attitude and voice as you preach, you become a place where non-Christians can come. And even though they don't believe what you believe, they're edified, interested, and helped. You'll have swarms of non-Christians who are able to leave—sometimes challenged, sometimes not agreeing—but almost always intrigued, provoked, and edified. And it becomes the whole city in a church rather than just you Christians.

It is possible to preach in a way that includes Christians and non-Christians, so that you have a lot of non-Christians present, incubating, listening. That becomes a way of lifting up the whole city instead of just your tribe.

This is part one of a two-part interview. In part two, Keller differentiates between preaching that is rightly and wrongly offensive, and discusses the attractiveness of the gospel.

Timothy Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. He is also the Chairman & Co-Founder of Redeemer City to City, which starts new churches in New York and other global cities, and publishes books and resources for ministry in an urban environment.

Related articles

A New Kind of Urban Christian

As the city goes, so goes the culture.

A New Kind of Urban Preacher (pt. 2)

How to communicate in a way that lifts your whole community.

Sex & the City of God

How do we respond to a corrupted culture? Two faulty examples and a better one.