Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the Content

Skill Builders

Home > Skill Builders


A New Kind of Urban Preacher (pt. 2)

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

This is part two of a two-part interview. In part one, Keller discussed how the preacher can model what it means to be an urban Christian to those both inside and outside the church.

PreachingToday.com: Completely aside from the offense of the Cross, how can preaching turn people away?

Timothy Keller: You can preach the truth wrongly. There is a way of saying, "If you reject the truth, you're lost, and this lostness goes on forever," in which the preacher almost relishes that. There are preachers who clearly relish that, or if they do act sorrowful, it doesn't come across as genuine. They're just glad they're on the right side of the doctrinal divide, that they're not lost.

The spirit of your preaching may not be right. I may not find anything wrong with what you're saying—I believe it—but there's something about the spirit that is hard-edged and, for non-Christians in particular, difficult to relate to.

I see this in some preachers who say they believe they are sinners saved by grace, but they don't act that way. They act like people who believe God is pleased with them because their doctrine is right and they're living the life they ought to live and they're really sold out for Jesus. That attitude comes through in everything they say.

The truth is the truth, and generally the truth is difficult for non-Christians to hear, but the preacher's spirit goes a long way in whether or not people can see that he is sympathetic, really cares about them, and really loves them. Conversely, people can sense a spirit of, "Here's the truth, and I know you're not going to like it, and that's okay by me because it's the truth." If we tell people the truth, and the heart, voice, and attitude are full of sympathy and humility, the hearer recognizes that.

Even when we are talking about morality?

Let me give you an example. I could just say, "The Bible says this, and we have to accept it because the Bible is the Word of God." Or I could add: "Now, for some of you, I know that sounds outrageous. That sounds like 'take it or leave it.' But I'd like you to consider this and this and this."

If you know your audience, there's always some part of Jesus' teaching that will resonate with them.

If I give an aside and ask them to please consider this, they see I respect them and know they may have trouble with it. Even though I'm not giving into anything, it shows I know they're there.

Whereas if I give no further explanation than to say, "The Bible is the Word of God," and just keep on going, what I'm communicating to them is: And what idiot would doubt that the Bible is the Word of God? All sane people know the Bible is the Word of God.

I don't believe that. I'm a Calvinist, and because I'm a Calvinist, I realize belief isn't something people can work up without God's help. So why should I preach as if I think anybody who has any trouble believing what I'm saying is an idiot? It should make me compassionate with those who doubt.

In your Christian Vision Project article, you talk about the importance of training people to go into their workday world to help develop humane, creative, and excellent business environments. How do you shape your preaching at your church to train people to accomplish this?

I throw in illustrations. If I'm talking to actors or people in business or in the arts, and I get some insight as to how the gospel would affect their art or their business, I try to find some way to work it into a sermon. Sometimes it's stretching, because that isn't directly helpful in elucidating the text, and I'm an expository preacher. What I do, actually, is write these illustrations on a piece of paper and stick them in a pile. Every week, as I'm preparing a sermon, I pick them up and see whether they fit.

The other possibility is occasionally finding time to preach a full sermon on integrating faith and work, and then I could use all the illustrations directly.

Your article states that the church can attract people to Christianity by showing how Christ resolves our society's cultural problems and fulfills its cultural hopes. How does your preaching do that?

In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul says: The Jews want miracles and the Greeks want wisdom, but Christ is weakness to the Jew and foolishness to the Greek; yet to those Jews and Greeks who are being saved, Christ is the wisdom and power of God. Paul is saying that the essential, cultural hope of the Jews was finding something that works—power. The cultural hope of the Greeks was wisdom—speculation and philosophy. So there were different cultural narratives, and Paul confronts the idolatry of each culture with the Cross. Paul says Jesus is the ultimate power to the Jew, and he's the ultimate wisdom to the Greek.

In the end, you will attract people by saying that the narrative storylines of their lives will only find a happy ending in Christ. In a way, you are affirming them. It's okay to look for wisdom; it's okay to look for power.

Go after people; get to know their deepest hopes. And after you've confronted their idolatry, show that, in Christ, these deepest needs will be met. At a certain point, you do have to say, "If you're longing for identity, love, freedom—or whatever your cultural narrative is—it's in Christ that you will find that longing satisfied in the truest way."

If you really know your audience, there's always some part of Jesus' teaching that will resonate with them: Jesus as bridegroom, for example, or liberator. It depends on your culture, but some aspect of what Jesus is doing is going to be incredibly attractive to it. You have to find out what that is and hammer it as often as you can.

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 (part 1)

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.