(By Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra, The Gospel Coalition). The church members gathered for coffee hour at Redeemer Presbyterian Church knew something was wrong when the polite man quickly shouldering his way through the crowd—“Excuse me, excuse me”—was followed seconds later by uniformed police.
The man had robbed an adjacent parking garage and then raced into an alley to get away—an alley ending in the open door of the fellowship room where pastor Tim Keller was chatting with congregants after the service.
“The only exit from the church was to come back up to street level and come out the front door,” Kathy Keller remembers. The man found it, tearing out of the church right in front of Kathy and her three sons, who were sitting in their minivan while waiting for Tim.
All three Keller boys—ages 6, 10, and 12—flew into the back seat to watch as police caught the man, threw him across the hood of the car parked behind them, and cuffed him.
“Which I have to say is one of the reasons I loved raising our kids in New York,” Kathy said. “You didn’t have to lecture them about the evils of drink when they saw drunks vomiting on the sidewalk, nor on the dangers of theft when they saw thieves being cuffed six inches away from their noses.”
But to be honest, that wasn’t how she felt when Tim first suggested they move from Philadelphia to New York City to plant a church. In the late 80s, New York was reaching the peak of its crack cocaine addiction. Violent crime rates had never been higher.
The spiritual scene wasn’t much better: Less than 1 percent of those in center city Manhattan self-identified as evangelicals. Without a lot more connections, experience, and money, you’ll have a really hard time, New York insiders told them. Odds are you won’t last five years.
But Keller’s plant has lasted nearly six times that. When he preaches his last sermon on June 25, Redeemer will be 28 years old. Over nearly three decades, attendance has soared from around 50 to more than 5,000. The congregation expanded into two, then three locations. They ministered to thousands through Hope for New York, re-imagined employment through the Center for Faith and Work, and launched a church-planting hub now called City to City.
Through it all, Redeemer proved the impossible: You can grow an evangelical church in the middle of one of the most post-Christian, least Bible-minded cities in the United States.
And yesterday [5/21/17], when the congregation voted to split Redeemer’s campuses into three distinct churches, it wasn’t an ending so much as another beginning. Redeemer, which has helped to plant hundreds of churches in New York and around the world, is replanting itself.