An Evangelical Pastor On Reaching The Religiously Unaffiliated

Rev. Timothy Keller spent nearly 30 years reaching out to skeptics in New York City. Here's what he's learned.
Rev. Timothy Keller
Rev. Timothy Keller
Nathan Troester / Redeemer Presbyterian Church

After nearly 30 years at the helm of New York City’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church, Rev. Timothy Keller announced last week that he will be stepping down from the role of senior pastor at his church.

Keller, a New York Times bestselling author, is an influential voice within evangelical Christianity. His church grew from a 15-person prayer group on the Upper East Side to a community of more than 5,000 that holds multiple Sunday services at three Manhattan branches, and is affiliated with over 300 congregations around the world.

As the leader of a conservative congregation in the middle of a big city that tends to swing liberal, Keller has years of experience trying to bridge the gap between those two world views. And he’s become known for his outreach to the religiously unaffiliated ― the growing number of Americans who identify as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.”

In The Reason for God, published in 2008, Keller makes the case that Christianity is a rational belief system by tackling a few of the doubts that skeptics, both non-believers and those who question Christianity in particular, have about God. In one of his latest books, Making Sense of God, Keller steps further back and addresses questions that skeptics have about faith itself ― and whether any version of religion makes sense or has any relevance to modern life.

Keller told The Huffington Post that the job of an evangelist isn’t necessarily any harder than when he started Redeemer many decades ago ― but it’s different.

“Nowadays, I think the difficulty isn’t just the hostility; it’s also that we as a society are ill-equipped to really respect, dialogue and learn from each other when we disagree or have different political or religious views,” Keller told The Huffington Post. “I think many people want a pluralism that’s healthy and honoring of each other’s differences but we -– both the religious and the non-religious –- don’t know how to do this well.”

The Huffington Post caught up with Keller to speak about his upcoming career transition and about what he’s learned about the religiously unaffiliated during his 28 years of ministry at Redeemer.

Read on for the conversation.

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What led you to step down as senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian at this particular moment?

Two main reasons. First, it is a way to make room within my church for new, younger leaders to develop and take charge. I was preaching four times a Sunday, 40-42 weeks a year. That is over 160 speaking opportunities that now several others can fill and that will help them grow greatly in their abilities. It also means that many will be given new authority and responsibility ...

The second reason is closely related to the first. It frees me to teach others what I’ve learned about ministering in a secular environment, like some of the neighborhoods in Manhattan that we’ve been part of. I also want to invest in the larger community of churches in New York – there are really exciting things happening here related to growth in churches. That will be a more-than-full-time job, so I’m not retiring.

In short, my move is about helping and supporting future leaders at Redeemer and the community of churches in the city as a whole.

You have worked with and created spaces for people who doubt at Redeemer for close to 30 years. What have you discovered about religious seekers and skeptics during that time? What are the reasons some people reject religion and what are they generally searching for when they leave?

I’ve learned so much and I’m still learning.

One thing I’ve learned is that sociologist Peter Berger is right. The reasons for both embracing and rejecting religious faith are never merely intellectual and rational. Of course, the intellectual and rational play a role, but the reasons for all moves or paradigm shifts are also partly emotional and partly relational—dependent on positive and negative experiences with believers and non-believers. It is a great mistake to think that deep religious belief can’t be highly rational, or to think that non-belief can’t be largely a matter of feeling and experience rather than reason.

I don’t want to over-generalize, but I mention this pattern because I’ve learned a lot by processing with many people who reject religious faith because they were raised in an unusually rigid and close-minded setting. Later they find that they miss what philosopher Charles Taylor calls the “fullness”—an assurance that life has ultimate meaning and a hope that is strong enough to get you through suffering. When they realize they have lost something they begin looking in earnest for a different kind of religious faith than the one they had been raised in. Many never re-acquire faith, and some do. As I said, I don’t want to give the impression I am talking about all or even most people who have rejected religion, but, at least in my experience, there are many who have experienced something like this.

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What can evangelical churches do better to reach out to and understand skeptics?

This is the easiest of your questions. We could do a far better job of patiently listening. And we should not talk until we can represent the skeptic’s viewpoint with empathy so that a skeptic friend says, “Yes, that is my hang up; I couldn’t have put it better myself.” Then and only then should you try to talk to someone and recommend the Christian faith to them.

Religion is certainly growing globally, but statistics show that more and more Americans are religiously unaffiliated. The vast majority of these “nones” say they were raised in a religiously affiliated household. Why do you think Americans are becoming less comfortable identifying with a specific religion?

Great question. The best sociological explanation is that in our society people are becoming increasingly unwilling to trust or identify with any institution at all. We shouldn’t, therefore, think of this as only a turning away from religion. It is actually just one aspect or result of what sociologist Robert Bellah and others called expressive individualism and the weakening of all “strong ties” in community. Expressive individualism insists that we define ourselves apart from family, tradition, religion, or any other external moral source.

Freedom no longer is a means to an end where one is “free to do XY and Z”. It becomes an end in itself. So now we fear staying with the same company for over five years, or we don’t want to identify too strongly with political parties, or live our lives near where we were raised, or trust institutions, especially if they are very powerful or organized, and on and on. I’m not saying these are bad things – in fact there’s a lot of wisdom in assessing what we commit our lives to – but our apprehension with identifying with a specific religion is very much tied similar sentiments about other institutions. The question, though, is what is lost by that wholesale rejection of an external moral source.

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It seems the religiously unaffiliated differ vastly from evangelicals (particularly white evangelicals) on many political and social issues ― from older culture war issues like abortion and same-sex marriage to more recent issues, like how black Americans are treated by police and whether or not to welcome refugees into the country. What does this political divide mean for evangelical Christians seeking to win over the unaffiliated?

You are right to single out white American evangelicals as having recognizably ‘conservative Republican’ positions. But, as you mentioned, religion is growing around the world and in this country, especially among non-white people. Global Christianity is now primarily non-white. The new, multi-ethnic evangelicalism and Pentecostalism will not fit into neat American ‘Left’ or ‘Right’ categories. It will probably look ‘liberal’ in its commitment to racial and economic justice, but ‘conservative’ when it comes to issues like abortion and gay marriage. In other words, the evangelicalism of the future will disappoint both Democrats and Republicans.

What do you hope seekers and other religiously unaffiliated people who read Making Sense of God take away from the book?

Not to be too obvious—but the title is the goal. I want people in the end to think that belief in God and in Christianity makes a lot more sense to them than when they started the book. The goal of the volume is not to make a slam-dunk case that Christianity is true, but to lead the reader to think it would be great if it were.

When I wrote The Reason for God over 10 years ago I was principally addressing the questions I had been hearing from people who would describe themselves as “seekers”; that is, people already wrestling with faith and belief.

Making Sense of God was written as the result of many conversations that I’ve had since then with people – primarily students in Manhattan and Oxford―who aren’t even thinking about faith issues. Religion holds no interest for them, and they don’t see its relevance or purpose in anyone’s life, much less their own. So Making Sense starts much further back, in a sense, addressing the things that do concern people today…meaning in the face of suffering, identity, freedom, justice, satisfaction and hope for the future.

I hope to show that Christianity has unparalleled resources to deal with these issues.

This interview has been edited for length.

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