In that first sermon after 9/11, Keller noted that everyone had an opinion about New York City and America as a whole. Some were claiming that “God is punishing us” because of rampant immorality. Others said America had been judged because of social injustice and greed. Instead of blaming the victims, Keller said it was time to ask who would stand their ground and love their neighbors.
“Maybe we are going to have to be a little less concerned about our own careers and more concerned about the community,” he said. “So, let’s enter in. Let’s not just ‘fix it.’ Let’s weep with those who weep.”
Keller was more than aware that he was an outsider when he left the faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia to accept a Presbyterian Church in America challenge to start a New York congregation. No one else wanted the job. The bookish preacher understood the depth of the “monolithic public philosophy of secularism” that dominated Manhattan culture, said Tony Carnes, leader of the influential “A Journey through NYC Religions” website.
“The church-planter mantra at that time was that you came to New York to die. … Tim came here to stay,” said Carnes, a long-time member of Redeemer who had a close working relationship with Keller.
Yes, only 1% of Manhattan was “evangelical” when Keller arrived in 1989, and homicides hit 2,245 during his first full year of ministry in the tense city.
Yet there was a “cracking in the ice,” as immigrants in a variety of faiths poured into the city’s boroughs, said Carnes. Soon, many new churches were born. Also, waves of young professionals were arriving and Keller “discovered that he could speak to that mindset. … Wall Street can be so empty and meaningless. Pressure? How do you cope with that? Tim started asking: ‘Where do we get the strength to survive in this city?'”
Keller’s sermons were low-key, but witty. The former professor held Q&A sessions after services, facing the questions of seekers and skeptics. He tried to avoid partisan political wars and didn’t seek publicity. But both came his way as he began writing bestsellers, including “The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism.”