Covenant Renewal and Redeemer’s “DNA”September 2009
by Tim Keller
This month marks the 20th anniversary of Redeemer’s first morning worship service, which was held the last Sunday in September, 1989, at 111 East 87th Street, in the Seventh Day Adventist Church. As we reflect back on the 20 years this anniversary represents, we will also look ahead this fall to our next decade of ministry in NYC by launching into a season of renewing our vision and calling. On our anniversary Sunday, September 27th, we will kick off the RENEW campaign—“a hope, a vision, a city”. At other anniversaries I’ve written about how important ‘Covenant Renewal’ seasons were in the life of Israel. Before some great new venture was undertaken—before entering the Promised Land or building a new temple, or anointing a new leader—the people took a long, prayerful look at their past. First, they reminded themselves what God had done in their midst, and also what he had called them to do in the world. Secondly, they recommitted themselves to that calling in the present. They made promises and brought gifts. Finally, and only after they had taken these first two steps, they turned toward the future and the new venture.
Let’s begin this process! This month in the newsletter I want to look back at our calling and our past. In the next two newsletters we will look at the next stage in our journey together and as a church in New York City.
I came to New York City having learned from reading and experience that the gospel of grace was powerful, and was distinct from merely being good and moral. I first learned this by reading the chapter in C.S. Lewis’ book Mere Christianity titled “Nice People or New Men?” In seminary I learned from church historians that, when the core of the gospel was rediscovered, it led to spiritual revival in the church. In my ministry in Virginia and Philadelphia I had begun to see real life examples of this renewal. Nevertheless, in the early days of Redeemer I was still quite fuzzy on just how extensively the gospel ‘changed everything.’ Along with other Redeemer leaders we came to realize that the gospel changes the individual heart and life, it creates a new kind of community among us, and it also empowers us to renew and reach the city, culture, and world. Three headings: the gospel and the heart, the community, and the world. This vision turned out to be far more comprehensive than anything I’d imagined when I first arrived. We now call this vision our gospel ‘DNA’—a set of ministry priorities and practices that flow from our reflection on the implications of the gospel for our life together.
The Gospel and the Heart
What do we mean by ‘the Gospel and the Heart’? We mean that the gospel motivates us to a life of Christ likeness through the beauty of grace attracting the heart toward God, rather than through guilt, fear, and pressure on the will. Traditional religion extracts moral compliance through fear of condemnation; the gospel creates an inward explosion of grateful joy toward the one who died so there is now no more condemnation for us. The ordinary way the human heart operates is to assume that God loves and accepts them because of the level of their devotion to Christ and their submission to the Bible. As a result, many churches are filled with self-righteous, irritable, overly critical, deeply insecure people who can never be sure they are devoted or submitted enough to please God. The gospel is not that we give God a good record and then he owes us, but that God—through the costly sacrifice of Jesus Christ—gives us a perfect record, which we receive by faith, and then we live gladly for him. The gospel, in other words, changes the ‘ordinary way the human heart operates,’ transforming it at the foundation.
The Gospel and Community
What do we mean by ‘the Gospel and Community’? When a church is changed by the gospel, it produces an unusually balanced set of ministries. It emphasizes connecting people to God through evangelism and worship that draws people to faith. It also connects people to each other in a new way. The gospel both humbles us out of our pride and self-righteousness and yet loves and assures us out of our insecurity and shame. This frees us for relationships that are far less possessive, deceitful, political, and exploitative than we have known before. Thirdly, the gospel virtually drives us outward to connect to the city, toward the needs of the city, and particularly toward the poor. When we realize our dependence on sheer grace, it removes that kind of tribal mindset. We set out to make the city a good place for all people to live, and to love our neighbor sacrificially whether or not he or she believes as we do. Finally, the gospel connects Christians to the culture. A moralistic mindset sees ‘the world’ as a profane place that we should have as little to do with as possible. The secular mindset makes work into almost a form of self-salvation, a way to prove yourself and amass wealth or achievement. The gospel leads us to integrate our faith with our work, to turn our vocation into a way to serve others rather than ourselves, and to reshape our job with the priorities of God’s kingdom.
I have often had visitors ask me about the unusual balance—evangelism, small groups, justice and mercy, and faith-work integration. One or two of these features are visible in other churches but seldom do they all make an appearance. I respond that the balance is the result of sustained reflection on the implications of the gospel for community life.
The Gospel and the World
What do we mean by ‘the Gospel and the World’? Three things. First, it means having a ‘kingdom mindset.’ If you really care about your city, and you know that your own church and even your own denomination could never reach everyone in the city, then you become supportive of other ministries and other churches not just your own. Redeemer over the years has given free training and financial support to non-Presbyterian churches in the city, and that is often quite stunning to people. But we see it as an implication of the gospel. The gospel is more important than our Presbyterian tribe. Redeemer has always sought to avoid ‘turf-consciousness.’
First, it means seeing the city and world the way God sees it. It means not creating a we/they environment where we put down people who don’t believe the way we do, but instead loving and serving them. Redeemer has not sought to be part of a “tribe” or become a “tribe” but to fight against boundaries that keep Christians “in” and non-Christians “out.” We see God at work in and through the church but also outside the church.
Second, it means that the gospel enables us to adapt and ‘incarnate’ our message in a way that makes sense to the culture of our neighbors. Religiosity always produces a series of very detailed rules and regulations for Christian practice. That stems from the basic insecurity of religious people. They are not sure if they are being ‘good enough’, so they add many human-made rules to assure themselves that they are living up to standards. But this creates cultural narrowness. For example, your understanding of ‘worship decorum’ means you must never use guitars or clap hands in worship, you will not be able to conduct worship in a way that captures the hearts and imaginations of many cultures. Of course, to insist on such a stricture is adding a human rule to Christian faith—there’s nothing in the Bible to forbid more effusive worship. In short, the gospel makes Redeemer culturally flexible and has enabled us to create a ministry that connects and convicts center-city New Yorkers. Put another way, Redeemer has ‘contextualized’ the gospel for center-city people without compromising it. Our emphasis on the arts, intelligent public discourse, working toward cultural transformation, our concern and connection to the city, the pursuit of excellence but avoidance of slickness—all these are the natural outcomes of urban people coming to faith in Christ and developing a Christianity that is both natural to New York City culture yet challenging to it as well.
Thirdly, it means recognizing the role of churches in this gospel renewal of the world, and planting more of them.
Let’s review what we’ve said so far. I believe that God has given us a “calling” to be a church that demonstrates to the city that “the gospel changes everything.” This includes: 1) using the gospel of grace, rather than fear and guilt, to motivate and change people, 2) being a church with an integrative balance of evangelism and worship, community, justice, and faith-work integration, 3) being kingdom-minded and city-minded in our friendships, work, and church life rather than turf-conscious and tribal, and 4) becoming culturally flexible and engaged so as to communicate the gospel in a way that connects to the heart of our neighbors.
But we are not finished. The final aspect of our mission is this: that we replicate ourselves—that we reproduce other churches with a shared vision of gospel transformation. We have always been committed to being a church planting church. To do this locally (as opposed to in other global cities through the Church Planting Center) requires being willing to sacrifice our own growth and comfort to start other churches. When we expanded worship services from the upper east side to the upper west side, we were moving away from being one big megachurch. Now we want to further decentralize these two congregations and form a third, south of Central Park, which combined will become the church planting engines for future church plants.
What then lies ahead? To stick with theme of decades, we can call our next 10 years the decade of the ‘Gospel and the World’. This encompasses more focus on the gospel in our vocations and culture and serving the poor and the needy in our city. But underlying our ability to move out into the world with the gospel is our vision for becoming three congregations, still connected by vision and preaching, but repurposed to focus outward—on starting new churches and reaching the unchurched.
The reason I’m excited about this next decade is that its about all of us doing this together. For the last 10 years, our congregation has generously supported the Church Planting Center to start churches in NYC and other global cities around the world. But this vision returns our focus on Manhattan and engages all of us in this church planting work.
On this 20th anniversary, it is time for us to gratefully remember all that God has given us and remember our calling as a church. We’ll spend most of the fall working through this together. As in all covenant renewals, there will be an opportunity to discern new ministry goals, to renew our commitment to each other, and to make pledges of our gifts and resources to accomplish our objectives. That is why, in this fall of 2009, we are conducting our next Vision Campaign. Next month in the newsletter, and other venues, I’ll begin to lay out the framework for this next stage in our journey together.
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