Redeemer Presbyterian

Hurrah for blue pews! New York Times embraces small, doctrine-optional Manhattan flock

Hurrah for blue pews! New York Times embraces small, doctrine-optional Manhattan flock

Reporters who are truly interested in the future of the American faith-scene need to know this number — 100. Or maybe it’s 85 or 90. I’ve heard others say the crucial number is 115 in expensive zip codes.

But the late Lyle Schaller, a legendary church-management guru in oldline Protestant circles, once told me that it took about 100 actively contributors to fund the salary-and-benefits package for a credentialed minister in a mainline church. When Schaller said “mainline,” he was talking about the “Seven Sisters.” In descending order by size, that’s the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Episcopal Church, the American Baptist Churches USA, the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

In other words, if a church had more than 100 active members (or households) it could provide for its minister and then do other things — like keep the building from falling down. With fewer than 100 members, a church would be constantly struggling with basic expenses, trying to keep the doors open.

So that’s the statistic that looms over that glowing New York Times feature about a lively Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregation on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that represents the future of the religious left. The dramatic main headline states: “The Church Where Believing in God Isn’t Strictly Necessary.”

Yes, I hear what many readers are thinking. This is a church that even the New York Times can love. And how many people are in these pews? Readers will have to read way down into the story to find that information. Meanwhile, the summary lede contains a few details:

Observant Presbyterians are always part of gatherings at Rutgers Presbyterian Church. But much of the time, so are Roman Catholics and Jews, as well as a smattering of people who consider themselves vaguely spiritual. Valerie Oltarsh-McCarthy, who sat among the congregation listening to a Sunday sermon on the perils of genetically modified vegetables, is, in fact, an atheist.

You have to love that detail about the “perils of genetically modified vegetables.” However, the thesis statement comes a few paragraphs later, as the editorial angels sing a song of hope for a future free of nasty stuff like ancient doctrines:

Typically, the connective tissue of any congregation is an embrace of a shared faith.

Yet Rutgers, a relatively small church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, has rejected that. Sharing a belief in God — any God at all — isn’t necessary.

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Thinking about Christians in politics: 'Usual suspects' labels just don't work, do they?

Thinking about Christians in politics: 'Usual suspects' labels just don't work, do they?

Stop and think about the following for a moment.

What political label would you stick on a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox person who believed all of his or her church’s moral and social teachings, as they are being articulated in this day and age?

Let’s list some of the crucial issues. Abortion and related “life issues” — such as euthanasia — would have to be mentioned. Many Catholics, including people frequently called “conservatives” (take me, for example), would include the death penalty in the “life issue” list. Then there would be the defense of the sacrament of marriage, as defined throughout Judeo-Christian history, and the belief that sex outside of marriage — for gays and straights — is a sin.

Now, there are other issues that are commonly linked to a “whole life” approach to the public square — such as immigration, the environment, medical care, economic justice, racial equality, etc. Traditional believers in the ancient churches may debate the fine details of some of these issues, but my point is that it is often hard to stick conventional political labels on the conclusions reached by these Christians.

So, where do you put someone who is pro-life, and favors national health care (with conscience clauses built in)? This person is pro-immigration reform and leans “left” on the environment. She is a strong defender of the First Amendment — both halves of that equation. Are we talking about a Democrat or a Republican?

After the chaos of the past couple of weeks, this is a timely and newsworthy topic for a think piece. Of course, the “lesser of two evils” debates surrounding Donald Trump also fit into this picture. Thus, I saved a recent New York Times op-ed by the Rev. Timothy Keller — founder of the Redeemer Presbyterian network of churches in New York City — for this occasion. The double-decker headline proclaims:

How Do Christians Fit Into the Two-Party System? They Don’t

The historical Christian positions on social issues don’t match up with contemporary political alignments


Here is Keller’s overture:

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Thinking about that 'evangelical' label: Tim Keller on life after this Donald Trump earthquake

Thinking about that 'evangelical' label: Tim Keller on life after this Donald Trump earthquake

What's the easiest way to pick the think piece for any given weekend?

That's easy. All I have to do is look in my email files and note which non-news article (but an article that is directly linked to religion news) was sent to me over and over and over during the previous week. It that article was also all over Twitter, you know you have a winner.

It was easy to spot THAT ARTICLE this past week. It was the New Yorker essay by the Rev. Timothy Keller, the recently retired leader of Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City. The timely headline: "Can Evangelicalism Survive Donald Trump and Roy Moore?"

Obviously, the next question that readers have to ask is this: "How do you define 'evangelicalism'?" I've been wrestling with that one for several decades -- all the way back to when I was, well, an evangelical.

There are many key passages in the Keller piece. Let's start with his own story:

When I became a Christian in college, in the early nineteen-seventies, the word “evangelical” still meant an alternative to the fortress mentality of fundamentalism. Shortly thereafter, I went to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, to prepare for the Presbyterian ministry. It was one of the many institutions that Graham, Harold Ockenga, and J. Howard Pew, and other neo-evangelicals, as they were sometimes called, established. In those years, there was such great energy in the movement that, by the mid-nineteen-nineties, it had eclipsed mainline Protestantism as the dominant branch of the Christian church in the U.S. When I moved to Manhattan to start a new church, in 1989, most people I met found the church and its ministry to be a curiosity in secular New York but not a threat. And, if they heard the word “evangelical” around the congregation, a name we seldom used, they usually asked what it meant.

You know what happened next. The word "evangelical" morphed into something else, something cultural and, yes, political. For some reason, Keller left mainstream journalism out of this mix.

The conservative leaders who have come to be most identified with the movement have largely driven this redefinition. But political pollsters have also helped, as they have sought to highlight a crucial voting bloc. When they survey people, there is no discussion of any theological beliefs, or other criteria.

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News angles abound, as Evangelicalism’s unlikely missionary to Manhattan leaves his pulpit

News angles abound, as Evangelicalism’s unlikely missionary to Manhattan leaves his pulpit

On February 26, the Rev. Timothy Keller, 66, announced to parishioners at eight Sunday services that he’ll retire July 1 as the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church. Keller is no publicity-seeking celebrity preacher, but if U.S. evangelicals were to create a Mount Rushmore Keller’s carved visage would deserve a place.

So far as The Religion Guy can discover, national media and even reporters in Keller’s own town didn’t cover this milestone, so there’s ample room for follow-ups. A good place to begin research would be solid features in The New York Times (2006) and New York Magazine (2009).

When Keller began Redeemer with a handful of people in 1989, a Manhattan mission startup was considered so dicey that two prior candidates had rejected the job offer. Keller seemed an odd choice because his only pastoral experience was in far different Hopewell, Va. Moreover, latitudinarian “mainline” Protestantism would have seemed far more marketable in Gotham than the strict orthodoxy of Keller’s Presbyterian Church in America. Yet eventually thousands of young professionals were flocking to Redeemer each Sunday.

Significant themes reporters could pursue: While many evangelical congregations have forsaken downtown for the ease of suburbia, Redeemer offers dramatic proof that city centers are not only spiritually hungry places but that biblical conservatism can thrive there under the right conditions. Against stereotypes of evangelicalism, Redeemer members volunteer time and donations with 40 organizations to help society’s marginalized, and Keller shuns Religious Right politicking and pulpit-pounding, offering instead calm, content-rich sermons. Explore this link, for example.

Then this: While many congregations sit on their successes, Redeemer is all about fostering new congregations, including ones in New York City that could provide competition.

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A Buddhist parable that applies to the Presbyterian Church in America and race

  A Buddhist parable that applies to the Presbyterian Church in America and race

The Religion Guy urges religion writers to monitor parochial media, but beware the obvious pitfall: Such sources can offer limited perspectives.

Remember the ancient Buddhist parable about blind men and the elephant? One touches the beast’s tail and thinks it’s a rope, another touches the trunk and thinks it’s a tree, a third touches the belly and thinks it’s a wall.  Limited perception distorts the fuller reality, something journalists are duty bound to depict fairly.  

So with the Presbyterian Church in America, well worth coverage as one of this generation’s most successful and innovative denominations, with influential conservatives among its members. Major secular media give the PCA little  notice and ignored its newsworthy General Assembly in June.

Christianity Today headlined a piece on the assembly “PCA Goes Back to Where it Started: Women’s Ordination.” True, one reason the PCA broke from the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (PCUS) in 1973 was opposition to women in  church offices. The 2016 assembly ordered a study of whether women can be ordained as deacons (though not lay elders), and encouraged females’ full participation “in appropriate ministries.”

The assembly also approved overwhelmingly a declaration that the PCA “does recognize, confess, condemn and repent of corporate and historical sins, including those committed during the Civil Rights era.” Denounced as past PCA sins were claims “that the Bible sanctions racial segregation and discourages interracial marriage” and members’ “participation in and defense of white supremacist organizations.”

CT reported on this second action, which Religion News Service covered with both a spot item and a Tobin Grant analysis headlined “What Catalyst Started the Presbyterian Church in America? Racism.” Grant thinks “the PCA exists only because of its founders’ defense of slavery, segregation and white supremacy.” That’s truthy, but overly simplified.

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New York Times goes looking for 'conservatives' in Big Apple, but ignores pews

New York Times goes looking for 'conservatives' in Big Apple, but ignores pews

To no one's surprise, The New York Times decided to follow up on the Sen. Ted Cruz vs. Donald Trump row over "New York values" and the question of whether many "conservatives" come out of New York City.

But before we get to that story -- "Young Republicans in New York" -- let me make a few comments that are central to my take on this Times feature.

When if comes to "values" issues, not all Republicans are "conservatives." At the same time, not all values "conservatives" are Republicans. There are still a few cultural conservatives in the Democratic Party and many of them are people of color.

Meanwhile, not all religious believers are Republicans or "values" conservatives. It is quite easy, these days, to find young evangelicals who are not "values" conservatives, or at least not on every issue. It is very hard to fit pro-Catechism Catholics into either major political party these days.

To name one specific policy complication linked to this Times story: There are many conservative religious believers who support same-sex marriage, or same-sex civil unions, but also support efforts to protect the First Amendment and the free exercise of religious beliefs in settings outside the doors of religious sanctuaries.

So with all of that in mind, does it surprise you to know that the one and only place the Times team when to find New York City "conservatives" on "values" issues was a political gathering? This is especially tragic in light of the fact that New York City is, these days, a vibrant city in terms of religious congregations appealing to young believers.

But first, here is the overture:

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