Twenty years into ministry, Manhattan's prominent Redeemer Presbyterian Church plans to transition into a movement.
That means no more customers. Everybody is going to reach out, minister, make sacrifices and own the vision, says Redeemer senior pastor Tim Keller.
The conservative evangelical congregation that draws some 5,000 people – many of whom are students and young professionals – celebrated its 20th anniversary in September. It was then that the church launched the ambitious RENEW Campaign, a 10-year plan that aims to move Redeemer out of the program- and staff-driven church it has unavoidably become as it grew and into a movement.
Keller admits the church that started on 87th Street in a rented Seventh Day Adventist facility has been greatly blessed over the past two decades. But as it has grown, big programs were being run from the center by a very small number of highly-skilled leaders and a larger percentage of congregants were becoming customers.
Customers, Keller defined, take the goods and services provided but aren't themselves reaching out or serving as ministers.
"[T]he larger we grow, the harder it is for our congregation to own and live out the basics of our vision. It becomes easier to think of the church in terms of 'the staff ' and the people in the pew as the 'consumers to be served,'" Keller wrote in a recent church newsletter.
"To see a movement of the gospel in and through our church we need to push against the tendency to 'institutionalize' and return to our more organic, dynamic, congregation-led roots," he stressed.
So now, Redeemer is working to regain the "movement dynamics" that it initially had when it first started in 1989.
The plan is not to send some people out to start churches and minister to the community, but everybody.
Over the next three years, the New York City church will be creating three Redeemer congregations – east, west and south of Central Park – each with its own dedicated pastors, staff, lay leaders and congregation. The churches will remain under one board of elders and under the senior pastor, Keller.
The new effort will open up opportunities to raise up a new generation of pastors, ministries staff and lay leaders. While Keller will continue to preach the same number of weeks a year and the same number of services each Sunday, the added congregations and services offer opportunities for preaching, pastoring and leading that aren't currently available now.
Keller will also be spending a significant amount of time mentoring and training leaders.
At the heart of the plan, Keller explained, is to push ministry from staff to lay people and to push ministry from the center to the neighborhoods. That includes outreach, cultural engagement and service in their own locales.
"Although these congregations will be large, there will immediately be scores of people having to make decisions, take responsibility, and exercise leadership as they never have before," the 59-year-old pastor said.
"Everybody's being sent," he emphasized.
Also crucial to the plan is creating 7-day-a-week churches so that they are rooted in the neighborhoods and create larger, ongoing ministry and community space.
Keller explained, "At the core of Redeemer's vision are the beliefs that the gospel changes everything, that serving the city is the more strategic way to reach our society with the good news, and that to do this, Redeemer cannot simply be a church, even a great church, but the catalyst for a whole movement of the gospel in the city – through new congregations, ministries, and institutions. The purpose of the RENEW Campaign is to position Redeemer for the next stage of this gospel movement."
After three years, the three Redeemer congregations will each be challenged to become a generative base – that is, to start their own worshipping communities or sites. By 10 years, Keller hopes to see some seven to nine sites throughout Manhattan, drawing more unchurched people into a relationship with God and serving and loving those in the city.
It's a $20 million plan and a risky one, Keller admits, especially in this tough economic climate.
Redeemer, which has helped plant dozens of smaller churches in New York City, can choose to take the "safe" approach by renting bigger spaces and ramping up programs. But the longtime pastor says taking that route "won't renew our church as a movement, and it won't renew our prayer lives and faith in the same way."
By taking the more challenging path, Keller says they are setting themselves up to rely on God to send new leaders, to help raise the money, and to give people the joy and courage to all minister in the city.
Plus, it's not something they can put off.
"We need to grasp the future God's calling us to right now," he said.