CITY TO CITY NYC Blog

Modulating the Key of the Gospel

In 1989 when Tim and Kathy Keller first moved to Manhattan to plant Redeemer Presbyterian Church, one of the most critical challenges he would say they faced was learning how to communicate the historic gospel in a way that was both true to Scripture and would resonate with a highly secular, therapeutic culture among the educated professional classes of the Upper East Side. Tim would often tell stories of how much listening he did to understand the perspectives, aspirations, and concerns of his secular, educated neighbors. He would talk about how, in the earliest days of the church, he would spend hours and hours at the same diner in Midtown East every week meeting up with skeptics and seekers who had attended a Redeemer service, simply listening to questions and feedback they had about what they experienced. Redeemer would also host weekly Q&A sessions after worship services so that anyone in the congregation could stay and ask questions. In all of this, Tim was seeking to pay close attention to what resonated with his audience so he could better contextualize the message of Jesus in this context. Years later, he would look back and say that it took him a decade of careful listening and plenty of trial-and-error before he learned how to “tune his presentation of the gospel to the key of psychology and the therapeutic.”

It is perhaps an understatement to say that a lot has changed in our culture since 1989. 

Younger generations of New Yorkers continue to be deeply influenced by the culture of the therapeutic. But they are just as much marked by a deep desire to be a part of a higher purpose, to give their lives to a cause that will make a positive difference in the world. Their identities are not so much wrapped up in the individualistic pragmatics of career success or wealth accumulation. Instead, they search for a sense of self within, seeking to discover “their own truth” and find the tribe that will affirm their deepest selves, join them in their cause and grant them a sense of acceptance and belonging. If New Yorkers in the 1980s were secular, pragmatic, and hyper-individualistic, this new generation  is spiritual (though not religious), justice-oriented, and hyper-social. 

But this is not entirely accurate. 

To refer to these cultural shifts as a “new generation” is to imply that these changes are moving at the speed of decades. They are not. The winds of cultural change have moved so quickly in the hyper-connected world of social media and smartphones that these cultural transformations are shaping far more New Yorkers than just a “younger generation.” These are not storm clouds of change gathering on the far horizon; this is the new cultural atmosphere we all find ourselves immersed in. 

In my role as Senior Pastor of Redeemer East Side, I found myself wrestling with these issues week after week as I sought to preach the gospel to “a new generation” of Upper East Siders. My greatest temptation was to constantly look back at the once-in-a-generation work of my predecessor and mentor Tim Keller and try to simply reproduce what he had done. It offered the comfort of the familiar, of leaning back on the tried and true approach that had made this congregation what it was. But I knew deep within that the context had changed and that reverting to a presentation of the gospel that had been tuned to the key of a previous age would be a sure path to, at best, a form of traditionalism, and at worst a form of dead orthodoxy. 

The question that a new generation of pastors, preachers, and missiologists must wrestle with is the same question that Tim and Kathy Keller had to wrestle with 35 years ago. As Tim put it, If they had to figure out how the gospel of Jesus Christ sounds in the key of psychology, we will need to figure out how the gospel of Jesus Christ sounds in the key of sociology. What is more, in a world that, perhaps more than ever, is deeply aware of the suffering and injustices of the world, and has witnessed a church that far too often participated in these injustices, we may need to figure out not only how to modulate the key; we may need to figure out how to transpose the gospel from a major key to a minor key – all while remaining steadfastly true to Scripture. 

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