Redeemer Presbyterian Church of New York City was begun in 1989, so this year we are able to celebrate our 25th anniversary with joy and gratitude for the past.
But what about the next twenty-five years?
What can we hope for — indeed, what should we hope for? Should we hope for Redeemer to continue virtually unchanged, the same, or should we pray that God would do something new and different? Before answering that question directly let me share something that I have learned recently in my reading.
I have been reading a good deal about the history of ideas in the West. It is striking to see that the opposition to Christian belief in each age changes radically from century to century. The existentialists of the 20th century were horrified by the views of the utilitarians of the early 19th century, who in turn mocked the beliefs of the deists of the 18th century. In every generation skeptics speak of “what all intelligent people believe now,” yet it is always sharply different from that which was taken as self-evident by the same kind of people just a few decades before. The racial views and discourse of our great grandparents is offensive to us today, but almost certainly today’s reigning views of race, sex, and gender will be seen as laughable or outrageous by our own great grandchildren. That is hard to imagine, because the opponents of Christianity in each era are sure that they have finally arrived at enlightenment.
That is never the case. Non-belief is notoriously unstable. Skeptical views go out of date very fast.
The gospel has to be communicated in fresh ways in order to both defy and resonate with its listeners.
What about orthodox Christianity? Have there been changes over the years to that? Yes, but nothing like the changes in non-belief. If Christians today read Augustine from the fifth century and Luther from the 16th and, say John Stott or C.S. Lewis in the 20th century, they rightly sense that these are brothers in the faith who believe the same things. Are they different, as well? Of course — and one of the reasons they are different is that they are interacting with the radically different cultures and kinds of non-belief of their time. The gospel has to be communicated in fresh ways in order to both defy and resonate with its listeners. New emphases and modes of expression are called for. Yet the fundamentals of Apostles’ Creed faith and the gospel of Christ do not change.
Redeemer must change in order to stay the same.
What does all this mean for the future of Redeemer? Should it be the same or different? As you can see, that is a false dichotomy. In some ways, Redeemer (as gospel ministry in general) must change in order to stay the same. If we are to continue to lift up Christ in a compelling way to New Yorkers as we have in the past, Redeemer will have to change.
Well, then, will Redeemer be something in the middle — partly the same and partly different? I would not put it that way. It is not that orthodox Christianity is an undifferentiated list of beliefs, and in every age some change and some do not. Rather, the essence of Christian belief and the gospel — expressed in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, and in the historic confessions of the Reformation — are what binds the church together from age to age. The church is therefore “differently the same.” In its core commitments — in all the important ways — it is the same, and yet takes different forms in different cultures.
In the same way, Redeemer has many core commitments that must be stronger than ever going forward. It is an evangelical church in the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition. It is gospel-centered rather than either moralistic or relativistic. It loves the city and is realistically committed to it — neither hostile to it nor having a romanticized view of it. It is holistic in ministry — both calling people to repentance and faith and meeting the needs of the poor and marginalized. It is culturally engaged, equipping people to integrate their faith with their work. Redeemer is outward facing, a church not just for Christians but also a place for those who do not believe to find their concerns and questions respectfully addressed in an understandable and compelling way. And it is a church seeking to cooperate with and catalyze a movement of gospel ministry across the entire city.
It is easy to get emotionally attached to many specific aspects of a church’s ministry — like the location, a style of music, the exact order of service, or the personality of a particular minister. If we have been helped and changed by a congregation or a pastor it is natural to love virtually every part of it and to want to see nothing altered. But that is to make the Redeemer of the past into an idol. We must not try to hold on to the past in every detail. Neither must we let Redeemer become another moralistic or liberal church, or another Christian sub-cultural home for insiders instead of a church for indigenous New Yorkers.
One decision we have made that encourages me is that Redeemer will become a family of congregations, not one centralized mega-church. That means there will be an exciting variety of styles and approaches and voices and leadership and forms of ministry — all, we pray, based on our “Gospel DNA” that God has given Redeemer in the past. This means we will reach more kinds of people and more neighborhoods than ever. I hope that if old-timers around 20 years from now are asked, “Is this Redeemer congregation different from the original Redeemer church?” they will say, “It’s different in many ways, but, at heart, no, it’s the same.”