“Christians are called to be an alternate city within every earthly city,” Tim Keller wrote for CT in 2006. “We must live in the city to serve all the peoples in it, not just our own tribe. We must lose our power to find our (true) power.”
Keller, who died on Friday, May 19, at age 72, launched nonprofit organization Redeemer City to City to train and develop leaders for gospel-led movements in urban settings. His decades-long experience in this field stemmed from establishing Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, a so-called “spiritual desert” in New York City. When the church was founded in 1989, there were only a handful of evangelical churches in the area. Twenty years later, the number of evangelical churches there had swelled to 197.
Among Keller’s many teachings on urban church planting is the notion of a “whole city tipping point,” which occurs when 10 to 20 percent of the population become Jesus-followers and start making visible, tangible impact on the city’s culture. Such a “city-wide gospel movement” is organic, energetic, and Spirit-led, he emphasized.
“Tim Keller taught us that to be a church that is in, for, and with the city, we need to be a present church, a church that serves its neighbors and neighborhood, and a church that’s willing to dialogue with the city and be attentive to its faults, illnesses, needs, and demands. Only then can we be Light for the city,” said Brazilian pastor Digo Karagulian, whose church ministers daily to people living in the Pilar favela (Portuguese for “slum”) next door.
CT interviewed church planters in Barcelona, Beirut, Chennai, Hanoi, Melbourne, Quezon City, Recife, Shanghai, and Vienna about their respective city’s distinctive charms and challenges and how they are contextualizing the gospel there, all with this question in mind: To what extent has Keller’s approach to church planting influenced their ministry?
Marwan Aboul-Zelof in Beirut, Lebanon
- Pastor of City Bible Church
- The Reformed-Baptist church has a 70-strong congregation and holds services in English.
- Sixty percent are locals and the rest of the congregation includes people from every continent.
Beirut is a beautiful and cosmopolitan city with an incredibly rich history. It’s much smaller than New York City, but has twice the population density. Tim Keller never visited the Middle East, although we had hoped that he would come. But he had a great impact on us through his writings, sermons, and social media posts.
Beirut, and our church, has gone through significant challenges in the past few years: revolution; the pandemic; economic and government collapse; and the 2020 explosion. Yet, the Lord remains faithful and gracious to us.
I remember being on a call with Tim, who talked about historical moves of God and how there was often a major crisis that served as a catalyst for those moments. He told me that Lebanon’s multiple major crises may develop greater openness to the gospel, acknowledged the difficulties I face as a church planter here, and encouraged me to remain faithful.
Digo Karagulian in Recife, Brazil
- Pastor of A Ponte (The Bridge) Church, established in 2014
- The Reformed Christian church is in two neighborhoods: Recife Antigo (an artsy, historical area where Carnival is held) and Boa Viagem (one of the richest, densest regions in the city).
Recife is one of the most populous cities in Brazil with around 1.6 million inhabitants. It’s a city that’s rich in music, dance, literature, and craftsmanship.
Keller’s concept of embellishing culture refers to using the wealth of art, music, and expressive brands in a city to spread God’s love in a more accessible and strategic way. Seeing culture in a positive way is being salt in culture: We prevent it from putrefying and transform it into a tool that generates life rather than death.
Recife’s main cultural power is the Carnival, which has a lot of artistic richness but also carries certain distortions with it. The city’s cultural idols are drunkenness, debauchery, lust, and a fascination with aesthetics and self-image. During Carnival, we hold an annual event, “A Praça” (The Square), featuring lectures on art and spirituality, dialogues with local artists, exhibitions, musical performances, and other experiences as a way of bringing people from the neighborhood into our church and have a genuine encounter with Jesus.
A common mistake in many churches in my city and country is wanting to replicate what North Americans do. This “replica” can introduce a cool aesthetic, liturgy, and music, but it does not impact or dialogue with the city and becomes a “strange body” within the city. Keller’s writings inspired us to be a church that the city must have, a church that steps on the city’s ground and seeks to connect with it.
Christopher P. David in Chennai, India
- Pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, part of the conservative Presbyterian Church in India
- The church plant is less than a year old and has an average Sunday attendance of 35 people.
Chennai is a melting pot of Western postmodern and traditional Indian culture. It’s home to nearly 12 million people and is very different from New York as it is more conservative and Hinduism pervades its culture. However, like New York, people are highly aspirational and often find their value and identity in education, career, and wealth.
The biggest challenges for church planting here have been the popularity of the prosperity gospel, the growing influence of secularism, and the entrenched Hindu norms found in traditional Indian culture.
Keller’s emphasis on community is important in Chennai, where many come from dysfunctional families and struggle to navigate the shame-honor paradigm. To these people, the message of God’s full acceptance and authentic love in the gospel is revolutionary.
A key lesson I learned from Keller is the importance of recruiting a launch team of servant leaders rooted in the gospel and investing in them. An involved laity is essential for a healthy church, and the men and women on this team meet weekly to pray and plan.
Keller’s brand of contextualization, which seeks a high degree of cultural relevance, is functional in a Western secular world that still incorporates many of its former Christian elements. However, such contextualization is difficult in a thoroughly pagan culture such as India, where the Christian faith stands utterly alienated and is antithetical at nearly every point. Thus, to speak of a “third way” becomes nearly impossible. While Keller has certainly influenced our church planting approach, much of our ministry philosophy is old-school Reformed practice focused on the preached Word and Sacraments.
James He in Shanghai, China (for security reasons, he uses a pseudonym)
- Pastor of a Reformed church planted in the midst of the pandemic
- In less than four years, the church has opened three sites.
- Around 260 congregants, mostly made up of young, middle-class professionals, attend weekly services.
Shanghai has a similar density to New York City, although we have a larger population, a smaller percentage of Christians, and a more hostile environment to the faith.
I do ministry in the city not because it is effective, but because it is biblical. After the two-month COVID-19 lockdown last year, we encouraged church members to reflect on their relationship with Shanghai: Were they looking for ways out of a city that’s increasingly unfriendly and struggling economically? Or could they be a blessing to the city by staying and living as people who reflect the incarnate Christ and walk in his ways?
Understanding Keller’s concept of theological vision (DNA) prevented me from copying successful church planting models. Keller also encouraged me to seek the peace and prosperity of the city (Jer. 29:7) and helped me reconcile the huge tension I faced between my businessman background and my experience in a fundamentalist church.
Employing reason and debating is usually how we communicate in the business world. But in the fundamentalist church, we often hear: “This is what the Bible teaches, and we should follow it.” Reason for God opened my eyes as to how we can reason with, debate, and communicate the gospel to non-Christians and seeker friends.
Joseph Bonifacio in Quezon City, the Philippines
- Pastor of No Other Name, a non-denominational church plant
- Its focus is on reaching young people online and offline with the aim to develop future leaders on campuses.
Quezon City is one of the most densely populated cities in the Philippines. It is a cultural, business, and educational center for our country. It’s easy to see the crowds, traffic jams, pollution, and the effects of sin. But it’s also home to 12 million people who need to hear the gospel.
Here, one feels the intersection of different streams of thought from around the world. The religious and conservative mindsets clash with the rise of a generation bent on questioning and challenging institutions.
Tim Keller’s ministry and writing showed me a way to thread a “gospel path” between these two perspectives. It helped me equip young ministers in a way that was both faithful and engaging, less ideological, and more Christlike. Keller’s description of the gospel as a third way didn’t just show that unrestrained giving in to sin was wrong—so too were religious attempts to curb sin through coercion.
The Prodigal God also helped me minister to many lost younger sons and older sons who stayed away from faith and church because they thought they knew what it had to say. Hearing about a Father who just wanted them back and the Son who made the way was refreshing and compelling to them. But it was most helpful with reaching older sons: high-performing, readily compliant, and burned-out people who are active and serving in church but far from the Father. Through the book, I was equipped to recognize “older son lostness” and minister to them with gentleness.
Jacob Bloemberg in Hanoi, Vietnam
- Lead pastor of Hanoi International Fellowship, a non-denominational church founded in 1995
- Six-hundred believers—comprising locals and expats from countries like the Philippines, South Korea, and Nigeria—attend services in two locations.
As the “rising dragon” of Asia, Vietnam’s 1,000-year-old capital city, Hanoi, has transformed itself from a quaint historic relic to a bustling mega-city in just three decades.
Keller was right in saying, “It takes a movement to reach a city.” Protestant evangelical Christians here comprise 0.1 percent of the population. Despite the church’s growth since my arrival in 1997, it has only kept on par with the city’s population growth, which is estimated at 10 million citizens today.
For effective church planting in Vietnam’s urban context, the proclamation and demonstration of God’s love must go hand-in-hand, as Keller asserted. My church initiated the Love Hanoi movement in 2017; local churches led community service projects with over 3,600 participants. This culminated in a festival that attracted more than 30,000 people from all over North Vietnam. Over 4,500 responded to the gospel message.
Western approaches to urban ministry, however, need to be contextualized for Vietnam’s urban context. My book, Love [Your City]: 5 Steps to Citywide Movements, talks about the importance of posture. Having an open, warm, and welcoming posture to the police and government has been the game-changer for our church. The positive relations we’ve established with them has allowed us to be part of major activities and events in Hanoi.
Stephen Tan in Melbourne, Australia
- Pastor of Regeneration Church, which is part of the Baptist Union of Victoria
- Located next to Monash, Australia’s largest university
- Its two congregations, of around 100 people each, are predominantly highly educated young adults from culturally diverse backgrounds.
Melbourne is the coffee and cultural capital of Australia, projected to overtake Sydney as Australia’s most populous city by 2031. The city is home to multitudes of international students and migrant workers, largely from Asia. It’s also the most progressive and secular city in Australia. From climate change to same-sex marriage, refugees, and racial justice, Melbournian views are more left-leaning than the rest of Australia. It’s not the easiest place to plant a church.
Part of me wondered why any Australians would listen to a Malaysian pastor. Keller’s Center Church and City to City’s “Incubator” training gave me confidence that I could be a pastor, preacher, and church planter to both secular Aussies and conservative Asian migrants.
Keller’s focus on idolatry seems to make emotional and cultural sense to many people today. As he put it: “An idol is anything so central and essential to your life that, should you lose it, your life would feel hardly worth living.”
One way I’ve contextualized the gospel to both groups of people in the same sermon is to compare and contrast their idolatries. International students idolize academic success and the approval of their parents, but this leaves them feeling like they are never good enough. The gospel says that God approves of them not because of their success but because of Christ’s success on their behalf. Secular Aussies idolize the freedom to pursue their dreams, but this leaves them enslaved as they find that the dream is unattainable and they are not as free as they imagined. The gospel says that true freedom is found in the right constraints.
Christian Hofreiter in Vienna, Austria
- Pastor of CityKirche, a German-speaking Anglican church plant, with an average Sunday attendance of 70 to 100 adults and over a dozen children
- Congregants are mostly professionals or students between 20 and 55 years old
- They focus on reaching people who have existential and intellectual reservations about the Christian faith.
Vienna is old Europe at its most glorious and regularly tops global “most livable city” surveys. It has a population of roughly two million (a quarter of Austria’s population), world-class art, splendid architecture, and plentiful green spaces.
Compared to New York, Vienna is much smaller and less multicultural. Life here moves at a slower pace, housing is more affordable, and the state provides more services. The city is largely post-Christian, which in Vienna mostly means post-Catholic. Christianity is viewed as irrelevant and is increasingly seen as stifling personal development and cultural diversity.
Without Keller’s example of winsome, culturally intelligent, and biblically orthodox ministry, I would not have planted CityKirche at all. His intentional, balanced, and biblical approach to contextualization has been an immensely helpful and fruitful framework. His readiness to listen carefully to questions and objections from those on the fringes or outside the church, to observe and analyze culture, and to do so with obvious respect for those with whom he disagrees, is inspiring.
On the first Sunday of each month, we forgo liturgy, prayers, and Bible readings. Instead, we hold Big Questions Sunday, in which we explore topics from a Christian point of view, such as: What does it mean to be human in an age of cyborgs and AI? What is the connection between religion and violence?
Half of the service is given to audience Q and A and interspersed musical performances. This dialogical format has proven to be very attractive to people on the fringes or outside the church. Members of the audience can raise any question or objection they wish, and we seek to give an honest, respectful answer.
Xavier Memba in Barcelona, Spain
- Co-founder of Ciutat Nova church, a non-denominational church established in 2011
- Services are held in Catalan.
- The congregation has 60 people from diverse cultural backgrounds.
Barcelona is similar in density to Manhattan, with a rich history, stunning architecture, exquisite cuisine, bustling nightlife, and high-level sports. Ciutat Nova is a church that mirrors Barcelona’s diversity, cosmopolitanism, modernity, and cultural and historical legacy.
Training with Tim Keller as part of the Redeemer Church Planting Fellows Program in 2007 offered me a new perspective on the church in the modern world and how it must adapt to its cultural and urban context without forgetting the gospel message. This transformed my vision of the church as a dynamic entity that constantly interacts with its surroundings, inspiring the creation of Ciutat Nova. I came to understand more deeply that the church not only serves its members but also plays a crucial role in social transformation and community well-being.
Rather than imposing a specific method, Keller emphasized the gospel’s essential importance in the believer’s life, the church’s structure, and in any ministry or movement that the church might promote in a particular context.
However, the European context—and Southern Europe particularly—requires the church planting process to be constantly reviewed as these efforts tend to be quicker in the United States or Anglo-Saxon countries. Many Europe-based church planters can’t neglect administrative or logistical tasks to focus solely on strategic aspects like mission, vision, community, and proclamation.
Additional reporting by Jayson Casper and Surinder Kaur
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