Lessons Learned from 30 Years in Ministry

You may have read that if you don’t learn from history, you’re doomed to repeat it. That’s part of the reason it’s important to rehearse our history and review the mistakes that we’ve made. We’ve tried to learn from our mistakes, which is really the only thing you can do with a mistake — learn from it.

“Fail upwards” was a saying often quoted in our early days of starting Redeemer.

Kathy Keller planted Redeemer Presbyterian Church with her husband Timothy and writes for both Redeemer and City to City.

Over the course of the early days of planting Redeemer, when Tim was studying the demographics, meeting the people, seeing the mistakes and tone-deafness of failed church plants, and laying the groundwork for the church, we developed a set of core values for Redeemer. Over the years I developed my own list of unofficial core values as well, or perhaps we could call them key insights. These are lessons learned from trial and error, mistakes made and then corrected. This is not everything that we’ve learned in the 30 years that we’ve been at Redeemer, but some of the mistakes that we have profited from, lessons that don’t appear in any new hire training or corporate manual. I want to make sure that they don’t get lost, because they’re things that can make or break an organization, including a church.

1. The chief value, the Prime Directive, is: Church as usual will not work.

That was the very first thing that we determined before we even moved here. We couldn’t just import the rural or suburban template from our previous church in Hopewell, Virginia, even if it had been successful in its time and place. In fact, nothing could be done simply because it had been successful somewhere else, or because churches had always done it that way. We had to ask, “Did it fit New York? Would people understand it? Would it get in the way of non-Christians hearing the gospel?” Those are the questions we asked of every single choice, starting back even with the naming of Redeemer.

When we began meeting with our steering committee in the winter of 1989, Tim and I announced one Sunday that we had given some thought to the name of this new church, and decided it would be called Christ the King.

A former missionary who had moved to New York to be part of the church said, “Oh, no, that’s terrible, that sounds so triumphalist. You need something more like Redeemer.” She had actually been part of a Redeemer Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and argued that that name had more of a sense of being a helper, or pulling you out of a pit, or doing something that’s positive for people. We considered the Prime Directive (“Church as usual will not work”), and we said, “Yep, you’re right,” even though we had already printed and distributed material with the name Christ the King. For years, we got asked about Christ the King Church in New York City from people who had heard about it, but that name was a mistake, so we changed it.

2. This brings up a corollary insight, a big, big mantra around here for a decade at least: Precedent means nothing.

If you try something, and it doesn’t work, scrap it. Do not feel that you have to stick with something just because you’ve put a lot of time and energy and money into a plan. If it stinks, don’t do it. Don’t listen to the people who say, “If we do that then we’re committed to continue doing it.” No, you aren’t. If you do it, and it doesn’t work well, you just don’t do it again. Precedent means nothing. That was true right at the beginning with the name of our church.

When I say we committed ourselves to not doing anything because that was the way we’d seen it or enjoyed it in another setting, I really do mean nothing. City to City is the first institutional expression of this value.

Originally we had a lot of seekers, both non-Christians and new Christians. We didn’t have a lot of long-term Christians, because in God’s merciful providence, other churches had attracted all the self-identifying Christians over to their congregations. This turned out to be a wonderful advantage, because we didn’t have the constant refrain of “We’ve always done it this way,” and “This is how church works,” and, “This is how we should do it.” However, those few long-term Christians who did attend were aware that every church had to have a foreign missions committee, and they knew how foreign missions worked. You formed a committee, you invited a whole bunch of missionaries to visit and to present their call or their vision, you gave them each some modest monthly financial support, and you got reports back.

I have to admit, Tim and I were busy, so we let them run it. And to be fair, that’s all that we had ever known by way of foreign missions, as well.

Then a funny thing started to happen. We started getting delegates from the Netherlands, and then from China, saying, “We don’t know how to reach our cities. Our churches have become very suburbanized or even rural. You’re doing okay in the city, so tell us what you’re doing so we can do it.” We began to realize that this is what Redeemer had to offer people — experience in and expertise about reaching skeptics in cities.

So very soon the Redeemer Church Planting Center was started to replace the foreign missions committee, and out of that came Redeemer City to City. City to City exists because we (meaning the Redeemer) course corrected and did foreign missions in a way that fit our gifts as a church, and not the way we’d always seen it done.

3. Another core value that originated from the Prime Directive (church as usual will not work) is that excellence is inclusive.

We paid our musicians, even though we couldn’t pay them a lot. We respected that that’s how they made their livelihood, and they respected the church in return. They brought their friends. At one time we did a survey and discovered that we had somewhere between three and four hundred professional musicians attending Redeemer. If you wanted to sing or play at Redeemer, you had to audition, which was unheard of in a church at the time.

But we believed that excellence in music and all the other public faces of Redeemer was inclusive, and that meant childcare, that meant the bulletin, that meant coffee hour — everything was more inclusive if it was done excellently, because even if you weren’t a believer, you could appreciate the music, or you could be impressed by the nursery, or you could say “They’re offering bagels and cream cheese at the coffee hour. Wow.”

Very early on, when the full sum of all we had by way of physical representation of the church was a brochure, one of the first early attenders of Redeemer, a graphic designer, picked up the brochure. She looked at it and said, “Full color. Coat of varnish. This is nice. These people must be serious.”

I had fought for that brochure. I had been working at a Christian publishing house in Philadelphia, and the art department there was going to help me out by producing the brochure for me. They tried so hard to convince me to do it on cheaper paper, in tones of brown and celery. I said “No, no, no. I want it to look like this brochure that came from a bank offering me a credit card. Colorful. Shiny. Nice.” However, that came at a cost. The brochure that we ended up with cost five times the amount of the brown and celery on the cheaper paper. A corollary to this value is that excellence comes with a price. If a problem can be solved with money, elbow grease, time, or plain hard work, spend the time or the money. The effort will be noticed.

This meant that it took much longer to become self-supporting than it would have otherwise. The Sunday offering was very soon large enough to cover our initial budget, but we had so many people coming that we needed to start hiring staff right away, which meant that we had to have a bigger budget to support office space, and then we had to hire more staff. That meant that by about the third or the forth time that we revised our budget, we could have called ourselves self-supporting, but that would have been the end of the staff hires. We just kept changing the budget.

Otherwise, we would not have been able to capitalize on the opportunities that came. Quality doesn’t come cheap. This is a very demanding value, but it’s better not to do something at all than to do it badly. These are lessons learned in the context of Manhattan, New York City. In other locations the currency may be time, or volunteer help in the community, but whatever it is, making the effort, rather than settling for “good enough” will attract those who are skeptical of the Christian church.

4. Another discovery we made was that spontaneity was alarming to New Yorkers who were nervous about even attending a church.

Combined with the value that excellence is inclusive, this led directly to the production of a very hefty Sunday morning worship bulletin, with all the hymns included, all the prayers written out, everything there, so everyone knew what was going to happen next. There wasn’t going to be any unannounced snake handling! If it wasn’t in the bulletin, it did not happen.

Of course, you can’t control everything, and I remember the time I was sitting in a back pew and a woman sitting next to me turned to me and said “Who is that woman down there waving to?” I looked, (it was during a song), and I said, “I think she’s waving to God.” Just someone who felt like raising his or her hands, which my pew mate had never seen before.

Oh, and the time a woman brought her lapdog to church, Tim came home and said, “Well, I’ve preached the gospel to every creature.” We’ve also had a burglar that came running through our hospitality hour. The police cuffed him and threw him over the hood of the car behind the one where all my kids were sitting, looking like the first reality TV show. That’s another story.

Other communities may be more tolerant of spontaneous events than the Manhattanites we were reaching, but that’s why contextualization is so important. You have to learn what will create difficulties for the non-Christians who need to hear the good news of Jesus Christ, and remove those, whatever they are, and however precious they may be to you.

5. I’ve saved my most important value for last: carefully screening our language is the most critical thing we can do.

I can’t find enough words to stress how important this is. We must have a care for how we choose our words, our images, and our ideas when we communicate, no matter what we’re communicating — whether it’s donor updates, lectures, or emails about events that are coming up. You absolutely must comb out all of the Christian subcultural phrases that clutter up so much of the Christian church. This is vitally important, and perhaps it’s even more important today than it was 30 years ago, because the cultural moment that we’re in now loathes evangelical Christians, and we don’t need to give them any more reasons to disrespect and dislike us.

Redeemer has been pretty good at this, partly because it was actually one of the major parts of my job description to search and destroy any piousbabble. That’s the word I coined to describe the-language-that-must-not-be-spoken. You’ve heard of psychobabble? That’s pop psychology drawn from catchphrases, media, podcast pontification and other non-academic sources.

Piousbabble are those phrases and those words that creep into your prayers and into your language.. Lord, we just, we just, Lord … We want traveling mercies, we want to bathe it in prayer, and we need prayer warriors, and we need a hedge of protection. All that sounds kind of normal-ish to most Christians. But it’s like Swahili to the nonbelievers and the seekers who are coming.

I was actually shocked and horrified when one of my friends, who was a radical lesbian, and who had come to faith, began talking in piousbabble. She had been listening to Christian radio and praise music, and she thought that’s how mature Christians spoke, so she was talking to me in this language, and I was saying, “No, no, no. You don’t talk that way. Just talk normal. Talk like a regular person!”

Now, I would not have the faintest idea how to advise you about assessing and advising global church planters on what is piousbabble in their church culture, but it’s critical that you make some kind of attempt. The evangelical church, as I said before, is not held in high regard in this country, nor in other countries. You need to have people talk like normal people, and not go to a subcultural, insider language kind of place. The already-believers among you may not even notice the absence of ornate God-talk, but it will mean everything to the non-Christians who are trying to perceive the gospel which is often hidden under layers of subcultural practices and language.

Back when we had the missions committee, one of the guys in charge saw fit to write an article based on Psalm 2:9–12: “Thou shall break them with a rod of iron, Thou shall dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel. Be wise therefore, oh kings, serve the Lord with fear, kiss the Son lest he be angry and ye perish from the way when his wrath is kindled but a little. Blessed are all they that put their trust in him.” He went on to talk about Jesus trampling out the grapes of wrath, et cetera, et cetera.

It was totally not the Redeemer voice or philosophy of ministry. I have to say I still regret the harshness with which I raked that young man over the coals. Even done tactfully, it couldn’t be tolerated, not for a minute. It was just not our outward face to have that kind of believe-or-burn kind of attitude.

I’ll finish by saying we must imitate Christ, who did not please himself. That’s Romans 15, “You who are strong are to bear with the feelings of the weak, and not please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good to build them up, for even Christ did not please himself.” In the early years, we trained ourselves rigorously not to make any decision based on what we liked or what we enjoyed or felt comfortable with, but on how it would be appraised and received by skeptical New Yorkers. We’ve grown, and the staff is three times the size of the first congregation that walked through Redeemer’s doors. If that’s been lost, we have to recover it. If it hasn’t been lost, we have to hold onto it.

If we have any hope of a movement that’s based on the power of the gospel, we have to have it so deeply ingrained that we can teach it to other people, both the what and the why, without any pride, without any condescension, but with the knowledge that we’ve been entrusted with, the mistakes that we’ve made, the learning we’ve gotten the hard way, and take it as a privilege to pass it on.


Kathy Keller graduated from Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary summa cum laude with her MA in Theological Studies in 1975. She had just married Tim Keller six months earlier. After spending nine years raising their three sons while Tim pastored his first church in Hopewell, VA, they moved on to Philadelphia where Kathy worked as an editor for Great Commission Publications while Tim was on the faculty of Westminster Seminary. Finally she and Tim moved to Manhattan in 1989, where Tim preached and Kathy was the entire staff of Redeemer Presbyterian Church. As other women and men were hired, her role on staff became that of Assistant Director of Communications. She has written for The Gospel Coalition, co-written three books with her husband and wrote Jesus, Justice and Gender Roles on her own.

This article is based on a talk given to the staff of Redeemer City to City.

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