Note from Tim: I am excited that Redeemer is hosting a conference on Public Faith, February 16 and 17. For those who can’t attend in person (which is the best way to experience this), you can tune in via livestream to take advantage of this unique opportunity. Christians can and must share the hope of the gospel winsomely; this continues to be important to me.
Last month, TGC announced our focus for 2018 and 2019 will be on evangelism. The main substance of this article by Tim Keller originally appeared in Redeemer Presbyterian Church’s 2013 annual report discussing Redeemer’s mission and focus on evangelism.
As a college student I attended a campus Christian fellowship that always had a book table of Christian literature. There was a little booklet there called Doubters Welcome. I remember my surprise at the title, because as a young believer I thought that Christians frowned on doubters and wanted them to just take that leap and have faith. But I came to realize that the Bible has a more balanced view. While we want doubts eventually to give way to faith (John 20:28; James 1:6), we should be merciful and patient with those who are still in their doubt-troubled period (Jude 1:22). On that campus the Christian fellowship was inviting to skeptics and doubters, and there were always many of them mixed in with the believers. I always wanted to be part of a church that had that spirit.
When we started Redeemer Presbyterian Church, its life began in home meetings, then public worship, and finally our first Sunday morning worship service in September 1989. From the beginning, an “outward face” was part of why we existed. One of Redeemer’s “core values” is that we be a place where those who are not believers (or who are not sure what they believe) find their questions invited, their doubts and difficulties respected, and their struggles anticipated.
The natural tendency of any church, however, is to become ingrown as the years go by, and Redeemer has not completely escaped that. As we have grown and now transitioned to become a family of three churches, the pastors, leaders, and staff of each church must work intentionally to prioritize and strengthen their commitment to being communities known for welcoming doubters and their questions. They also must offer training to equip their congregants with the tools to become better listeners and confident, winsome sharers of their faith.
Why to Go Public
It’s difficult to publicly identify as a Christian believer in a secular age that pressures people to keep their religious beliefs private. The only commitment approved by our culture is one that produces comfort in one’s private world but doesn’t comprehensively shape one’s entire life. A candid account of the gospel story that is a Christian’s deepest identity can be met with hostile reactions.
So Christians in a place like New York City find themselves perplexed as to how to “go public” and talk to their friends, neighbors, and colleagues about their faith.
In Redeemer’s early years, the only way we were able to have a community filled with doubters was because church members were not afraid to identify themselves publicly as Christians to others they worked with and lived near. As Redeemer’s churches and ministries look ahead, we want to continue renewing our outward face and prioritizing this value. This is a difficult and sometimes uncomfortable choice to make. The needs of people already within the congregation must also be met, but unless that congregation is trained to put their own desires second to the needs of those outside, we will become insular, self-protective, and, eventually, dead.
Why be public with our faith? First, the joyful effects of the gospel in our own lives give us enormous energy for witness. How can we keep our mouths closed about such a wonder?
But second, the humbling nature of the gospel leads us to approach those who do not believe without superiority and with respect. Since we are saved only by God’s grace and not our goodness, we expect to find wisdom and compassion in non-Christians that may exceed our own.
The humbling nature of the gospel leads us to approach those who do not believe without superiority and with respect.
Third, the love that we experience in the gospel removes the fear of others’ disapproval. Such love drains us of influences that can lead us to treat non-Christians as “evangelism cases”—people we relate to, talk to, and care for only in order to win over to our side. This objectifies and dehumanizes them. We don’t love people in order to share our faith with them. Rather, we share our faith and ourselves with them in order to love them. The more these gospel dynamics are present in our lives, the more our churches will powerfully draw in new people like a magnet (Acts 2:47).
How to Go Public
But how, practically, do we do this?
First, in sharing our faith, we take an intelligent approach, not an authoritarian one. We remember what it is like not to believe, and we do not expect people to believe simply by being told what is true. People want to know why.
Second, we take a “process” approach, not a “crisis” one. We provide multiple exposures to the gospel. We afford people the opportunity to ask questions, so that they receive information about Christianity in an order and shape that addresses their situation.
Third, we take a “presuppositional” approach to persuading people about the faith. That means we believe every person, even the skeptic, already does believe in God (Rom. 1:18–25). So we find “clues of God”—insights into truth—they already have, and use these to show the way back to their Creator. Jesus responded positively to a man who was in “process,” who said: “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). We should want to do the same.
Where do we do this? Everywhere. At Redeemer we put out the Doubters Welcome mat at every service and meeting, always expecting and hoping to be overheard by those who don’t believe. We believe that worship must be done in such a way that those who are not Christians can understand and be included. We also want to provide classes and “after meetings” where people can be debriefed after services and given help in understanding the Christian faith. In addition, we seek to keep our community groups and ministry events open and inclusive of people regardless of where they are on their spiritual journey.
Training the people in our churches to be public with their faith is a way to help more people find personal faith in Christ, but it’s also intended to re-energize churches to be more outwardly facing communities that habitually extend themselves to those outside the faith. To do this, our community group members must be focused on praying for and listening to their friends’ doubts and winsomely engaging them with the hope of the gospel. Public faith is a vital way to help us keep a healthy outward face.
The Redeemer family of churches is extremely fortunate to minister in a large city, where it is difficult for Christians to segregate themselves from those who don’t believe. Urban Christians will naturally have the opportunity to make many good friends who don’t believe. Redeemer’s churches have historically desired to create a climate where a Christian comes and realizes, “If I bring my unbelieving friends here, they will be surprised to see how compelling and sensible Christianity is.” As long as we are having that thought and acting on it, God will continue to change many lives.
Public faith is about authentic relationships and getting out of our own social and spiritual comfort zones. Ultimately, public faith is trusting the Holy Spirit to do the evangelistic work through us in our relationships. While many of us identify as secluded or private, our prayer and desire is that we all become more public with our faith.
Has many close friends of different beliefs. Does not personally disclose faith openly with those friends.
Has many Christian friends but few or no close friends of different beliefs. Is open about faith within the Christian community, but their faith is rarely challenged by or shared with those outside it.
Has many close friends of different beliefs as well as many Christian friends. Is humble, loving, and public about their Christian faith with everyone. Seeks ways to integrate their various communities of friends.