“Be infected by people who’ve infected great leaders.” A simple, common leadership principle but one that has born marks on my own pastoral formation and love for the city. Having completed my Masters of Divinity urban missions emphasis at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia in the program Harvie Conn, Manuel Ortiz, and Sue Baker among many others created and led I can say I have definitely been infected by a person and program that has infected one of the greatest urban missiologist of the twentieth century, Tim Keller.
My wife and I lived only a few blocks away from where Harvie lived and did ministry in Philadelphia. A little known fact about the man is that he was crippled for life because of the success he was having in reaching prostitutes in Korea as a missionary there. Apparently their pimps weren’t too happy to see their prostitutes turning to Christ and finding wholeness instead of turning tricks. Even as a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary Harvie he continued to reach out to the prostitutes in Philadelphia. I spent four months working along side a church plant in Harvie’s neighborhood and saw first hand the presence of prostitution and drugs that continue to this very day. He was a man who didn’t simply speak about urban mission, he lived it to the very end of his life.
Harvie Conn was not the only person that played a formative role on Keller but he was definitely one of the more significant ones at Westminster. The long quote below is very telling in that regard. It was taken from Christianity Today’s recent telling of the story behind Redeemer Presbyterian church in Manhattan was planted by Tim Keller. The article is called, “How Tim Keller Found Manhattan“;
In the late 1980s, Keller was happily teaching at Westminster, the staunchly Reformed Philadelphia seminary, while working for his denomination, thePresbyterian Church in America (PCA). Two things happened. At Westminster, he came under the influence of a small band of urban missiologists led by Harvie Conn. At the PCA’s home missions department, he was recruited by its head, Terry Gyger, who wanted to start a church in Manhattan.
Actually, Gyger had already tried to start one, a flop. And those who felt called to Sodom and Gomorrah, er, New York City, were scarce. Gyger latched on to Keller, a Tolkien-fascinated son of eastern Pennsylvania. When Keller begged off, Gyger asked him to visit New York once a week to do research to lay the groundwork for somebody else.
Keller found some signs of life in the churches of the outer boroughs. Manhattan itself, however, with its artists and musicians and 80-hours-a-week doctors and financial service personnel, had mostly gloomy, half-empty church buildings. Manhattan, a financial and cultural hub that today is home to 70,000 people per square mile, had suffered a series of painful setbacks in the 1960s and ’70s, from race riots to crime waves, that had made putting down roots there a sheer act of faith.
One hopeful sign: On the Upper East Side, an offshoot of Campus Crusade for Christ had opened the DeMoss House to reach New York executives, and scores of them were coming to faith. They needed a church. DeMoss was a starting place.
Keller began talking to anyone who would sit still, asking questions he had learned from the urbanists at Westminster: “What would be a New Yorker’s worst disaster?” and “What kind of church would a New Yorker want to attend?” For months he sat in restaurants, learning New Yorkers’ ways.
Working with Gyger, Keller identified two PCA pastors to lead the start-up. Both, after consideration, turned him down. Keller returned from a trip to England to find a message on his answering machine. It was Tim Keller or nothing.
The months of research and relationship-building in Gotham had an unexpected effect on Keller: He discovered that the prospect of starting a church excited him. His heart for the city had been plowed for years by his mentors and colleagues at Westminster. Daily interactions with fellow teachers who worked in urban ministry, such as Conn, planted in him a growing urban theology. Through his involvement with inner-city ministries in Philadelphia, most notably Tenth Presbyterian Church, he had developed a positive view of the city. However, he was a suburban man by lifestyle, and the thought of raising kids in Manhattan was daunting.
I thought it would be helpful to provide you with a brief bibliography of Harvie Conn’s writings to explore this urban missiologists reflections for yourself. This list is not exhaustive, but affords you with a good place to start reading Harvie Conn.
“The American City and the Evangelical Church: A Historical Overview” by Harvie Conn
“Urban Ministry: The Kingdom, the City, & the People of God” by Harvie Conn and Manuel Ortiz
“The Urban Face of Mission: Ministering the Gospel in a Diverse & Changing World” by Harvie Conn and Manuel Ortiz
“Planting and Growing Urban Churches: From Dream to Reality” edited by Harvie Conn
“Evangelism: Doing Justice and Preaching Grace” by Harvie Conn
Of course both these men would be quick to point out that there would be no Harvie Conn or Tim Keller without God’s own passion for the city!