On a typical New York City day in 1989, there’d be reports of nine rapes, five murders, 255 robberies and 194 aggravated assaults. It wasn’t exactly the ideal destination for a theology professor living in a leafy suburb of Philadelphia with three young children. But that’s where the Presbyterian Church in America asked Tim Keller to go.

Almost three decades later, Keller is stepping down from his role as head pastor at one of the largest churches in New York City. What began as a 200-congregant gathering in space rented from a Seventh-day Adventist church has now blossomed into Redeemer Presbyterian — with three separate services totaling 5,200 people per week. In addition, Keller’s network has planted over 300 churches in cities across the country and around the world.

But he has clearly come to love New York City in particular, and in the next stage of his career, Keller will be leading a campaign to plant a new church in every neighborhood in the Big Apple.

His aim isn’t to take people away from the churches where they already belong but “to welcome and serve those who do not currently profess faith.” New churches, he says (and research backs him up), have a much better chance of attracting unbelievers than older ones do.

Keller doesn’t see himself as a religious crusader living in some kind of haven for secular hedonists, though. Faith is alive and well in New York, he believes. And not just the squishy liberal kind either.

“The first thing I’ve noticed is that in almost 30 years, the numbers of conservative Protestant churches across the five boroughs has increased greatly,” Keller tells me. “In light of the decline of religion among millennials across the country, it’s worth noting that much of this growth has been among young adults.”

Getting young adults in a city to church is not easy. Marriage is often the thing that brings people to a religious community and young people living in urban areas are often more likely to delay marriage and family in favor of pursuing a career.

But Redeemer has consistently brought a younger generation to his congregation. “The goal of our ministry,” he says, “is to show self-sufficient urban people that ‘their hearts are restless until they find their rest in God,’ that their lives and the world are inexplicable until they see we are alienated from God. Sometimes they are drawn into community where they discover that truth. Other times they come into community as a result of realizing it.”

Keller sees an integral part of the church’s mission as being present in the big cities — no matter how culturally degraded they may seem. “Christians ought to be present and engaged everywhere that there are people. But across the world people are flocking to cities at the rate of millions per year.

“Christians don’t all need to live in cities, but they should at least be moving there in the same proportions as the people whom they want to serve.”

His approach may be falling out of favor among some more orthodox believers. Last month, the Wall Street Journal reported on a small but growing number of Christians who, “feeling besieged by secular society . . . are taking refuge” in small, often isolated communities away from negative cultural influences and surrounded by other believers.

This “Benedict Option” was named in honor of St. Benedict, who fled the moral degradation of Rome. It’s also the title of a new book by Rod Dreher, who, writing in Christianity Today, calls it a “strategic withdrawal” by “serious Christian Conservatives [who] could no longer live business-as-usual lives in America.”

Though Dreher doesn’t say Christians should all flee to isolated enclaves, those are where such withdrawal would be easiest.

Keller believes Christians in New York cannot retreat into homogeneity. They’ll be regularly faced with people who fervently disagree with them. Keller’s church is a multi-ethnic one and even if the believers have a similar religious outlook, they hail from a variety of different backgrounds.

Keller believes serious Christians still belong in cities in general and New York in particular. But it’s a project that will take many more Tim Kellers and much more time. The results, says Keller, are “hard to see except in hindsight, with the perspective of several decades.”

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.