By G. Connor Salter, Crosswalk.com
Newsweek called him “C.S. Lewis for the twenty-first century.” While Tim Keller (1950-2023) had his unique role and vocation, many would agree that he fulfilled a Lewis-like role. He was both a spiritual counselor and an intellectual. He made clear apologetic arguments that secularists and Christians alike could respect.
So what made him such an influential pastor and leader?
Important Events in Tim Keller’s Life
Tim Keller was born September 23, 1950, in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Growing up in a churchgoing family, he received some religious education, where he and his family members were all confirmed in a Lutheran church. However, in an essay for Uncommon Ground, Keller described his upbringing as a mainline Christianity, and often confusing.
While studying at Bucknell University, Keller discovered InterVarsity Fellowship and came to faith in 1970. He helped lead InterVarsity small groups and continued to be involved with the organization when he completed his divinity degree at Gordon-Cornwell Theological Seminary.
After becoming an ordained pastor, Keller’s career was a mix of practical pastoring and teaching. He spent nine years pastoring at West Hopewell Presbyterian Church in Virginia and five years teaching at Westminster Theological Seminary.
His ministry career took a new turn in 1989 when he accepted an invitation to plant a church in Manhattan, New York. In The Reason for God, he recalled, “I was told by almost everyone that it was a fool’s errand. Church meant moderate or conservative; the city was liberal and edgy. Church meant families; New York City was filled with young singles and ‘nontraditional’ households. Church most of all meant belief, but Manhattan was the land of skeptics, critics, and cynics.”
Keller’s church plant not only survived but thrived. He led Redeemer Presbyterian Church until 2017, eventually preaching to service containing thousands of people.
Realizing that many of his urban attendees didn’t come from Christian homes and didn’t claim Christianity for themselves, Keller developed a particular approach. Rather than reach out to other conservative Christians to consolidate influence, he reached out to skeptics to hear their questions. His apologetics books pushed readers to consider what was behind their skepticism about Christianity and whether it may hold the answers they sought.
Keller’s approach didn’t just push nonbelievers to rethink how they saw the world. He encouraged Christian leaders to consider where they worked, how to deliver a message that fit their context, and how to combine mercy ministry with communicating Christian ideas. His approach aided his church but led to church networks where other leaders developed effective ministries for reaching urban populations.
By the time he retired from preaching at Redeemer Presbyterian, Keller had written multiple bestselling books, debated atheists, and been cited as a key figure showing evangelical Christians could love knowledge and love cities well.
Keller was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2020. He continued to speak at various venues at a slower pace, freely admitting that he knew his cancer meant his time was limited.
He passed away in hospice on May 19, 2023. His last reported words included, “I’m thankful for the time God has given me, but I’m ready to see Jesus. I can’t wait to see Jesus. Send me home.”
10 Lessons Christians Can Learn from Tim Keller
1. Christianity is countercultural in its own way. In his book Encounters with Jesus, Keller tells a story about his years at Bucknell in the 1970s, when many students were striking or protesting for various causes. During one strike, Keller’s InterVarsity study group “got radical” and set up their own sign: “The resurrection of Jesus Christ is intellectually credible and existentially satisfying.”
2. Christians can be intellectuals too. Mark Noll and others have noted that many evangelical Christians face a recurring problem: they treat deep learning as unnecessary, somehow antithetical to faith. Keller refused to believe that knowledge and faith can’t work together, showing how to honor God by using his mind well.
3. Good thinkers acknowledge their influences. While Keller’s urban ministry and arguments made him a unique speaker, he freely admitted how much he was influenced by thinkers like Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, Jonathon Edwards, and his seminary professor, Edmund Prosper Clowney.
4. Marrying well can enrich your worldview and work. Kathy Keller tends to get overlooked in discussions about her husband’s career, but she gave him feedback on many of his books and was the one who introduced him to C.S. Lewis’ books.
5. Starting small can stretch people in healthy ways. While Keller became known for his urban ministry, he spent his first nine years as a pastor at a small-town church in Hopewell, Virginia. He later observed that the years of having to do almost everything himself, getting to know his congregation in an up-close and personal way, taught him vital lessons about caring for people that informed his later ministry in larger contexts.
6. Don’t be afraid to learn from other cultures. Various people have commented that Keller had an affinity for British culture, visiting it many times and citing British Christians in his writings. He cited this affinity as partly because he wanted to explore his denomination’s roots, but also observed that many of the best Christian books available during his seminary years were by British authors.
7. Different apologetic approaches can work together. Many apologists specialize in one approach— apologists like Lee Strobel use arguments from historical evidence, while apologists like Cornelius Van Till use arguments about presuppositions. Rather than saying one approach matters more than another, Keller uses both in different books, recognizing each has its place.
8. Influencing culture means going to cultural centers. Os Guinness argued in 1994 that many Christians had limited influence because they didn’t understand they had to move to cultural center hubs instead of consolidating power in rural places. Keller’s work at Redeemer Presbyterian practiced going to the cities at a time when many Christian leaders claimed urban areas were inherently hostile to believers.
9. Effective apologetics must go beyond ivory towers. A key trait of Keller’s work was that he showed he was well-read yet always found ways to show the practical reasons his ideas mattered. He never condescended to audiences, always finding ways to relate to their needs.
10. Even death can teach us something. In January 2023, four months before his passing, Keller spoke on the Premier Unbelievable podcast about how facing his pending death had changed his outlook. Along with other things, he said, “My wife and I would never want to go to the kind of prayer life and spiritual life we had before the cancer.”
10 Inspiring Quotes by Tim Keller
1. “Jesus combines high majesty with the greatest humility, he joins the strongest commitment to justice with astonishing mercy and grace, and he reveals a transcendent self-sufficiency and yet entire trust in and reliance upon his heavenly Father.” — “What You Need to Know about the Character of Jesus”
2. “Oly if you struggle long and hard with objections to your faith will you be able to provide ground for your beliefs to skeptics, including yourself, that are plausible rather than ridiculous or offensive.” — The Reason for God
3. “The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.” — The Meaning of Marriage
4. “A child does not always (or even often) address his father as “Father”; likely, he has a different term for him that shows his loving, trusting familiarity with his father, such as “Dad” or “Papa” or “Daddy.” And this is how Christians can approach the all-powerful Creator of the universe, who sustains every atom in existence moment by moment!” — “7 Breathtaking Privileges of Being God’s Child”
5. “Fundamentally, there are no irreligious people.” — “Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical,” Talks at Google
6. “There is a terrible spiritual danger involved in the receiving of any blessing. Success can easily cause us to forget God’s grace, because our hearts are desperate to believe that we can save ourselves . . . We need to remember that we are saved by grace when we fail. But we need to remember it much more when we succeed.” — “What You Need to Know about the Dangers of Success”
7. “Contemporary secularity, then, is not the absence of faith, but is instead based on a whole set of beliefs, including a number of highly contestable assumptions about the nature of proof and rationality itself.” — Making Sense of God
8. “To accept the true Christmas gift, you have to admit you’re a sinner. You need to be saved by grace. You need to give up control of your life. That is descending lower than any of us really wants to go. Yet Jesus Christ’s greatness is seen in how far down he came to love us.” — “How to Understand the True Gift of Christmas”
9. “The Son of God was born into the world to begin a new humanity, a new community of people who could lose their self-centeredness, begin a God-centered life, and as a result, slowly but surely have all other relationships put right as well.” — The Reason for God
10. “If we think we are not all that bad, the idea of grace will never change us. Change comes by seeing a need for a Savior and getting one.” — The Prodigal God
10 Best Books by Tim Keller
4. The Meaning of Marriage: A Couple’s Devotional: A Year of Daily Devotions with Kathy Keller
You can also find some excellent writers reflecting on Keller’s work and legacy in the book The City for God: Essays Honoring the Work of Tim Keller.
Tim Keller Videos
The following are some excellent interviews where Keller talks about vital religious topics.
Photo Credit: Tim Keller Facebook
G. Connor Salter is a writer and editor, with a Bachelor of Science in Professional Writing from Taylor University. In 2020, he won First Prize for Best Feature Story in a regional contest by the Colorado Press Association Network. He has contributed over 1,200 articles to various publications, including interviews for Christian Communicator and book reviews for The Evangelical Church Library Association. Find out more about his work here.
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