By now, you have heard the sad news. Tim Keller has just passed away.
I still remember the first time I heard a Tim Keller sermon. It was the mid-90’s, and I happened to be in New York City. Having just graduated from seminary, I had heard all the buzz about this new pastor in Manhattan who had (incredibly) built a thriving, growing church in the midst of one of the world’s most liberal cities. Since it was a Sunday, I figured I would go have a listen.
The church was meeting in an auditorium (part of a local college, if I remember). The stage was very plain, with a number of musicians leading through some hymns and praise songs. Then Tim stood up to preach.
I learned a lot of things about Tim, and his ministry, in that single sermon. Here are five words that describe what I saw (and have seen ever since). These are five words that define his legacy—a legacy for which I am deeply grateful.
1. Genuine. When Tim stepped up to preach that day, it was nothing flashy. There was no pomp and circumstance. He didn’t wear designer tennis shoes, or cool clothes (he wore a tweed jacket, I think). There was no special lighting, or smoke machines. He didn’t even have a trendy wireless ear mic—he stood behind an old-school mic stand the whole time.
Consequently, there was a genuineness about Tim. He didn’t seem far, distant, and unapproachable. Instead, he seemed like “one of us”—someone you could approach and talk to after the service (and who would want to talk to you).
In a world where mega-church pastors have bodyguards and black SUV’s, Tim was the exception. May God give us more like him in our world.
2. Strategic. As the sermon progressed, I looked around the room to see who had shown up that morning. The auditorium was largely filled with young professionals, and people from a wide variety of nationalities. Indeed, that is because of the location we were in. These were the people living and working in Manhattan.
And this was exactly why Tim was there. As is well known, he believed cities were strategic for the spread of the gospel. And what better place to start than New York City. This is not to suggest cities are the only place to take the gospel (Tim would have never suggested that). Rural and suburban locations need good churches too. But, that doesn’t mean there’s not strategic value in an epicenter like Manhattan.
3. Persuasive. What struck me most about the sermon was not that it was expository (and it was), nor that it was Christ-centered (and it was). Rather, I was struck by the fact that Tim did something so very few do today when they preach: he looked to persuade. Persuasion is the lost art in modern preaching (see my article here). Many proclaim. Many announce. Many tell. Very few try to convince.
But Tim was an exception. He understood his audience. He knew their intellectual world. And he labored hard to show that Christianity made more sense than the things they were chasing. In other words, he was intellectually engaged with the world he was trying to reach.
What a legacy. Tim’s ministry reminds us that even the most ardent skeptics are not outside the reach of the gospel. They can be reached as long as someone is committed to reaching them.
It is for this reason that I am pleased to be an inaugural fellow for the recently launched Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics. I pray that this Center will advance Tim’s commitment to persuasive cultural engagement.
4. Orthodox. Throughout that sermon, it was clear that Tim affirmed and upheld the historical truths of orthodox Christianity. He didn’t shy away from difficult doctrines. He was plain about how Christ was the only true savior. He didn’t back off of biblical ethics. Indeed, this is precisely why his ministry was flourishing. If people wanted a message of relativism they could have heard that just about anywhere in Manhattan. They were coming to Redeemer because they were getting something different than what the world was offering them.
For these reasons, I continued to be baffled by people who regard Tim as “progressive” or even “liberal.” How can a man who believes in inerrancy, affirms the Westminster Confession of Faith, is a complementarian, and holds the line on sexual ethics, be considered liberal? I think such language says less about Tim and more about the polarized state of modern evangelicalism.
5. Winsome. As I listened to the sermon that day, I was struck by another notable feature. Tim didn’t seem angry. He wasn’t mad at everyone. The sermon was not just an opportunity to vent his frustrations. On the contrary, he came across as kind and gracious. Sure, he had a message of truth to deliver. But it was delivered with love and grace.
There’s been a lot of chatter the last year or so about the term “winsome.” Some have argued against winsomeness because somewhere along the line they have been told that it involves compromise. Or they argue against it because they think it’s a failed cultural strategy. Winsomeness, they argue, just doesn’t work. People will hate us no matter how nice we are.
But, these are profound misunderstandings of what it means to be winsome. Being winsome doesn’t require compromise—it’s not an “either or” scenario. You can be both winsome and faithful to the truth. And winsomeness was never intended as a complete cultural strategy—as if anyone is naive enough to think being “nice” is all that ministry requires. I am confident that Tim would not have argued for such a thing.
No, we are winsome, gracious, gentle, and kind for one simple reason: Christ was this way. Sure, he was also bold and firm. Yes, he spoke truth plainly. But, he was also “gentle and lowly in heart” (Matt 12:29). Moreover, Paul calls us to be gentle and kind, especially if we are ministers (1 Tim 3;3; Titus 1:7).
In sum, there are five words that mark the legacy of Tim Keller: genuine, strategic, persuasive, orthodox and winsome. Sure, these aren’t all the words that could be used to describe his ministry. I am sure there are many more. But they are five worthy words that should mark anyone’s ministry. And they are five words that I hope to strive towards in my own.
Rest in peace, Tim Keller. The race is over. And it was a race well run.