New York magazine once described Tim Keller’s founding of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City as “close to a theological suicide mission” for having the audacity “to create a strictly conservative Christian church in the heart of Sodom.”
Only Tim Keller wasn’t eager for the assignment. In fact, he turned down the invitation and attempted to recruit two other pastors for the church plant, which was born out of a wildly successful dinner ministry hosted by Nancy DeMoss, widow of Art DeMoss, a mail-order insurance mogul.
Keller previously had pastored a small congregation in Hopewell, Virginia. But he was no stranger to urban ministry, having served with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in Boston and Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, where he received his doctorate in ministry in 1981.
Compelled by the Holy Spirit, Keller eventually accepted the invitation, moved his wife Kathy and three young boys to New York City in 1989, and poured himself into the new ministry.
The conventional wisdom held that conservative Christian theology and teaching wouldn’t find any takers in the big and hostile city. After all, that’s left for bellicose street-corner evangelists with bullhorns.
As often is the case, the conventional wisdom was wrong.
Pastor Timothy J. Keller, who died Friday of pancreatic cancer at 72, was bold but not brash. He was courageous but not caustic.
Balding and bespectacled, he found a way to connect with his young and growing audience at Redeemer Presbyterian Church by speaking their language and referencing everything from The Village Voice, NPR, and The New York Times to C.S. Lewis, David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and the ancient hymns of the faith.
The Pennsylvania native found there was a hunger for the honest, clear, and countercultural teaching of the Bible. His congregation was full of aspiring artists, actors, and business professionals who had come to New York in search of fame and fortune. Keller’s preaching filled the empty void that he knew the bright lights and applause would never satiate, eventually building a megachurch with multiple campuses and pastors.
Although I interviewed Tim Keller many times for Focus on the Family’s radio program, I most enjoyed the visits when the microphones and cameras were off.
I had the privilege of joining Tim and other ministry and cultural leaders on numerous occasions for off-the-record, behind-the-scenes conversations. There’s the old saying that politics makes for strange bedfellows, but the same can be said for interfaith, cross-cultural dialogue. In fact, those exchanges were probably far more insightful and intriguing than any Washington hoo-ha.
A bestselling author who stepped down as Redeemer’s senior pastor in 2017, Tim always had something interesting, wry, witty, or wise to say. He had an uncanny ability to disagree without being disagreeable—an increasingly lost art today.
Despite pressure from numerous camps and causes, I also appreciated Tim’s unbending commitment to orthodox Christianity. Whether it was holding fast to a biblical understanding of human sexuality or his support for the sanctity of life, he was unwavering and unapologetic.
This courage and boldness should strengthen fellow Christians’ own resolve as we wade into the culture with our convictions and invite conversation and debate.
I might also add that I appreciated Tim’s pastoral heart. From time to time, he would informally and casually counsel me on ministerial matters. I remember once sharing a particular burden with him. He listened patiently. He then smiled and reminded me that the passage of time would solve the problem. He was right.
Tim Keller’s voice and wisdom will be missed, but he leaves behind a legacy that will live on like the many other giants of the faith on whose shoulders we now stand.
The psalmist wrote: “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints” (Psalms 116:15).
Our friend’s passing grieves those of us who knew, loved, and benefited from his ministry—but it brings this beloved husband, father, scholar, and theologian face to face with the God he so loyally and effectively served and worshipped.
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