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 courage “to create a strictly conservative Christian church.” in the heart of Sodom.”
Only Tim Keller didn’t like the task. In fact, he declined the invitation and tried to recruit two more pastors for the church plant, which was born from a successful dinner ministry run by Nancy DeMoss, widow of Art DeMoss, a mail-order insurance mogul.
Keller previously pastored a small congregation in Hopewell, Virginia. But he is 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 men to New York City in 1989, and poured himself into the new ministry.
Conventional wisdom holds that conservative Christian theology and the teaching found no one to take the great and hostile city. After all, that’s left for bellicose street-corner evangelists with bullhorns.
As is often the case, conventional wisdom is wrong.
Pastor Timothy J. Keller, who died Friday of pancreatic cancer at age 72, brave but not fierce. He is brave but not sad.
Bald and clothed, he found a way to connect with his young and growing audience. at Redeemer Presbyterian Church by speaking their language and discussing everything from The Village Voice, NPR, and The New York Times to CS Lewis, David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and the ancient hymns of faith.
The Pennsylvanian was found to have a hunger for honest, clear, and counter-cultural Bible teaching. His congregation was full of aspiring artists, actors, and business professionals who came to New York in search of fame and fortune. Keller’s preaching filled an empty void that he knew bright lights and applause could never satisfy, eventually building a megachurch with multiple campuses and pastors.
Although I interviewed Tim Keller several times for the Focus on the Family radio program, I really enjoyed the visits when the microphones and cameras were turned off.
I have had the privilege of joining Tim and other ministry and culture leaders on several occasions for off-the-record, behind-the-scenes conversations. There’s the old adage that politics makes for strange bedfellows, but the same can be said for interfaith, cross-cultural dialogue. In fact, these exchanges are probably more insightful and interesting than any Washington hoo-ha.
A best-selling author who stepped down as senior pastor at Redeemer in 2017, Tim always has something interesting, fierce, funny, or wise to say. He had an uncanny ability to disagree without dissent—a lost art today.
Despite pressure from many camps and causes, I also appreciate Tim’s unwavering commitment to orthodox Christianity. Whether it holds to a biblical understanding of human sexuality or his support for the sanctity of lifehe is unwavering and unapologetic.
This boldness and courage should strengthen the self-determination of fellow Christians as we venture into the culture with our convictions and invite discussion and debate.
I might also add that I appreciate Tim’s pastoral heart. From time to time, he informally and casually advises me on ministerial matters. I remember one time sharing a particular burden with him. He listened patiently. Then he smiled and reminded me that time will solve the problem. He was right.
Tim Keller’s voice and wisdom will not be forgotten, but he has left a legacy that will continue like so many other giants of faith on whose shoulders we now stand.
The psalmist wrote: “Precious in the sight of Jehovah is the death of His saints” (Psalm 116:15).
The death of our friend saddens us who knew, loved, and benefited from his ministry—but it brought this beloved husband, father, scholar, and theologian before the God whom he faithfully and effectively served and worshipped.
This piece was originally published in the Daily Signal.