What Tim Keller Gave the World

Preach the Gospel and Wait to See What Happens.

Todd Brewer / 5.19.23

Living in the New York area over the last eight years, it’s impossible to miss Tim Keller’s impact in the region. As large as the city is, if you hang around in Christian circles, you’re bound to run into numerous people who either went to Redeemer (Keller’s former church), attended a church plant of Redeemer, or heard Keller speak at a local event. For the many who have been impacted by his ministry, they will tell you that Keller provided an intellectually coherent way to be Christian within the bustling metropolis. They’ll tell you that within a culture preaching personal success for its own sake, Keller was the one voice nudging them to think of their career from the standpoint of God’s Kingdom. Above all, they’ll tell you he taught them the gospel — to not see their worth derived from what they did or the smugness that arises from “making it” in the greatest city on earth, but in the loving, blood-stained cross of Jesus.

I never met Keller personally. By the time I arrived here, he had already planned his exit from the pulpit, long before the cancer diagnosis that would eventually bring him home. I did, however, hear him speak at a conference for church planters (ages ago when I was contemplating such a possibility). The conference featured all the mega-stars in the church planting world at the time. Rick Warren told us about mission statements. Andy Stanley told us about consistent branding and multi-site simulcasting. Alan Hirsch taught about building an authentic community and non-traditional church.

It was, in a word, exhausting.

Though these speakers didn’t say so explicitly, they all at least implied that a successful church needs a charismatic, dare I say “cool,” leader to set them apart from the mainline denominations. The ideal church planter was to be a one-man revival show, inspiring the faithless to Jesus by the sheer awesomeness of his personality and ground-breaking vision. Even as I type this, I am rolling my eyes remembering how much it all sounded like a week of uninspiring TED talks.

Tim Keller was slated to speak at the very end of the conference. After days of prescriptive drivel, I nearly didn’t attend. Presbyterians don’t exactly shy away from the “how-to” side of Christianity. But I had read and enjoyed Reason for God in seminary and had reason to hope Keller might be different. With his winsome baritone he began by informing us that his talk on revival in Christianity had precisely sixteen points. I braced myself for yet another grocery list of church growth law: “Sixteen Ways to Fail.”

But before he jumped into his sixteen points, Keller upended everyone ‘s expectations. With unheard of humility (and perhaps truthfulness) this successful NYC church planter admitted that only a handful of his nearly thirty years of pastoring were times of genuine revival. The gospel spread like wildfire in the early years of Redeemer, but since then they have only maintained the growth they saw at the beginning. Whatever happened to make Redeemer grow couldn’t be replicated or packaged for mass consumption. Unlike every other speaker at the conference, Keller had the audacity to claim that there was no prescribed formula for church growth. He didn’t expound on buzz-worthy mission statements, intentional community, or strategies for reaching the unchurched.

Keller took as the base text for his sixteen-point talk Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (1 Kgs 18:16-40), where Elijah built a wooden altar, soaked it with water, and then prayed for God himself to burn the altar. This, Keller said, is what church planting is like. Because of all the sixteen marks of revival he described, only three were ones you had any measure of control over. All the pastor can do is 1. Pray 2. Preach the gospel in your context and 3. Encourage creativity. There are many marks of church growth, he said, but thirteen of the sixteen are out of your hands. You can build an altar from stone and wood, but everything else depends entirely on God’s showing up to ignite the flames of revival.

If Keller did prescribe a formula for growth, it was meager by comparison: preach the gospel and wait to see what happens.

In the days and weeks and years to come, there will be many who will reflect on Keller’s life and contributions to the world and the church. I say “many” because one of the gifts he’ll leave behind is a legacy of thousands of leaders who have stories just like mine, in which his ministry brought the gospel home in a fresh, life-giving, and pastoral way.

Keller wrote innumerable books across a wide variety of topics, but the insight he gave at that church planting conference could be said to be the thesis of everything he wrote. In a world full of how-to books and self-help gurus, Tim Keller’s passion was to find ways that the gospel spoke to and changed everyday life. Whatever the problem was, the solution was always — marvelously — the same. Whether it be marriage, vocations, mission, or the culture at large, Keller sought to understand everything in light of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Even in these last days, he gave us the gift of reflecting about the gospel in his own death. To anyone willing to listen, Keller gave them Jesus.

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6 responses to “What Tim Keller Gave the World”

  1. Janell Downing says:

    Amen. We’ll miss this humble giant of the faith

  2. […] quick search of Keller’s name on our website yields dozens of entries, because as Todd Brewer wrote for Mbird today: “To anyone willing to listen, Keller gave them […]

  3. Richard Gardner says:

    I’ve kept a Keller quote under the transparent blotter of my desk for years: “I tore my son to shreds and you worry that I won’t provide for you?” Getting back to the basics.

  4. Dan Edelen says:

    RIP, Tim Keller. He was the friend of urban church planters everywhere.


    To the marks under one’s control, there is a #4: Ask—and expect—the Holy Spirit to be among the assembly of believers in power.

    I may sound like a broken record, but revivalist Leonard Ravenhill said, “You never have to advertise a fire.” That’s your foundation for church growth. We too often relegate the Holy Spirit to an also-ran position in the Trinity, and yet He is the distinguishing mark that makes the Christian Church unique among all worshiping bodies in history. And when the Holy Spirit is present, active, and doing what only the Spirit can do among the assembled believers, people will notice this. And the pastor won’t have to worry about growth, because it will be standing-room-only on Sundays.

  5. Brent White says:

    Tim Keller, more than any other Christian thinker, liberated me from “horizontal”-oriented preaching and teaching. As a United Methodist pastor, that’s saying a lot! The least interesting question is, “What do I do now?” The most interesting question is, “What has God done for me through Christ?” I’m not sure I knew that before I discovered Keller around 2011 or ‘12.

  6. […] fast and furious, as well they should, and there’s not much I could say that Stephanie, Todd, Jeb, Meaghan or a hundred others haven’t already said. But I did want to add my voice to […]

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