This past week, Tim Keller announced that he's stepping down as the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. While I was saddened to hear the news, I was also grateful to hear the reason behind it. In a time when it seems like most well-known pastors are resigning due to scandal or conflict, it's refreshing to hear someone stepping down with class and humility.
For those who don't know, Redeemer has been around for over 28 years and is located in Manhattan - one of the least-churched cities in the nation. But over time, they've grown to 5,000 members and expanded to three separate campuses. They tried to reach a city before it was cool to reach cities. They were missional before it became trendy to be missional. They were faithful when they likely had many opportunities to compromise.
And I think I speak for many Christians and pastors when I say that I am personally grateful and thankful for this man's work. And yes, I know we shouldn't "worship man" and cultivate a Christian celebrity culture. But I do think it's appropriate to express gratitude to men who have been faithful (Phil 2:29) - especially if God used them to impact thousands of Christians.
So with that being said, here are a couple of things about Keller's ministry that I'm personally thankful for.
1) Showing How to Engage the Culture
Before Keller came onto the scene, it was kind of confusing to know how to live as a Christian. In the 20th century, America was slowly transforming into a post-Christian nation, and it seemed like most churches weren't ready to adapt to this increasingly secular landscape. As a result, churches you'd see were either condemning the culture or conforming to the culture. Their message was either off-putting ("You're going to hell!") or overly-sentimental ("Did you know God loves you?").
But starting with The Reason For God, Keller showed a different approach. Rather than condemn or conform to the culture, Keller demonstrated a way for Christians to converse with the culture. He wouldn't try to awaken people's Christian consciousness because people no longer had a Christian consciousness. Nor did he try to make Christianity "hip" or "cool" because that won't save people.
Instead he modeled a way to engage the culture with language that connected with Christians and non-Christians. He was able to challenge us about the presuppositions we carry about religion, the cultural narratives that only make sense if God exists, and the desires every human being has for love, significance, and redemption. At a time when it seemed like the only option was to attend fundamental, overtly-Reformed churches or seeker-friendly, watered-down ones, Keller's ministry introduced an alternative.
2) Remaining Faithful to Biblical Orthodoxy
Perhaps more impressive than Keller's ability to engage the culture has been his commitment to stay orthodox while doing so. Often times when Christians reach out, they end up selling out. Not Keller. Despite the secularism he faced, he still holds to the authority of Scripture, the exclusivity of Christ, the reality of hell, and the atoning nature of the cross. And it's not just in his church's statement of faith that nobody reads; you hear it throughout his preaching.
Now I know some Christian scholars give him a hard time about the way he articulates such doctrines. His critics are thinking if they spoke about hell or same-sex marriage, they would explain it more accurately. However I think they're missing the focus of Keller's ministry. They don't realize the audience they have in mind is different than the audience Keller has in mind. They're thinking of engaging scholars and Christians while Keller engaging the common man who doesn't get Christianity.
In his essay "Rejoinder to Dr. Pittenger," C.S. Lewis explains how he also faced criticisms from Christians who wished he articulated aspects of the faith more carefully. But Lewis explains that his writing came at a time when his fellow-countrymen didn't believe or understand Christianity. Therefore Lewis writes, "My task was therefore simply that of a translator...into the vernacular, into the language that unscholarly people would attend to and could understand." I think this mirrors Keller's approach. He wasn't just teaching the Christian faith - he was translating it for the masses.
And this is why, like Lewis, so many people who would have never known Christ now have a better grasp of who He is.
3) Empowering Asian Americans
Something Keller doesn't get enough credit for is how effective his ministry was in attracting and empowering Asian Americans. You see Asians are notorious for attending homogenous churches rather than assimilating into multicultural ones. But if you visit any of Redeemer's campuses, you'll notice a sizable Asian presence. People need to realize how unusual this is.
I'm sure there are other factors involved, but I think Keller had a unique ability to connect wth minorities in a way that most famous caucasian pastors aren't able to. In most megachurches, Asians feel pressured to embrace not only Christianity but an anglo-version of the faith. But at Redeemer, there seems to be a cultural sensitivity in both Keller's preaching and the worship service.
But not only did Keller minister to Asians - he empowered them. If you haven't noticed, several of the lead pastors in Redeemer are Asian American. Usually megachurches seem to hire Asians only as a token minority staff member who can minister to a specific population in the church. But Keller has entrusted an entire congregation to them. As an Asian American, it's empowering to see an Asian pastor being platformed to lead a multi-cultural church. In this sense, Redeemer is a pioneer of the majority empowering the minority.
4) Humility in Ministry
People sometimes ask me what I like about Keller's preaching. Like most folks, I like his scholastic insights, his Christ-centeredness, and his references to Tolkien. But what I appreciate most about his preaching is the spirit of humility that his messages have. Perhaps this is the Millennial in me speaking, but I enjoy how his messages aren't loud thundering declarations but have the tone of inviting dialogue.
But I realize this humility isn't just in Keller's preaching - it colors his entire ministry. When I look at Redeemer, they're modern yet not flashy; they're well-known yet not self-promoting; they're hip but not pretentious. It never seemed to be about growing in numbers but rather seemed to really be about reaching a city. And throughout their 28 years of existence, I never heard of a major scandal or conflict. I know Redeemer is not the perfect church, but this is impressive considering how renown they are.
Even this transition period where Keller steps down shows the humility that characterizes his ministry. In a time when pastors seem to want to enfranchise their ministry, Redeemer is splitting up into separate autonomous churches. In other words, Keller is letting go. Usually when this happens, it's because of division within the leaders. But to see how they're doing it demonstrates (to me at least) that it's not about building personal towers of Babel - it's truly about spreading the influence of the kingdom.
5) Making the Gospel Beautiful
Perhaps the greatest accomplishment Keller's ministry has done for Christians and non-Christians is presenting the gospel in a way that many of us haven't heard. I think other preachers in the past taught our generation the truth of the gospel or the power of the gospel. However I think Keller was unique because he was able to show us the beauty of the gospel.
If you only believe the gospel, then you'll do things for Jesus out of duty. But if you find the gospel to be beautiful, then you'll do things for Jesus out of delight. And this is why, as Keller writes, "Preaching...must not simply tell people what to do. It must re-present Christ in such a way that he captures the heart and imagination...This takes not just intellectual argumentation but the presentation of the beauty of Christ."
I think Keller's ministry has done exactly that, which is why I know so many Christians who felt like they heard the gospel for the first time through this man. He didn't preach a different Christ; he just made Christ look beautiful. And it's when we find Him to be beautiful that He will capture not only our minds but our hearts. Perhaps no modern preacher has done this better than Keller.
I'm sure people will be thankful for different aspects of Keller's ministry than the ones I listed above. The call for churches to engage in justice and mercy. The importance of secular vocations. The false security of religion. The Gospel Coalition. City to City.
But I think many Christians can agree that overall, we are just thankful and grateful that God used this jar of clay to reveal the all-surpassing treasure we have in Jesus Christ.