When Tim Keller arrived in New York City in 1989 to plant Redeemer Presbyterian Church, about 30 percent of Manhattan residents claimed no religion.
In 2023, about 26 percent of people in Indiana identify with no particular religion. The numbers are around the same or higher in states across the US—Nevada and New York, Colorado and Wisconsin.
The country’s disaffiliation and apathy to faith underscores the urgent need for cultural apologetics, according to Collin Hansen, editor in chief of The Gospel Coalition (TGC) and executive director of its new initiative named for TGC cofounder Tim Keller.
The Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics, which launched last week, isn’t out to replicate the 72-year-old pastor but to equip leaders to also think deeply about how to present the gospel to the post-Christian context they find themselves in.
“This is not about teaching everyone to think what Tim Keller thinks, but this is about helping people to think the way he learned to think about his culture and applying that to our own day,” said Hansen.
This next generation of ministers and apologists have a big challenge before them. The Keller Center has gathered 26 fellows to collaborate and generate resources for the church. Among the first is Hansen’s spiritual biography on Keller—Timothy Keller: His Spiritual and Intellectual Formation—which released last week.
TGC says it has also commissioned “the largest-ever survey of people who have left the church” and plans to share the results through its forthcoming book The Great Dechurching: Who’s Leaving, Why Are They Going, and What Will It Take to Bring Them Back? The book is written by Jim Davis, Michael Graham, and Ryan Burge.
In addition to books , the center will offer podcasts, online cohorts, long-form essays, and social media content. The resources are geared toward keeping Christians from leaving the church; helping the church be a welcoming place for secular, skeptical neighbors; and preparing Christians to offer a winsome witness to the world.
Keller, who has battled pancreatic cancer since 2020 and is still undergoing treatment, will work behind the scenes, continuing to mentor and encourage some of the fellows involved—as he has done with those serving at TGC over the years.
Hansen talked with Christianity Today about the importance of establishing moral credibility in apologetics and how The Keller Center can strengthen the witness of the church. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Where did this idea for a center for cultural apologetics come from?
The original idea goes all the way back to 2019. It came from The Gospel Coalition’s president Julius Kim. Julius is the first transition of leadership at The Gospel Coalition, and one of the things that he discussed was honoring our cofounders with institutions that would explicitly carry on their legacy.
What Tim Keller is so widely known for and what he has really imprinted on The Gospel Coalition has been his efforts to do cultural apologetics, to apply the gospel to all of life. That idea started in 2019. We’ve been working on it with the board at The Gospel Coalition, and of course now we’re seeing it in 2023.
Tim Keller writes and preaches, but he is famously uninterested in building his own brand. How did The Gospel Coalition get him to attach his name to this endeavor?
It’s not something that he responded to favorably when Julius Kim first reached out to ask about that. But the plain fact is when you try to explain cultural apologetics to somebody, it’s pretty complicated. When you say, “We’re trying to help a new generation do in our day what Tim Keller had done in his day,” that makes sense. It’s a much more straightforward way of being able to identify the kind of work that we’re trying to do and the kind of work we think is urgently necessary for all of the church to do today.
How do you describe cultural apologetics beyond saying “doing what Tim Keller did”?
We’re not trying to go back and do what Tim Keller did but to learn the same sort of perspectives that we can apply to this day. Here’s one of the principal ways to put it: In 1989 when Tim started Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, about 30 percent or so of Manhattan was “no religion.” I’m here in Indianapolis today, and Indiana today is about 26 percent no religion. More or less the same dynamics that were true of secular Manhattan at the time are true of almost the entire country today.
Manhattan is also quite different than it was at that time. It is going to be up to a new generation in Manhattan not to go back and do what Tim Keller did in 1989 but to figure things out for themselves at a time when hostility toward the gospel and toward Christians has substantially increased across sectors and the bigger problem is actually apathy toward the gospel.
One of the biggest problems we face across the landscape in the West today is simply not caring at all about the things of God. That is a problem that no one has solved that we need to engage the church in working on solving together before the Lord. It’s going to be a practical exercise, an academic exercise, a theological exercise, an integration of faith and work exercise. It’s going to require all of us.
How do you hope the church will be strengthened by The Keller Center?
I went to seminary. Seminaries are wonderful. I cochair the advisory board of a seminary, and I teach a seminary class on cultural apologetics. If I am teaching the same class on cultural apologetics in 20 years, something will have gone horribly wrong. The issues change so much.
What does that say for somebody who 20 years from now will only be in the middle way of his or her ministry but took a class in seminary? The point is we can’t rely simply on even the best institutions to do this work because the culture changes too quickly.
We need to be able to use the tools available to us for ongoing education, and it’s going to happen at multiple levels. It has to happen at the level of those who are teaching the teachers, our fellows, people who are engaged primarily in teaching and training others. It’s going to happen at the level of pastors and other church leaders—elders, deacons, small group leaders. That’s where our online, interactive cohorts come in. It’s also going to have to happen at the level of parents; that’s where a lot of our podcasts and essays are going to help them.
But then it’s going to have to happen at the level of our kids, and that’s where things like new catechisms and responses, Instagram reels—that’s where those are going to have to come into play. At all those different levels we’re looking to come behind the church or alongside church leaders and strengthen them in the callings they already exercise, by God’s grace.
How do you envision Keller being involved in the center in its early stages?
With [Keller’s] pancreatic cancer, who knows what tomorrow will bring? My attitude as the executive director, and working closely with Tim on this, has always been, as much as Tim is able to and wants to help in terms of words of encouragement or suggestions or whatever he wants, that’s fine. But it was designed to be something that would carry on after him. I hope he’s able to give us encouragement, but Tim is a pretty hands-off leader in general. When he finds people he trusts, he pretty much lets them go.
This is not a ministry to perpetuate Tim’s specific works. This is a ministry to help perpetuate the ideas and strategies for the next generation in ways that he’s helped us to think over the years. This is not about teaching everyone to think what Tim Keller thinks, but this is about helping people to think the way he learned to think about his culture and now applying that to our own day all over different places around the West.
How do you envision The Keller Center being different from other training out there in the world of apologetics?
I think that the major shift that we are undergoing in apologetics is twofold. Number one is that the moral credibility of the church, of apologists themselves, has to be foregrounded. There’s been a lot of breach of trust of the church, breach of trust in high-profile apologists themselves. There has to be a level of collaboration and encouragement and accountability that happens among these leaders and institutions that will encourage them in godly patterns.
One of the things that we made a nonnegotiable about the character of The Keller Center [fellows and staff] has been attitudes of humility, which are what any teacher of the gospel is called to by Jesus himself but has not always been characteristic of leading defenders of the faith. It is essential that we be bearing witness to Christ not only in what we say but in what we do and in who we are. One of our fellows is Michael Kruger. His work Bully Pulpit might not be what a lot of people think of as cultural apologetics, but insofar as it affects the moral witness of the church, it absolutely is.
Number two is that a lot of apologetics operates within a basic Enlightenment framework of certain expected patterns of intellectual argumentation and rational discourse. The challenge is we’re seeing a lot of fraying at the edges of the Enlightenment. We’ve seen a lot of major, high-level social criticism of the Enlightenment not being able to hold together in a post-Christendom environment. A lot of the inspiration for the work that we’re doing comes from the social criticism of Alasdair MacIntyre, Robert Bellah, Philip Rieff, Charles Taylor.
Our goal is through cultural apologetics to get underneath the surface-level conversations that so many people are having right now about faith to get down to the deeper social structures, or what Tim and others would call a “thick” view of sin rather than a thin one. We’re hoping to help inspire the church to think deeper.
Now that the announcement is out there, have you seen misunderstandings or misinterpretations of The Keller Center that you’d like to clear up?
There’s always going to be assumptions, confusion, jaundiced views of things. It’s part of the way our internet culture operates, so it’s not anything that’s new or different. Bottom line: The proof is in the pudding with these kinds of things. If you do good and godly work before the face of Christ, then hopefully people will enjoy it, benefit from it, and want to join up. If we don’t do good and godly work, if we’re doing things with the wrong motives, with a sinful heart, then what we do shouldn’t last. The Lord should judge, and the Lord should destroy the work. So we will see.
Our biggest attitude is that this has to be an effort of prayer. If we’re not coming together before one another and praying for each other and the church, praying desperately for God’s help, then we shouldn’t succeed. One of the first things our fellows did is come together online to begin to confess to one another, to ask for prayer, to hold online prayer meetings for one another. That wasn’t orchestrated by me or Tim Keller or our program director, Michael Graham. That was just a spontaneous response of the need that these fellows were identifying. I trust that’s the most we can do: Come before the Lord and pray and try to be humble before the Lord and others.
I think one of the biggest problems that apologists have made is they have acted like they have all the answers. For this situation today, we don’t have the answers. That’s why we’re doing this: because we need help. We need help from the past, ultimately from God and his Scriptures, and other people in the church. This is a collaborative effort.
If apologetics is going to be useful in this generation, it’s going to have to be led through humility and through prayer. And if I might be so bold as to say, having written the book about Tim Keller, that’s really what has characterized his life. Tim Keller is not someone who thinks he always got things right. I think that’s one of the things that stands out about the book and one reason it’s easy to work with him on a project like this.