On a beautiful Tuesday morning in 2001 I stood on the roof of my East Village apartment on 2nd Street and watched the World Trade Center fall. Witnessing a mass murder on a Tuesday in perfect weather, I felt like the shallowest person I knew. If you could lose your life just going to work on a Tuesday, what is the real meaning of it? You see, I had moved to New York to be a famous singer, not to pursue anything spiritual.
But the weeks that followed 9/11 brought somewhat of a revival to New York City. So many people went to Redeemer Presbyterian Church on September 16 that someone stood outside on the steps and told people to come back in 90 minutes—a spontaneous decision to do the service again. It seemed like all the NYC churches were full that Sunday, but for many of those churches the attendance trickled off again through the fall.
At Redeemer the seats stayed full and attendance grew, as thousands of New Yorkers tried to figure out the meaning of life in the wake of 9/11. I found myself at Redeemer because I was one of them.
But this isn’t about me. This is about Tim Keller. I grew up in church, but it was October 2001 that I started going to Redeemer to listen to Tim, and I personally met Jesus. The city and everyone in it reeled and grieved, and I became new.
How can I describe the season of life that followed or what New York was like then? There was a sense that our 5000-member-strong Redeemer was part of a countercultural movement in New York. There’s no currency to being a Christian in NYC—no prestige in going to church with such and such dignitary. No country club or social circle benefits. You either believe in Jesus or you don’t.
But now there was a place you could bring your non-Christian friends to hear the gospel and not worry about it being confusing or intellectually unappealing. It’s one of the many gifts Tim gave us: You could invite your non-Christian friends to church, confident that Tim would talk across a table to them instead of down from a pulpit at them.
He didn’t believe in sugar coating Christianity or over-simplifying it to become more “seeker friendly.” Instead, he gave dignity to the arguments against the Christian faith, and then he blasted them to smithereens against the rock of the Resurrection. “You don’t believe in God?” he would say directly to the many atheists who would come to Redeemer on Sundays to check it out. “Chances are I don’t believe in that god either.” Or he would say “You have doubts about Christianity? Okay. But have you ever doubted your doubts? Shouldn’t you doubt your doubts?”
After some time, I started song leading at the evening services and came to know Tim as my friend. We’d talk about how tired his voice would get after preaching five services a Sunday. I would joke how we were both vocalists. He had the most beautiful rich speaking voice, but of course you already know that.
Later, in 2007, I needed a job. I was working in musical theater but really wanted to quit the theater scene and focus on songwriting. To support myself in the transition, I ended up as a coordinator at the Redeemer Church Planting Center and have no idea how I even got that job!
Instead of crossing paths with Tim only on Sundays, I ended up on a very small team and worked with him regularly. For the next 17 years (while slowly growing a songwriting career), I helped build what is now Redeemer City to City (CTC). CTC is the effort that Tim often referred to as one that would outlive him: starting churches in global cities and training indigenous leaders to preach the gospel in their contexts.
Looking back there were pivotal moments that signaled Tim’s ministry was exploding far beyond what anyone thought. Tim started to get famous—really famous. Offers would come in to syndicate sermons nationally for radio or the services for TV. The answer was always no. Fame and bestselling books were not on the Kellers’ agenda, and I never saw him gloat or pat himself on the back for any of the acclaim. Tim wouldn’t even put himself on screen to another Redeemer service, let alone get beamed into someone’s living room.
He figured if people could watch a Redeemer service online, then they might not attend their neighborhood churches. And besides, the church is about Jesus; the ministry is always about helping people find Jesus. Deep within Tim’s theological framework was an emphasis on the local neighborhood church as the ideal place for people to meet Jesus, do life together, and grow.
By 2019 CTC was active in almost 150 global cities and had trained over 40,000 leaders. I had just released my fifth singer-songwriter album and was also continuing to work with CTC, focusing solely on work with donors. Toward the end of 2019, I went to Tim’s apartment to set him up for a Zoom call. I wanted him to meet with some givers, but the travel schedule wasn’t working out. He had become eloquent beyond measure when asking for funds—a successful fundraiser—but deep down it made him uncomfortable. “Do you miss preaching?” I asked that day. (He had stepped down from Redeemer in 2017 to focus on CTC.)
He said, “All the years at Redeemer I can’t believe I didn’t have a heart attack.” Unwavering, steady Tim admitted the road had been hard. He said, “I think stepping down added years back to my life.”
In January 2020 we were in Malaysia for a conference. A cohort from Wuhan was asked not to attend because there were murmurings of a virus. This was heartbreaking for everyone involved because there are not many touchpoints for the Chinese church. Tim addressed over 1,000 Asian leaders during what was to be his last public-speaking appearance. By then he had expertly learned how to address a crowd while pausing for a translator.
It continued to stun me that this American theologian was catalyzing Christians across such varied contexts. How was this guy from Pennsylvania able to speak to a young church planter in Kuala Lumpur—or Johannesburg or Buenos Aires or London or any of the other cities he was able to reach?
In 20 years—I mean this—I never saw him cross, harsh, entitled, or demanding special food or special space or better conditions or whatever. Celebrity status never interested him. VIP treatment wore him out. At donor events he would go missing, and I’d find him in the kitchen, talking with the catering staff. We’d be traveling somewhere, and he’d get excited to stop off at Chick-fil-A—a treat before we had one in New York. Genius mind, simple pleasures. And always that beautiful, rich voice.
On the way home from Kuala Lumpur, Tim got food poisoning and fainted. He went to the hospital, and doctors randomly found a swollen lymph node. The doctors called it an “incidental pickup”—finding cancer while treating a patient for something else. I never saw him in person again. That one-off group Zoom call we did in 2019 became the entire delivery system for almost three years of content during the COVID-19 era.
We didn’t know it at the time, but Zoom allowed us to capture the full, final chapter of Tim’s teaching before he died. Every training call and seminary class was recorded and is currently being transcribed for the next generation of leaders.
And now here we are. All his words have been said, all his unique insights written. His beautiful speaking voice will never be heard live on earth again. Sometimes we talk about raising a glass in memory of a loved one. Well here’s what you can do in memory of Tim Keller: Invite a friend
Melanie Penn is a Nashville-based singer-songwriter releasing her seventh album. She was a member of Redeemer for 20 years and continues to be an active fundraiser for City to City.
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