Tim Keller: The Pastor of Record
Long before his passing this Spring, the legacy of Tim Keller’s ministry had been the subject of scrutiny. Few people were as capable as he of provoking scorn, as his work and witness seemed equally offensive to both ends of the political, theological, and ideological spectra. Every leader’s legacy deserves reflection, of course, and no one lives out his or her public life with a perfect record.
But in much of the debate around Keller’s philosophy of ministry and public witness, his critics aren’t merely attacking methods and ideas; they’re making an effort at revisionism—rewriting history in a way that makes the past rosier and the present harder, justifying their own polemics and hard-edged approach to public witness. In so doing, they reveal that not only do they misunderstand Keller’s influence both inside and outside the church, but they also misunderstand much about the church’s role in the life of cities, and the life of the world.
This debate began shortly after the 2016 election, when evangelicals began to reassess their posture and alliances in the public sphere. As polarizing as the election was, it was only a foretaste of the polarization that would unfold in the years that followed. A new populist consensus began to emerge on the Right and, with it, the sense that Trump’s rhetorical style—brash, combative, and insulting—was to be a feature, not a bug, of his evangelical supporters. The public witness of pastors in previous decades like that of Tim Keller and Rick Warren wouldn’t do.
Perhaps the clearest articulation of this idea came in February 2022, in an article at First Things titled “The Three Worlds of Evangelicalism.” In it, Aaron Renn argues that secularization in America has had three distinct phases, each of which required (or requires) a corresponding approach from evangelicals. The “positive world” stage describes America prior to 1994, when Christianity was generally seen as a positive force in our culture. He marks 1994–2014 as the “neutral world” stage, wherein secularism had taken hold enough for Christianity to lose its place of privilege, but not yet be disfavored. The final stage is the “negative world,” which kicked off about the time of the Obergefell decision instituting same-sex marriage and in which we find ourselves today.
Renn argues that people like Keller benefited from respectability among secular elites that was a privilege of the “neutral world” they inhabited. The public square—the pages of New Yorker and The New York Times, for instance—was open to the likes of Keller and other urbanite evangelicals in a way that it wouldn’t be after 2014. Today, one can choose either social respectability or doctrinal fidelity; one can’t have both.
As a result, many of the internecine battles among evangelicals since the Trump years have been, fundamentally, a collision of those who understand the times (Renn and the new populists on the evangelical right) and those who want to cling to a bygone era and the associated privilege that came with it. In essence, Renn says, people like Keller are less substantively opposed to the doctrine, rhetoric, and tactics of the new Right and more concerned about losing hard-earned status among liberal elites.
As I said at the beginning, though, this is a work of revisionist history. It fundamentally misunderstands and misrepresents the world prior to 2014. Keller’s success in the 1990s and 2000s was remarkable for the very reason Renn argues it’s a bad idea; the so-called “secular elites” were every bit as disinclined to take him seriously then as they are now. If we fail, it’s easy to miss what made his life and ministry remarkable, and we’ll foreclose possibilities for public witness that are desperately needed in the years ahead.
I know firsthand that this so-called “neutral” world was anything but; I was part of a church-planting team and staff from 2000 to 2015, living and working for most of those years in the Highlands, the most progressive neighborhood in Louisville’s urban core. From almost day one, the hostility from the surrounding community was palpable.
Just finding a place to meet in the city required a set of diverse skills. You had to build relationships with people on the Metro Council, had to understand the way neighborhood associations were governed, had to learn to apologize to your church for not having much in the way of parking and to your neighbors for blocking their driveways. There were times where your pursuit of a rental space needed to be driven by the church’s doctrine and values—believing that you’d find a like-minded school administrator or landlord—and times when it needed to be kept in your back pocket—such as when you had two weeks to nail down a place to meet for Christmas and your only hope was a public school whose principal had the final say. Ask any church planter who planted in a city about meeting spaces for years 1–5, and you’ll probably be able to watch his or her blood pressure spike in real time.
The simple fact was that most people didn’t want you in the neighborhood. If they weren’t hostile to your doctrine, they didn’t like the noise and crowds. (That’s especially true when the crowd was a bunch of tattooed 20-somethings who were chain-smoking on the front steps between services. And that was just the worship band.)
The first church we rented from kicked us out for reasons that were never quite clear, but we knew they didn’t like our doctrine. The second one made it very clear: They didn’t like our position on gender. Or our position on gay marriage. Or the bodily resurrection of Jesus. They kicked us out in early 2002.
In the years that followed, conflicts over the church’s orthodox commitments flared up on a steady basis. In 2008—six years before the “negative world”—the local independent newspaper featured a cover story on our church, describing how our progressive aesthetics were a mask for regressive beliefs about sex and gender. It led to a flood of angry phone calls, vandalism, and protests.
These made for hard seasons, especially when the efforts of activists forced us to shutter much of the work of our center for the arts, but we weren’t entirely surprised. We’d known the odds were stacked against us from day one.
Throughout those years, Keller was a guiding light. The 2000s were a wild time, filled with revolutionary and reformational rhetoric from the New Calvinists, the emerging church movement, and a dozen denominational church-planting initiatives. Encountering Keller was a breath of fresh air, a sober voice that was allergic to the hype that filled most of these other streams.
I first heard of him around 2003 or 2004. This was long before he’d published his first book, in the days when getting access to sermon MP3s wasn’t a simple thing (especially when they weren’t free and I was broke), so my discovery came through conversations with church planters who spoke in quasi-hushed tones about a booming church in Manhattan led by a former seminary professor. This guy had “figured it out,” which in church-planting-speak indicated that he’d found some secret recipe for successfully growing a church.
But the frustrating thing about Redeemer and Keller was that it was very difficult to figure out what the recipe was. Based on the success of other church planters in our orbit, I expected to go to New York to find a charismatic and energetic preacher, a church with modern design aesthetics, and edgy music written by Brooklyn hipsters.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. At my first visit to Redeemer, I found music that sounded a lot more like Broadway than Radiohead; the church’s design looked, well, Presbyterian; and while Keller was clearly whip- smart, he preached like a professor—soft-spoken, a little heady, no yelling, no rhyming. The service ended and I looked at a friend who came with me and said, “I don’t get it.”
The evening wasn’t over; the rest of the night would be an open forum. Keller came back out on the platform, sat in a chair, and invited the audience to line up at several mics stationed around the Hunter College auditorium. Audience members could ask whatever they wanted. The next 90 minutes was one of the most impressive things I’d ever witnessed.
A handful of the questions were related to the substance of his sermon that night, but the rest of the questions were hard-edged and sincerely asked. They covered topics like the sovereignty of God, eternal punishment, forgiveness, church membership, and more. The questioners ranged widely in age, but all seemed to have the bearing, edge, and inflection of New Yorkers—which is to say, these were his people.
Keller usually started his response by rephrasing the question, making it sharper and more difficult. His answers were clear, practical, and pastoral. He often said, “I’m not sure” or “I don’t know” when the topic took him beyond where he thought the text of the Bible was definitive, and he regularly challenged the questioners to reexamine their own assumptions.
At one point, someone asked him how he’d talk to someone who disagreed with him about same-sex marriage. How would he try to persuade the person to see it his way? He said, “I would start by asking whether or not we agree that Jesus rose from the dead. Because if we don’t agree on that point, nothing else I have to say is going to matter.”
When the night was over, I got it. That 90-minute forum wasn’t just a display of Tim’s brilliance; it was a revelation of something much deeper. Keller was able to speak with clarity and depth because he’d spent untold hours understanding the desires, anxieties, and hopes of the people in that room. He’d earned credibility not by catering to them (as some would suggest) but by being able to articulate their questions, fears, and objections with more clarity than they could.
To accuse Keller of catering to secular elites is to misunderstand what took place in the ministry of Redeemer. Great effort was made to contextualize the gospel—to speak the language of unbelievers who came to the church. But as Keller once said to me, the point of contextualization was to make the offense of the gospel clear, not to make the message any more palatable.
Once I came to understand what was happening at Redeemer, I felt both deeply inspired and deeply frustrated. On the one hand, the stories we’d heard made sense—the revival-like growth of the church, the ability to reach people who were at all points on the socioeconomic and cultural spectra.
On the other hand, the “method” wasn’t so much a method but a way of life: Immerse yourself in a group of people. Understand what they love and fear. Speak their language. Walk in their shoes. Embody the subtle and not-so-subtle cultural language and cues that indicate you’re one of them so that when you speak to ultimate questions, they can understand what you’re saying.
This isn’t just a matter of being “winsome” (a word often used to describe Keller). Winsomeness is what a bartender needs to de-escalate a brawl or a politician needs to calm down protesters. Winsomeness is something one can embody and perform without ever dealing with the human heart. Something much deeper is at stake for those who want to love their non-Christian, urban neighbors.
Keller described this deeper need in a talk at Biola University a few years ago. When you try to reach a city, he said, you’ll encounter four kinds of people. “Commuters” are just in the city to get something done—get a degree or a credential, earn a first million, and move away. “Survivors” are stuck in the city for economic reasons. “Tourists” love the energy and excitement of the city but have no real investment in its life. “Natives” are deeply invested, but they likely take it a bit for granted or take some pride in having survived it.
To reach a city though, you need a fifth kind of person: lovers. A leader who wants to reach a city needs to pray that God would make lovers of the other four—people who will be the core of a community that is committed to plant a church, serve the poor, or fulfill whatever purpose God has for them. Lovers will care about the streets, they’ll care about public safety, they’ll care about schools, they’ll care about the plausibility of the church’s witness, and—as he mentioned time and again over the course of his ministry—they’ll stay. The city won’t be a step on a ladder to something else; it’ll be a place to dig roots and devote a life to.
Keller put his money where his mouth was on this front. He moved to New York City in 1989, when Times Square was a dystopian den of drugs and sex shops and the crack epidemic was near its high point. He planted his roots, raised his family, and invested his life—and theirs—in the city, watching it experience a social and economic rebirth in the late ‘90s, witnessing the nightmare of 9/11, and serving as an elder statesman for a revival-like movement of church planting and evangelism in the mid-2000s.
That stability was a powerful witness to New Yorkers, and it was a powerful example for pastors like me, working in hard urban contexts. It’s exciting to see new businesses start, young creatives begin careers as artists or musicians, and ministry to the poor that results in helping people rediscover their own sense of dignity and value. The success stories projected an aura of cool around urban church planting during the 2000’s, but most people who actually did it—who actually moved into a city and tried to serve it and reach it with the gospel—were quickly mugged by reality. Sometimes literally, like being mugged on the way to a prayer meeting or having your vintage Ampeg amp stolen when the offices were vandalized.
Oftentimes, the toll of serving cities is much more subtle. It’s the weariness you feel the third or fourth time your car gets vandalized, when you find drug paraphernalia in your backyard, or when the police raid the neighborhood meth dealer’s house. Serving cities means inviting a slow, steady pressure that builds up in you and your family over months and years.
In ministry, if you don’t love the people around you, you’ll never last. That goes for the drug dealers at the car wash, the skateboarders vandalizing the building, and the angry progressives that are picketing events at your music venue. The moment those people become an obstacle to your ministry rather than the reason you went there in the first place, you’ve lost the thread of the story, and you’re on your way to burnout.
More than anything else, I suspect that this is what the revisionists don’t understand about Keller’s ministry or his legacy. They see his allergy to culture war and distaste for making performative public statements about hot-button issues, and they interpret it as weakness. They don’t see the pastor who moved to pre-Giuliani New York City with a young family to plant a church. They don’t see three decades of faithful presence—including faithful preaching on these contested issues. They don’t see the pastor who sat on stage for 90 minutes answering questions on eternal security and gay marriage after a day full of sermons. They don’t see the pastor who stood in front of a traumatized congregation on Sunday, September 16, 2001, and pleaded with them to stay in New York, no matter how bad things got in the days and months ahead—one who put his money where his mouth was and stayed until his own last breath. In short, they don’t see the love that shaped a lifetime of ministry, demanding performative gestures for their own benefit instead.
As a result, his appearances in the pages of The New York Times or New Yorker make no sense to his critics. They claim he made it there by placating liberals, compromising his doctrine, or playing footsie with leftist politics. The truth, however, is simple: Keller was the evangelical of record for “secular elites” because he was the local pastor. He’d been there for 30 years, through some of the city’s darkest moments, and they loved and respected him for it. He’d married and buried people they knew, prayed at civic events when asked, spoke passionately about his love for the city, and proved that love by sticking it out while countless others came and went.
Keller was a lover of New York, and in doing so, he became a native and a spiritual and intellectual fixture of the city. His influence among the elites had little to do with the specifics of his doctrine or politics and everything to do with love and proximity. This is his real legacy, one that transcends shifting cultural tides and political currents, a simple but potent life of faithful presence. He was, in the end, a faithful neighborhood parson; it just so happened that the parish was Manhattan. And because of that island’s outsized influence on our world, we came to know his name.
We are better for it, and despite the revisionist efforts to reframe this story, I’m confident that legacy will endure. Love, proven over time and tested with suffering, is an incredibly durable thing.
Mike Cosper is CT’s director of media.
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Tim Keller: The Pastor of Record