A Personal Tribute to Tim Keller

I first met Tim Keller eleven years ago. I believed it then, and I still believe it now…that he is the best English-speaking Christian preacher, thinker, and visionary of our time. I am not alone in this. And yet, having also gotten to serve “up close” under his leadership, there are other things about Tim that endear him to me even more than these things. I suppose that now is as good a time as any to tell about them, because that’s what you do when one of your mentors announces such a significant transition (Tim announced his retirement from pastoral ministry this past summer).

So here are a few important things that Tim’s example has taught me…

First, in this weird and troubling age of Christian celebrity where platform-building, fame-chasing, green room-dwelling, and name-dropping can easily replace gospel virtues, Tim inspired me with his reluctance to participate in or even flirt with the trappings of Christian celebrity. He never chased the spotlight. He never tried to make a name for himself. The counsel of Jeremiah to his secretary — “Do you seek great things for yourself? Seek them not” (Jeremiah 45:5) — seemed like a life philosophy for Tim as well. Always shy about himself and boastful about Jesus, his ambition was to advance Jesus’ kingdom spiritually, socially, and culturally — whether through Redeemer or (notably) through promoting and supporting other churches and leaders.

Second, Tim waited until he was almost sixty years old to publish his first trade book. Humbly, he wanted to wait until he was old and wise enough to write the best possible book he could on any given subject. No doubt, his book writing pace since then has made up for lost time.

Third, in a time of posturing, comparing, and competing — a time when many pastors see each other as obstacles to overcome versus kingdom co-laborers to pray for and applaud — Tim has always been the latter. Instead of trying to position Redeemer as New York’s Wal-Mart of churches that would swallow up “the competition” with its superior offerings, Tim consistently leveraged time, resources, and energy to build a church planter training organization through which to bring more church planters, and with them more churches, into the city of New York. He was happy to see other NYC pastors succeed and other NYC churches thrive, even if it meant that Redeemer’s “slice of the pie” might become smaller as a result. Tim never had a market share mentality about Christians in his city, and he never targeted members of other churches, either overtly or covertly, so as to lure them to his own church. Instead, he focused on reaching the unreached, paying special attention to the skeptic and the seeker. If someone left Redeemer for another church, rather than getting snippy or defensive about it, Tim would say something like, “Well, that’s a good thing. It’s going to make ____________ Church that much stronger. And that’s what we want…for all the churches in New York to be stronger. Redeemer is a sending church, after all, and this includes sending some of our best members to other NYC area churches.”

Fourth, even though Redeemer grew and grew (and grew and grew and grew) under his gifted leadership, Tim never embraced the mindset of “bigger and bigger.” Rather, he emphasized quality of ministry over quantity of seats filled (ironically, it is virtually impossible to find a seat at the typical Redeemer service). Early on, his and Kathy’s vision was to plant and pastor a small to medium-sized church in a single neighborhood of Manhattan, with maybe 350 or so people as their community. They never aspired for Redeemer to become a megachurch. Instead, they preferred to be one of many contributors to a broader movement of churches and denominations that would, together, serve their city. Even now, they talk about their hope that the future Redeemer under the leadership of four congregational pastors — David Bisgrove, Abe Cho, John Lin and Michael Keller — will emerge into a movement that is not mega, but rather a network of numerous, well-contextualized mid-size churches that serve New York’s many unique neighborhoods. Tim is finishing pastoral ministry with the same mindset with which he started — not to turn Redeemer into a great church, per se, but rather to participate as contributors to a broader movement to make NYC a great city that resembles the City of God.

Fifth, as Tim’s influence grew over the years, so did his dependence on and personal engagement with the hidden, ordinary graces such as daily Scripture reading and prayer. His long-time habit is to pray through Psalms every month and read the entire Bible every year. He also maintains, at age 66, a youthful posture of learning that has him reading about 150 books per year. The prayer that I began praying for myself when I began writing books and serving as pastor of Christ Presbyterian — “Lord, give me character that is greater than my gifts, and humility that is greater than my influence” — was inspired chiefly by what I saw up close in Tim.

Sixth, Tim and Kathy have a strong marriage. They live their lives together and not separate — face to face in friendship, and side by side in mission…and that makes such a difference. Rumor has it that they speak Tolkein’s elvish language to each other in the privacy of their home (yes, they have some quirks). One of their favorite things to do is read and discuss books together. A little-known fact is that Kathy is equally as smart as Tim, if not smarter. As I understand it, Tim graduated #2 in his class at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary. The person who graduated #1 was Kathy. No wonder their kids are all so intelligent. It is rumored by some that Kathy is the ghost writer for Tim’s sermons (not really, but she could be). And yet, Tim holds his own. The man can write a book faster than most of us can read a book.

Seventh, and as I have mentioned before, Tim is one of the best examples I have seen of covering shame with the gospel. In five years of serving under his leadership, never once did I see him tear another person down to their face, on the Internet, or through gossip. Instead, he seemed to always assume the good in people. Occasionally, he would talk about how having the forgiveness and affirmation of Jesus frees us to “catch people doing good” instead of looking for things to criticize or be offended by. Even when someone had truly done wrong or been in error, Tim would respond with humble restraint and self-reflection instead of venting negativity and criticism. Like the grace of God does, Tim covered people’s flaws and sins — including mine on more than one occasion. He did this because that’s what grace does…it reminds us that in Jesus we are shielded and protected from the worst things about ourselves. Because Jesus shields us like this, we of all people should restore reputations versus destroying reputations, protect a good name versus calling someone a name, shut down gossip versus feeding gossip, and restore broken relationships versus begrudging broken people.

Finally, Tim could receive criticism, most of which came from the outside and was almost always unfair, and it would bring out the best in him rather than bringing out the worst in him. By his words and example, he taught me that getting defensive about criticism rarely, if ever, leads to healthy outcomes. He also taught me that our critics, including the ones who mischaracterize and falsely accuse us as pastors, can sometimes be God’s instruments to teach and humble us as persons. In Tim’s words from one of my favorite essays of his:

First, you should look to see if there is a kernel of truth in even the most exaggerated and unfair broadsides…So even if the censure is partly or even largely mistaken, look for what you may indeed have done wrong. Perhaps you simply acted or spoke in a way that was not circumspect. Maybe the critic is partly right for the wrong reasons. Nevertheless, identify your own shortcomings, repent in your own heart before the Lord for what you can, and let that humble you. It will then be possible to learn from the criticism and stay gracious to the critic even if you have to disagree with what he or she has said.

If the criticism comes from someone who doesn’t know you at all [and often this is the case on the internet] it is possible that the criticism is completely unwarranted and profoundly mistaken. I am often pilloried not only for views I do have, but also even more often for views [and motives] that I do not hold at all. When that happens it is even easier to fall into a smugness and perhaps be tempted to laugh at how mistaken your critics are. “Pathetic…” you may be tempted to say. Don’t do it. Even if there is not the slightest kernel of truth in what the critic says, you should not mock them in your thoughts. First, remind yourself of examples of your own mistakes, foolishness, and cluelessness in the past, times in which you really got something wrong. Second, pray for the critic, that he or she grows in grace.

A decade or so ago, I moved with my family to New York City thinking I was going to get to serve alongside and learn from one of the greatest preachers and visionary leaders of our time. Indeed, I did get to do that, along with a few others. But even more than this, the man gave me (and us) what McCheyne said is the most important thing a minister can give to his people — his own holiness. For me, Tim’s life has painted notable pictures of integrity that exceeds imperfections, character that exceeds giftedness, prayerfulness that exceeds pragmatism, other-centeredness that exceeds personal ambition, generosity that exceeds personal comfort, and humility that exceeds (even a stellar) impact.

And now, Tim is beginning to paint for us a picture of what it can look like to finish well. He is providing glimpses of what it can look like to say with one’s life and not merely with one’s lips, “I am, and always have been, unworthy to untie the straps on Jesus’ sandals. He must increase, and I must become less.”

And yet, in becoming less, the man is becoming more. For as the man himself has said in sermons, “The less we presume to act like kings, the more like kings we shall be.”

Thank you, Tim, for helping me want to be a better pastor, communicator and leader. Even more than this, thank you for helping me want to be a better man. I know that you’re not done running the race just yet, and that there is more to come from you in the training and equipping context. But I’m still going to miss you, sir.

This essay is an adapted excerpt from Scott Sauls’ latest book, From Weakness to Strength. Used by permission of David C. Cook.