If you’re like many church leaders, you felt a deep sadness when you heard the news of Tim Keller’s death. Tim’s passing was emotional for me, too.
Tim Keller was a widely-read and respected author and the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. He was also much loved.
My mind has often gone to the same place since Tim was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2020. I would imagine a world without him. And I would grow immediately frightened and sad and pray it wasn’t going to happen.
In the years before Tim’s passing, I would grow concerned about the direction culture was heading. But then Tim would inevitably publish a piece in the New York Times, The Atlantic, or in the Gospel in Life, or post a new video to YouTube. It would snap everything back into the right frame, and I would realize there was at least one sensible person left to help us make meaning in the mess.
That voice is gone, and I miss it deeply already. Although Timothy Keller died at the age of 72 (young by most standards), he appears to have made peace with the fact that his work was complete. The New York Times quotes him as saying:
“It is endlessly comforting to have a God who is both infinitely more wise and more loving than I am. He has plenty of good reasons for everything he does and allows that I cannot know, and therein is my hope and strength.”
So what can those of us who remain learn from the life and legacy of Tim Keller?
Without being trite or reductionist, here are five things I’m thinking about and am profoundly grateful for.
At the end, I also have five additional (relatively obscure) recommendations and links if you want to go deeper into Tim Keller’s work.
1. Intellectual Rigor, Deep Faith, and Personal Integrity Are a Powerful Combination.
Over the last decades, Christianity has lost some of its intellectual sharpness. Too many thinking people have concluded that if they want to follow Jesus, they have to park their brains at the door. Keller reminded us that it is not so. In fact, some of the richest intellectual traditions in history belonged (and can belong) to people who also profess faith in Christ.
Keller’s faith wasn’t just intellectual, though; it was personal. He often reflected on his relationship with God, doubts, and fears. And that piety seemed to grow, not shrink, as he aged.
But most impressively, Keller kept his personal life together. Sadly, it’s rare to have a church leader who has a long, “successful” ministry but also keeps their key relationships and integrity intact. Tim always saw his wife, Kathy as a partner in ministry.
And he died surrounded by his family. According to his children, who were also with him, his wife kissed him on the forehead as he breathed his last breath.
If you’re thinking about your future, the combination of intellectual rigor, deep faith, and personal integrity is hard to argue with.Tim Keller was an all-too-rare combination of intellectual rigor, deep personal faith, and personal integrity. That's an explosive combination. Click To Tweet
2. Long-Form Thinking and Argument are Not Outdated. They’re Needed More Than Ever.
With attention spans getting shorter, you’d think Keller’s preference for long-form argument and thought would play to an ever-shrinking audience. It turns out that’s not true in the least.
As the world seemingly lost interest in nuance and detailed thought, Keller kept speaking and writing unaffected, reaching the culture without changing his approach to the culture.As evangelical Christianity, at times, became a caricature of simplistic thinking, Tim Keller continued mining intellectual depths unabated. And perhaps that's why people listened. Click To Tweet
Keller’s uncanny ability to take complex ideas and convey them in extremely relatable ways connected with a growing church and unchurched audience. In other words, the substance of his ideas demanded a hearing.
Long-form thinking and argument aren’t outdated if you have the substance to back them up. In fact, they might be more needed than ever.
The culture isn’t suffering from a lack of information; it’s suffering from a lack of meaning. Tim Keller spoke into that wound over and over again.The culture isn't suffering from a lack of information; it's suffering from a lack of meaning. Tim Keller spoke into that wound over and over again. Click To Tweet
3. To Be Original, Immerse Yourself in the Work of Others.
In some ways, Tim Keller was a paradox. Tim was widely regarded as a rare and unique voice, and yet he quoted more people and more sources in every message than almost any of his peers.Tim Keller's genius wasn't based on his ability to articulate brand-new thoughts no one in history had ever voiced. His special ability was to take ideas formulated over thousands of years and apply them in a clear way to today's events. Click To Tweet
Tim also started young. Even in his sermons from the 1990s, he was drawing from a deep well, quoting extensively from sources most people hadn’t heard of, let alone read.
The lesson for young leaders? To be ‘original,’ immerse yourself in the work of others.
If you’re going to develop mastery in your forties, fifties, and beyond, start by reading widely in your field in your twenties. Wisdom builds like compound interest—slowly at first, but the results become exponential over time.To be original, immerse yourself in the work of others. Click To Tweet
4. Image Matters Less Than You Think.
In an age dominated by image, influencers, and ‘cool’ church, Tim Keller was a beautiful anomaly.
I’ve never been to Redeemer, but a quick listen to any sermon podcast would tell you that the ministry was message-first, production second. You could often hear the mic jiggling or a bit of feedback on the recordings. No worries, though. The message was worth leaning into to hear.
Image matters less than you think. Keller was never admired for the clothes he wore or his awesome Instagram curation or appearance with celebrities (it sounds weird even to say that). He simply brought a relevant message to a city in need through a simple church in New York, and people by the thousands came running.
New York City was an evangelical ghost town in 1989 when Tim and Kathy Keller started Redeemer. By 2017, when he retired from the senior pastor position at Redeemer, it was no longer so. Redeemer played a huge role in that transformation, and in a city so consumed by image and status, the alternative won.
Tim Keller didn’t build a platform hoping his message would get heard. He crafted a compelling message, and the platform built itself.Tim Keller didn't build a platform hoping his message would get heard. He crafted a compelling message, and the platform built itself. Click To Tweet
5. Focus on What God Has Called You to Do, Not What Others Want You to Do.
I’ve left the most poignant and perhaps powerful of my five observations until last.
David Kinnaman and I interviewed Tim in 2021, a year after his pancreatic cancer diagnosis. I asked Tim what he was thinking about day-to-day in light of his diagnosis.
Tim’s honest answer is worth reading and re-reading:
I would say that as a man who was 69 years old, I actually was pretty unfocused because the reality is it doesn’t matter whether you have cancer or not. When you’re approaching 70, you should actually know the time is short. You don’t really have decades anymore. You’ve got years anyway.
And so I should have been more focused, but I was tending to do whatever anybody asked me to do….You’re a nice person, you’re a minister. So you do whatever anybody asks you to do.
And I had no focus. I really didn’t. I wasn’t saying what do I really —if I finally had one year left, two, three, four, five years—what should I be doing? I didn’t have that focus. Now I do.
Tim Keller, unfocused? Really? Doing ‘whatever anybody asks you to do’?
If Tim Keller, who has produced more helpful reflection than almost anyone in his generation, admitted that he was unfocused, what does that say for me, for you?
Keller’s words played in my head repeatedly and left me with a question: In light of my calling, what should I be doing?
It’s a great question for every pastor, leader, and preacher to ask.If Tim Keller, who has produced more helpful reflection than almost anyone in his generation, admitted that he was unfocused, what does that say for me, for you? Click To Tweet
Recommendations and Hidden Gems
Tim’s work is everywhere (thank goodness), but I want to leave you with a few recommendations and what might perhaps be hidden gems.
Book To Read
Where do you start? Tim has had multiple best-selling books, including several New York Times bestsellers.
I loved Keller’s last book, Forgive (it’s such a robust treatment). Others would point to Preaching or his classic apologetics text The Reason for God as his best books. Others would point to his epic out-of-print treatise on church planting.
Personally, though, my favorite book is Keller’s small tome on idolatry, Counterfeit Gods. Its biblical faithfulness, piercing insights into culture and the soul, and relevance to my personal struggles make it easy to re-read.
Sermon to Listen To
To pick a favorite Tim Keller sermon is a fool’s errand. How do you pick just one sermon from one of the greatest preachers of this generation?
So I picked an obscure one from 1996 that Keller called “Abraham and the Torch” that I’ve listened to multiple times. In this message, Keller picks apart one of the most obscure passages in the Old Testament.
First, it’s astonishing he even tackled this text. Second, it’s far more surprising that he could interpret it. Finally, in an approach that didn’t change over the decades, Keller makes it powerfully applicable to our lives.
To me, “Abraham and the Torch” is a case study of Keller’s preaching genius. Enjoy.
Obscure Preaching Lecture Series to Listen To
There’s an obscure lecture series that Tim Keller and Edmund Clowney gave on preaching that used to be on Apple Podcasts but appears to be now gone.
Thankfully, it still lives on this Reformed Theological Seminary page. Thank you, RTS. 🙂
In this series, Tim and his mentor Edmund Clowney teach preaching through the lens of the New Testament revelation of Christ.
Many of Tim’s other lectures and podcast series are easily found through a quick Google search. This one, not so much. Enjoy the listen.
PDF To Read on the Decline and Renewal of the American Church
Just before his death, Tim published an impressive treatise called The Decline And Renewal of the American Church.
This piece is a compilation and expansion of a four-part series he wrote for Gospel In Life.
In my last interview with Tim before he died, we had a great discussion about the article and I noted that it was ‘almost’ a book. He indicated that he might expand on it at some point, but I don’t know if that happened.
Regardless, The Decline And Renewal of the American Church is a fascinating retrospective and current commentary on the state of the American church.
You can download it here.
Interviews to Watch or Listen To
I had the privilege of interviewing Tim three times for my leadership podcast, once in person in New York City and twice virtually.
Tim was also a tour-de-force to interview. He was personable, kind, and just as engaged off-mic as he was on-mic. And when he started answering questions, it took my full focus to follow what he was saying and know where to take the interview next. His answers were so calorie-dense that they demand your complete attention.
You can watch or listen to the interviews at the links below.
2020: How to Bring the Gospel to Post-Christian America
2021: Rethinking His Beliefs on Suffering and Cancer
2023: The Decline of the Evangelical Church in America
If you’re asking me for my favorite of the three, that’s impossible to answer. Any time with Tim Keller is a treasure.
The Challenge Ahead
Like every generation, we have lost some giants in the Christian faith in the last decade or so —Dallas Willard, Eugene Peterson, and now Tim Keller, to mention just three.
Wisdom, like Tim Keller accumulated over his life, is not easily replaced.
As I wrote a few years ago when Eugene Peterson died, the challenge is for a voice to endure—to have real significance—it needs depth, not just breadth.
We live mostly in the age of breadth. And that makes me worry just a little bit about our collective future.
Paying attention to the legacy Tim Keller leaves might inspire young leaders to make the necessary investments and sacrifices today that result in a legacy you can leave behind tomorrow.