Skip to main content

Mere Orthodoxy exists to create media for Christian renewal. Support this mission today.

Tim Keller: Missionary to the Cities

May 31st, 2023 | 10 min read

By Stiven Peter

On Sundays, I go to a church whose senior pastor and elder board were mentored by Tim Keller. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I attend classes in a seminary brought to New York by Tim Keller. When I see a homeless person on the street, I refer them to the shelter supported by Tim Keller. When a friend wanted to plant a church, they were trained and supported by the organization Tim Keller started. When a friend wanted a better school for her child, I referred her to the classical Christian school started by a teacher who first attended Tim’s Church. There is not one aspect of Christian life in New York City that Tim has not impacted. His death leaves a void in the Christian ecosystem of New York City, America, and, truly, the whole world. Keller’s passing is a significant loss for the Church community.

He was not just a pastor, churchman, and leader but also a remarkable teacher who had a profound impact on me. He taught me both from his recorded lectures and through personal instruction, including his final class at RTS-NYC. I learned from Tim, not from his popular communication with church-goers or from his popular books, but from his own lectures, class notes, and training handouts. These writings shed unique insight into the method of Tim’s central ministry concern— a missionary encounter with the Secular West, how he brought about achieving it in his teaching and institution-building, and his hope for the future of Evangelicalism.

I first learned of Tim Keller as a teenager in high school who, after becoming self-conscious of my faith, began to consume Christian content online. A few weeks later, The Gospel Coalition teamed up with Hubworthy to put out a list of the reading lists of TGC contributors. I clicked on Tim Keller’s “Bookshelf,” which began my conscious break with the assumptions of modernity. I saw him list books like After Virtue, A Secular Age, and The Triumph of the Therapeutic. I was 14, young, precocious, and arrogant– thinking I could read everything, but when I bought those books using the money I earned from my summer job, I was humbled. It was nearly impossible to break through Rieff’s cryptic prose, comprehend MacIntyre’s understanding of emotivism and human telos, and Taylor’s genealogy of secularism. However, with what limited understanding I did, I knew these thinkers described the malaise of modern life I could only feel vaguely and offered a way out of the cultural narratives of progressive culture.

What Tim opened up to me intellectually was what he wanted to do in his ministry–what he had done for thousands of congregants–destabilize the cultural narratives of high-brow professional New Yorkers. He first did this by studying their culture: reading what they read, reading sociological analysis of their situation, and most importantly, spending time with them. Tim’s method reveals both his intellectualism and anti-cynicism. First, Tim wanted to learn as much as he could about liberalism, progressive culture, and critiques of modernity. His bibliography handout for his “Christian Life in Secular Culture” was about 10 pages and consisted of writers from Macintyre to Lasch to Ellul and more.

A simple premise undergirded his voracious reading: to reach liberals, you have to be able to explain their world better than they can. Students and churchgoers would frequently comment on his ability to explain our world’s narratives about power, sex, and justice in a way that is both concise and resonant. At the same time, inherent in his practice was a genuine belief that his interlocutors sought truth, beauty, and meaning even when their worldview didn’t espouse it. Whether it was a progressive who cares about justice, a skeptic who cares about truth, or a libertine who cares about freedom, Tim believed secular humanists were earnest about beliefs and concerns. Likewise, Tim also believed his critics were also earnest. During some classes, he would give us discernment blogs critiquing his methodology and would ask us to find places where we agree with the critique. Tim maintained this all-encompassing good-faith belief in his interlocutors until the end, allowing him to believe that a fruitful conversation with progressives is possible.

Tim’s aim, with his reading and personal earnestness, was to call out the idols that captivated these New Yorkers and seduce them by showing Christianity as containing the true pathway to their concerns. If a progressive cared about justice, he would question their understanding of human rights outside Christianity. If a person believed Christianity interfered with the priority on human freedom, he would question if someone is truly “free” under relativism. If a libertine believed that Christianity interfered with their sexual freedom, Tim would show that modern society degrades sex and that Christianity was the first true, sexual revolution. In this way, Tim tried to sow the seeds of doubt in his listeners and present Christianity as the best way to resolve the tension introduced.

Unlike the narratives of modernism and postmodernism, the redemptive story of Christianity fixated on the cross of Christ, fulfills our deepest hopes and dreams. His presentation aimed to make listeners wish Christianity was true, which is just a step away from believing it is true. He would also want to remove any preconceived obstacle to considering Jesus. For example, he would utilize the doctrine of the freedom of conscience of Christianity to unbundle being a Christian from voting for Republicans or Republican policies. To a conservative today, this statement seems curious since it appears to give legitimacy to voting for a platform that supports social policies opposed to Christian teaching. Still, to a liberal who associates being Christian with being a political enemy and is, therefore, anathema, it opens up the pathway for them to consider Christian claims on their own terms.

Another example, in response to an LGBT+ individual who says that Christianity’s rejection of sex outside covenantal marriage threatens his existence, Tim would question this conception of identity as a contingent and Western belief. This Western view of identity is also very performative, creating a fragile self who needs constant affirmation. By contrast, Tim would point to having an identity in Christ, an identity received, not performed. While “identity in Christ” may not be an explicitly biblical phrase, Tim is working with the cultural priority of identity and the cultural belief of relativism to destabilize an objection and make Christianity plausible. There are countless more examples, which demonstrate, first and foremost, that Tim was an evangelist to New Yorkers. He wanted them to consider Jesus.

The institutional aspects of Tim’s ministry aimed to complement Tim’s presentation. He wanted to make Christianity not just intellectually plausible but also experientially plausible. City to City exists to galvanize church planting in the city, promoting a gospel presence in cities across denominations. Hope For New York exists as the Church’s justice and mercy initiative to promote the Church’s commitment to cultural renewal and the common good. The Center for Faith and Work exists to integrate the faith of Christians with their work. Tim’s writings also indicate a desire for institutions that support family life, especially schools, and counseling services. He took his inspiration from Orthodox Jewish and Catholic populations, who set up their own ecosystem to resist the cultural pressures of city life. This holistic ecosystem would essentially form a Christian civilization within the City.

The hope for this ecosystem was that it would generate enough churches to convert at least 10% of the City, which from there would cause a cultural tipping point, resulting in Christians having an outsized influence in city life and, consequently, the cultural capital of the country. Thus, Tim’s methodology is ultimately geared toward reaching and transforming City-dwellers into agents of cultural renewal, who then will lead others into making Christianity more plausible for the nonbeliever. When bankers, writers, and artists all seem to proclaim Christ, it seems more acceptable to be a Christian. Likewise, when these converts produce cultural artifacts that reflect Christian values, they become touchpoints for engagement, discipleship, and imagination. For instance, the celebrated art form of Kintsugi promoted by Makoto Fujimura, shows the art of repairing broken pottery with powdered gold as a modern metaphor for the experience of redemption. At the same time, Tim stressed the importance of being wary regarding negative cultural influence on Christians. He stressed the importance of a counter-cultural sexual ethic. His church embraced liturgical rootedness to disciple against postmodern rootlessness. The Center for Faith and Work fought against careerism and promoted a theology of vocation. There was both a concern to be missional agents and yet remain cognizant of cultural drift.

Tim’s vision is grand, integrative, and inspiring, but it starts with the premise: that seculars are sincere in their values and can be converted. This premise informs Tim’s “winsomeness.” He would engage critical theory, postmodernism, and the like because he believed these thinkers and activists genuinely cared about a just society. Tim fully embraced his identity as an evangelist. He sincerely believed that communicating the gospel in the categories understandable to postmodernism, even if it meant eschewing traditional terminology, could lead skeptics to free themselves from the stronghold of ideology and encounter the real Jesus.

However, a key criticism articulated by the Negative World Thesis and James Wood, is that ideologues and activists might also be cynical and simply desire power. In that case, the response must be remarkably different than a “winsome” engagement. While I think Keller understood this point, he also believed that most people who latch on to these movements genuinely care about justice, even if their leaders are manipulative. For instance, a cynical response to social justice movements might simply confirm beliefs that Christians don’t care about justice. Moreover, Keller always believed that New York was in a negative world before Redeemer started.

Yet, it is one thing for Christians to be seen as “other” in society and another thing for them to be actively erased from public life and status. Consider this: from 2008 to 2016, Tim Keller talked at Google about marriage and the rationality of belief. He would also be a regular in university talks, some of which include him presenting and defending the Christian view of human sexuality. Would such platforming be possible today, especially considering that Tim was canceled for holding to complementarian views by a “Christian” seminary as recently as 2017? Maybe, but it would be significantly more challenging. This phenomenon demonstrates that there are degrees to the negative world atmosphere. The question is, and I think always has been, whether or not Tim’s approach is a sufficient response to a hostile culture.

In my conversations with him in class, he believed that the majority of people are capable of being disarmed from their initial hostility and will consider Christianity if they encounter a compelling presentation and a vibrant counterculture. He would draw on the work of Louise Perry, Christine Emba, and others to show the insufficiency of the current sexual narrative as a possible entry point to engagement. At the same time, he acknowledged that hostile institutions would require a Christian infrastructure to support families, students, and scholars.

Tim’s approach, however, is primarily geared toward the purveyors of cultural capital, not those suffering from the fallout of cultural decay. Many of the abusers of Keller’s winsomeness refuse to consider the focused scope of Keller’s messaging. Tim would regularly acknowledge that what reached Manhattanites would not reach working-class, blue-collar families in Queens.

For example, using Tim’s approach to engage transgenderism by affirming the equal dignity of all humans, and by showing how sin causes an inherent alienation from our bodies, and then inviting people to consider how Jesus’ broken body restores the integrity of our bodies, might be compelling to an audience inclined to agree with the worldview that facilitates transgender belief. However, this presentation would come across as tone-deaf to a congregation whose children are being fed this belief as fact in their schools. To say the former to the latter audience simply isn’t being faithful to Keller’s most basic instincts. Yet, Keller is the subject of controversy because his statements are taken to be those of an elder statesman of evangelicalism, speaking for all evangelicals, instead of an evangelist, speaking to the cultural elite. This, of course, is a difficult position to be in, and I do not know how one can be effective at both.

Still, one must remember that Keller remained solidly in line with traditional doctrine. His church was liturgically rooted when much of the PCA wasn’t. He remained complementarian. And most notably, when the question of whether or not someone could call themselves a “gay Christian” came to the PCA, he joined with Kevin DeYoung to reject the term as an example of syncretism. These points show Tim’s attempt to be a faithful churchman and an effective missionary. Above all Tim, reminds us of the importance of knowing your audience, and the hope that anyone can be reached and that sincere preaching of the gospel can greatly impact any city.

This hope should be considered Tim’s greatest legacy. He showed that a gospel ecosystem is possible anywhere. New York City has charities, church planting networks, budding church plants, and vocational networks. Christian life in New York extends outside the bounds of a Sunday service. I lived in Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco; no other city has such an ecosystem. My appeal to Christians who care about cultural change is to draw inspiration that such an infrastructure is possible in their cities, even in a negative world.

Indeed, Tim would reiterate this fundamental necessity of a new infrastructure until his final days lecturing. He challenged us to think of new ways to motivate and mobilize lay Christians for missions and equip them to talk about their faith in a post-Christian culture. He would continually call us to draw upon the rooted historic Protestant theology as the foundation of a gospel renewal movement. He also called us to be savvy about gaining cultural capital: identify problems in society and make the case why the church can address them, name ourselves and resist others’ attempts to name us, and present our distinctives in connection to a baseline cultural narrative (for example, presenting biblical sexuality as ‘super consensual’).

Moreover, he also advocated the importance of investing in high-quality Christian scholarship. During one of the last classes I had with Tim, sometime in April, I lamented that being a devout Roman Catholic means being pro-life, while no such conscious congruence between belief and social teaching existed in Evangelicalism. In response, he then lit up and took the time to share about the Davenant Institute’s recent Protestant Social Teaching and recommend everyone to read it. He remarked that these scholars are doing the necessary work of developing a robust social teaching that churches should consider as part of their catechesis.

Such a moment encapsulated Tim’s wide reading, irenic tone, quickness to look to new scholars, and unabashed hope not just to reach the city but hope for us. When everyone looked to Tim to help us navigate these cultural forces, he looked to us. In the end, Tim knew what most of his readers, observing him from afar, didn’t. That God had given him as a gift to accomplish a particular task in a particular field. He fully expected other strategies and types of leadership would be needed to face the challenges of contemporary America. In the wake of Tim’s passing, let us pray that God will raise up new leaders that will cause us to think, to love even our enemies, to cling more to Christ, and above all, to hope.

Stiven Peter

Stiven Peter is an M.A. student at Reformed Theological Seminary-NYC. Previously, he graduated from the University of Chicago with a double major in economics and religious studies. He currently lives in NYC.