Tim Keller in Christianity Today

Christianity Today has a cover story on Tim Keller, the pastor of New York City’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church, a church that I attended when I lived in the city.

In this post, I’ll be commenting on my favorite quotes from the article. Here we go!

Redeemer’s worship is seemly and traditional. Instead of using video monitors, casually dressed worshipers follow a 20-page bulletin that includes hymns, prayers, and Bible texts. Organ and a brass quartet lead the music. For evening services, jazz musicians play contemporary Christian songs. Standing 6’4″, with a bald head, glasses, and a coat and tie, Keller, 58, does not look hip. Nor is his sermon funny, charming, or daring. He preaches from the first chapter of Genesis, on the doctrine of Creation. Keller speaks like a college professor, absorbed in his content, of which there is a lot. When longtime friend and founding member Dee Pifer invited colleagues from her Manhattan law firm, she would say, “I want you to hear a really good litigator.”

When I told my mom about an evening service at Redeemer, I related to her that some people were sitting on the floor because the room was so packed. “Is the pastor really charismatic?,” she asked. To be honest, I still don’t know how to answer that question. “Charismatic” wasn’t exactly the word that entered my mind when I first heard Tim Keller preach. He wasn’t Tony Campolo or T.D. Jakes, someone who could manipulate an audience with oratory, stories, and humor. Tom Keller talked in a normal voice, like a college professor. But when I left Redeemer that first time, I knew that I would be going back the next week, since I felt that this was a church where I could learn something.

As time went on, a variety of things attracted me to Tim Keller’s preaching: his focus on grace, the way he tied the Scriptures to God’s love, his knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, his love for movies and fiction, his dry sense of humor, his familiarity with philosophy, and the fact that he wasn’t an evangelical clone: he didn’t make a big deal about Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, for example.

Is he charismatic? He’s not exactly a stand-up comedian who uses gimmicks to win people to Christ. But I’d say that he shares qualities with others who are considered charismatic in today’s society. For example, I like Bill Clinton’s knowledge, as well as his ability to communicate complex policy in a down-to-earth, understandable manner. I like Barack Obama’s level-headed, rational demeanor, as well as his self-deprecating sense of humor. I like the fact that Ronald Reagan never shouted when he gave a speech: he just spoke in a firm, even-toned voice, without resorting to over-the-top theatrics. I’m not sure if these are the reasons that others identify them as charismatic, but they certainly draw me to them.

Or, regarding the unity of creation, Keller points out that all human beings are equally formed by both the Creation and the Fall, so “nonbelievers are far better than their wrong beliefs should make them, and we Christians are far worse than our beliefs should make us.”

That’s an important point, since I often wonder why so many non-believers are so good, while so many believers are so nasty. A lot of it is because we as God’s creation are good, yet fallen. At the same time, I sometimes ask myself the same question that Russell Miller has posed: If Christians are no better than non-Christians, then what is the point of being a Christian? Didn’t Christ come to transform humanity into something better? Why, then, are there so many nasty Christians?

However, [Keller] was a suburban man by lifestyle, and the thought of raising kids in Manhattan was daunting. And terrifying to his wife, Kathy, who focused on their three boys, ages 5, 9, and 11, a.k.a. “the hellions.” She couldn’t imagine her unruly children surviving New York. “My mother said, ‘All your kids will be in gangs by the end of the first week.'” Besides, plenty of counselors doubted the family’s fitness for sophisticated Manhattan. “Tim doesn’t know what he has on most of the time,” friends worried, “and Kathy is pure Pittsburgh.”

I didn’t know Tim Keller was like that with clothes, since I always saw him well-dressed. But, come to think of it, I can picture him being concerned about bigger issues than fashion!

I like this quote because it demonstrates the adventure that the Kellers were undertaking when they moved to New York. I also like it because it illustrates that you never know whom God will use to reach a particular audience. When I was at DePauw University, I went to a Christian group called “JC,” which was rapidly growing during my time there (and afterwards). The main preacher there was an African-American, yet what he was saying reached many of the suburban whites who were students at DePauw. God can use a person from one background to speak to someone from another.

Later, while preparing for ordained ministry, [Tim’s wife] Kathy became convinced that women’s ordination is unbiblical. She wields plenty of influence without being ordained, however. “He really depends on her,” says Scott Sherman, who joined the Kellers’ team that first year and planted their first New York daughter church, in Greenwich Village. Later, he launched a Redeemer-inspired start-up in San Francisco. “They were both nerds who read Tolkien,” Sherman says, “and probably know more Elvish than they would like you to know. He is inexplicable apart from her. She has her fingerprints all over his brain, and I mean that in a very good way.”

I don’t want to turn this post into a debate on women’s ordination. To be honest, it’s not an issue that I think about all that often. Nowadays, I can hear a woman preacher and not think twice about it. But I admire a woman who can wield influence, even though she rejects what feminists tell her she needs to be happy.

I also like the part about Tim and Kathy being Tolkien nerds. I hope to find a woman who shares my interests, however eccentric they may be. But I’d also like a woman who looks like a model! Are there any nerdy model-types out there?

The Kellers stick to a few rules. They never talk about politics.

This is true. I saw people with “John Kerry” T-shirts at Redeemer, and I once got into a little debate with a liberal woman who was a deaconess. Yet, Redeemer is supposedly the church that Ann Coulter attends!

I get tired of churches that act like being a Christian equals being a conservative Republican, as if abortion and homosexuality are the only issues that exist. I think one can be a Christian and a Democrat at the same time. I go to church to be spiritually fed. When I want to hear conservative rhetoric (and I do have an appetite for that), I’ll listen to Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity, or I’ll watch Glenn Beck!

By contrast, Keller enjoyed New York’s lack of ceremony and openness to the new. In Manhattan he wasn’t competing with other preachers. Gordon MacDonald came to Manhattan’s Trinity Baptist Church at about the same time the Kellers arrived. One major financial supporter almost pulled out when he heard the news, thinking that Trinity would be the big draw. But Keller looked on MacDonald’s coming as an advantage: MacDonald’s name drew many New York Christians, leaving Redeemer to focus on non-Christians. Longtime believers joined Redeemer only if they caught the vision of creating a church that appealed to their non-Christian friends.

I don’t know why, but this quote is cool!

Keller recalls a “Wall Street guy” who found Christ at the DeMoss House. “I said, ‘What in the world led you to come here and go to the Bible study?’ He said, ‘I lacked a spiritual center. But it wasn’t until I came to New York and came under the pressure of New York that I realized it. New York is so big and scary and difficult. And I realized that I really didn’t know what I was living for.’

The gospel DNA of grace is crucial to Redeemer’s embrace of center-city culture. It gives people permission to try and fail, to mix freely with those of other faiths and morals, and to tolerate ambiguity. Someone who works in advertising or theater may have to serve for many years at projects he or she finds morally ambivalent. Even those who rise to positions of responsibility will find no clearly marked path. Without a grasp of grace, there will be no Christians working in such areas. Keller likes to describe Redeemer’s stance as “cultural presence,” which enhances flavor but doesn’t take over.

I often feel as if I lack a spiritual center, or that life lacks flavor, or that what I do is insignificant. I think that’s why people choose a life of faith: they want to be part of an adventure, in which they do things that matter.

“Suppose,” Keller says, “you are the best violist in Tupelo, Mississippi. You go to Manhattan, and when you get out of the subway, you hear a beggar playing, and he’s better than you are.” New York attracts the best and the most ambitious. The sheer density of competition, along with the diversity of points of view, makes for a “culture-forming engine,” says Keller. It also exposes the weaknesses of those caught in it.

I feel that way not only about New York, but about real life! I was considered special in elementary school, high school, and college. Now, I wonder if there’s anything that makes me stand out! I worry about whether I’ll be able to compete. Life has so much insecurity!

Long before that, God had designated cities as places of refuge when Israel entered the Promised Land. They remain so today, Keller noted—which explains why poor people, immigrants, and vulnerable minorities such as homosexuals cluster in cities. They attract people who are open to change.

I can somewhat understand this. A homosexual may feel more at home in a city than in rural, small-town, Christian conservative America. The anonymity of the city can have its benefits! But it can also be quite lonely.

White believes Keller’s unique gift is to preach to both Christians and non-Christians in the same terms, without making a choice between evangelism and discipleship: “Tim uses the gospel surgically on the heart. The gospel is what we need to come to faith and also what we need to grow.” A theology of grace uses the same language to challenge both the runaway son and the solid older brother. “The seminal idea,” says Kathy, “is that the world is full of taskmasters—parents, job, society—and [to most people,] God is the worst of the bunch.” Tim adds, “Performance is such a high standard, the strain is unsupportable.”

I’ve been frustrated with churches over this issue. Some preach nothing but salvation messages, when there are many of us who have already said the sinner’s prayer. Our question is, “Now what?” Then there are others that act as if God’s love is something that’s to be preached to non-Christians, but, once they convert and get into the church, they are to be bombarded with all sorts of demands (e.g., witness, be cheerful, do this, don’t do that). But Tim Keller believes that the message of God’s love is for everyone: it’s what saves us and helps us to grow spiritually.

Redeemer holds high moral standards, but Keller puts all 10 commandments under the first one—to have no other gods. Preaching about idolatry—the sin of putting something or someone else in the place of God—enables Keller to communicate with relativists, who would respond to Christian moral standards by saying, “That’s just your opinion.” “When you say the ultimate sin is to put things in the place of God,” Keller says, “you take that argument away. You find that they say, ‘Hmm, I don’t know if there is a God.’ When I describe sin in such a way that people wish there were a God, I’m making progress.”

Maybe I’d sin a lot less if I saw sin not so much as breaking a rule, but as something that hinders my relationship with the God who loves me. My problem is that I have a hard time believing in God’s love right now. I used to get replenished by going to Redeemer, but now I rely on other things. I like watching Joel Osteen, but so often his “think positive” message discourages me, since I have a hard time bringing myself to positive thinking. Why should I believe that God will bless me, when there are so many people who don’t appear blessed?

Would I have a different mindset if I were still at Redeemer? I don’t know. One thing Tim Keller said was that “No one can ruin your life–not even you!” He appealed to the story of Jacob, who made mistakes, yet was an important part of God’s plan. But my impression right now is that people can ruin their lives! A person can kill someone while he’s drunk and end up on death row, for example. But maybe Tim Keller would say that even that can be a part of God’s purposes.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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