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Died: Tim Keller, New York City Pastor Who Modeled Winsome Witness

“We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.”
Died: Tim Keller, New York City Pastor Who Modeled Winsome Witness
Image: Courtesy of Redeemer Presbyterian Church / Edits by Rick Szuecs
Tim Keller

Tim Keller, a New York City pastor who ministered to young urban professionals and in the process became a leading example for how a winsome Christian witness could win a hearing for the gospel even in unlikely places, died on Friday at age 72—three years after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Keller planted and grew a Reformed evangelical congregation in Manhattan; launched a church planting network; cofounded The Gospel Coalition; and wrote multiple best-selling books about God, the gospel, and the Christian life.

Everywhere he went, he preached sin and grace.

“The gospel is this,” Keller said time and again: “We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.”

Keller was frequently accused—especially in later years—of cultural accommodation. He rejected culture-war antagonism and the “own the libs” approach to evangelism, and people accused him of putting too much emphasis on relevance and watering down or even betraying the truth of Christianity out of a misplaced desire for social acceptance.

But a frequent theme throughout his preaching and teaching was idolatry. Keller maintained that people are broken and they know that. But they haven’t grasped that only Jesus can really fix them. Only God’s grace can satisfy their deepest longings.

At his church in Manhattan, Keller told the nation’s cultural elites that they worshiped false gods.

“We want to feel beautiful. We want to feel loved. We want to feel significant,” he preached in 2009, “and that’s why we’re working so hard and that’s the source of the evil.”

Keller explained to New York magazine that this was, in a way, an old-fashioned message about sin. But when many people hear “sin,” they only think of things like sex, drugs, and maybe stealing. The modern creative class that he was trying to reach, however, was beset by many more pernicious sins jostling to take the place of God’s love in their lives.

The task of “relevance” was to identify the idols that had a hold of people’s souls. And then tell them that they could be free.

The people of Manhattan “had lived their whole lives with parents, music teachers, coaches, professors, and bosses telling them to do better, be better, try harder,” Keller reflected in 2021. “To hear that He Himself had met those demands for righteousness through the life and death of Jesus, and now there was no condemnation left for anyone who trusted in that righteousness—that was an amazingly freeing message.”

Keller himself heard this message as a college student at Bucknell University. He was born in September 1950, in Allentown, Pennsylvania, to parents William and Louise Clemente Keller. The family attended a Lutheran church. Young Timothy went to two years of confirmation classes, but he mostly learned that religion was about being nice.

He went to college in 1968, and got involved with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in part because the Christians there seemed to care about the civil rights movement. He soon became convinced that Christianity was true and devoured the works of British evangelicals, especially John Stott, F. F. Bruce, and C. S. Lewis.

In later years he was fond of calling Lewis his patron saint and quoting him on the reason to believe in God.

After graduating in 1972, Keller went to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. There he met a student named Kathy Kristy, who had come to faith through reading Lewis and actually corresponded with him up until his death when she was 13. Keller and Kristy fell in love and married right before graduation in 1975.

Keller was ordained in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), a denomination with about 300 congregations that had been founded two years earlier in Birmingham, Alabama. He accepted a call to a church in Hopewell, Virginia, a town south of Richmond that is situated between a federal prison and the James River, which was polluted by the Kepone insecticide manufactured in Hopewell.

As a new pastor, starting at just 24 years old, Keller learned by making mistakes.

“Same as everyone else,” he told World magazine. “My sermons were too long, my pastoral approaches to some people didn’t work—I was sometimes too direct and sometimes not [direct] enough. I started new programs no one really wanted. But because the congregation was so supportive and loving, I was able to make those mistakes without anyone attacking me for them.”

Keller learned to shorten his sermons and not launch unwanted programs. More importantly, he figured out how to ground his pastoral work in trust.

“I … learned not to build a ministry on leadership charisma (which I didn’t have anyway!) or preaching skill (which wasn’t so much there early on) but on loving people pastorally and repenting when I was in the wrong,” he said. “In a small town, people will follow you if they trust you—your character—personally, and that trust has to be built in personal relationships.”

After nine years, Keller left Virginia and went back to Pennsylvania. He taught practical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, focusing especially on his doctoral dissertation topic: the ministry of deacons.

He also started working for the PCA, helping with the denomination’s church planting efforts. When he tried to recruit someone to start a church in New York City in 1989, though, he failed.

Everyone he reached out to turned him down. They said it was a bad idea.

“I was told by almost everyone it was a fool’s errand,” Keller later recalled. “Manhattan was the land of skeptics, critics, and cynics. The middle class, the conventional market for a church, was fleeing the city because of crime and rising costs.”

Of course, not everyone could afford to flee. White flight left many vibrant urban churches behind, serving African American, Asian American, and Latino communities. The city also attracted young white people—the ambitious, highly educated, aspiring world leaders—who were less likely than anyone else to go to church or believe that Christianity had anything to offer.

Keller and his wife planted Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan and started targeting these young people.

Keller reflected on what it was like to move to New York City at 40 and thought about how many young people had that same experience, coming from all over the country.

“First of all, you are bombarded with people who are like you, only better,” he said. “You may be the best violinist in Hot Coffee, Texas, and you get off the train in Penn Station, and, to your horror, there is somebody out there begging—playing the violin. And she’s better than you. And so that makes you just dig down deep and just practice, practice, practice.”

The second thing that happens to new arrivals in New York, Keller said, is they are hit by a kind of diversity they could never experience outside of a major metropolis. The newcomers were surrounded every day by people who did not think like them.

“That makes you really either come up with a better rationale for what you want to do than you ever would have gotten before,” he said, “or it makes you incorporate new ideas.”

At the church, Keller did both. The core of the mission and his message was the same as it had been in Hopewell, but he and the staff also worked to translate it to a different context. Their prime directive was “Church as usual will not work” and they repeated over and over again that “precedent means nothing.”

The church saw some success in its first decade. By the end of 1989, there was regular attendance of about 250. In the fall of 1990, the church was attracting 600, including more than a few nonbelievers who were just interested in what Keller had to say.

The dramatic moment that brought Redeemer to national attention came after the terrorist attacks of 2001 destroyed the World Trade Center.

The following Sunday, more than 5,000 people showed up to church. They couldn’t all fit in the space, so Keller promised to hold a second service. Hundreds came back. By the time the city had returned to something approaching normal, Redeemer’s weekly attendance had grown by about 800 people.

Keller and the staff at Redeemer started helping other people who wanted to plant churches in urban environments. By 2006, Redeemer had 16 daughter congregations within the PCA and helped around 50 other churches from many denominations get started in New York City.

Keller also coached urban pastors from Boston and Washington, DC, to London and Amsterdam on how to contextualize the gospel in their cities.

A few years later, Keller published a work of apologetics: The Reason for God. The book took doubts about God seriously but sought to show skeptics their own “leaps of faith” and lay out the pathways Christians have, historically, taken through to the other side of doubt.

Keller engaged with the most popular critics of faith at the time, the “New Atheists,” and drew on a wide array of thinkers to make the case for rational reasons for faith, including C. S. Lewis and theologian N. T. Wright, but also philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, sociologist Rodney Stark, and writers Flannery O’Connor and Anne Rice.

The Reason for God hit No. 7 on The New York Times Best Seller list and won Keller an audience at some of the most elite cultural venues of the moment. He gave a talk on faith at Google and was interviewed on the Big Think, a new website curating conversations with “the brightest minds and boldest ideas of our times.”

Keller became, at the time, a model of cultural engagement for many evangelicals. His approach was especially popular with those who felt the culture wars—including a strong identification with the suburbs, the political mobilization of churches, and a strong strain of anti-intellectualism—had harmed their Christian witness.

“Fifty years from now,” a CT editor wrote, “if evangelical Christians are widely known for their love of cities, their commitment to mercy and justice, and their love of their neighbors, Tim Keller will be remembered as a pioneer of the new urban Christians.”

Not everyone agreed with this vision, however. Grove City College professor Carl Trueman, for example, disagreed with Keller’s love for cities and his optimism that he could reach the people in them.

“For me, cities are a necessary evil whose sole purpose is to provide country boys like me somewhere to go to the theatre once in a while,” Trueman wrote. “And I am definitely not an optimistic transformationalist as he is—trust me, things are going to get worse before, well, they get even worse than that.”

Keller also faced less-friendly criticism. Some called him a Marxist. And even a “high-profile Marxist who is particularly effective at repackaging Marxism for a Christian audience.”

When Keller argued that orthodox Christians should not embrace one political party in America’s two-party system, some said he deeply misunderstood the way the culture had changed. The “winsome” approach wouldn’t work in a world that was already deeply hostile to Christian truth, they argued.

James R. Wood, an editor at First Things, was once so committed to Keller that he gave his groomsmen a copy of Keller’s latest book. When he and his wife got a dog, they named it after the New York pastor.

But something shifted for him in the 2016 election.

“As I observed the attitude of our surrounding culture change,” Wood wrote, “I was no longer so confident that the evangelistic framework I had gleaned from Keller would provide sufficient guidance for the cultural and political moment. A lot of former fanboys like me are coming to similar conclusions. The evangelistic desire to minimize offense to gain a hearing for the gospel can obscure what our political moment requires.”

Keller responded to some of the criticism over the years, but mostly seemed unperturbed. He continued to pastor his congregation in Manhattan until he stepped down at age 66.

He continued to work with his church-planting network, City to City, and speak and write.

In 2020, Keller announced he had pancreatic cancer. As he went through extensive treatments, Keller, ever the pastor, continued to speak and write about God, the gospel, and the Christian life. Whenever he got the chance, he pointed people again to sin and grace.

He asked people again to consider how their deepest longings in life and death seemed to point them to Christ.

“If the resurrection of Jesus Christ really happened,” Keller toldThe New York Times, “then ultimately, God is going to put everything right. Suffering is going to go away. Evil is going to go away. Death is going to go away. Aging is going to go away. Pancreatic cancer is going to go away. Now if the resurrection of Jesus Christ did not happen, then I guess all bets are off. But if it actually happened, then there’s all the hope in the world.”

Keller is survived by his wife, Kathy, and their three sons, David, Michael, and Jonathan.

[ This article is also available in español Português Français 简体中文 한국어 Indonesian 繁體中文 русский Українська, and 日本語. ]

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