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The news that one of the evangelical world's most well-loved pastors will be stepping down as senior leader of his church surprised many this weekend. Sam Hailes looks at Timothy Keller’s ministry so far
The decision to stop leading Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City has been a long time coming for Timothy Keller. The 66 year old pastor will cease preaching this July as part of a decades-long plan to multiply Redeemer into three separate churches. Far from ending his ministry, Keller will turn his attention to teaching and training "the next generation of leaders and pastors".
'Success' is a difficult quality to define let alone measure in ministry, and Keller isn’t claiming it. Nevertheless, what began as 15 people meeting in an apartment in 1989 has turned into a church which gathers 5,000 attendees each week and reaches sceptics in one of America’s most secular cities.
A reluctant celebrity
Keller is well loved by many evangelicals. The pastor has even been likened to CS Lewis. It’s a comparison that Keller says he cringes at, but few would deny his landmark book The Reason for God answered non-believers' questions in a similar way to Lewis’ Mere Christianity. Keller’s book became a New York Times top ten best seller and propelled the pastor to significant attention after it was released in 2008. Since then, he’s written other books aimed at sceptics (Making Sense of God was released last year as a prequel to ‘Reason’) and for Christians (Preaching, Prayer, Every Good Endeavour).
The pastor has also co-authored Meaning of Marriage and My Rock; My Refuge with his wife Kathy. In Walking with God through Pain and Suffering Keller also opened up about how, although Kathy's battle with Crohn's disease has put limitations on their lives together, the couple have learned to live within the parameters that God has set for them.
Speaking in 2015, Keller told me, "The books are what make you a well-known figure. I see my books going places and touching people that would never be touched if it weren’t for the book. So that’s great. But it also did bring that fame and profile and celebrity, frankly."
The rise of the 'celebrity pastor' is a curious one. It often happens in America when publishers identify young pastors with growing churches. Keller explains, "Some publisher comes and says, to every single young minister whose church gets big, 'write a book because there’ll be a bunch of people who will buy it.' These young guys start writing books which takes them away from preaching. Besides that, at that age they’re going to change their mind. Ten years from now they’re going to have different views on things so they’re going to be embarrassed by the books they write when they’re 32 years old.
"I always say ‘don’t write! You’re not wise enough to write. You’re going to be so much smarter in 20 years’. I’m so glad it didn’t happen to me when I was in my 20s or 30s. I think it would be very very difficult not to believe your own press."
Engaging with culture
In becoming well-known later in life, Tim Keller bucks the trend. His prominence has opened up new opportunities to resource the wider Church. It’s not just his books. The podcasts of his sermons have found a broad audience and it’s not an exaggeration to say that from his base in Manhattan, Tim Keller’s ministry has helped changed the world.
Those who espouse a Reformed theology aren’t always known for their engagement with culture, but Keller’s pragmatic and winsome approach has won him credibility in the mainstream. It’s hard to think of another apologist or church leader who's managed to explain the gospel within the pages of the New York Times or given evangelistic talks (2008, 2016) to young professionals at Google. Other conservative Christian are sometimes known for sitting in judgement of culture – writing scathing blogs about the latest Hollywood blockbuster or criticising other Christians for their bad theology. But Keller bucks the caricature. As a pastor to sceptics he has little interest in needlessly bashing 'the world'. On the contrary, his preaching often contains examples and illustration from popular culture.
Upon hearing the news that a well-known pastor is stepping down as leader, some minds immediately thought the worst and wondered if a moral failure was to blame. Such wrong thinking should be forgiven, after all, hardly a month goes by without bad news of this kind.
Keller, with his trademark humility, might say it’s only by the grace of God that he’s come this far and not suffered scandal in the way some of his friends have. Nevertheless Keller has clearly been mindful to guard against a church culture where one personality or preacher dominates a congregation. This negative attitude has sadly infiltrated some mega churches which crumble once the senior leader steps down. Rather than building a congregation around himself, Keller has released a new generation of leaders. This surely bodes well for the future of Redeemer.
There’s no such thing as a perfect pastor and Keller is not without his faults. But this news is a reminder that whether our leaders influence us on a local church level, or from a distance, they deserve our prayers. As we in the UK watch Keller passes over his church, there is so much to be grateful for. In looking to the future we can be confident that the best is yet to come, both for Redeemer and for Keller.
Unbelievable? presenter Justin Brierley blogs on all things theology, apologetics and ethics.