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5 things Pastor Tim Keller taught me before he passed

How would you feel if someone spent two years talking with your closest friends and family members? What might they say about your childhood, your awkward teenage years, or your parenting choices?

When I began my interviews in January 2021, I wasn’t sure what I’d learn about Tim Keller, the world-renowned preacher who died Friday at age 72. I’ve known him since 2007 and worked with him since 2010 through The Gospel Coalition. 

But if I was going to trace the influences on his intellectual and spiritual formation, I needed to dig deeper. I needed to know the books, the people and events that helped him become one of the most influential Christian leaders of the 21st century. I was grateful that he wanted me to speak with his longtime friends and encouraged them to speak freely.

Tim Keller smiling

Tim Keller, founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, was receiving hospice care at home. (Tim Keller/Facebook)

Especially these days, it’s easy to be cynical about religious leaders. They don’t always finish well, as Keller did. We’ve seen too many examples of pastors who said one thing from behind the pulpit and another thing away from the cameras. It’s safer to keep them at a distance, as a podcast voice or book author. Be careful when opening a closet door. After all, a skeleton might fall out. 

I learned several other lessons from writing about Tim Keller in his only official biography, “Timothy Keller: His Spiritual and Intellectual Formation.”

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You wouldn’t have identified Tim Keller as most likely to succeed in his seminary class. He wasn’t the most outspoken student. Professors didn’t recognize him with awards. He got a C in his preaching class. Mentors didn’t line up to take him under their wing. After seminary, he and his wife, Kathy, didn’t know if they’d find a ministry post, so they took the civil service exam to join the U.S. Postal Service.

For the first half of his life, Tim Keller showed almost no familiarity with global, multicultural or urban ministry. And yet that’s exactly what he became known for advancing in New York City through Redeemer Presbyterian Church and its extensive church-planting network around the world. He didn’t publish his first New York Times bestselling book until he was 57 years old. But in less than a decade he published a small library of classic works on everything from prayer to suffering to marriage to evangelism. 

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He might have disagreed with New Testament scholar N. T. Wright about the Reformation. But he recommended Wright’s landmark book on the resurrection of Jesus. He didn’t reach all the same conclusions as the missiologist Lesslie Newbigin. But he still built on this work from a previous generation to set an agenda for Western Christians in the 21st century.

You don’t have to agree with everything to learn something from anyone. 

Admit your weaknesses and ask for help

Twice in his leadership at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, Tim Keller needed to admit he had a problem. The church’s growth and complexity outgrew his managerial skill. Not even his prodigious work ethic could save him. Twice he called on friends to serve as his executive pastor and lead the restless staff. 

Many leaders would be content with that foundation of learning. Not Keller. Even when he was publishing a bestselling apologetics book in 2008, he was rethinking his entire apologetic method in light of new reading. Even in his final days, he was sending his friends and colleagues new book recommendations.

Keller’s lifelong learning developed like rings on a tree. The core never changed. He just kept growing, kept adding layers. 

The best teachers never stop learning.

This life is the dress rehearsal for eternity, when we’ll see God face to face. The day before he died, Tim Keller told his family, “I’m thankful for the time God has given me, but I’m ready to see Jesus. Send me home.” 

That day will come for each of us, too, sooner or later, whether or not we’re prepared. Keller taught me to shed the burdens of tomorrow and live today in light of eternity. 

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