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Tim Keller was mentor to a generation

02 June 2023

His influence on Evangelical Anglicans in the UK was profound, says Ruth Bushyager

Facebook/Timothy Keller

I WAS surprised how much I cried over the death of the Revd Dr Tim Keller (News, 26 May), given that I had never been to his church or had any personal contact with him. Yet, I share with a great many others the sense of the loss of a spiritual giant.

In an age when so many acclaimed church leaders are being exposed for abuses of every kind, we rightly have a growing scepticism about elevating any famous Christian to the status of hero. But Keller’s remarkable life and legacy is impossible not to admire.

His influence in the UK is so significant that, if you want to understand 21st-century Anglican conservatives, you need to understand Keller’s mind and methods. He has been a spiritual father to hundreds of thousands of Christians worldwide; and many of them, like me, sit well beyond his complementarian conservative tribe.

Keller founded Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan in 1989. It grew from 30 to 5000 members across five locations. He was a prolific author, and his books and articles have been treasured worldwide; one million copies have been sold in the UK alone. Many of these have become established as essential Christian reading — for evangelism and apologetics, ministry and mission, marriage enrichment, and devotional discipleship.

Last week, I was lecturing a room full of ordinands on what it means to have a ministry of the Word. Keller’s 2015 book Preaching (Hodder & Stoughton) (Books, 19 February 2016) sat top of their reading list — an instant classic. The next day, I was mentoring a young priest as he takes on a larger church. Keller’s paper “Leadership and Church Size Dynamics” is so part of the furniture of received wisdom now that his name was not even mentioned in our conversation, which was saturated with his thinking.

KELLER was a tremendously gifted preacher. He embodied a deep grace and peace when he spoke, a restful trusting in the authority of God’s word and the Spirit’s voice. Evangelicals too often betray an unattractive drivenness and underlying anxiety in their evangelistic tone. In contrast, Keller deftly modelled heavyweight preaching with lightness, evangelistic appeal without pressure: his own relationship with Christ was so clearly a wellspring of joy and succour.

As John Stott and Jim Packer’s contemporaries entered old age, Keller took up the baton. He effectively mentored an entire generation of Evangelical Anglicans as they learnt how to preach Christ from all of scripture.

His Christocentric hermeneutic was not new, but it was fresh. He excelled at an expository style that was profoundly relevant and deeply pastoral. Listen to the sermon that he gave in Manhattan on the Sunday after 9/11. In a church tradition that can be nervous of emotion and — at its worst — cold, muscular, and punitive, Keller brought emotional and psychological intelligence. He lived and breathed Calvinistic grace, and became passionate about engaging with the arts and reconnecting his tradition with God’s love of justice.

Keller’s context in cosmopolitan New York became the crucible for a new style of apologetics which was sorely needed across the post-Christian West. The Evangelical apologetic endeavour had become rather stuck in a model of the proclamation of propositional truths which was in danger of always having the answers to questions that nobody was really asking any more.

Keller turned this on its head with his profound curiosity about people and culture, combined with the spiritual gift of insight. This curiosity sprang from a place of deep humility for someone with such a great intellect: he was devoted to understanding cultural change, so that he could connect meaningfully with his listeners. In debate, he would be focused on his opponents’ very best arguments, sometimes articulating their own points better than they could: a grace that we sorely need in the Church of England.

HE WAS an Anglophile, because London had greater cultural similarity to New York than to anywhere else in the United States, and because he drew endless inspiration from the great British Evangelicals. From New York, he brought about the City to City church-planting movement, which has borne fruit across the UK and in the Gospel Coalition and CoMission networks.

For 25 years, Keller has been mentoring church-planters here across a spectrum of Christian denominations; his ability to be a force for unity was remarkable. He was a regular at the annual Oxford University Inter-Collegiate Christian Union mission, and the Evangelical Ministry Assembly, besides being a friend and speaker at Holy Trinity, Brompton. His compelling vision for the well-being of the city came as a sharp challenge to reframe the middle-class Evangelical dream, which was too often comfy suburbia.

Pancreatic cancer in no way robbed Keller of his ministry. He taught powerfully about how the past three years of suffering and the terminal prognosis influenced his relationship with Christ, and with his beloved wife, Kathy, and how their prayer life was transformed.

He died peacefully at home, saying, “I am ready to see Jesus.” The most impressive thing about him was that you never came away exclaiming “Isn’t Tim Keller amazing!” but “Isn’t Jesus amazing! Isn’t he wonderful! Isn’t he beautiful! Isn’t he captivating!” There is no greater legacy.

The Rt Revd Ruth Bushyager is the Suffragan Bishop of Horsham, in the diocese of Chichester

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