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Three Things I Learned from Tim Keller

Three Things I Learned from Tim Keller

The first time I heard Tim’s voice was on a pair of cheap earbuds in a noisy Caribou Coffee in Deerfield, Illinois. I was a first-year seminary student and was there studying with some friends. At some point, I took a break from studying and that’s when my friend Josh waved me over to his table. “You ever heard of Tim Keller?” he asked. “No,” I replied. He all but forced me to sit down and put his cheap, and not super-clean, earbuds in my ears. “You’ve got to listen to a few minutes of this sermon!” So after wiping off the earbuds, I put them in and started listening. To be honest, I don’t remember what sermon it was or what it was about. Part of me was just thinking: How long do I have to listen before I can take this guy’s earbuds out of my ears? What struck me in that moment was Tim’s thoughtfulness and winsomeness. 

I didn’t know it then but that borrowed-earbud moment introduced me to someone who would profoundly shape who I would become as a pastor and preacher. Apart from Tom Nelson, our Senior Pastor at Christ Community who I have known for over 20 years, no one has more profoundly influenced my pastoral ministry and particularly my preaching, than Tim Keller.

Tim died on May 19, 2023 after a battle with pancreatic cancer. In appreciation for him and his impact on me and so many others, I want to share three things Tim taught me through his writing, preaching, and teaching.

 

The Gospel: The A-Z not just the ABCs

First, Tim taught me that the gospel is not just the ABCs of the Christian life. It is the A-Z. He taught me that we never get beyond the gospel, we only go deeper into it. He writes in his book, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City:

The gospel is not just the ABCs but the A to Z of the Christian life. It is inaccurate to think the gospel is what saves non-Christians, and then Christians mature by trying hard to live according to biblical principles. It is more accurate to say that we are saved by believing the gospel, and then we are transformed in every part of our minds, hearts, and lives by believing the gospel more and more deeply as life goes on.  

The work of discipleship and spiritual formation is engaging practices, habits, and routines that remind us of, and shape us with, the gospel in every facet of life. 

 

The City: An opportunity not just an obstacle

Second, Tim opened my eyes to the reality that city centers are not obstacles to gospel ministry. They are incredible opportunities for gospel influence. Growing up in a suburb of St. Louis during the 1980s and 90s, I typically thought of “downtown” or the “city center” primarily as a place that was difficult to navigate as well as potentially physically dangerous and spiritually detrimental.

In fact, if you had told me as a high school student that my first permanent pastoral position after seminary would be leading an effort to plant a church campus in downtown Kansas City, I wouldn’t have believed you.

But Tim’s teaching on the city captured my imagination and transformed my affections. In my beat-up, well-worn, spiral-bound copy of the Church Planter Manual from the Redeemer Church Planter Center, Tim writes:

Because of the power of the city, it is the chief target of the forces of darkness, because that which wins the city sets the course of human life, society and culture. …if the Christian church wants to really change the country and culture, it must go into the cities themselves, and not just into the suburbs or even the exurbs. Three kinds of persons live there who exert tremendous influence on our society.… They are: the elites who control the culture and who are becoming increasingly secularized; the masses of new immigrants who move out in the mainstream of society over the next 30 years; the poor, whose dilemmas are deepening rapidly and affecting the whole country. 

This, along with Tim’s compelling teaching on Jeremiah 29 as a vision for Christians seeking the flourishing of the city, transformed not only how I thought and felt about city centers but gave me a picture of what sort of church was possible in the city. 

 

The Church: Evangelism not just formation

Third, Tim showed me a “third way” between “seeker-sensitive” church services and “believer-focused” worship gatherings. Tim challenged church leaders to always speak and act as if non-believers were in the room. The goal isn’t to make the service comfortable for those who don’t yet believe, but rather to make it comprehensible for those who don’t believe. He wrote in Center Church:

Contrary to popular belief, our purpose is not to make the nonbeliever “comfortable.”…Our aim is to be intelligible to them…. Seek to worship and preach in the vernacular. It is impossible to overstate how insular and subcultural our preaching can become. We often make statements that are persuasive and compelling to us, but they are based on all sorts of premises that a secular person does not hold. …So we must intentionally seek to avoid unnecessary theological or evangelical jargon, carefully explaining the basic theological concepts behind confession of sin, praise, thanksgiving, and so on. In your preaching, always be willing to address the questions that the nonbelieving heart will ask. Speak respectfully and sympathetically to people who have difficulty with Christianity.  …Listen to everything that is said in the worship service with the ears of someone who has doubts or struggles with belief. 

Tim didn’t just write about this as an ideal. He lived it out in every sermon he preached. Through his preaching, I learned from Tim that there is a way to engage people who are skeptical about Christianity while continuing to encourage and equip those who are followers of Jesus.

 

Conclusion

When I heard the news he had died, tears welled up in my eyes. I knew that he was sick. I knew that he would die soon. But I was still surprised by the emotional impact on me when he actually died. While talking to one of my best friends about the impact that Tim’s had on us, he paused and reflected that there are thousands of other people across the country and around the world who are having similar conversations about Tim’s impact. I’m deeply grateful to Jesus for the gift of Tim Keller. I miss him already. Thank you for all you taught me, Tim.

Four Lessons St. Patrick Has for the American Church

Four Lessons St. Patrick Has for the American Church

It is unfortunate that St. Patrick has become synonymous with wearing green to avoid being pinched, dyeing rivers green, and consuming large quantities of beer while pretending to be Irish. Little is widely known about the tremendous influence that this man had on the nation of Ireland and western Christianity. Patrick is easily one of the most successful Christian missionaries of all time. The indigenous Christian movement he started took root where missionaries had failed. Patrick’s influence grew to even re-evangelize much of western Europe in the centuries following the chaos of the Dark Ages and the decline of the institutional Roman church. His success is especially remarkable considering this was all done without any aid from other institutions of political or cultural power. As the current American church declines and we are in an increasingly post-Christendom world, we would do well to listen to voices like his.

The Life of Patrick

Patrick was born in roughly 389 AD to upper-middle-class parents in the British part of the Roman Empire. This was only a few years after Emperor Theodosius made Christianity the official religion of the Empire and Christendom was established. Patrick’s father was a Christian deacon and a member of the city council, both highly respected roles. His grandfather was a priest, so it would be fitting to characterize his family as a pious one with high social standing. Despite this, Patrick described his own Christian upbringing as nominal at best.

A drastic change to this life of privilege happened when Patrick was 16. A band of Irish warriors raided his town, and he was taken away to Ireland, outside of the Empire, in captivity. He worked as a slave herding pigs for six years. Finally, apart from his complacent life where he tacitly accepted nominal Christianity, Patrick was forced to consider the ramifications of his faith. In his own words, “the Lord opened the sense of my unbelief.” He began to pray daily and call out to God to sustain and deliver him. His interaction with the religious beliefs of the Irish also strengthened his faith. Their belief in multiple gods and spirits that roamed throughout the land needing to be appeased aroused a deep sense of peace from the security he had in Christ.

After spending six years in Ireland, he received a vision that encouraged him to escape. While sleeping, he heard a voice tell him to rise and find a ship to take him home. He awoke, ran down to a nearby port, and found a ship that took him away from Ireland. He went to Gaul (modern day France) and spent some time learning and living at a monastery in Lerins. Although he felt called to live a life with common men, during this time he developed a strong appreciation for the monastic rule of life. When he left the monastery he returned to Britain to be reunited with his relatives. Later, at the age of 48, he received his version of the ‘Macedonian call’ (Acts 16:6-10). In a dream an angel brought him letters from his former captors in Ireland, and he heard their voices cry out “we appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.” After consulting with the bishops of the British Church, he was ordained a bishop and sent out to Ireland in a missionary band.

His method differed greatly from other Roman missionaries of his time. Instead of forcing conquered “barbarians’’ to convert or waiting for them to come to him as spiritual inquirers, Patrick and his companions would set up a community of faith in each village they visited. They would practice a monastic life of prayer and work, not in a cloister far from society but in the midst of the Irish. As they looked for receptive villagers, the band would pray for the sick, exorcize demons, and mediate conflicts. They were interested in the felt needs of the communities, even regularly praying for fish in the village river. In open-air settings, Patrick would speak about the gospel, using his vast knowledge of Irish culture to communicate the gospel in a way that would connect with them. Parables, symbols, drama, and other visuals were used because of the Irish people’s vivid imagination. Responsive villagers would join the monastic community and partake in their practices.

After a few months, a church would be officially born and the new converts would be baptized. Patrick’s group would leave behind a priest and a few others to continue instruction in Christian doctrine, but take some of the converted villagers with them as they moved on to the next village. It is estimated that Patrick started 700 churches, commissioned 1000 priests, and reached 40 out of the 150 tribes in Ireland, during his 28 year ministry.

Four Lessons for Us

1. The gospel is central.

Patrick’s ministry was rooted in a profound belief that humanity’s only hope was God’s intervention of grace through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. His personal experience of liberation from slavery by divine intervention no doubt made this truth a vivid reality for him. Each of his surviving writings begins with the words: “I, Patrick, a sinner.” This humility was not from self-loathing, but from an honest recognition of his need for a savior. Patrick was zealous to maintain that salvation is a result of God’s work of grace, in opposition to his contemporary fellow British monk, Pelagius, who taught human effort alone was enough to be saved. Patrick’s strong conviction that the unconverted would suffer damnation and had no hope apart from Christ motivated him to return to his former captors to share the good news with them.

The Church today should never grow weary of proclaiming the gospel and trusting in God’s grace. We should take care and not water down the biblical gospel. We must also be zealous like Patrick so that the good news does not become old hat.

2. The gospel changes everything.

Patrick’s missionary bands differed significantly from Roman missionary models by doing their Christian life in the midst of pagan communities. Patrick himself was deeply influenced by the Irish reverence for nature and so developed a sacramental vision of all of life, where the line between the natural and spiritual was paper-thin. Work was an integral part of their monastic life and not a distraction from it. Their concern for the economic realities of their Irish neighbors bolstered their witness.

One of the greatest dangers facing the church today is the unbiblical distortion that creates a sharp sacred-secular divide. This can lead us to believe our Monday work does not matter to a Sunday-focused God. As our culture becomes increasingly post-Christian and the influence of the institutional church wanes, we need to be faithful disciples of Jesus in the particular places He has us the majority of our week.

3. The gospel demands justice and reconciliation.

Similar to the previous lesson, the gospel Patrick preached did not only restore sinners to God but also led them to love one another and pursue justice and peace. In his writing, Epistola, he writes a letter rebuking a nominal-Christian warlord named Coroticus. He had raided some of Patrick’s converts and taken recently baptized women off as slaves. Patrick commands him to release them because he is compelled by “the zeal of God, the truth of Christ… (and) the love of (his) nearest neighbors.” His concern for justice and the flourishing of the Irish was also evident in how he ended the slave trade in that region. Patrick earned the respect of various Irish tribes by acting as a broker for peace to end conflict between clans. His evangelistic effectiveness was integral to his concern for the whole-life flourishing of the Irish.

The American Church would do well to follow Patrick’s footsteps. As we allow the gospel to speak to all of life, it will inevitably move us to work toward a society that is ordered by God’s justice and enables the flourishing of all.

4. The gospel is lived out together.

Though Patrick gets all the recognition and a holiday all to himself, we must never forget that he did not evangelize the Irish by himself. He was not a lone ranger, solo-climber, or solitary pioneer that set out on his own. Patrick owes much of its success to the many unknown members of his missionary bands that evangelized together. They demonstrated a different way of being in community among the Irish that became a compelling witness. Rather than requiring a profession of belief from ‘barbarians’ before partaking in Christian community like the Roman church, they recognized that belonging often precedes belief. Irish inquirers could join their monastic community, “tasting and seeing that the Lord is good” by experiencing the care of His people before making intellectual assent to Christian doctrine.

In a similar way, the American church will go nowhere relying on its celebrity leaders. It takes communities of extra-ordinary believers doing life together so that others can be drawn in to experience the reality that the gospel changes everything.

Let us take time this St. Patty’s day, in addition to any other celebration, to thank God for the work He did through St. Patrick and his friends. Let us also consider how we might emulate him by being a faithful, gospel-centered presence in our communities.

Seven Ways Sharing Your Faith Grows Your Faith

Seven Ways Sharing Your Faith Grows Your Faith

A few years ago, I was attending a church plant that failed. After several years of stagnant growth and little evangelistic fruit, the leaders decided to close the doors. I felt like a failure. I thought, “If only I was a better evangelist, then more people would have come to faith, joined our church, and it would still be open today. Here I am, in school learning to be a pastor, and the first church I am a part of goes up in flames!” I wondered if this evangelism thing was just something I was not cut out for. But that would be okay, right? Not every Christian needs to be a ‘super-soul winner’, right?

For many Christians, evangelism can be guilt and shame inducing. We know that we should share our faith, but so few of us do. Even as some of us try, a lack of fruit feels like failure. Seeking to alleviate the guilt from these experiences can lead to questioning the need for all Christians to share the gospel. You may have had this exact reaction when our church announced our plan to grow in evangelism through e90 (the practice of praying for 9 people for 90 seconds a day, for 90 days).

From “Do I have to?” to “Wow! I get to!”

Perhaps our perspective needs to shift. Instead of only sharing out of a sense of duty, what if we viewed the practice of evangelism as something that was good for us? While sharing our faith is certainly a command Jesus gives, it is something He commands for our own benefit! I want to encourage you to sign up for theFormed.life as we go through e90 so that your faith can grow as you seek to share it with others.

We should keep in mind that one does not need to convert others to Jesus to be a mature Christian. We are to tell others about Jesus, but we are not responsible for their  response. Even Jesus had many reject Him and His message. We should focus on being faithful in the process, not on the end product. 

How is this faithfulness in evangelism something that is for our own good?

How Sharing Our Faith Matures Us

Not only is evangelism a mark of Christian maturity, but it is also a pathway to Christian maturity in other areas.

  1. Evangelism grows our trust in God. As we step out of our comfort zone, our faith is strengthened by our need to rely on God. If you feel inadequate and unprepared to share the gospel, what a great opportunity to trust in God, who is the only one who can draw people to Himself. As you pray each day for your nine, you are developing the habit of inviting God into this area of need.
  1. It builds our love for others. Our broader postmodern culture implicitly defines love as merely tolerating another’s preferences. In this mindset, evangelism is a hateful enterprise. However, if you think of love as seeking the best for another person, what better way to love someone than to introduce them to the One who can lead them to fullness of life! Atheist magician and comedian Penn Jillette once remarked how loved he felt when a fan gave him a Bible and shared the gospel with him even though he still completely disbelieves in God. He said, “How much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate someone to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?” Seeking to have those around us come to know Jesus, if done with their best in mind, is a loving act that develops a greater love for them within us. We hope praying for your nine will be used by God to give you His heart for them that “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).
  1. Sharing our faith transforms our lifestyle to be more missional. If we seek to make evangelism an integral part of our lives, we will develop habits that allow us to consistently partner with God in His mission of redeeming creation. This is why every Friday, theFormed.Life invites you to take a small step in developing missional habits. Telling others about Jesus invites us to critically examine our own lives. Do we live as though the gospel is true? The fear of hypocrisy that paralyzes us from sharing our faith can be an invitation to go deeper in our own discipleship. 
  1. Practicing evangelism enables growth in our theological knowledge. The year I gained the most theological knowledge was not while in seminary, but rather when I went to community college and was actively sharing my faith with classmates. Getting hard questions from others motivated me to read theology more rigorously than any systematic theology test could. This is why in theFormed.life we reflect deeply and biblically on the gospel twice a week. On Thursdays we look at a single passage that articulates the good news. On Saturdays we focus on one chapter of the Four Chapter Story, reading one passage explaining that and reflecting how we are living that story today. As we share the gospel, we will have greater motivation to understand the good news more fully.
  1. Not only does evangelism develop our theoretical knowledge but it also grows our practical knowledge of God. As a pastor, I am better able to understand a congregant after visiting their workplace. By seeing where they work, how they invest their energy, and knowing more about what their labor produces, our relationship deepens. Similarly, seeing God at work in His mission of wooing people to Himself allows us to experience the truth that God loves everyone in a deeper way.
  1. The practice of evangelism enables us to praise God and thank Him for how He is at work. This is why every Tuesday theFormed.life shares a short story about how God is working in someone’s life through their witness to Jesus. We want to hear more of these moments from you so that we can join you in praise and thanksgiving! Let us know how God is at work in this practice for you. You can sign up for that by texting “e90” to 913-379-4440.
  2. Not only does this practice increase our intimacy with God, but evangelism also can lead us to greater intimacy with one another. So many Christians can feel isolated as they share the good news in contexts where they might be the only believer. However, focusing on evangelism should lead us to treasure the hope we share in common as believers. We desire that doing this together as a church reminds us we are not alone in our witness. We encourage you to press into community even as you reach out to others individually. Make gathering on Sunday mornings a priority. Discuss the joys and challenges of this practice with others in your community group. Let’s grow together in this.

….

When my church closed its doors, God reminded me that it’s not the end product He cares about but rather being with me in the process. He does not need me to evangelize to save people. Salvation is His job, not mine. He wants me to develop deeper intimacy with Him and others by sharing my faith. Evangelism is not something He wants from me, but for me and for my good.

I pray that this would be true for you, that “the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ” (Philemon 1:6). I encourage you to join us in theFormed.life as we engage the discipline of evangelism together.

More Resources:

Root, Jerry., and Stan Guthrie. The Sacrament of Evangelism. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2011.

“Atheist Penn Jillette Doesn’t Respect Christians Who Don’t Evangelize”