When Tim Keller started preaching in 1989, Manhattan was pervaded with crime and drugs. His wife Kathy said their family saw “a robbery suspect chased down the sidewalk, caught, and spread-eagled, handcuffed, and mirandized on the hood of the car…hookers in silver lame bikinis and stilettos, watched over by their pimp,… and, memorably, a well-dressed man in the financial district drunkenly fall to his knees, vomit all over himself, and then stagger off.”
And so he held church services in a small, rented space in the Upper East where churches and residents were fleeing.
The seeds that Keller planted grew roots, and the fruit is being tasted among the nations.
Amidst skyscrapers and sin, the harvest is plentiful. That early congregation multiplied into over 5,000 people. Keller preached the good news of the gospel in this fast-moving, work-focused city for 28 years. The name of Jesus spread throughout the five boroughs, as God grew Redeemer Presbyterian Church, leading to hundreds of churches being planted.
Despite his esteemed reputation, Keller was lowly in posture as a humble, faithful servant of Christ. But you don’t have to walk down a bustling Manhattan street to witness Keller’s influence. The seeds that Keller planted grew roots, and the fruit is being tasted among the nations.
Impacting Believers Globally
With the majority of the world’s population living in cities, Keller helped start Redeemer City to City to recruit and train global leaders in global metropolises. Since its inception, almost 1,000 churches have started in 75 global cities, and almost 80,000 leaders have been trained and impacted. Due to City to City training and Keller’s example, church leaders across the world have been encouraged and strengthened as they strive to make Christ’s name known in their cities and neighborhoods.
Pretoria, South Africa has a history rooted in the pain of segregation. Perceiving it as a Western or white religion, people are often resistant towards Christianity. So, there is a tendency to embrace African traditional religion or an attempt to blend the two together. Or people claim to be a Christian out of tradition or family ties rather than true belief.
When thinking about how to share the gospel clearly, One Mokgatle, lead pastor of Rooted Fellowship Church, Acts 29 Southern Africa network director, and former City to City Intensive participant, looks at Keller’s example of gospel centrality and contextualization from a biblical perspective:
“We are in the city now where apartheid began. Even though things are continuing to change, churches are still very much segregated,” Mokgatle said. “One of Keller’s quotes, one that’s made a lot of my sermons, is about forgiveness being costly. That is something South Africa wasn’t taking into consideration in the pursuit of reconciliation. As the church, we should understand that better than anyone. We need to recognize that forgiveness is, in many ways, costly. And yet we’re able to give it because it cost God everything—it cost him his son.”
With a Christian population of less than 1%, the church cannot grow in Tokyo, Japan by simply transferring believers from other churches—new disciples have to be made. However, being one of the world’s most expensive cities, long working hours, and a transient nature make it challenging to form deep communities. It can take time to make mature disciples and become an independent, self-sustaining church.
In a country where people are hesitant to associate themselves with an organized religion, Joey Zorina, church planter and pastor at The Bridge Fellowship and former City to City Intensive participant, looks at Keller’s viewpoint of the gospel. He helped Zorina see that the gospel is neither religion, like legalism, nor irreligion, like liberalism. Instead, the gospel is a radical, heart-altering way that fills us with gratitude for what Jesus has done.
“While there is a danger of over-adapting or under-adapting to the culture, Keller has helped me exegete the surrounding culture. He showed me how the gospel gives us both the courage and humility to challenge hearts and cultural idols, and bring the power of the gospel to bear on them,” Zorina said. “We have seen not only people new to Christianity profess faith, but even Christians renewed by the gospel over and over again. People are able to integrate their Christian faith with their work instead of withdrawing.”
An overwhelming blanket of self-satisfied secularism covers Copenhagen, Denmark like a bubble. In the Nordics, there is an established national Christianity that acts as a vaccination against the call to repent and believe. There is the perspective that since they have their own kind of Christianity, that is enough for redemption.
Keller exemplified listening to nonbelievers, making them feel understood.
Carl Jan Christian Roth, lead pastor of New Song Kirken in Copenhagen and leader of The Gospel Coalition (TGC) Norden, was challenged by Keller’s view of a prodigal God, which calls the older brothers, the moral and the self-righteous of the world, to know their need and come to repentance. He’s also seen Keller’s example of listening to nonbelievers, making them feel understood, influence churches all across his city.
“In Copenhagen, there have been church plants shaped by the influence of Keller and TGC. A handful of church plants across the Nordics are very much in line with Keller’s gospel-centered, mission-minded preaching,” Roth said. “Also, there are study groups developing reading Collin Hansen’s book about his life. We are impressed by the way his character and compassion for the people in his life shined through.”
Just because there is a familiarity with Christianity in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic does not mean there is an understanding of the gospel. With over half of the population identifying as Catholic, gospel conversations require a deconstruction of traditional beliefs in order to bring individuals to a biblical understanding of Jesus, humanity, and salvation.
Craig D. McClure, a missions advancement strategist, and professor at the Dominican Baptist Theological Seminary, looks at Keller’s ability to consider intellectually the truth of Jesus, demonstrating Jesus as far better than any inferior objects of affection or assurance we may pursue, as an example of how to have these gospel conversations.
“Keller summoned me to drink deeply from the fountain of God’s revealed glory in Jesus. Humanity needs to look no further than Jesus to know God,” McClure said. “Jesus is the culmination of God’s revelation. Jesus made God visible. Today God’s infinite greatness, splendor, and holiness is revealed in Christ—the perfect embodiment of God’s divine nature and identity. Keller expounded these realities intellectually, but always ended by transferring them to the heart of his audience.”
United Arab Emirates
As one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world, people in Dubai, United Arab Emirates often have a wrong view of Christianity, whether it be a legalistic or a prosperity gospel.
“I had the privilege of being with Tim Keller up close as I spent much of a summer with him and ten others in what was called the international intensive,” senior pastor of Redeemer Church of Dubai Dave Furman said. “At one lunch where we ate together one-on-one I was impacted by Keller’s humility and genuine interest in the ministry in Dubai. He just asked questions and listened intently.”
Furman remembers how asking questions was a norm for Keller—he would meet with as many people as he could and ask how a new church could best serve the city. Keller would then ask if they knew anyone else who might be interested. Furman follows that same pattern as he preaches the gospel clearly and boldly so that all might hear the truth. This means being patient and sometimes walking with people for quite some time before they place their faith in Christ, answering their questions, so their misconceptions are cleared up.
All of Us Can Spread the Gospel in Our Cities
“Nothing else—not crusades, outreach programs, parachurch ministries, growing megachurches, congregational consulting, nor church renewal processes—will have the consistent impact of dynamic, extensive church planting,” wrote Keller as he thought about the potential of Church Planting to ignite a global flame, a fire that will not go out even as he is now in the presence of the Lord.
Keller’s example reminds us of Christ’s command to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). While most of us may not be called to go to Tokyo, Dubai, or Pretoria, we are all called to be lights and make disciples wherever we are. In Christ, we are all running the same race that Keller faithfully ran, sharing the hope that Jesus is the only redeemer of those in our cities and among the nations.