Interview with Tim Keller
About a year ago it was a great joy for me to let you know that Mark Driscoll was coming to speak at this year’s Brighton Together on a Mission conference.
I am delighted to let you know that we have now invited Tim Keller to speak to our Newfrontiers leaders on Wednesday 25th February.
Meanwhile, here is the result of an interview with him:
Your book Reason for God is unusual. Did you write it conscious of a need for a different approach to apologetics?
TK: Most apologetic books are really written for Christians, even the ones that purport to be written for non-believers. Almost always they are not careful and respectful enough of non-Christians’ concerns to be plausible at all. One of the most frequent responses I get from non-Christian readers is: ‘I’m not sure I agree with all this, but I must say this is the first book I’ve read by a Christian that didn’t treat me like I was an idiot.’ The book is nothing but a distillation of how we converse with non-believers in NYC. The fact that you consider it ‘unusual’ shows that we aren’t very adept at connecting with such folks.
As churches engage culture more intentionally, what are some dangers to be avoided? Do you see any threats against the church’s grasp of the true gospel?
TK: To engage culture or to fail to engage culture (out of fear of contamination) are equally dangerous options for the church. In both cases we can lose our grip on the gospel. To over-contextualise to a new generation means you can make an idol out of their culture, but to under-contextualize to a new generation means you can make an idol out of the culture you come from. Paul said that both moralism and lawlessness are denials of the gospel — those who over-engage usually get into lawlessness and immorality, while those who fail to engage can easily fall into moralism. So there is no safe path to take.
You speak very appreciatively of Jonathan Edwards and CS Lewis. Perhaps you could let us know some other key influencers on your ministry (alive and dead)?
TK: R.C.Sproul, Richard Lovelace, Harvie Conn, Edmund Clowney, Jack Miller, Roger Nicole, Meredith Kline, John Frame, John Stott, J.I.Packer, D.M.Lloyd-Jones. I have devoured and internalized most of what these men have written and taught.
How did you end up in NY?
TK: Terry Gyger, who directed the PCA’s church planting agency, challenged me in early 1987 to consider planting a church in Manhattan. I declined but helped him research and lay the groundwork for the new church plant, since in Philadelphia I lived only about a 90-minute train ride from NYC. But as I visited NYC and worked on this new mission field, my heart and imagination were captured. When the first two minister-candidates for the work were not able to come, I agreed to go. We began church services in spring of 1989, while I was still teaching full-time at Westminster. I commuted on Sundays to preach. In mid-1989, our family moved to New York and we have been there since.
Redeemer has grown fairly rapidly over recent years, what are some of the adjustments you have personally made to ensure ongoing growth?
TK: There’s a piece I wrote on this subject that is readily available on the internet — it’s called ‘Church Size Dynamics’. In a nutshell, however, as a church grows larger, the lead pastor has to be more present to groups of people and less available to individuals. When hundreds of people are waiting to hear your sermon, or dozens of leaders are waiting to be trained and mentored, is it good stewardship to take away three hours that could be helping hundreds and thousands of people grow to counsel one person in crisis? My pastoral heart and (to be honest) my need to please people — make me want to be available to any individual who wants me. But at various times my own leaders had to confront me about the selfishness of such availability. They would say, ‘You are being a terrible steward! You recruited us to shepherd people but we are doing it poorly because you are too busy wanting the emotional pay-off of doing it yourself, rather than teaching and training us.’
Where would you hope to see Redeemer in ten years from now?
TK: Ten years from now I’ll be 68, so I am praying and working toward the goal of handing Redeemer off to a post-founder generation of leaders who have the same basic gospel-DNA and ministry vision, but who will certainly take Redeemer places I can’t envision now.
Have you found any surprises in terms of how unchurched New Yorkers have been won for Christ? I imagine there is a wide range of different stories…?
TK: I think I’m simply surprised at how many unchurched New Yorkers have found faith in Christ. When I came here I had no idea how fruitful our evangelism would be. What was not surprising was how evangelism happens — 1) prayer, 2) a mixture of courageous-directness and yet sweet, gracious, humility, 3) a ‘translation’ of the message that on the one hand connects to the culture on the other hand doesn’t compromise the truth, 4) the word made plausible through deeds of service to the poor and a community of fellowship and love.
Did you struggle with the idea of multi-site church at first?
TK: No, I liked it the minute others thought of it (I didn’t think it up.) We do not, however, do video or DVD piping of the sermon into a site. I’ve got concerns about the preacher not being fully present with the people he’s preaching to. My preaching is very effected by how the people look, act, sound as I preach. There’s more to my concerns than that. I don’t feel so sure of my reservations to criticize any other church that beams the sermon to the congregation through a screen. But I don’t want to it myself.
It’s not all that common for a leader with such strong reformed credentials to be so happy to embrace pragmatic church growth wisdom. Why do you think this is?
TK: I don’t think it’s as simple as the question makes it sound. For example, John Piper does not like to talk of ‘contextualisation’ (as I do.) He probably would be considered someone who doesn’t embrace church growth ideas. Yet John uses video/DVD to preach to some of his sites every week. And I won’t do that. So everyone uses church growth wisdom to a degree — if you even add an extra service because your auditorium is full, you are using it. But we all come at this differently. Plenty of ministers in the Reformed world learn from church growth material but does so critically and carefully.
Tell us about your burden for Postmodern cities? Would it be fair to say there is practically an unreached people group for us to target?
TK: Yes. Even in places where the church is growing rapidly (e.g. Korea, Africa) if you go to the post-modern, secular, sophisticated, centre-city areas, you see the church failing to reach people.
Do you see a joining of hands amongst key evangelical leaders in North America? Is the Gospel Coalition a step in this direction?
TK: Yes, the Gospel Coalition is an effort to re-capture the ‘centre’ by putting aside denominational differences and uniting around the classic evangelical gospel. The Gospel Coalition is pretty diverse, and that’s encouraging. In some ways the New Word Alive Conference is a similar phenomenon. Groups who have in the past gone their own way or who allowed less essential things to separate them are coming together around the Biblical gospel. Other parts of the general evangelical world are putting more emphasis on politics, or spiritual experience, or cultural relevance than on the doctrines of grace. So things are fragmenting. But things like the Gospel Coalition and New Word Alive are an encouraging counter-trend.
What are the issues around which mission-minded evangelicals need to unite nowadays?
TK: I don’t think I can give a list of issues. John 17 says we are to exhibit visible unity to the world as much as possible. I think we should be very opportunistic and cooperate and unite anywhere we can do it without compromise of truth.
What would you say to Newfrontiers as we learn to become increasingly effective in church planting and mission?
TK: That’s what I’m coming to talk about! So I’ll save what I could say here for then. I’ll share what I can – I have the greatest respect for the effective church planting and mission that Newfrontiers has accomplished.