NEW YORK-Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, has done for two decades what people said could not be done: He has attracted to church, through biblically orthodox teaching, thousands of hip New Yorkers in their 20s and 30s. He is also the author of three recent, excellent books: The Prodigal God, Counterfeit Gods, and The Reason for God, which was WORLD's Book of the Year in 2008.
Here are excerpts from an interview in which we examined his informal education during the 1970s and 1980s. We also touched on his cancer diagnosis in 2002 and his views of success and failure.
Q: We were both in college during those weird years of campus protests four decades ago. Were you ever involved in them? Had to be. After the Cambodian invasion, Bucknell was one of the many campuses at which the students went on strike. There was no school for weeks. We had huge meetings in the center of the campus with an open mic. Anybody could get up and just talk. It was really boring.
Q: You had something other than politics going on in your life. I had become a Christian earlier that year and had started going to a campus fellowship. At Christian colleges there was a revival in 1970. We put up a sign right off the quad where everybody else was milling around, saying "The resurrection of Jesus Christ is intellectually credible and existentially satisfying." We engaged people in conversations. About 10 or 15 students came to Campus Fellowship in the spring of 1970. That fall 100 people showed up, which just shocked us, and it never went down. A lot of people had become Christians that year through all the discussions and all the angst.
Q: Did groups on other campuses have the same experience of growth in 1970? Most had 5 to 10 to 20 times more students coming. It was a time of tremendous unrest, spiritually speaking. Mitch Glazer told me that almost all of the leaders of Jews for Jesus over the next 20 years were converted in various places in 1970.
Q: How did you become a Christian? I was depressed. I went to counselors. I was unhappy: I did not know who I was. Can you believe it? A college student? It pushed me into checking out Christian resources and I became a Christian. Of course that is a very, very short version of it.
Q: Expand a little bit. You were depressed because you did not know who you were? Yeah. I had very little confidence socially with people. It really was fairly garden variety. It was not very dramatic on the outside. On the inside, it was.
Q: You were introverted? Yes, badly.
Q: Did you find Christians you admired? I saw a small group of people. They seemed thoughtful. You have to have a group of people who embody the kind of Christian you would be if you became a Christian. You say, "These are people like me, or people I would like to be like," and, "I see how their Christianity plays a role in their life so I can start to envy that role and maybe I would like to have it too."
Q: Did you wonder whether you could be both a Christian and an intelligent, educated person? There were the intellectual credibility issues. I read lots and lots of British evangelicals: C.S. Lewis (even though he is not exactly an evangelical), John Stott, J.I. Packer. F.F. Bruce's The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? helped me survive religion courses. When Francis Schaeffer came along and started talking about really analyzing culture from a Christian point of view, that was an epiphany.
Q: And you had your personal concerns. The third thing you need besides a community and the intellectual resources is an existential crisis, usually, something that makes you feel the need for God. In that case, it was my painful introversion and my fear that nobody will ever accept me as I am if they ever get to know me.
Q: Why, when you graduated in 1972, did you plan to become a minister? The primary cause was because the Lord called me. The secondary cause was that I experienced some satisfaction in leading the Campus Fellowship. I was not the leader, but I was one of the leaders. I did some teaching and discipling, and for a guy who felt like he was never going to do anything, who had no confidence with people, I felt some fulfillment in doing it. It was saying, here is something I might succeed at. I never said it quite that crassly. But that is what I mean by the secondary cause. I do not think my motives were all incredibly noble, but God used it.
Q: How was seminary? Gordon-Conwell was a brand new school. There was an energy in the students and in the faculty.
Q: What was the best thing that happened to you there? I met my wife. . . . We got married the last year of seminary.
Q: Toward the end of your seminary time, you sought a call from a church. What was that process like? It is the only time in my life that I have actually been looking for a job-and I hated it. I had no particular denomination or church affiliation. My parents were good German Lutherans but I lost all connection to Lutheranism after I was about 14 or 15. I heard at Gordon-Conwell about the formation of a new denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America. I felt like if I got in on the ground floor of the new denomination there would not be a lot of hoops to jump through. The church I became the pastor of in Hopewell, Va., had left the Southern Presbyterian Church just months before.
Q: You are known now for giving excellent sermons. Did you give a tryout sermon in Hopewell? Yeah. I do not think I was any good. They were desperate. I am not kidding. Their pastor had left under a cloud and they were looking for somebody, anybody.
Q: You were somebody. I was anybody. I was not somebody.
Q: You were there nine years. Was it like being a young journalist at a small newspaper who benefits from having to write and write and write? Did you have to preach and preach and preach? Right. We had a Sunday morning sermon, Sunday evening sermon, Wednesday evening sermon. Three different expositions. Also, all the weddings, all the funerals, speaking at the nursing home, all the conferences, the youth retreat, the men's retreat, the women's retreat, everything. I preached 200 different sermons, expositions, each year.
Q: What did you learn about pastoral work? In a small town your pastoring sets up your preaching, whereas in a big town your preaching sets up your pastoring. In a big town, because they like the way you preach, they will then trust you to come and share their troubles with you. In a small town they can tell the difference between loud and soft preaching but that is about it. If they see you being wise and kind and loving, they will trust you to come and listen to your sermons. You had to spend time with them in the nursing home, in the prison, at the funeral home.
Q: You learned about pastoring. If you just go to towns like New York and spend all your time ministering, you never learn to pastor. You just learn how to do public communication. Ultimately, your preaching will be worse if you do not know how to pastor because you have not gotten involved in the hurts of people's lives. I learned a lot from Hopewell and if I had not gone there, I would not know a lot of that. It makes me a much better preacher today, way, way better than if I had never been there.
Q: Let me ask about a harder lesson: How did the diagnosis of thyroid cancer that you received in 2002 affect your thinking? I was told by absolutely everybody, "Thyroid cancer is very treatable, your prognosis is really good." In spite of that fact, you go to prayer in a new and intense way. The chasm is between not having cancer and having it. Anybody who has been diagnosed with cancer, with malignant cancer that could kill you if something does not happen, feels a oneness with everybody else right away. I have had pastoral situations where people say, "Since you have had this, I trust you."
Q: How do you deal as a pastor with people who get death sentences? You wait for them to speak and then you answer the questions they are asking. I have to listen to see where they are struggling, and listen to them several times before I try to give an answer. I take stock of what medicines they need from the biblical cabinet and then see whether or not they respond well. If the discouragement doesn't respond to a particular medicine I will try another one. It is really being very reactive and careful.
Q: Now that you've had two decades at Redeemer, what do you see as your biggest failure? The one I got away with was overworking for about 10 years-actually, I have always overworked-and my children not hating me for it. There was a period there when I easily could have lost their love and respect, but they do not look back on it and remember it that way, which is God's blessing. Looking back on it, I say, "Why in the world did you not hate me for it?" They say, "We do not really know." They probably should have. You chalk that up to God's grace.
Q: What do you see as your greatest success? My marriage is my greatest success because we are really, really happily married after a long time. . . . And most of the other people I know, my age, do not have all of their children professing faith in Christ. I do, and I know people who are much better fathers who do not. That humbles me.
Q: And what about Redeemer? Redeemer is the other great success. . . . We paddled out on our board and a wave came in. You can do all the same paddling and standing and then if the wave does not come in there is no surfing. We could have easily come here, done everything that we have done, and have very, very little to show for it. I know other people who have been every bit as faithful, if not more faithful than me, and do not have anything like the same kind of amount of success. I do not look at myself as being more effective than them, but I am more successful and therefore more blessed, for only reasons that God in His sovereignty would know.
To hear Marvin Olasky's complete interview with Tim Keller, click here.
Q: How did you overcome your "painful introversion"? Are you saying, how did an introvert get to be a megachurch pastor in Manhattan? Very gradually. It is a combination: God called me to be a minister and then decided to prosper my ministry more than a lot of other people's, which was always a surprise. I do not know why. It is not false modesty. I am still not sure why.
Q: Gift and grace? The gift side of it is that God continues to send me people who seem to be helped by the ministry. That overcomes some of your lack of confidence, but the danger of relying on your gifts, saying, "Hey, I am a pretty good preacher, people will come back to listen to me," is that that leads to the opposite of an inferiority complex, a superiority complex, which is probably more deadly. They are both self-absorption.
Q: How do you fight that? As I moved from feeling like nobody likes me to everybody likes me-then you get really famous and nobody likes you again-I had to work on the gospel a lot in my heart. Every time I started to get too big a head, something would come along and God would bring me down. This is the way I think everybody grows. Something would bring me down and I would have to use the gospel to shore up my confidence on the basis of His grace rather than on my gifts.