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James Allen Walker for WORLD

A wave came in

Q&A | How an introvert like Tim Keller became a great preacher

Issue: "Flame-outs," May 8, 2010

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.

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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.

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