Why I am Grateful for the Life and Ministry of Tim Keller
Dr. Paul Hoffman (MDiv ’03)
Tim Keller first popped onto my radar in the summer of 2009. A friend of his and Kathy’s, who is a seasonal resident of Newport, RI, was attending my church that summer. One Sunday, after the service, she mentioned she liked my preaching and that it reminded her a bit of Tim’s preaching. (I didn’t know then what a compliment that was, but I would soon find out!) She asked me if I was familiar with Tim’s ministry and his two latest books, Prodigal God and The Reason for God. When I confessed my ignorance, she urged me to read them and listen to his sermons. Then came the clincher: she told me Keller was a graduate of Gordon-Conwell who founded a large, influential church reaching “secular” people in Manhattan. Now, I was intrigued.
It took me about six months to follow her lead. I started with Prodigal God, and I was instantly hooked. The way Keller explained the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15 was riveting, challenging, and transformative. I had no idea I was so similar to the elder son, and he was as lost as his profligate younger brother! In my life and ministry, I saw much of the older son’s pharisaical heart expressed in his judgmental, moralistic legalism. In a new way, I realized I needed the extravagant love, grace, and forgiveness of my Abba Father offered through my true older brother, Jesus, to invade my heart and dissolve my pride, fear, and anger. This insight changed the trajectory of my shepherding, teaching, and preaching.
I devoured Tim’s sermons, articles, and other printed materials from there. I was especially captivated by his love for cities and his call for Christians to invest in and plant churches in the world’s great urban centers. With deftness, Keller accentuated the ways the Bible is an urban text.
Finally, everything came to a head in early 2011. A thought dawned on me: “If I am going to devote this much time and energy to investigating Keller, why not make him the subject of my doctoral studies?” This led me to apply and get accepted into a PhD program offered by Nazarene Theological College in conjunction with the University of Manchester, UK. I settled on exploring Keller’s urban missiological method as it had not been covered in depth up to that point (Center Church was not released until the fall of 2012, so I was onto something!).
During my PhD studies from 2012–2017, I examined every aspect of the Rev. Dr. Tim Keller. I listened to dozens of sermons, read everything he ever wrote, visited Redeemer Church multiple times, and even interviewed colleagues and church planters who trained under his tutelage—both in the US and Europe. I came to acknowledge and appreciate many of the qualities God was using to spread His truth through this brilliant yet humble pastor. Although he possessed too many characteristics to delineate in this space, I want to pinpoint four.
First, Keller was an orthodox Christian. He held fast to the fundamentals of the historic Christian faith. His view of Scripture remained high amid the unrelenting skepticism thrown at him by New Yorkers. Second, Keller never wavered in his commitment to Christ-centered preaching. He knew the cross and resurrection were the only answer to the ills bedeviling humanity. Third, he was a uniquely gifted missiologist, able to contextualize the gospel by reading the culture, synthesizing a wide variety of sources and voices, and applying them elegantly to his ministry, teaching, and writing. This made his work relevant and vibrant to Christians and non-Christians alike.
However, the trait I most admired about Keller was his expansive vision of the Kingdom of God. Keller comprehended the power of diverse peoples, parties, and groups collaborating for the sake of the gospel. He was convinced that the body of Christ—in New York and beyond—would benefit from the synergy that stimulates movement dynamics. He often asserted, “It takes a movement to reach a city.” It takes many kinds of Christians, churches, and organizations to impact a city or region with the story of Jesus Christ. This is why Keller created, promoted, or participated in various associations, including Movement Day/Movement.org, Concerts of Prayer Greater New York, Pastors’ Prayer Summit/Lead.NYC, Redeemer City to City, the Gospel Coalition, and others. I find it inspiring that Redeemer City to City (CTC) offers resources and training to churches across the theological, ecclesiological, and geographical spectrum. As of May 2023, CTC’s impact report claims it has helped start 978 churches and trained 79,149 leaders in over 150 cities in Africa, the Middle East, Asia Pacific, Europe, Latin America, and North America.
Where did Keller gain this perspective? Some seeds were planted when he attended a multi-denominational seminary known as Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. While there, he received a world-class education, established some enduring friendships, met and married his beloved wife Kathy, and answered the call to become an ordained Presbyterian minister.
All of this, and more, is why millions across the globe were deeply saddened to hear of Dr. Keller’s death on May 19, 2023. That day, his bright light left the radar field that is planet Earth. It feels too soon, but he’s now entered the eternal city he eloquently described and fervently anticipated. It brings us a measure of comfort to remember the deposit of his many gifts and rich legacy remain. And so let us bid him farewell until we join him. Until then, let us carry forward embodying and proclaiming the gospel he devoted his life to.
 For more on this, see Center Church chapters 27-30, particularly the “A Gospel Ecosystem for a City” diagram on page 375.
Rev. Dr. Paul Hoffman (MDiv’ 03) is a Gordon-Conwell alumnus who serves as adjunct professor at the seminary and as lead pastor of Friends Church of Newport, RI. He earned his PhD in Practical Theology in 2017 at the University of Manchester, UK, with a thesis exploring Tim Keller’s urban missiology. Dr. Hoffman co-authored Preaching to a Divided Nation: A Seven-Step Model for Promoting Reconciliation and Unity with fellow alumnus Dr. Matthew Kim (MDiv ’02). The publication was recently awarded the 2023 Outreach Magazine Resource of the Year in Leadership.