Toronto pastor and author Darryl Dash reflects on the impact of Tim Keller, the celebrated Manhattan pastor and author who died May 19, 2023.
Tim Keller changed my life. I don’t say that lightly. His ministry changed the direction of my life in significant ways.
I first heard of Keller in 2005, around the time I’d become disillusioned with church. I was hurt and discouraged, and I didn’t know what to do about it.
One day, I read about Redeemer Presbyterian Church, the church that Keller planted in New York City. D.A. Carson’s described its ministry in his book Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church:
Although these Christians were steeped in one particular theological tradition, they did not come across as arrogant…. Penetrating the sealed apartment blocks and yuppie culture of a major city is never easy, but hundreds and eventually thousands were converted, generating a congregation where the mean age was late twenties or early thirties: it was the postmodern generation that was most powerfully affected. Across two decades this church planted numerous other congregations in their large metropolitan area and then reached out to help plant still other churches in other metropolitan areas.
I was intrigued.
I began to explore the ministry of Redeemer, the church that Tim Keller had planted. I realized you could stay faithful to Scripture and have an effective ministry in a secular context. Keller’s ministry gave me hope when I needed it.
Keller also changed my life when I started listening to his sermons. I subscribed – you had to pay back then – and I downloaded them manually and listened to them on my iPod. I’d never heard anything like them.
He never gave much of an introduction. He was smart, and he assumed you were too. He started with the mind but always took you to Jesus. He spoke to the issues of the day. I must have listened to hundreds of them over the course of a few years, but then realized that if I listened to too many more, I’d just end up copying his style.
In 2006, I discovered his lecture series “Preaching to the Heart,” delivered at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. These lectures helped me understand his approach and why it worked. It introduced me to concepts I’d never heard before. It changed my preaching.
And then I read his books. Keller published his first book in 1997, but waited to publish his first widely marketed book, The Reason for God, until he was 57 years old. The day it came out, I found a copy in the bookstore and devoured it. To this day, it’s my favourite of his books. Chapter 14, “The Dance of God,” is a contender for the best chapter of any book I’ve read.
Keller may have waited until he was 57 to start releasing popular books, but he made up for lost time. Before he died, he’d written over 30 books, more than one a year.
Two of Keller’s articles may have changed the direction of my life even more than his books. One, called “A New Kind of Urban Christian,” reawakened a passion for urban ministry. A second, called “Why Plant Churches,” gave me a burden for church planting. I had never understood why anyone would want to plant a church. I still remember reading the opening of his article: “The continual planting of new congregations is the most crucial strategy for (1) the numerical growth of the body of Christ in a city and (2) the continual corporate renewal and revival of existing churches,” he wrote. He anticipated and answered my objections. I was sold.
It wasn’t until this year that I realized how often Keller had introduced me to the people who’d influenced him. While reading Collin Hansen’s book Timothy Keller: His Spiritual and Intellectual Formation, I began to piece together that many of the voices that have shaped me had been introduced to me by Keller: people like Elisabeth Elliott, Richard Lovelace, Jack Miller, Edmund Clowney, and more.
I wish I could say that I had enjoyed a personal friendship with Keller. I didn’t. I invited him to speak in Toronto in 2006 and 2008, but he demurred. I wrote a letter begging him to write a book on preaching, and he sent a message back to say he’d already started. He commented on my blog sometimes. I once spoke at a meeting he attended, but someone was talking to him the whole time I spoke.
He allowed me to interview him once.
In 2007, I graduated with a degree at Gordon-Conwell Seminary. Keller spoke at the President’s Breakfast that morning on the importance of relying on character rather than giftedness.
Later that day, I walked across the stage and received my diploma. I was on my way back to my seat when I heard someone call out, “Darryl!” I looked over, and it was Tim, sitting with his wife Kathy. They were there for their son’s graduation that day. “Congratulations,” he said. I thanked him and sat down. Keller was the first person to congratulate me after I received that degree.
“Tim Keller is the first of the Christian giants of my generation whom we have lost,” writes Ray Ortlund. It feels like it.
I think back to that President’s Breakfast when he emphasized the importance of character, not just giftedness. Keller was gifted, and that alone explains why he touched so many. But he was also godly, humble, and funny, and had a way of connecting with ordinary pastors like me.
Tim Keller changed my life like few others. I praise God for his life, and I’m profoundly grateful.
Darryl Dash (DashHouse.com) is the author of 8 Habits for Growth (Moody, 2021) and How to Grow (Moody, 2018). He serves as pastor of Liberty Grace Church in Toronto.