In 2017, Tim Keller announced he was stepping down as pastor of New York’s Redeemer Church to pursue his next mission in life—church planting and training church planters. If anyone thought Tim Keller would retire and move to Florida, they clearly don’t know him well. He’s a man on a mission.
Facts & Trends’ Maina Mwaura and the North American Mission Board’s Dustin Willis sat down with Keller to talk about his latest book God’s Wisdom for Navigating Life and to reflect on the wisdom needed for ministry in today’s culture.
This is part one of that interview. Part two will focus on church planting and advice for the next generation of pastors and leaders.
You’ve recently written God’s Wisdom for Navigating Life with your wife, Kathy. What did you learn from writing a book on Proverbs?
I’ll be very honest about it. It was harder than most and it was harder than I expected. It’s because Proverbs actually is a more difficult book on the surface—it looks easy.
There are a lot more layers of meaning to the book of Proverbs. So writing the book took three times longer than writing the same kind of book on the book of Psalms.
What type of wisdom do you think pastors and church planters need to minister in today’s culture?
We live in a culture that is becoming increasingly more secular. In the West, we assume people have certain religious dots—they believe in God, they believe in moral truth, they have some concept of sin and guilt that they aren’t living the way they should, and they think there’s something out there beyond this world, maybe there’s an afterlife.
Those are the religious dots people have always had even if they weren’t Christians. Evangelism and discipleship are connecting the dots they already have.
What happens when you get in a culture where increasing numbers don’t have the dots—the idea of sin isn’t coherent and they have no good sense of it?
If you don’t understand that change that’s happening in the culture right now and you keep on doing business as usual, you’re going to become less and less effective.
Part of wisdom is to know the times and the seasons. Knowing yourself, knowing others, knowing the times and seasons, that’s what wisdom is. A lot of people don’t know the times and seasons we’re in.
Does that concern you for the American church?
Yeah, I’m glad you used a word like concern as a nice, modest word. Yes, I’m concerned.
I see and read about Europe and I see how hard it is. One of the questions I ask is: is America on its way to being that secular? I don’t know if it’s true or not. But if it is, no one has cracked the code in Europe. It’s really, really hard.
Put it this way: if you go to a Hindu, a Muslim, the animists of Africa, they still had a concept of a moral truth and sin and guilt and shame. So there’s a sense in which they actually had the dots. You might say they had religious dots. And so missionary work has always been able to work with the dots and help people connect the dots.
We really don’t know much about a relatively new phenomenon, which is post-Christian secularism where [people] don’t have the [religious] dots and have almost been inoculated against Christianity. So am I concern about us as the Church floundering around not knowing what to do? Yeah.
What are some evangelism tools the church is going to need in a post-Christian culture?
I do think for example, the seeker church, with high production values, great music, terrific speaking, and great programs still works with non-Christians who have a religious [background]. If you can show them church is relevant, they’ll be there.
Most churches are not, so people don’t feel the pressure to go to church anymore. There’s no social pressure to go to church. They’re not going to come unless they see it’s relevant.
The people who don’t have a religious background generally can’t be won [to Christ] through big programs. They are won through relationships and that takes a lot more time.
What one thing have you learned while pastoring Redeemer?
Well, actually, this is the one thing my wife says I still haven’t learned; that I’m completely replaceable. I have not learned that. I’ve always felt like there’s nobody that can replace me; I have to do it.
My wife’s always trying to say, “you can relax, you are not the savior of the world, you’re not irreplaceable.” That’s the one thing I should have learned, and I still haven’t learned. My wife just talked about it this week and so there we are. So, honey, I’m trying to learn it.
Watch the full interview:
MAINA MWAURA is a freelance journalist and minister who lives in the Atlanta area with his wife, Tiffiney, and daughter Zyan.
DUSTIN WILLIS is executive director of marketing and events at the North American Mission Board. Willis is the author of Life On Mission and Life in Community.