Keller knew church planting in Europe is hard. Take heart, European leader!
“When the righteous prosper, the city rejoices,” says Proverbs 11:10. Since Tim Keller’s death on May 19th, people around the world have mourned his loss. They have also celebrated his example. A life well lived is worthy of admiration.
I’ve cherished many of the tributes to Keller I read online, and wrote one myself, reflecting on his impact on church planting in Europe. Here, I’d like to briefly add to them by reflecting on four personal lessons he taught me, alongside his sermons, books, and institution-building.
I first participated in a Redeemer City to City intensive for church planters in New York in 2009. To spend a month in the city, study parts of the manuscripts that would eventually become the books Center Church, Prayer, and Preaching, and interact with other church planters was an experience that deeply formed me.
I took part in City to City conferences since, mostly in Europe. It was a joy, however, to return to New York twice with my wife Sarah to help out with two City to City fundraisers. There, we could watch Tim mingle with people, talk unhurriedly, and be his gracious self.
In one conversation we had with him, he told us how his wife, Kathy, didn’t let him off the hook when it came to raising their three sons. And he passed on the imperative to me: “You’re the father, discipline your kids!”
It’s a truth I’ve reminded myself of often. Whenever I’m tempted to tune out or to be absent-minded at home because I have work to do at church, I hear Keller’s voice reminding me to be a present father. We should do both well.
Like other church planters in Europe, I’ve been tempted to compare the size of my church to larger congregations in other parts of the world. I knew that “the gospel lands differently in different cultures,” but still carried a sense of inferiority when visiting huge churches in the United States.
At one of the New York fundraisers, Sarah and I told the story of our church plant in Rome, Italy, and mentioned the number of people that were attending at that point. After our presentation, Keller leaned over to encourage us.
To my relief, he told me he knew that church planting in Europe is hard, that we were doing good work, and that in the US our church would have been ten times larger than it was in Rome. I’ve taken his gracious input to heart whenever I’ve been tempted by discouragement.
Instead of pressuring church planters to grow their churches irrespective of the context, Keller went out of his way to extend understanding and grace to hardworking pastors around the world. Take heart, European leader!
My wife, Sarah, co-emceed a couple of City to City Europe conferences and did a phenomenal job (says the completely impartial husband!).
At one of them, however, she and others fumbled the order of the conference’s first session. They tried their best to improvise and plow ahead with a liturgy that had not been explained to them. It was clear to everyone that it had not gone well, but Keller sought them out afterwards to tell them they were doing a great job.
We knew he was being gracious and that it truly had not gone well. Still, it helped make the rest of the conference flow flawlessly and it showed us that Keller really lived the grace he preached about. He was quick to overlook mistakes, instead of chastising people.
My final interaction with Keller happened during the pandemic, when City to City Europe hosted a few livestreams with him. As the date of the livestream in which I would participate approached, I noticed a fantasy taking shape in my head. What if I got some alone time to talk with Keller? Wouldn’t that be nice? What would I ask him?
We did the livestream and I did get extra thirty minutes with him, though they were very different from what I had dreamed. After the event finished, he lingered on Zoom to chat with the people who had put it together. We asked him about his health, and he told us how his battle against pancreatic cancer was progressing.
Then he told us that he desired to have more time to mentor younger leaders. He added that he wished he was more like Mark Dever, the pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington DC, who is very proficient at raising new leaders and often has trainees shadowing him during large parts of the day. Keller said that it was difficult for him, that he worked better when writing or ministering to others by himself, and he was sorry for not being more like Dever.
Between the lines, I noticed an admission and a request for grace from Keller. I would have loved to follow Keller for a few days, observe how he worked, ask him questions, and learn from how he ate or even blew his nose. I’m sure that thousands of people around the world would have loved to shadow Tim Keller, too.
At that moment, I felt for him and wished to extend him the grace he was so good at extending to others. I thought, “We understand, Tim. It would be nice to be around you, but how could that be possible for all of us? Be the man God made you. Keep writing. Keep feeding millions of us through your books and teaching.”
Now that he’s passed away, I’m grateful he spent time writing books, where we will get to receive his wisdom for years and decades, even centuries.
René Breuel, evangelical pastor in Rome (Italy).