January 11, 2011

My Year with Tim Keller

Or how the Pastor Who Preaches against Idolatry Became My Idol
      On mastering an author: “What happens after a period of time, you don’t only get to master the person’s works, but you begin to understand how the guy’s mind works. … you can get an author who really speaks to you, and eventually you go beyond just the words of the book or the sermons and you’ve come to penetrate the way the guy’s mind works. His words and ideas just come out extemporaneously out of you.”
- From Keller's series in Ephesians
       My New Year resolutions are never what you would call “normal”. They are more like tests of endurance than anything else. A few years back I didn’t cut my hair just to see how long it would grow. Another year I tried to drink only water. During this last year, though, I came up with something that was a little more spiritually satisfying. Every day for the year 2010 I listened to one sermon by the preacher, Tim Keller. Because his influence and popularity are becoming more well known (he’s even mentioned in George Bush’s memoir Decision Points) I will do as little as I can to summarize his ministry and allow other websites to do so. What follows will be my best attempt at describing what it was like to be emerged in all things Keller, consistently listening to him for 365 days and the ways that it has changed me. It was an amazing experience, learning so much and growing in my walk with the Lord. Admittedly, at times it was extremely tiring, but other times, life-changing. Understanding Dr. Keller’s processes and motives and methodology has been a slow but rewarding process.
       I first heard Keller in 2008 after I downloaded a talk he gave at a college about Suffering. This was good timing as I was currently at home in bed with the flu. I was struck by his combination of intellect, creativity and congeniality, which is a rare and difficult combination these days. He was speaking to non-Christians the way I wanted to; reasonably, speaking the truth without coming across as condescending. We understand their disbelief because we, too, were once in their shoes. I then listened to a talk here and there amongst the other speakers/preachers I would download. But a little over a year ago I would decide that since there are only a limited number of his sermons available for free (I have only a limited amount of money to spend) that I would download them all to gain a better understanding of his work as he ministers in New York City. I don’t know when I would ever find myself there so this is probably going to be the closest that I’ll get to attending his services. As I was searching for and downloading these sermons in December, I found that my collection was nearing 300. I resolved that I would listen to each one of these every day. Very reluctantly, my wife complied with my eccentricity and didn’t give too much heed. At first, I didn’t know if I had the stamina to actually accomplish this feat. Then I heard in one of his sermons that there was a time in his life where he listened to about 400 sermons of David Martin Lloyd-Jones. I was in good company! I knew that I wanted to collect all the insights and all my discoveries, so I found my wife’s Oxford Study Bible from college with very wide margins and I began to create a Tim Keller Annotated Bible. Lord willing, it will be a great tool to use in the future. 

Sorry, my handwriting is nothing more than hen-scratching.
       As I began listening, I started to pick up on reoccurring themes quickly. Some of these themes are religion/moralism vs. true Christianity, the motives of the heart, modern idolatry, the importance of the city, the current and eternal renewal of all things through the ushering of God’s Kingdom through Jesus Christ, and how to balance the tricky relationship between Christ and culture (in one of his lectures at Western Theological Seminary, he admits that although he had probably preached 2000 times in his life, he only has about 20 sermons). But if you think that listening to these same themes over and over would get boring or repetitive, Keller presents these ideas through creative and engaging ways that, over time, build his case, and it is enjoyable to hear them being told again to refresh the memory. Keller’s sermons are very formulaic, yet they are great and convincing formulas. As he says, “If the Gospel isn’t explicit, it won’t be assumed.” He sees and understands what is severely lacking in much of American preaching -- the Cross and its power. If the grace of God offered to us on the Cross is not explained, the preacher will merely be preaching, most unknowingly, guilt-motivated moralism and works-righteousness.
The most thorough explanation of his method and ideology for preaching can be found in his preaching class from WTS available on iTunes, Preaching Christ in a Post-Modern World. If you have the time, you will learn what Keller and his former professor Ed Clowney define as “Christ-Centered Preaching”. Other lectures of his that help explain his technique are his lectures, “Edwards on Preaching” and “How to Preach”, both in the WTS audio archives, “Dwelling in the Gospel”, and “Gospel-Centered Ministry”. A nice thing about Keller is how self-aware he is. He acknowledges that much (but not all) of his preaching is a conglomerate of techniques which does not save, but will help bring the listener closer to the Gospel. To sum up his style of preaching, Keller uses both the traditionalist view of salvation (personal, eternal) and the neo-fundamentalist, Kingdom of God view, which stresses the communal and earthly. Seeing that both views are Biblically valid and culturally relevant, he creates an all-encompassing presentation of the work of Jesus, salvation from our own sin and idolatry.
On a personal note, I suppose that the reason I go into such great detail into his preaching is that, as a 28-year old unemployed father, husband, and college student who has never felt any assurance in a calling, I have felt God pulling me closer and closer this year to becoming a pastor than ever before. One day I read a Redeemer article and listened to both a sermon and a lecture (I would often listen to more that one mp3 a day) and in each, Keller explained how to discern your calling. In prayer and contemplation, I felt God’s sanction to move forward to a life in the ministry. As I work towards this, I still feel unsure and unqualified, yet I feel God’s assurance and guidance of my journey to such a goal. This year, Keller has been to me a preacher, teacher, pastor, mentor, and friend. He has challenged and rebuked, humbled and lifted up, assured and encouraged, opened my eyes to many things and closed my eyes to others. He has taught me in new ways that no matter what, through complete self-assurance or absolute insecurity and humiliation, God loves me because my salvation is not based on my performance or failure of one. As part of the aforementioned formula, Keller stresses this fact in every one of his sermons.

Moving on, I saw in Keller that he has a real bird’s eye view on American Christianity, recognizing the hypocrisy and moralism of religious Christians, the various types of preaching models, preaching motives, motives for sin, motives for obedience, motives for social concern, trends, dangers and influence. Assisting in overseas church-planting, he receives a larger perspective still. He understands the dangers of being a ‘fundamentalist’ or a ‘liberal’ in any category – he has an ability to stay quite moderate in any man-made ideology. He pushes the buttons of the liberal and conservative, both who have felt that he was once on their side. But the genius of Keller is that he isn’t on anyone’s side, and yet at the same time, he is. He understands that, with the discernment of the Spirit, one can hear the opposition’s side and be humble enough to recognize truth when present. This gives him the freedom from the religiosity of Christianity and his PCA denomination and enables him to make great strides in the Kingdom of God, not any constructed institution. How many American, protestant, and evangelical preachers do you know write their first book on mercy ministries, on giving to the poor and loving the unlovable? Nor are there many people I know who can participate in a roundtable discussion of secularists with adequate influence on Saturday and then on Sunday faithfully preach the Gospel to his congregation. Neither do I know of any pastors who can successfully create a lesbian Bible study and see one find conversion from the discussion. When we are free from the constructs of our self-made rules, we can truly be a light on a hill and bring great glory and joy to Christ. This also helps free us from plagiarism. I understand that I could not preach a Tim Keller, New York City, 5,000-attendant sermon to a Jon Houting, suburb of Sacramento, 12-person college discussion group. I would soon realize that it just will not work because those are two different cultures with two different priorities and passions in life. I am free to share what I’ve learned from whoever I’ve learned it from by whichever means I learned it.
       Keller is so well-read that he has an influence on a range of topics. My typical week would look like this: Sunday would be a lecture on diaconal ministry, on Monday I would learn that it is Biblical to be a good steward of the Earth, Tuesday would be a talk on Christian worldview and cultural context, I would learn that Jesus is the new and better David on Wednesday, Thursday, Keller would preach that I have turned my religion into my righteousness, Friday would bring helpful remarks on church planting, and then Saturday he would help me see how I am trying to make my social status into my functional savior. This typical schedule would often overload me mentally and spiritually, and I don’t really recommend this type of daily regimen for anyone with a busy schedule. There were sermons I would want to just linger on for days because I wanted it to really sink in, but it would often get pushed to the back of my mind with the next day’s sermon.
Now, as there is no such thing as a perfect preacher, I became aware of the various criticisms against Keller. The blogosphere offers plenty, from concerned analysis to claims of heresy. You can’t get away from it. In some Christian circles, “popular” simply means “heretic”. For a taste of something somewhere in the middle, these two men offer a primer of Keller criticisms, most notably concerning his view of the city (although I don’t see much difference between the Redeemer’s mission statement and what Calvin did in Geneva). As you can read criticism here and elsewhere, I will limit myself to two that I believe to be fair. First, his preaching will often use the text to offer the listeners exegesis which isn’t always there. His style of preaching isn’t the typical exposition, but rather reflections upon the passage, pulling from the text what is relevant to the context of his hearers, which is reminiscent of Spurgeon. He does not make up truth or take a text out of context to create a pretext, but finds in the text exactly what intellectual New Yorkers need to hear. This may not be so much a criticism as it is an observation but I do believe it becomes harder to accurately convey the meaning of the passage this way.
       The second is pretty technical and has to do with what I call “emotional monotone”. It may be preferable to the Manhattan congregation’s ability to listen to sermons that he doesn’t get very emotional in the pulpit, or maybe simply it’s just not part of his personality. Yet Intellectual preaching doesn’t necessarily rule out emotion; when in preaching seminars Keller stresses Jonathan Edwards’ idea of preaching the “sense on the heart”, it would seem more persuasive to me if this was presented with more emotion and soul. And I know that you can’t (or shouldn’t) fake an emotion that isn’t there and his messages still strikes to the heart, but it just seems like an inconsistency.

       So as I was learning and growing over the months I was feeling pretty good about myself. My conversations were growing richer and I began to sound smarter. It wasn’t until October that my imagination got away from me about how I could gain from this little hobby of mine, I realized I was no longer doing it for my relationship with God and others, but for myself. This experiment had become my idol. I was spending too much time thinking about how I could benefit from doing this, allowing all this knowledge to puff me up, that it wedged itself between me and others. I was beginning to feel superior to others. I quickly had to spend some time with God about what I was doing and what I wanted to get out of this. Honestly, I had a difficult time deciding to write this post and I have to still measure my motives for doing it. But in the end, I hope that this somehow benefits others more than myself. The last sentence in the introductory quote above is, “…His words and ideas just come out extemporaneously out of you. What if God was like that to us?” In all things, in all pursuits, we need to constantly check our idols because they pop up new every day and in all types of avenues. Jorge Luis Borger has this quote: “To fall in love is to create a religion that has a fallible god”. Now I know that I’m taking it a little out of context, but I think it’s applicable here. To fall in love with ANYTHING is to set that thing up for failure because it will never satisfy you as much as you want it to. We can never be fully satisfied with anything except Jesus Christ.
       Lastly, I wish to share two of the greatest things from Keller that I have really taken to heart. First is his description and use of Gospel Humility, the idea that since we are chosen by God to receive a gift completely free from anything we have done or will do at the expense of His Son, we have no right to look down on anyone else, to feel superior to other people or to use our faith as a weapon for any other means that to show the Gospel. “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” In listening to his discussions with Christians and non-Christians alike, he holds to this formula with great humility. The other idea that completely blew me out of the water the first time I heard it was the fact that our source of strength comes from Christ alone and not of our own willpower. I can try over and over to stop sinning or to keep trying to be good but I just can’t do it. It is only when we look to our Savior do we gain the strength for our sanctification. I’ve searched the New Testament and I see this come up over and over again. Even the times where Paul says to use self-control, God gives us the desire to deny myself, pick up my cross, and follow Him. It is all from His power.
       This past year I have simply come to love God more and have been able to delve deeper into my relationship with Him, receiving a greater knowledge and appreciation for His Word. It has been an inspirational and challenging time with Dr. Tim Keller, and I wish him all the best. I hope that all of you, too, can reap from him and his ministry as much as you can. Listen to a sermon, read the Redeemer newsletters, read one of his books. I pray that God will retain the good that I’ve learned and dispel the bad. After this year, I notice and can sense the slightest influence of Keller from any preacher I listen to. His influence is wide-ranging and I believe, completely beneficial for American Christianity. There is an adage of Keller’s that is gaining popularity in evangelical circles and is extremely important for our journeys. “If you listen to one thinker, you become a clone, if you listen to two thinkers, you become confused, if you listen to about 10 thinkers, you being to develop your own voice, when you listen to near 50, you begin to get wise.” It is my hope that I can move on, “get wise”, and continue to utilize the vast resources out there to strengthen my faith in God, my walk with Christ, and my testimony to the world.