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Seek not great things for yourself

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WORLD Radio - Seek not great things for yourself

The late pastor Tim Keller cared more about God’s reputation and fame than his own


MARY REICHARD, HOST: Up next: the spiritual legacy of Pastor Tim Keller.

In June 2020, Keller made a startling Facebook announcement. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Over three years he battled the disease while continuing to preach and write. That battle ended on May 19, 2023.

Before it ended, Keller recorded a video message to younger pastors, casting a vision from Jeremiah 45:verse 5.

TIM KELLER: Forget yourself, forget your reputation. Do what you can to lift up God's name. Seek thou great things for thyself. Even New Yorkers, of course, all New Yorkers are seeking great things for themselves. No, no, “Seekest thou great things for thyself? Seek them not.”

BROWN: Joining us now to talk about Tim Keller is Collin Hansen. He’s Editor in Chief at The Gospel Coalition, and the author of Timothy Keller: His Spiritual and Intellectual Formation.

Collin, thanks for joining us.

COLLIN HANSEN: I'm so glad to be here. Thanks for having me on.

BROWN: Collin, for those not familiar with the ministry of Tim Keller, can you give us a synopsis of how he served the church?

HANSEN: Well, where do you begin with somebody like Tim Keller? He died at age 72, and you go in a lot of different directions in terms of his accomplishments, and his contributions to the church. You could look at his starting of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, a place that he started in 1989. You could look at his international reach through the church planting ministry that he helped to start, that's Redeemer City to City, tremendous influence there. I was blessed to work with him for a number of years because he was the co-founder and longtime vice president of The Gospel Coalition, reaching around the world with digital ministry and conferences and, and things like that. But of course, many of the people listening now we're going to know him primarily as one of the most podcasted preachers, not only in his lifetime, but continuing after his retirement in 2017, and, and until his death, and also known him for his many, many best selling books, starting with two of the first to hit the New York Times Bestseller List. That would be The Reason for God, his work on apologetics as well as The Prodigal God, his interpretation and application of the parable of the prodigal son, or as he would like to call the parable of the two sons. So that's even just a start in some ways, but that helps you to understand a little bit of an overview of his of his life and his contributions.

REICHARD: And you mentioned briefly that Keller founded a church that at its peak had over 10,000 attendees. Based on what you know, Collin, how did Keller finish the race? I can think of other megachurch pastors who burned out or fell into unfaithfulness.

HANSEN: Tim was very focused even from a fairly young age—I was just talking with some friends and colleagues about this—on succession. And so he did a number of things even as a multi-site congregation and even as an innovator in that genre to mitigate some of his particular influence. For one thing, he recognized that he was not a very good manager, so he empowered executive pastors to be able to provide a lot of the day to day leadership of the church. Also, he did not do any video venue preaching. And so through the different places, he'd fly across Manhattan, you know, to get across there to move from the east side to the west side to downtown. And they also did not announce where or when he'd be preaching. So you just went to church, and that also that mitigated against a lot of the celebrity culture. He really did not enjoy that part of his ministry, it did not come naturally to him. And he resented some of it, because after 2008, a lot of visitors from out of town would want to come hear from him, they'd want books signed. It's not that he disliked that, per se, it's just that he really had moved to New York to try to reach skeptics with the gospel. So he was always focused on communicating that gospel of grace, and just, as I mentioned, in my book, he was more interested in reaching those skeptics on the Upper East Side than he was interested in selling books in Nashville. Nothing against Nashville, it's just not what his focus was.

BROWN: In the preface to your book, you explain that you’re focused on the perspective of Keller’s influences more than on his influence over others. What’s the difference and why does it matter?

HANSEN: There's a couple of reasons I took that approach. One of them is, and the most important by far is that Tim didn't like to talk about himself. It's hard to read a biography about somebody who doesn't like to talk about themselves, then you're not looking through journals or diaries or, or things like that. But he loved to talk about others. I don't mean in gossip, he loved to talk about what he was reading. He loved to talk about who he was learning from. He loved to talk about his college professors, his seminary professors, his one personal mentor Ed Clowney of Westminster Theological Seminary, who, to whom he succeeded in some ways, teaching at Westminster. So that was a major reason why I wrote the book that way, because that's the way he talked. The second is simply because I started that book about three years before he died. We didn't know how long he would have. We didn't know how his story would end. And so that was one thing, you can't really write a biography when you don't know the person's full life. The other reason is because I was so close to him, worked with him, a close colleague of his, and so that means that I wasn't really the person to write that kind of critical biography of him. And so I leave that to others. I trust that in time, others will take up that charge. But I really wanted to focus on the kind of book that he would want to see a book where he got to credit people like Jonathan Edwards, and CS Lewis and Ed clowny. And Barbara Boyd, and Elizabeth Elliott, and all those people that he loved to learn from.

REICHARD: Collin, wrapping this up, was there a piece of advice or encouragement that Keller gave you, or that you came across in his writing, that’s stuck with you?

HANSEN: Yeah, there's kind of an interesting bookend. The first time I ever heard Tim Keller preach live, was at the first meeting of The Gospel Coalition. He preached in 2007. He preached on gospel centered ministry. And he gave one of the most famous messages that I know of, and basically just said, the Bible is not about you; it's about God. And when I was writing his biography, my wife understood how anxious I was about this work. And she said, "Collin, it's not about you. It's about God ultimately, and it's about honoring this man, and his wife, Kathy," who served him so well over so many years. That's just, that's the name of the game in ministry is one of the only ways you endure well as you talked about earlier, you gotta understand, it's not about you. It's all about Jesus.

BROWN: Collin Hansen is the Editor in Chief at The Gospel Coalition. Collin, thanks for joining us today.

HANSEN: Thanks for having me.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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