Some in Christendom resented Keller’s stumbled-upon celebrity. Others hailed him as the C.S. Lewis for a new generation. As for Keller, he stayed focused—there was a gospel to preach, cities to reach, souls to save. Even when he was diagnosed with cancer in June, 2020, he scarcely slowed, continuing to work, write, lead, and think—even amidst the chemo, right to the very end.
Long before he planted Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, taking New York City by storm; before City to City galvanized an international urban church planting movement, starting nearly 978 churches and training thousands of Christian leaders; before his endlessly churning mind birthed some two dozen books, many of which are already hailed as Christian classics; Tim Keller was just a kid in Pennsylvania, growing up and grappling with God and reason and himself with all the strength his head and heart could muster.
Born in Allentown in 1950, Keller became a Christian through Intervarsity Christian Fellowship while a sophomore at Bucknell University. He was bookish, even then, nose down in the works of John Stott, F.F. Bruce, A.W. Tozer, and C.S Lewis (to whom he would later be compared). He inhaled words like air (the better written and more sharply reasoned the better), swam in seas of ideas, and wrestled with both the intellectual plausibility and the emotional heart of the Christian faith. By the time he graduated, his path was set: Tim Keller would be a minister of the gospel.
He attended seminary at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary right after college, earning his M.Div in 1975. There, he met his beloved wife, Kathy, and plunged even deeper into the questions of the faith, engaging with Reformed doctrine and learning in the era of Meredith Cline, David Wells, Jack Davis, and J. Christy Wilson Jr.
“1970s Gordon-Conwell [was] a distinct theological phenomenon, and if you don’t understand that then you really don’t understand Tim Keller,” said Reformed Theological Seminary Chancellor Ligon Duncan. “Gordon-Conwell had a ton of confessional Calvinists there in the mid ‘70s, [and] Tim exudes the kind of intelligent, apologetic, reformed evangelical Christianity that was being fostered.”
M.Div in hand, the 24-year-old Keller signed on to pastor West Hopewell Presbyterian Church in Hopewell, Virginia. He served that congregation for the next nine years, slinging sermons like hotcakes (three per week, more often than not), pastoring congregants, and serving his local community. Along the way, Keller found time to earn his D.Min from Westminster Theological Seminary in 1981, and serve as director of church planting for the PCA’s mid-Atlantic region.
In the 1980s, Tim and Kathy Keller moved to Philadelphia, where the couple did urban ministry together. There, Keller taught leadership and communication at Westminster, served as Director of Mercy Ministries for the PCA, and authored his first two books—both related to mercy ministry. By 1989, the Kellers had moved yet again, this time to New York City to plant Redeemer Presbyterian Church. The Big Apple was more dangerous back then, a gritty mission field beset by crime, money, and skeptics. And though most of the other boroughs were chalk-full of churches planted by Christian immigrants from Africa, Latin America, and Asia, Manhattan was overwhelmingly dominated by secularism, with less than 1% of the population identifying as evangelical Christians.
Redeemer started small—with only around 50 members at first. But under Keller’s leadership, the little church began to grow. By the dawn of the new millennium, nearly 3,000 people attended Redeemer’s Sunday service. After the September 11 terror attacks, some 5,400 reeling Manhattanites poured through the church’s doors, searching for meaning, comfort, and hope. Trauma and tragedy fueled a growth spurt, and numbers of new converts soared.