Should I Not Love That Great City
Reflecting on Tim Keller's Legacy
All of us at Ministry to State join with many around the world in mourning the death of Pastor Timothy Keller. As a ministry that is part of the same denomination that Tim was a member of, the Presbyterian Church in America, many of us had some connection to Tim and looked up to him as a pastor, leader, and mentor. Speaking personally, Tim Keller has been one of the greatest influences on my life, faith, and ministry, and I am deeply saddened by his passing.
As we mourn Tim’s death, it’s worth taking time to reflect upon his life and legacy. Hebrews 13:7 instructs us to “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God” and to “Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” With this in mind, what should we remember about this faithful and godly leader? What about Tim Keller’s faith should we be imitating?
While many others have offered reflections on Tim’s legacy since his passing, I want to focus particularly on his heart for cities as something that we should be remembering and imitating. Keller’s emphasis on reaching cities is especially worth reflecting on for those of us who work in government — whether in Washington or other government centers — because this is exactly the kind of environment that we find ourselves in.
In truth, it’s hard to think about Tim Keller for long without considering his emphasis on cities. Keller, of course, planted a thriving church in the heart of Manhattan at a time when Christians were fleeing urban centers and evangelicals were among the least represented religious groups in most major cities. Over the course of his years of ministry in Manhattan, Tim became known for calling the church to not only reach cities with the gospel but to love the city.
This emphasis on loving cities, however, was not simply a passion project for Keller; it was always grounded in thoughtful biblical exegesis. In his sermons, Tim would often turn to scripture passages like Luke 19:41, Jeremiah 29, or Jonah 4 (among many others) in order to show God’s heart for cities and how Christians are called to love cities the way God does. For Keller, this was not about holding to some abstract or overly-romantic view that city-life itself was somehow intrinsically better or more important than suburban or rural life. Rather, it was about the sheer fact that cities contain the most people.
As Keller would say, “Cities have more of the image of God per square inch than any other place on earth.” In other words, cities are worth loving because they contain people — those made in God’s image. Thus, if Christians are to be known for loving people the way God does, then we must develop a heart for cities because that’s where the most people are.
Another related characteristic of Tim’s was his gentle yet engaging posture towards those outside the Christian faith. Tim always ensured that the language he used when speaking to non-Christians directly was considerate and loving, as well as thoughtful, appealing, and full of gospel-truth. His ability to wisely speak the truth in love was one of his greatest gifts as a pastor and a big reason that he reached so many people.
When we consider Tim Keller’s legacy, we are invited to sit with the same question that the book of Jonah invites us to sit with: “Should I not love that great city?” (Jonah 4:11). Tim spent much of his life and ministry trying to convince us that the answer to that question is an emphatic “Yes!” We should love the city and seek its flourishing because God does.
If we want to love the city well, to see the power of the gospel effectively reach the places where God’s image is most visible, and to follow the biblical command to “go and make disciples of all peoples,” then we would do well to remember and to imitate Tim Keller’s life and legacy.
Adam Smith is a Ministry Associate in Washington, D.C.