After 28 years of service, Tim Keller is stepping down from leading the church that he planted in Manhattan. Here are five things I think we can learn from this radical move.
1. Transition is difficult so plan for it
This deliberate transition is a bold move. Keller is still one of the most well known and well loved preachers in the world. He is at the top of his game and is surely the biggest reason that new people visit Redeemer church. Two years ago in an interview I asked Keller candidly about the fact that so many mega churches struggled to transition from the founding preacher/pastor. Rob Bell moving on from Mars Hill Grand Rapids decimated church attendance and Mark Driscoll moving on from Mars Hill Seattle meant the end of that whole church network.
Keller explained then: I think that any church that gets really remarkably large under a founding pastor is something of an unstable compound. The same sort of thing happened to Westminster Chapel after Dr Martyn Lloyd Jones left and a similar thing happened to the Metropolitan Tabernacle after CH Spurgeon left. I am not sure that it is completely avoidable.' He shared with me then his plan to transition into three separate congregations. 'I share the preaching. I only preach half the time. One week you get me. One week you get the local pastor. In about two years I step out and those churches belong to them.' Those two years are up now and true to his word Keller has announced that he is stepping down. This demonstrates an impressive amount of intentionality and planning. If we are going to transition leadership well there is a lot to learn from Keller in this move.
2. A church is more than one person's preaching ministry
Like so many others around the world I have benefited deeply from Tim Keller's preaching gifts, his writing and his humble and gracious character. My podcast list will be poorer as a result of him not being a regular preacher at Redeemer. I pray that the transition from one main campus to three goes well but I think this will be an important test of whether Redeemer is a church or a preaching ministry. We live a consumer age and when you have a world class preacher in your city this is a huge attractional force. The question is, will the commitment from congregants to one another, the vision of the church and the gospel witness in the city be strong enough to keep them at Redeemer ?
3. Theology is worth investing in
Some people might read Keller's decision to step down and move into theological education as a code, a bit like when politicians say that they are stepping down 'to spend more time with their families'. But I have long believed that investment in the life blood of the church must include the training of leaders, both theologically and practically. Before he planted Redeemer, Keller taught pastoral theology at Westminster Seminary. The richness of Keller's preaching flows out of the deep investment in training himself and others how to think deeply on scripture, culture and theology. I am excited that he is taking all that he has learned at Redeemer and is going to plough that back into equipping leaders.
The other step Keller is making is into Redeemer's church planting network, City to City. The network has helped to plant more than 381 churches in 54 cities.
I guess I am slightly hesitant about a New York megachurch training the world in church planting as it could smack of old-school colonial paternalism. There are a couple of warning indicators for me. First, I have read almost everything Keller has published when it comes to theology and he does not often quote positively anyone who isn't white, male and western. I am open to being proved wrong but when it comes to his work I can't think of an insight he has gleaned either strategically or theologically that he would attribute to a leader in Africa, Asia or South America.
Second, only one of the 25 staff members of the network was born and lives outside of the USA: Andres Garza is a Mexican-born church leader with a PhD in town planning so he is definitely a positive example of indigenising leadership.
Third, and this is a something I have raised with a number of US global church planting initiatives, I ask whether, in any of these 54 cities they planted in, there were any viable local churches that could have benefited from help and support rather than another new church plant on their doorstep. Perhaps this indigenisation challenge is something Keller is seeking to resolve.
4. Quit at the top of your game
There are some preachers that once you have heard two or three of their talks you have heard them all. It's a particular challenge for those of us who are itinerant. Keller has been the lead preacher at Redeemer for 28 years and has spoken at conferences around the world, yet I and so many others find what he has to say stimulating, fresh and inspiring. I listened to him last week preaching on a passage that I regularly preach on, and still he is giving me fresh insights and powerful challenges. Keller keeps on investing in his preaching through reading widely, trying new things out, constantly working on making things clearer and easier to grasp and listening hard to the questions of sceptics. Just as some TV shows run on way too long, well after their creative energy has dried up, some preachers stay too long in the pulpit. Keller models to us something very different: he is a preacher who is moving on after running the race well and is now ready for a new challenge.
5. Youth should not be a priority
I am so pleased that in everything I have seen so far about Keller's stepping down he has not used the phrase: 'Make room for a younger man.' We live in a culture that often values youth over elders, men over women, white over black, inexperience over wisdom. Tim Keller is 66; many of my theological heroes were only warming up their writing and speaking skills at this stage. John Stott and Lesslie Newbigin, for example, wrote their best material as they got into their 70s. Keller is not too old to lead the 5,000-strong church that he planted in Manhattan with a few people in 1989. Whatever we take away from Keller stepping down from Redeemer's pulpit, we musn't acquiesce to the spirit of the (youthful) age. Scripture teaches us that youth nor age should be a barrier to Christian leadership – no one should look down on Timothy because he is young, but also no one should forget that 'grey hair is a crown of splendour' Proverbs ( 16:31), or as Job puts it: 'Wisdom is with the aged, and understanding in length of days' ( Job 12:12).
Dr Krish Kandiah is the founding director of Home for Good. His latest book, 'Paradoxology: Why Christianity was never meant to be simple' is published by IVP USA.