Tim Keller Wanted to Learn from the Global Church. Even Secularizing Europe.
When Timothy Keller visited Rome in 2014, he addressed city pastors, gave an apologetic talk at the Italian Senate, and answered questions from students at Sapienza University of Rome, the largest university in Europe.
As a pastor who had planted a church next to Sapienza, I was struck by seeing Keller minister in my own context. On that campus, my wife and I had distributed flyers, held picnics, engaged students, and helped some of them pray for the first time. Two years before, a crowd of students gathered in the university's central lawn for a debate on the existence of God, in which I tried my best to interact with an atheist professor and commend the Christian faith.
As Keller held an extensive Q and A session, responding to the toughest questions posed by the students, I admired the thoughtfulness of his answers. Then I was struck by his servant posture. Keller had rolled up his sleeves, served alongside local workers, and happily accepted questions from young, secular Italians.
That moment encapsulated the capacious, humble spirit that had gained the respect of many European Christian leaders. In Keller, they found theological robustness in an age of pragmatism and technique, a reconciling spirit in an age of division, and a rediscovery of the gospel in a time when preachers are tempted to reduce it to inspiring stories and practical advice.
"He was the premier North American evangelical statesman of his generation," said Lindsay Brown, the former secretary-general of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. Keller's death brought to his mind words spoken at John Stott's funeral: In 2011, the theologian Chris Wright paid tribute to Stott by describing Stott "as the greatest in the West and the humblest."
"I'd say the same about Tim Keller," Brown said. "He exemplified the spirit of partnership. He was a man of conviction in terms of biblical truth, but it was graciously and compassionately applied."
Attentive Europeans could see the layers of European Christianity that had shaped Keller, from the Reformers and Puritans to the poignant preaching of George Whitefield, the evangelical spirituality of John Newton, the Dutch theology of Herman Bavinck and Abraham Kuyper, and mid-20th century Oxford writers such as C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien.
When Keller felt daunted by the challenge of planting a church in New York in the 1980s, he drew inspiration from the previous generation of London pastors who demonstrated that center-city churches fed on expository preaching could reach urban professionals.
John Stott's All Souls, Martyn Lloyd-Jones' Westminster Chapel, and Dick Lucas' St. Helen's Bishopsgate inspired Keller much like how Redeemer Presbyterian Church would help Europeans feel hope that their own cities could be reached by the gospel one generation later.
For Pangiotis Kantartzis, pastor of First Greek Evangelical Church in Athens, Greece, missional church planting was a new concept. "I had never seen in my life and ministry a new church grow out of intention and not out of division or out of convenience," he said. He confessed to becoming anxious about the idea of growing a gospel movement that planted multiple churches, created an ecosystem that trained leaders, and served the needs of the Greek capital and the influx of immigrants.
Since then, First Greek Evangelical has helped birth churches for Greek professionals, Iranian immigrants, and the youth activists that populate Exarcheia, Athens's anarchist-leaning neighborhood.
"Seeing what God was doing in New York and the analysis of it through the various papers Keller wrote played a decisive role in inspiring and shaping me in how I develop a vision for a gospel movement in the city," said Kantartzis.
For Tiago Cavaco, a Baptist pastor and punk-rock singer in Lisbon, Keller's vision and writings helped develop his approach toward cultural engagement. At that point, Cavaco was already hosting events and dialogues with non-Christian thinkers. "When I started following Keller, I realized he had a much more mature and experienced approach that, although happening in New York, could apply to us in Portugal."
Cavaco emphasized Keller's listening posture as the key to engaging Europeans. "Keller was a rare example of a [successful] American preacher available to our common Christian European experiences of frustration, [who] was completely receptive to what being a Christian meant in a different place than his," he said. "Zero patronizing, full attention."
Keller encouraged fellow Americans to adopt the same posture and learn from the global church, even secularizing Europe and its numerically smaller Church. In Movements of the Gospel, a 2018 volume of essays by European church planters, he stated, "We must watch the European church and learn from its successes and failures because our own cultures are shaped by the same secularism and materialism more and more."
"Keller believed that we Europeans are 'on the frontline' of a new, much more secular and multireligious era. That is not only a realistic perspective but also a very encouraging one," said Tim Vreugdenhil, an Amsterdam pastor who pioneered a method of interactive evangelism to reach the city's secular professionals.
"He helped me to believe that our generation of theologians and church planters are not 'the last men and women standing' but the pioneers of a different sort of Christianity: much smaller in size and numbers but, God willing, more influential in gospel preaching."
Keller's experience and humility drew European leaders to learn from him at conferences organized by City to City, the organization Keller founded to equip the next generation of churches in the world's global cities. He seemed equally at home in a Paris cathedral or Krakow movie theater.
Several other European leaders also remembered Keller's visits to the continent.
In a tribute to the man he referred to as "a global point of reference for the evangelical archipelago," Leonardo de Chirico, pastor of Breccia di Roma church, reminded readers of Keller's Italian heritage.
"When he came to Rome, among the noises of the city and the flavors he tasted, he confided that he felt a strange sensation: that of the rekindling of sounds and the reactivation of sensations that he had experienced as a child when he participated in the noisy and tasty 'ritual' of a Sunday lunch [with his] immigrant family," de Chirico wrote.
Others felt like he helped them appreciate their own contexts more fully.
"Tim Keller taught me to love Dublin," said Sean Mullan, a church planter in Dublin. "He knew the gospel lands differently in different cultures and respected that."
For Xavier Memba, who helped plant Ciutat Nova church, Keller helped him look at his ministry in Barcelona in a different light.
"Training with Tim Keller offered me a new perspective on the church in the modern world, highlighting how it must adapt to its cultural and urban context without forgetting the gospel message," he said.
Northern Europe leaders agreed.
"Many of us here in Norway are deeply grateful for the rich legacy of Tim Keller - a legacy that both engages and challenges us," added Lars Dahle, an associate professor at NLA University College Kristiansand. "He was gospel-centered as a preacher, unifying as a leader, and strategic as a missionary."
Keller's passing on May 19 has been a deeply felt loss for many in Europe. His commanding role as an urban missiologist, evangelical theologian, and reference point for global church leaders is hardly replaceable. But the network of leaders shaped by Keller has learned that it takes many churches to reach a city and many voices to refract Jesus's ever-fascinating gospel.
"Our teams running evangelistic actions and discipleship projects in over 100 cities have benefitted from Keller's material," said Luke Greenwood, the Europe director of Steiger, a missions organization that reaches European youth in creative ways. "Tim's heart for the lost and [his] willingness to personally engage in the difficult conversations has been a source of solid teaching and theological framework for what we do."
In recent years, Keller has sought to ensure that the work continued after his death, said Tim Coomar, a church planter in Athens and leader within City to City Europe.
"As we mourn the loss of Tim and wonder how we will continue moving forward, I think Tim prepared for his departure by ensuring that although no one person could do what he did, all of us together could develop further and deeper what he started."
Rene Breuel is the founding pastor of Hopera Church in Rome and the author of The Paradox of Happiness.