054 | Tim Keller on His Personal Crisis in the Midst of a Global Crisis Plus His Thoughts on Digital Versus In-Person Ministry

April 01, 2021

Tim Keller joins podcast hosts Carey Nieuwhof and David Kinnaman to talk share on walking through suffering and leading in a hybrid context.

In a recent episode of ChurchPulse Weekly, Tim Keller—founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, theologian and best-selling author—joins podcast hosts Carey Nieuwhof and David Kinnaman to talk about his own journey of suffering this past year. Throughout the episode, Keller shares how he’s finding focus amidst a pandemic and offers his thoughts on new church contexts.

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Rethinking the Theology of Suffering
The past year has held a lot for Keller. In addition to challenges brought on by the pandemic, Keller also announced in June 2020 that he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Keller notes that while this discovery did not cause him to rethink his view of suffering, it has challenged him to put his beliefs into action in ways like never before. 

“I had to make [the Christian theology of suffering] something to help me get through the day,” notes Keller, before continuing, “The Christian theology of suffering is so potent. It’s just sitting there unused by most people.” It has been through understanding Christ’s closeness that Keller has continued to find hope in seasons of hardship. He adds, “You’ve got a God who actually knows suffering, so I can get through it now when I’m in the midst of it. I can know that eventually it’s going to be okay.”

In sharing about his new book, Hope in Times of Fear: The Resurrection and the Meaning of Easter, Keller says that thinking of the resurrection keeps him from being too cynical or naïve about his perspective of the present. Keller shares that the realization of this partially-present Kingdom of God revealed in the resurrection keeps him from a “blind optimism” that gets discouraged when things go wrong in this world, while also showing the power of the Age to Come in his life right now when he gets too pessimistic or defeated.

Building a Network of Churches in Cities
Keller shares his reflections on why he hasn’t seen a long-term, successful “micro-church” (or house church) movement during his time doing ministry in New York City. He says, “The reason [we still haven’t had a really great house church movement here is] the impermanence. People get very excited, but it’s a mobile world now. Suddenly half the people can move away over a six-month period, and it falls apart. There’s no bigger community that you can go to to form another one or to be part of and then you feel left out.”

Overall, Keller challenges Christians to consider the ways in which their vision of the Church is being shaped by culture instead of the Biblical truth. Keller says, “The culture is anti-institutional in the extreme, but an institution is something that actually keeps going when the people are gone because it has its own being.”

Instead, Keller proposes that every city have an “ecosystem in which you have all sizes of churches.” While micro-gatherings will be able to meet tangible needs in ways that larger churches cannot, he encourages finding a balance and recognizing how larger churches might meet other needs for a city in ways that a small church cannot.

Finding a Hybrid Approach to Church
As the church begins to reimagine what a post-pandemic world will look like, many leaders are grappling with what digital versus in-person elements they want to keep as part of their regular church rhythms. Keller shares what he has found as the strengths and weaknesses of teaching over Zoom, even in a classroom setting. 

On one hand, Keller expresses gratitude for the ways in which an online platform can reach more people and help those with busy lives or who are traveling to still attend church.  At the same time, one of the biggest drawbacks Keller sees to digital gatherings is that people are not connecting with one another quite as much. He notes that while getting content from a leader is better—“there’s a discipline to it and nobody misses”—people are struggling to get to know one another as they have in the past. 

In light of this, Keller imagines a middle, hybrid approach will be how the church moves forward into the future. He adds, “There are a lot of things we can do digitally that are actually going to involve more people. We are going to be able to do better education and outreach. Still, at the same time, we have to use the digital to woo people into face-to-face relationships, or they are not really going to be changed by the Gospel.”

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