Interview: Preach it!
Timothy Keller, preacher, writer and church planter, talks to Stephen Tomkins
Timothy Keller founded Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan in 1989, with 50 members; it now has 5,000 in three congregations. In 2001, he started the church planting programme, Redeemer City to City, which has helped to found over 300 churches in 45 cities.
The latest of his numerous books, Preaching (Hodder & Stoughton, 2015, £16.99), offers a guide to the art of communication that he has pursued for the last 26 years. Reform snagged a rare interview with him when he was in London this summer.
Is the art of preaching thriving today, or foundering?
I don’t know that I would want to say it’s foundering, but it’s not strong. I regularly listen to preaching that I think is pretty good, so I wouldn’t be writing Ichabod all over preaching right now, but it’s not in good shape.
What are the reasons for that decline?
I don’t think ministry is a real attractive prospect for people. This is true in this country as well as in my country. We’re not attracting as many as we used to. Very able people are thinking: “This is just too much work, I won’t get paid enough.” It’s not a great way to become prosperous. Because the preaching world is not held in high esteem and because it’s not a great place to make a lot of money – we live in a more materialistic world than we ever have, so the number of folks going into the ministry is smaller and it’s a shallower pool of talent.
Would preaching be better if it was attracting people who wanted to make more money out of it?
No. But it used to be a place where you felt you could speak to society. It was a more respected profession. I’m not necessarily saying this is good, but there are people who should be going into the ministry who aren’t because they won’t make money and won’t get respect. They should do it anyway, frankly – I did, and I’m glad I did. But I do see why a lot of people say: “Ugh”. Almost everybody I know in the ministry sees people they went to school with who have smoother lives. That shouldn̕t be the issue, but it gets to people.
Has the task of preaching changed?
Compared to how long ago?
Well, technology has changed just in recent decades – people’s attention spans have changed, the channels of communication have changed.
In an earlier version of Preaching, I actually went there – then I decided most of what I was saying was too speculative, so I just dropped it. I do think attention spans have changed, and preachers don’t seem to take that into consideration! It used to be that the main way you had information was through reading; now we watch and listen to all kinds of great skilful communicators, so the standard that listeners want has gone up, and if the minister isn’t pretty good, they turn off and don’t come back. I also think people are a little less rational and more emotional. So there needs to be more willingness to reach the heart not just inform the head
Has your style of preaching changed since the 70s and 80s?
Yes. In all those ways. That’s one of the reasons I didn’t write the chapter, because it’s: “Look at the changes I’ve made.” But it’s also hard to prove these intuitive things.
In your first church you preached 1,500 new sermons in nine years. Is there a danger that that model means the preacher spreads themself too thinly, the congregation has a more limited diet, restricted to one point of view?
I hadn’t thought of that. Perhaps. It was a small, working class church; I was asked to preach Sunday morning, Sunday evening, Wednesday night. They wanted their minister to interpret the Bible to them. It was terrific for me, and I didn’t feel they were cut off from other voices. I think the bigger problem is that younger ministers now tend to go on the staff of a larger church and they don’t get anything like that kind of experience.
What makes a great sermon?
A good sermon is true to the Word – true to what the text is saying, not just reading your own meaning in; and lifting up Jesus Christ, which puts that text in the context of the whole Bible, the main point of the Bible being Jesus. Secondly, it’s true to the people you’re speaking to: You’re capturing their imaginations, applying it to their lives, bringing it home to their hearts. That’s a good sermon. A great sermon is when the Holy Spirit decides, in his sovereignty – and we all wish he willed this more often – to use that in a powerful way in the hearts of the listeners. What the preacher considers a less well-crafted sermon might be used in a way a better crafted one isn’t, because the Spirit blows where he wills.
One the principles of Preaching is: “Preach Christ from all of Scripture” – for example, the sailors sacrificing Jonah to the storm prefigures the sacrifice of Christ. I wonder if there isn’t a risk of losing the individuality of the Hebrew writers and their local concerns, if you turn the prophets into Gospel tracts.
You wonder well. If you get to Jesus too early in a sermon, you miss not just the individuality of the Hebrew writer but the practical application too. Generally, that writer was trying to get the people to do something. They didn’t just want their listeners to say: “Oh, so the Messiah’s going to be like that, huh?” A lot of the calls for justice in the Old Testament do point us to Jesus Christ, but if you jump there too quickly you won’t see that the prophet is asking for social justice in the lives of his listeners, and you’ll miss that for your listeners.
However, if you get to Jesus Christ too late, or not at all, you become moralistic. You’re telling people: “Be better people,” and you don’t get to the fact that your salvation is in Christ. You shouldn’t get there too soon or too late.
You also say every sermon should have a clear Gospel message, of how God saves us by grace through his Son. Did Jesus preach like that?
I think so. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says: “There’s two ways to live, two ways to build a house, two paths, two gates.” He’s summarising, and you can find those two ways back in the sermon. When I was younger, I used to say: “Jesus is saying there are two ways to live, God’s way or your way,” but that’s not actually what’s going on here. Jesus says there are two groups of people, but both pray and both give to the poor, but there’s a kind of religion that is works righteousness, that prays in order to be heard and gives in order to be good, and then there’s a religion that is based on being poor in spirit, receiving righteousness rather than generating it. When I read the Sermon on the Mount, I actually do see him laying out grace versus works.
Redeemer Presbyterian Church grew from 50 to 5,000 people in 20 years, is that right?
Ah. Yes. Now that you mention it.
What makes a church grow?
The same thing as makes a garden grow. The gardener has skills, knows how to plant and water. But then there’s the soil and there’s the weather, and you have no control over those. So, sometimes, a more skilful gardener will have a worse crop, because it’s terrible weather, or the soil is resistant; other times a less skilful gardener has incredible success. Ministry success is a difficult-to-discern combination of agricultural skill, soil and weather condition. It’s very difficult to know to what degree it was just God blowing his sovereign Spirit through that community.
My wife and I regularly look at all the places in which Redeemer’s growth could have been capped, or deflected – we hired the wrong person, or thought: “This is what the church needs,” when it was something else. Whenever we should have been stopped, God saved us from our institutional stupidity and gave us institutional grace. I just think he felt: “I’m ready to do some new things in New York and I need a groundbreaker,” and I just happened to be standing there. It’s like being a surfer. You can get out there and paddle, but if a wave doesn’t come along, you just paddle. I paddled, and a wave came along. It’s not false modesty. I know a lot of other people who are every bit as agriculturally skilful but haven’t seen the same fruit, because God just decided that’s what he wanted to do.
What are those “agricultural” skills?
One is innovation. The Great Awakening was to some extent the result of industrialisation: People who had lived on the land for generations came into cities, and Wesley and Whitefield innovated, because the culture changed. They started open air preaching and small groups for converts, because people were displaced so you couldn’t reach them through their parish church – you had to go to them directly. And they were more able to make decisions by themselves rather than as rural clans.
I do think the real Gospel is like a seed, and if you get away from that you’re just planting pebbles. So staying true to the truth, being people of prayer.
What’s the role of prayer in preaching?
It’s a funny thing. I do pray on a Sunday morning: “Lord help me;” and every Saturday night with my wife. But it’s my ongoing regular prayer life that makes my preaching good, not that if I pray twice as much for this sermon it will be twice as good. Generally speaking, if my prayer life is rich and I am on speaking terms with God, then when I’m preaching I will sense his presence and people will sense that I am in his presence. That’s not deliberate.
You’re very active on Twitter; do you consider that to be part of your preaching?
No! Younger people around me said: “If you want to let people know about things you’re doing, Twitter is like a noticeboard. But the way you get a Twitter following, you have to give them something that helps.” So my middle son hears me preach and when he hears something he thinks will be a great tweet he writes it down, talks to me about it and we send them out one a day.
But what I’ve noticed is that Twitter is contextless. I see the tweet and say: “I really see how that could be misunderstood.” And someone replies: “But what about this…” and he’s absolutely right, but the only answer is: “Well, it’s Twitter, there’s no nuance.” I do not think it’s a great way of communicating; it’s certainly not a way of teaching the Word. It helps people know what I’m doing.
Bearing that in mind, you recently tweeted: “The best way to renew the existing churches of a city is by planting new ones.” Could we talk about the context of that?
Let’s! It’s not the only way, it’s one of the best. New churches connect with the newest people in that community. Older churches have people who’ve been in the community longer and are out of touch with changes there. They’re also generally more negative about innovation – “That’ll never work… that’ll never work.” A new church gets started, they reach people who the old church didn’t even realise were there, they do things that the old church said: “That’ll never work,” and they work. The next thing you know, some of the converts from the newer churches find their way to the old churches; then new leaders emerge in the Church; then the older church start to see: “Oh, that’s how that works,” and adapt those models.
If the relationship isn’t too strained – if the new church is humble, frankly – new churches can really help the older churches. They shakes things up, and that’s what brings renewal.
This article was published in the October 2015 edition of Reform.