Q&A with Tim Keller

Q&A with Tim Keller


Timothy Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, and chairman and cofounder of Redeemer City to City (CTC), which helps plant churches in global cities. Dr. Keller has published multiple bestselling Christian books, including The Reason for God.

Q: You’ve spent a lot of time researching historical revivals. How do gospel movements change a culture? 01

By changing people. The gospel changes lives; it gives people a new identity. But the gospel also creates a community around it. That community doesn’t fit into anyone’s categories. If the gospel is going to change a whole city or culture, something extraordinary must happen. It’s not just addition, it’s multiplication—through a community.

The very beginning of the Christian church was this kind of explosive movement, but it’s hard to study because it was so long ago. The gospel movements we can examine more closely have happened in the last 300 years. They’re often called “awakenings.” They’re sometimes called revivals. We at City to City like to call them “gospel movements.”

The First Great Awakening, for example, happened during much of the 18th century in Britain and America. It was led by people like John and Charles Wesley and George Whitefield, and it was massive. There are people who make good arguments that the reason why England did not have a bloody revolution the way the French did at the end of the 1700s was because of the social healing that resulted from that long-term revival.

More recently—about 1907—there was a revival at a big Bible conference in Pyongyang, which is now in North Korea. Over the next 70 years or so the Korean church grew from zero to something like 20 or 30 percent of the population.

Something similar happened in the East African Revival, between the late 1920s into the 1950s. What happened in those decades is the reason that today there are at least 9 million Anglicans in Uganda. For comparison, there are about 2 million Episcopalians in America. This was an exponential movement.

Q: How do gospel movements happen? 02

There is a spectrum of opinion. At one end, we’re told there’s nothing we can do. We just hope God will do it when he’s going to do it. At the other end of the spectrum people say, “Absolutely you can make this happen. Go out. Organize. You can have a revival if you try hard enough, know the technique, and scale it up.”

The truth is in the middle. A spiritual awakening is clearly a supernatural phenomenon. But we have a responsibility to work for it. David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, a great British preacher who studied and experienced these movements, came up with the perfect illustration: Elijah laying out the wood, and God sending the fire. That’s how these awakenings come. We can’t ignite the fire. But we can lay the wood out.

The wood is the three essential elements needed for real revival.

First, gospel rediscovery. This requires finding a balanced gospel again: the truth that we are saved by faith alone, but not by faith that remains alone. We’re saved by the grace of Christ, but that changes our hearts so we want to obey him. We want God. Dr. Lloyd-Jones pictures it like managing to balance on the peak of a mountain without slipping down either face of it into heresy. Both fundamentalism and liberalism pull us down the mountain, just in opposite directions. Both lose the power of the gospel by slipping into either legalism or relativism. A lot of very conservative churches need to rediscover grace, a lot of more liberal churches need to rediscover the cross. We need a large-scale rediscovery of the beauty of a balanced gospel. We must get back to the mountaintop.

Secondly, contextual creativity. The gospel never changes, but because culture and history do, the way we communicate it changes. For example, the First Great Awakening with Wesley and Whitefield basically happened by means of preaching in the open air—streets and fields. That was radical. For centuries in Europe, the message was solely preached on Sunday from the local pulpit. People were expected to come to the preacher. But in the 18th century, after the Industrial Revolution, people were leaving the countryside and cramming into cities. They were disembedded from their extended families, and they just weren’t showing up in church. It was radical, but John Wesley and company originated a new way of preaching that went into open public spaces. They were creative.

Finally, extraordinary prayer. What do I mean by extraordinary? It means letting our prayer for the gospel to move exceed ordinary means: quiet time, daily devotions, prayer in church. Do that. But also notice that one consistent thing in the histories of these great gospel movements is prayer that is somehow outside the box, unusual, different. One famous example is a room in Herrnhut—in Saxony, Germany—in the home of the Moravian Count Nicolaus von Zinzendorf. His community began a prayer meeting for worldwide evangelization and committed to having someone pray in that room 24 hours a day. And they did. For a hundred years. Today we remember it as the 100-Year Prayer Meeting. That’s extraordinary prayer.

These three elements are key to preparing for the “fire.” When it ignites, we see wide signs of a gospel-renewed city or region. There are visible outcomes when people find faith en masse. Generosity is one. Studies show that what we might call evangelical Christians give away a far higher percentage of their income than other people. If 20 or 30 percent of your city become gospel-changed people, the fact of the matter is there would be an explosion of philanthropy.

Also, the gospel creates a certain humility that promotes honest dialog and confession. Today, left-wing and right-wing people hate each other. They are not even civil about their differences anymore. Christians ought to be humbled by the gospel, if they have really heard what the gospel says. They should show respect to people who differ from them, but also be confident and willing to embrace difficult conversations.

Real Christians are humble, bold agents of civility. They act as salt and light, bringing together people who can’t even talk to each other because of their hatred. Christians lead the way in confession, forgiveness, reconciliation and listening. If we want revival, we should be agents for the kind of civil society we don’t have right now in America.

The faith that comes in these movements changes culture widely as Christians live out their vocations. In the media, we need to show that there is such a thing as truth. In the art world, we must show that there’s such a thing as hope. In technology, we must ask “Should we?” and not just “Can we?” To bring God into all these areas with grace-changed people in the big cities would change society. It would change history.

We can work to multiply ordinary gospel ministry, putting ourselves in a place where God could do something history-changing. It reminds me of the moment in The Chronicles of Narnia when Aslan tells the children that they will never get back into Narnia the same way twice. We never seem to have a revival the same way twice. We can’t, say, study the Welsh Revival of 1904 and try to replicate what worked.

Nobody can force a major revival to happen. Yet I’ve seen over the years that when people seek revival, seek gospel movements, God often honors that. He responds to our prayer and preparation.

And that desire is part of it. Do we desire this kind of movement enough to dedicate our lives to it? Do we want to see God’s spiritual fire come down on our cities and our churches? Do we want to see the gospel run like lightning through the streets? To see lives changed? To see cities changed?

The Psalms talk about a time of the ultimate gospel movement, when every tear will be wiped away, all sin and evil will be destroyed. All smaller gospel movements look forward to that movement. That’s the ultimate dawning, the ultimate spring day. And that is our desire today. We seek gospel movements as forerunners to that ultimate hope.


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