Would Tim Keller Care If We Weren’t Still Talking About Him? Probably Not.

In spring of last year, many of us saw a photo of the late Timothy Keller sitting on a park bench. The photo was used on the cover of Collin Hansen’s biography of Keller, and it circulated around the internet in May when he passed away—on social media, blogs, and even Keller’s personal website.

What most of us didn’t see, however, was the banana peel lying on the bench only a couple feet from Keller. The peel has been cropped from most versions of the photo, and understandably so. Who wants to see an ugly brown bit of organic waste in an author’s photograph?

I confess that if I were a world-famous pastor and best-selling author having my picture taken by a professional photographer, I would most certainly have moved the banana peel before someone took my picture. Who wouldn’t? But Keller didn’t seem to care.

I believe this points to a deeper character trait of Keller’s, which many observed during his lifetime of ministry: an indifference to fame and to curating an image—something many of us struggle with in the social media era. This is also part of why, I believe, he finished his race so well.

Finishing well in life and ministry has been historically difficult for believers, especially for those in positions of leadership. Think of Gideon or Solomon in the Old Testament, Demas in the New Testament, or, of course, the many church leaders today who have infamously failed to persevere.

The esteem that leaders receive from the Christian community can allow for hidden flaws to grow like rust on the hull of a ship, unnoticed and unaddressed at first. But as these leaders reach greater influence, greater weight is placed on these flaws—which can reach dangerous levels of corrosion—and can often be enough to sink the whole ship of their character and legacy. Yet Keller’s neither corroded nor sank.

As Keller wrote in his best-selling booklet on self-forgetfulness, “Friends, wouldn’t you want to be a person who does not need honor—nor is afraid of it? Someone who does not lust for recognition—nor, on the other hand, is frightened to death of it?” As someone who seemed neither to lust for recognition nor to be frightened by it, this description seemed to fit Keller well.

Arianne Ramaker, who took the original image in Paris while photographing Keller for an article, wrote in our email correspondence, “Because the theme of the article was ‘being a Christian in the city’ and because I like documentary photography, I didn’t change anything about the environment. … To me, such a banana peel makes it real and unpolished, as life is.” She added, “I am … totally surprised that my photo has been used so much.” I think Keller probably felt the same surprise about the success of his own ministry.

In our day of fracturing alliances and shifting loyalties—particularly with respect to how Christians should best engage culture—it’s no surprise that a Christian leader like Keller, who often spoke about cultural engagement, had critics who wished he was stronger on one issue or another. Yet people rarely condemn his character, which remains generally acknowledged as inimitable.

“You won’t find leaders close to Keller who idolize him,” Collin Hansen writes in his biography. “But they do admire him for his charactzer.”

When Jesus noticed how religious and political leaders in his own time often “chose the places of honor,” he told a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast,” he said, “do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited. … But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place.” He added, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:7–11, ESV).

Francis Schaeffer comments on this parable in his famous sermon “No Little People, No Little Places.” He writes,

Jesus commands Christians to seek consciously the lowest room. All of us—pastors, teachers, professional religious workers and non-professional included—are tempted to say, “I will take the larger place, because it will give me more influence for Jesus Christ.” Both individual Christians and Christian organizations fall prey to the temptation of rationalizing this way as we build bigger and bigger empires.

The rationale that bigger is always better, Schaeffer argued, was taking Jesus’ words backward. “We should consciously take the lowest place,” he said, “unless the Lord himself extrudes us into a greater one.” This idea of “extruding” comes from manufacturing: “Picture a huge press jamming soft metal at high pressure through a die so that the metal comes out in a certain shape,” Schaeffer said. “This is the way of the Christian: He should choose the lesser place until God extrudes him into a position of more responsibility and authority.”

This was Keller’s way. Although he stood well over two feet taller than Frodo Baggins, the beloved character in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy—books he never stopped reading—Keller remained just as unlikely and unassuming of a character on an important quest. No one who starts his first pastorate with a rural church of just 90 people in Hopewell, Virginia, could be expected to become a household name among confessing evangelicals only a few decades later.

Even when Keller moved to Manhattan in 1989 to start Redeemer Presbyterian Church, Collin Hansen notes, “he deliberately avoided publicizing the church, especially to other Christians.” Why? Because “he wanted to meet skeptics of religion in the Upper East Side more than he wanted to sell books in Nashville.”

I’ve never been to Nashville, but in the same way I would have moved the banana peel, I confess my heart too often feels more excited to sell books in Nashville than to love the people God has placed around me. These temptations with ministry ego go back some time. Unchecked, I’m more of a Boromir than a Baggins.

Image: Photography by Arianne Ramaker / Courtesy of Redeemer City to City

Tim Keller sitting next to a banana peel.

When I interviewed for my current ministry role, I remember standing in the basement, chatting with the pastoral search team. It would be an understatement to say the kitchen looked more dated than I would have preferred. Ditto for the whole building. And the neighborhood hadn’t aged well either. For context, I was leaving a large church with a brand-new building in a growing part of the city. That church kitchen had a giant stainless-steel commercial dishwasher. I didn’t know how to use it, but it sure looked cool.

To use Schaeffer’s word, when I came to our church, I felt the Lord extruding me—but downward, not upward.

Over ten years have passed since then, and I’m still here. I’m not famous, and I doubt I’ve sold many books in Nashville because I haven’t sold many books anywhere. But I can testify in a hundred ways to the kindness of God. In the words of Jesus, our church has experienced good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, in our lap (Luke 6:38). The temptation to seek great things still lingers, but I continue to learn that the way of life is found in dying to our sin.

In Keller’s last video message to his church before passing away, he spoke to this, reflecting on Jeremiah 45, a lesser-known passage about a scribe named Baruch who, evidently, began to think too highly of himself. “Do you seek great things for yourself?” God asks rhetorically. “Seek them not” (v. 5).

Keller used quoted his passage as he told his church, “Ministers very often come to New York to make a name for themselves.” After living 34 years in the city, I’m sure this was not a hypothetical scenario for him. He continued, “Ministers, don’t make your ministry success your identity. … Hallowed be Thy name. Forget yourself, forget your reputation.”

This advice came from someone who had a stellar reputation—as a pastor, theologian, evangelist, and author. And I’m thankful that God extruded Keller to a place of prominence. I’m thankful for the church-planting empire that the Lord built through him and for the many resources he’s published that continue to help people like me and churches like mine today. But had Keller not finished well the race marked out for him (Heb. 12:1), none of that would have mattered.

Which is why I’m most thankful for the reminder left by Keller’s legacy—one that so many church leaders need today—that humility and self-forgetfulness are godly virtues that ensure the impact of our ministry far outlasts our lives.

Benjamin Vrbicek is the lead pastor at Community Evangelical Free Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the managing editor for Gospel-Centered Discipleship, and the author of several books.

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