3 Insights from the Faith and Work Ministry of Tim Keller

I was just one of many people who became a Christian in the early days of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. Tim Keller, the church’s pastor, made me squirm as he unveiled my ineffective belief systems, and his preaching gradually drew me into the hope, love, and purpose of a gospel-centered life. The God he described charged us, as his co-regents, to make the world a better place; the Savior he proclaimed offered grace and power in the face of our fears and inadequacies.

Shortly after accepting Christ, my work life was radically changed. Our company CEO learned he had a serious brain tumor and I was asked to take over. At the time I didn’t know how to be a Christian or a CEO; my faith journey and my work journey became deeply intertwined. A decade later, after a move to California and two new company CEO roles, despite having listened to all of Tim’s sermons on cassette tape, I was still trying to fully understand and experience the promise that “the gospel changes everything.”  

That was when, in 2002, Tim invited me to leave my corporate life and move back to NYC to start a marketplace ministry. For the next 10 years we worked together to launch and grow Redeemer’s Center for Faith & Work — Tim providing the scriptural, theological, and spiritual grounding while I built on that foundation, growing a team to create transformative learning experiences for the congregation. In 2012 I helped him write the book Every Good Endeavor, a compilation of our faith and work teaching over the prior decade. During the last 10 years he’s been a mentor and friend as I’ve worked with other churches to equip and mobilize their people for gospel-centered work.

Last month, Tim died following a three-year fight against pancreatic cancer. God had used him to establish and disciple a vibrant church in Manhattan, which grew into a network of churches and ministries committed to loving and serving the city. He stewarded his gifts to reveal the gift of Jesus to believers and non-believers alike. He trusted in God’s goodness and sovereignty, both culturally and in our personal lives, in a way that produced hope, forgiveness, and perseverance when things were hard. He leaves behind volumes of sermons and books that will expand the reach of his understanding and love of the gospel. And he showed that the church can both disciple hearts and serve in the world, and he showed that the two missions are deeply entwined. 

I’m now seeing the influence of Tim’s emphasis on vocational discipleship in churches around the world. Some key areas of this influence are these. 

Churches should prioritize equipping people for faithful work in all sectors of society.

Through Christ’s church, the gospel changes the world. Through our work, we love and serve the city. As Luther taught, God works through his people — in everything from the simplest actions to the most historic achievements. The gospel-centered work of the church scattered has more engagement with our neighbor and the institutions that comprise our world than the church gathered.

Work is a crucible for spiritual formation.

The gospel changes our hearts. The struggles and idols that surface at work reveal our brokenness and need for a savior. Faith and work discipleship is most fruitful when it takes sin seriously, relying on the Holy Spirit to move us from self-centeredness to love of God and others. “Since we already have in Christ the things other people work for — salvation, self-worth, a good conscience, and peace – now we may work simply to love God and our neighbor,” Tim wrote in Every Good Endeavor The content of much workplace discipleship focuses on behavior, either in the workplace or in our spiritual practices. Tim invited us to go deeper into the idol-factories of our hearts — idols of comfort, recognition, power, and security — even when our outward behavior appears “good” to others.  

Work is relational.

And the gospel changes our relationships. Tim encouraged us to engage with the people and world around us, as different as the belief systems and values might be. At the Center for Faith & Work we sought to explore ways God might use us to recognize the dignity of our colleagues (regardless of their beliefs), become ambassadors of justice in our organizations, and serve our customers with integrity. Although our relationships and institutions are broken, we can serve within these institutions as God’s redemptive co-workers, seeking the renewal of our colleagues and the institution itself. The gospel gives us the hope, the ability for self-sacrifice, and the strength to renew broken relationships.

Tim gave us teaching. And he gave so much of himself, his time and his energy. We tried to steward it well. He remained hopeful for his church and the church in the world, even when, at times, he must have been personally discouraged or frustrated. Up until a few months before his death, I’d write him with some news of people and gatherings and he’d respond with interest and insight. I’m so grateful the Holy Spirit used him to open the door for me to discover and create a new life in Christ these last 34 years.

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