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The Impact of a Gospel-Centered Life

A Reflection on the Ministry and Writings of Timothy Keller

As I reflect on over 35 years of China-related ministry, I would have to say that the last 10 years have been the most challenging but also the most exciting and fruitful. In the US I have been involved in campus ministry to Chinese international students, Chinese church plants, and theological education but for me something extraordinary began in 2010 and it coincided, not coincidentally, with the ministry of Dr Timothy Keller and Redeemer City to City (C2C) church planting training. 

In 2010 nearly two dozen house church pastors took part in what C2C calls an Intensive, a four-to-six-week church planting training that touches on the fundamentals of the C2C core teachings. For several weeks I attended the training and interacted with house church pastors who were attending the Intensive. This was just as my family was preparing to move to southwest China. The following month we landed in China. The training provided both the content and the relational connections that paved the way for me to do ministry in China. A few of the alumni of the training wanted to go further so they combined forces with some overseas Chinese Christians and began contextualizing and using the training material. I attended trainings with C2C speakers and trainers in Hong Kong starting in 2012, then later in 2013, and finally in 2014 when Dr Keller came to Hong Kong to speak at a conference with well over 1,000 attendees. 

His humble, gospel-centered approach, combined with thoughtful exegesis and a winsomely reformed theological posture were Dr Keller trademarks. I remember watching his Prodigal God video series with Chinese subtitles during this time. I was impressed not only by the content and professionalism of the video series but also by how naturally Dr Keller acted despite the performance element of the video production.

While I had the opportunity to meet Dr Keller personally and we shared denominational communion in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), I do not claim to have known him personally. However, through his books I have been instructed, challenged, and delighted as he, like so few, could articulate the spirit of the age and how the gospel provides a counter-narrative and a hope beyond what even the best philosophies of man can give. 

Dr Keller did not shy away from the tough issues of life, love, sex, and power. I remember reading through the English version of his book, The Meaning of Marriage. My wife and I then used the Chinese version to lead a group of house church pastors and their wives in a couples’ study of the book. It was amazingly refreshing to see how the couples let down their guard and opened up. The content was richer than most of the books on marriage that I have read, and I count it as one of my favorites. 

When Keller’s tome, Center Church was published I bought both the Chinese and English versions which I had been awaiting eagerly. I was not disappointed. It captured and synthesized nearly all of what I had picked up from his teaching over the years.

Dr Keller was, and still is, a towering figure in evangelical Christianity but he was not without his critics. I myself confess that I did not always land where he did on certain issues but the places where I felt he spoke profound truth far outweigh those places where I took issue with his point of view. As a Reformed and Presbyterian minister and missionary Keller became a bit of a litmus test for who to partner with in ministry. Thoughtful critics who echoed my deep appreciation were folks I felt at ease working with while those who would only critique and not recognize the deeply significant impact of his teaching were cause for concern for me.

Timothy Keller’s passing is a cause for mourning. The Christian community has lost a champion of the faith, but I cannot help but feel joy and hope as I watched him from afar; as he faced the news of cancer, struggled through treatment and never let go of the gospel even to the end. His testimony of a life well-lived especially during a chapter in Western Christianity where so many have fallen away, fills me with hope. 

Dr Keller’s books are available in simplified Chinese from Shanghai Joint Publishing and in traditional Chinese from Campus Evangelical Fellowship Press and Voice of Hope.

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Image credit: Samule Sun on Unsplash.

Urban Farmer

“Urban Farmer” is involved in theological education in China in differing capacities. In addition to working closely with house churches in China over the past 20 years, he has concentrated his ministry and research over the last decade on his two passions of church development and theological education in China’s …View Full Bio

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