Last week, news broke that Dr. Tim Keller — pastor, author, public intellectual, and leader in American Christianity — died after a three-year battle with pancreatic cancer. InterVarsity grieves the personal loss for his family and his church community at Redeemer Presbyterian Church (NYC), as well as the loss for many Christians worldwide who counted him as a trusted spiritual mentor.
With his passing, we also remember with appreciation the ways that Dr. Keller’s ministry legacy reflected his formational experiences with InterVarsity: first as a student at Bucknell University, then later as a volunteer during his time at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
Tim credited the InterVarsity chapter at Bucknell with helping him reignite his faith by reaching out to him and inviting him to a Bible study. In a 2009 profile Dr. Keller shared about that experience, saying “I wouldn’t have said at that time, ‘I don’t believe.’ But on the other hand, I wasn’t a Christian as I look back on it now. They weren’t quite sure where I was [spiritually] and I wasn’t quite sure where I was. But at the end of my sophomore year, I sensed that I had met God.”
His time with InterVarsity helped form many of the interests and priorities that later became cornerstones of his ministry, including a passion for evangelism and a commitment to generous orthodoxy. He also learned the fundamentals of manuscript Bible study that formed the bedrock of his lifelong approach to Scripture. He shared about one particularly decisive experience in a 2013 story from Bible Study Magazine (retrieved here).
Keller describes a retreat where InterVarsity staff worker Barbara Boyd gave the students 30 minutes to list 50 observations from a single verse: "And Jesus said to them, 'Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men'". After 10 minutes, they began to feel saturated, but she encouraged them to press on. When they regrouped to share their findings, they could not believe how many jewels came from this single mine. "Boyd closed her exercise by asking the students how many of them had found their deepest insight in the first five minutes of thought. 'No one had,' says Keller. 'And I’ve never forgotten that.'"
This moment’s impact truly was lifelong. Over the years Keller often posted photos to social media of the manuscript process he used in his sermon preparation, including this one from 2017.
In return, Dr. Keller’s life and ministry also had profound effects on InterVarsity leaders and campus staff. Tom Lin, president of InterVarsity, recently shared this about Dr. Keller:
[Tim] would often encourage me about the role of InterVarsity in shaping his faith and his ministry as a Bucknell student. Perhaps the biggest joy was getting to know [him] more personally during our “Uncommon Ground” book project. He was humble, personable, and compassionate. What I appreciated most was his hope for the future and collaborative work behind the scenes. He will be missed. His last words give some comfort to many friends and family: "There is no downside for me leaving, not in the slightest."
Timothy Holmes, Area Director in New York City, is another InterVarsity staff who Dr. Keller has impacted over the years. In Dr. Keller’s final hours, Timothy wrote:
I’ve been in spaces learning from Pastor Tim Keller in the last couple years. To hear him hold hope for the future, gratitude for the present, content in his sickness, and excitement to be with Jesus in eternity all at the same time has been profoundly impactful for me. I don’t know anyone else who has held those things together the way he has. Grateful for his life, and praying for his family.
We praise God for the rich legacy of gospel faithfulness, love for Jesus, and dedication to God’s kingdom that Tim’s life on earth produced. Most of all, we give thanks for his steadfast example, even in his final days, of trust in God’s goodness and of hope in the resurrection. “I’m ready to see Jesus,” he told his family. “I can’t wait to see [him].”