Timothy Keller, a nationally known Protestant pastor who revitalized urban churches in New York, Miami, and other cities, died Friday after a three-year fight with pancreatic cancer. He was 72.
His family announced that he had been in hospice care, and that he died with his wife of 48 years, Kathy, by his side.
In Key Biscayne, Keller’s methods and teaching led to the relaunch of Crossbridge Church in 2017 as well as campuses in Pinecrest, Miami Springs, Homestead, and Brickell.
The church’s senior pastor, Felipe Assis, said Keller was deeply influential in setting the course of his ministry and that of many others. Keller was the keynote speaker at a Key Biscayne gathering of pastors in 2019.
“I lost my pastor, mentor, and boss,” Assis wrote on Instagram. “Today the world lost arguably the greatest preacher and Christian thought leader of the last 100 years.”
Keller found success in launching Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan in 1989, where he found a way to connect Biblical messages of grace to skeptical urban audiences. The congregation went on to welcome more than 5,000 attendees across its multiple locations each week.
A new evangelical church in Manhattan filled with young adults was unique in a city known more for its secularism and the Gothic spires of its older sanctuaries. But Keller was passionate about evangelizing to people in cities, and his ministry would go on to help start 1,000 churches in 150 other cities around the world.
Keller became an evangelical Christian in college, and he was ordained in the Presbyterian Church in America in 1975. Active in the so-called New Calvinist movement, Keller brought a gentleness to a brand of Christianity known for its emphasis on sin and the depravity of humanity.
He once wrote, “The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.”
Keller’s teachings reached far beyond the spaces that Redeemer rented for its Sunday services. He wrote prolifically for the public in erudite essays and 31 books, several of them New York Times bestsellers. In 2005, he helped found the Gospel Coalition, a prominent network of conservative evangelical churches and New Calvinist leaders. He also founded City to City, a group that continues to plant urban-focused churches world wide.
Keller was quick to point out that Christianity did not fit neatly into a two-party political system. Though he eschewed the bombast of a culture warrior, many of his views on hot-button social issues — same-sex marriage and abortion — remained conservative but nuanced.
Still, in an essay for The New Yorker in 2017, Keller lamented that it was harder to wear the label “evangelical” after President Donald Trump’s election, which many other leading evangelicals had championed.
“‘Evangelical’ used to denote people who claimed the high moral ground; now, in popular usage, the word is nearly synonymous with ‘hypocrite,'” he wrote. “When I used the word to describe myself in the nineteen-seventies, it meant I was not a fundamentalist. If I use the name today, however, it means to hearers that I am.”
Keller was born in 1950 in Allentown, Pennsylvania, to Bill and Louise Keller. He was educated at Bucknell University, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and Westminster Theological Seminary. Early in his career, he served churches and ministries in Virginia and Georgia. He stepped down from his senior pastor role at Redeemer in 2017 but continued on as a staff member.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by three sons, David, Michael, and Jonathan, his sister Sharon Johnson, along with his three daughters-in-law and seven grandchildren.
Keller was diagnosed with stage-4 pancreatic cancer in 2020. In the years since, he chronicled his treatments and asked for prayers from his more than 900,000 social media followers.
In 2020, he published a short book, “On Death,” which urged Christians not to fear their mortal end.
“When you are at a funeral, especially one for a friend or a loved one,” he wrote, “listen to God speaking to you, telling you that everything in life is temporary except for His love.”
The Associated Press Tiffany Stanley contributed to this report
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Tony Winton is the editor-in-chief of the Key Biscayne Independent and president of Miami Fourth Estate, Inc. He worked previously at The Associated Press for three decades winning multiple Edward R. Murrow awards. He was president of the News Media Guild, a journalism union, for 10 years. Born in Chicago, he is a graduate of Columbia University. His interests are photography and technology, sailing, cooking, and science fiction.