How Protestant Pastor Tim Keller’s Sermons Helped Make Me a Better Catholic

I’m grateful to God for how he guided me, through the preaching of this Presbyterian minister, from Islam to the Catholic Church .

Timothy Keller speaks on Sept. 30, 2006
Timothy Keller speaks on Sept. 30, 2006 (photo: Frank Licorice / Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 2.0)

I was at a Sunday evening service, being held at First Baptist Church on 79th and Broadway, in December 2007. The worship music was phenomenal, led as it was by world-class musicians. Then it came time for the sermon. The reader read a passage from the Gospels on the stage and then stepped back. A rather large and casually dressed man, bald and wearing glasses, approached the microphone. He didn’t look anything like I’d previously imagined he would. Then he began to speak into the mic, and I got hooked within the minute. That was the very first time I saw Tim Keller. 

I don’t remember what the topic of that particular sermon was. What I do most certainly remember was knowing by the end of it that I’d be going to the service at Redeemer Presbyterian Church the very next week, and the week after that. I was numbered amongst that legion of New Yorkers who just couldn’t get enough of what he’d had to say. His sermons were intellectual, concise, filled with cultural references and quite humorous. I even went on to download several of his previous sermons on my iPod (remember those things?), to listen to while on the subway.

Before that Sunday in December 2007, I’d been going to Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. All it took for me to toss aside any consideration of whether I should become a Catholic was to hear him speak for that half hour, or so I’d figured. I joined Redeemer Presbyterian Church instead, just a few months after that. 

Redeemer Presbyterian Church was founded in 1989 and had a membership that had grown to thousands by the time I became a member in 2008. It opened its very own church building, in the Upper West Side, by the time I’d become a Catholic in 2012. For any church to do this in the heart of New York, especially a church that most New Yorkers would probably dismiss as “too conservative” in its teaching, is no small feat. It was the effectiveness of Tim Keller’s preaching that drew so many people in. 

To see Tim Keller speak became the event I most looked forward to on a typical week. I would sit at the edge of my seat while listening to him, and sometimes even take notes as though I were listening to an eminent professor, during my first months at Redeemer.

I became very active at Redeemer, going to Bible study, serving on the ministry for filmmakers and volunteering at the information booth after the evening services. It was while volunteering at the information booth that I’d met several men and women who’d come from across the country, and across the world, to see him.

He’d already had a reputation for speaking when I first saw him. I was one of Redeemer’s newest members when The Reason for God, a New York Times bestseller, was published in 2008. His reputation as an apologist only grew from there.

Timothy J. Keller passed away at his home on May 19, after a struggle with pancreatic cancer that lasted several years. He was 72 years old. He is survived by his wife and three sons. “I can’t wait to see Jesus,” he’d prayed, according to a recent family update. “Send me home.”

Keller had been born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in 1950, and was raised Lutheran. He received a Doctor of Ministry degree from Western Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania in 1981, which also happened to be where he’d met his wife, Kathy. He served as a pastor at West Hopewell Presbyterian Church, in Virginia, for several years. The Presbyterian Church tasked him with recruiting a pastor for the founding of a new church in New York. When his first two choices had turned him down, because they’d considered jumpstarting a church in the Big Apple to be a task too daunting, he resorted to recruiting himself. He spent the rest of his days in New York, settling in Roosevelt Island. In 2002 he survived thyroid cancer. In 2017, he stepped down as Redeemer’s head pastor. And in 2020, he announced that he’d been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

“Tim Keller was one of America’s foremost Christian thinkers and preachers,” former President George W. Bush wrote in a statement. “He was a great church builder, a prolific author, and a profound philosopher. I’m fortunate to have gotten to know him. And I’m one of many who is blessed to have learned from Dr. Keller’s teachings and benefited from his compassion. Laura and I wish Kathy and their children peace.”

I did once again flirt with the idea of becoming a Catholic, in 2010. I’d found myself more and more sympathetic with the Catholic position over the understanding of disputing points that typically arose between the Church and most Protestant denominations — the role of a tradition spanning 2,000 years, the Real Presence, Confession, the Magisterium, the role of the Blessed Mother and the saints, and so on. I was confirmed in April 2012.

I was destined to be a Catholic when I’d gone to my first Redeemer service, though I didn’t know it at the time. Providence understood that the leap in theological understanding, from Islam to Catholicism, was much too great for me at the time. And so Providence had led me to Redeemer, which was the perfect church for me at the time, so I could adjust to life as a Christian first. I learned very much from my time there, and grew in faith, until it became time for me to go ahead and be received into the Church. I am a better Catholic today because I first learned from Tim Keller’s sermons about what it means to be a better Christian. For that, I will always be grateful.