Pastor Tim Keller on 'God’s message to the world' amid COVID-19, duty of the Church (pt. 1)

Pastor Tim Keller, founder and former pastor of Redeemer Church in New York City. | Courtesy of A. Larry Ross Communications

Through disasters like the coronavirus pandemic, God is reminding humanity of their need for Him and challenging the Church to love and support those of different races and religions, according to noted theologian and bestselling author Timothy Keller.

“We’ve never had a global pandemic like this, and it’s because we’re globalized that this sort of thing can happen and can happen again,” the 69-year-old retired pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, told The Christian Post.

“God’s message to the world during times like this always is, ‘You’re not really in charge. You may think you are going to get ready for the next one, but you never will. The world isn’t under your control; it’s under my control. You need to turn to me. You are not sufficient to run your own life. You need my wisdom and you need my help.’”

“In every disaster, whether it’s 9/11 or COVID-19, God is saying to people, ‘Eventually, I’m going to put an end to all of this. But for the time being, this world is broken, and every time you think you don’t need me and that you can get on top of it, something like this will come along to remind you that, no, you do need me,’” he continued. 

Keller, co-founder of The Gospel Coalition and author of The Reason for God and The Meaning of Marriage, founded Redeemer in the fall of 1989 with a group of 15 people meeting weekly in an Upper East Side apartment. By 2016, the Manhattan-based church was holding eight Sunday worship services each week averaging over 5,300 people in attendance.

Three years ago, Redeemer became three smaller churches with locations on the East Side, the West Side, and Downtown. Though he retired as senior pastor of Redeemer in 2017, Keller told CP he remains “very much involved” with the church, which he revealed has been “deeply impacted” by the virus. 

“Three weeks ago I knew of 12 pastors and staff members who had come down with COVID-19,” he shared. “And that was three weeks ago. There are lots and lots of members with COVID. I don't know anyone who has died, but keep in mind, Redeemer is a young church. There are very few old people, therefore my hope is there won’t be many fatalities.”

With more than 222,200 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 10,913 deaths as of Friday morning, New York state has by far the most cases in the United States, with more than a third of the national total. According to Keller, in many of the neighborhoods in Queens and other areas, "most everybody knows somebody who has died on their block."

“I hope other places don’t go through what we’re going through; it's truly a terrible thing,” Keller said. “We’re so densely populated here and so international. We’re so much more connected than the rest of the world. I’m hoping New York City is the hardest-hit place in the whole country."

Keller, whose latest book Uncommon Ground focuses on how Christians should interact with the fractured world around them, told CP that right now, he’s not certain what God is telling the Church, specifically, through the pandemic. The real test for Christians, he posited, “will come several months down the road when presented with opportunities to witness that we can’t even envision just yet.”

“For example: What if your community escapes pretty much and in three to four months you’re OK, yet some communities you know are hurt economically and there are tons of unemployed people?" he asked. "Maybe you could lock arms with a Church in a more hurt area. I think in the future, there will be ways to help, but that won’t be obvious for a while."

Short-term, Keller said the best way to “love your neighbor and family is to not take risks.”

“It’s odd because by you trying to avoid getting it, you’re also loving your neighbor,” he said. “You can’t take a risk and say, ‘I’m going to go out and do things because I don’t care if I get it or not.’ The trouble is, you’re risking the health of those who might not be able to get over it so quickly."

Keller pointed out that when disaster strikes, “people tend to come together and work alongside those they otherwise wouldn’t agree with.”

“We’ve been through this before,” he said. “Redeemer did have fatalities in 9/11; people who were in the towers when they fell. With 9/11, it took weeks for us to figure out what we should be doing, because nobody knew what was going to happen. You have to hold tight, spend a lot of time trying to keep up and thinking about the future, but you won’t be able to know for sure immediately.”

Dubbed “the most successful evangelist in the city” by New York magazine, Keller currently serves as the chairman of Redeemer City to City, which has helped start more than 500 churches in dozens of the most influential cities in the world. 

According to Keller, the coronavirus is doing what 9/11 did to the state: presenting a unique opportunity for Christians to serve as a beacon of hope amid darkness. 

“At the national level, I don’t have much hope,” he admitted. “Politicians are trying to pin the other side with the blame for the virus and it’s discouraging. They’re trying to score points so that when the pandemic begins to ease, they look good.”

“But at the local level, that’s probably not going to happen. Everyone is going to say, ‘OK, how do we deal with the devastation in our communities?’ And that’s where I think, if Christians are willing to get out there and be Good Samaritans and say, ‘How do we work with people of different races and religions and just try to love them and how can we join hands?’ we will have less polarization and a real opportunity to witness.” 

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