Tim Keller’s Wisdom on Disciple Making


Tim Keller is one of the most respected Christian leaders of our time. He is an author, scholar, and recently retired pastor of the influential Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. When the New York Times wants to hear a voice from a thoughtful Evangelical leader, he is their go-to man.

So, when Tim Keller speaks on making disciples of secular people, everyone in our discipleship-first tribe should be quick to listen.

Tim made two presentations at the Downline Summit this past weekend, and then I was able to speak to him privately afterward. Downline is one of our disciple making partners (click here for more information).

Here is a summary of three key things that Tim said about reaching and discipling secular people.

1. Put a Priority on Personal Relationships

Keller says that secular people are less and less inclined to check out our church gatherings, regardless of how well we lead them. But they are open to conversations in the midst of genuine personal relationships. The biggest barrier, he says, is that most Christians are afraid to engage in these conversations because they do not know how to talk about the difficult topics. So church leaders must focus on training everyday Christians how to think about and respond to the key questions of our time.

2. Remember the Echoes of God

Drawing upon the work of N.T. Wright and C.S. Lewis, Keller reminded everyone of the common ground that we all share – religious and secular people alike. He described this common ground as “echoes of God” that even atheists will acknowledge.

  • The Passion for Justice Echo – we all care about it, yet for truly secular people there is no ultimate foundation of justice.
  • The Longing for Joy Echo – it was C.S. Lewis who most eloquently pointed out that our cravings for ultimate and lasting joy in this world points to another world.
  • The Echo to be known and loved – we all crave relationships where we are known and loved. This echo points directly to core Christian teachings.
  • The Emptiness Echo – even though many dismiss it, we all have a fear of death and loss of meaning in our lives. The gospel uniquely addresses these questions.

3. We Must Train Everyday Christians in Counter Cultural Beliefs

The individual quest for autonomous expression and fulfillment is the driving value of our Western culture. Keller draws on the work of philosopher Charles Taylor (Sources of the Self) to point out that this is a pagan impulse that denies the created order. We were made to know God first and foremost and find our meaning in reference to him. Individuals were not made to be the center – and this focus on self as the foundation of meaning is now the air we breathe. Life is ultimately not about what we want or think or feel (as long as it does not hurt others). God is the center.

Keller says that this secular view is coming at us 24-7 and we must counter disciple people on how we think differently. Yet, most church leaders do not realize the hollowing out that is happening under the surface in the minds of everyday Christians. It is a hollowing out that is undermining and destroying the faith in ways we cannot yet see happening.

Pointing to how Jesus discipled people in the sermon on the mount (Matthew 5), Keller says church leaders must teach Christians how to think critically about the daily messages they hear. We should develop a regular formula like the following:

  • “You have heard it said, (worldly viewpoint), but Jesus tells us (biblical viewpoint).”
  • You have heard it said, focus on what you want, but Jesus tells us we are to focus on God and others.
  • You have heard it said, that life is about getting what you want for yourself, but Jesus said that it is about knowing and following what God wants for you.
  • You have heard it said, that we can pursue any sex we want as long as we do not hurt others, but Jesus tells us that God made us and gave us important boundaries for our sexual relationships.

We must contrast and teach what our cultural leaders say with what Jesus says. This will have a big impact on how we teach and preach as leaders in our churches.

Keller has a lot to say to us that day. Privately he told me that he believes that Robert Coleman’s seminal work on Jesus’ master plan for making disciples is essentially correct (read the free eBook summary of that work by clicking here and take a course called “The Master Plan” that goes with that book here). 

Keller is in favor of large gatherings for preaching, but he does believe that more and more churches and ministries must adopt Jesus’ focus on personal relationships for disciple making – in contrast to large gatherings – if we want to reach secular people.


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