Think, Prepare, and Preach Beyond Tim Keller

It feels awkward disagreeing with your heroes. Even when that disagreement only comes 8.5% of the time, it still feels awkward.

On Monday afternoon, my hero Tim Keller did a Q&A on Twitter:

Screen Shot 2013-07-29 at 3.18.51 PM

I get what he means. If you’re hoping to have lots of people in your worship service who are outsiders to Christianity, then you’ve got to think hard about what they’re thinking—in fact, you’ve got to think harder about what they’re thinking about than they themselves think about those things. And as Keller says, you can do this best by having as many lunches and coffees with non-Christians as possible.


However, Keller’s assertion that preparation takes more time in a post-Christian society, not less, is predicated on the assumption that we are operating with a Redeemer NYC-like ministry model. That model emphasizes Sunday worship and especially the sermon as the location where most of the church’s conversions are expected to occur.

Other assumptions are also at work: that the audience of the sermon is large, and the outsider can experience the sermon as a passive observer, apart from a rich, interpersonal, communal experience of the church body. “Corporate” worship in such settings is not usually very communal. The outsider can come with the person that invited them, file in, observe, and file out.


A growing church does not have to create file in / observe / file out environments for worship. If you’ve got a big auditorium and a big stage, and you hope to consistently fill the auditorium with skeptical people, then of course you’d better prepare killer sermons with tons of careful application to outsiders. But a growing church may actually elect to entirely eschew the auditorium / sanctuary / stage / pulpit environment if it wishes. It can intentionally avoid the possibility of a file in / observe / file out experience for the cautious skeptic.

If the corporate worship environment is thick with community, feasting (lattes and scones do not constitute a feast), spontaneous prayer, a literal, physical gathering around the Lord’s Table, and even the assumption that “visitors” would help stack the chairs and take the trash out afterward, then suddenly the sermon is not the make-or-break moment when it comes to the outsider’s experience.


Now, do I think that preaching is important? Absolutely. Do I think and hope and pray and expect that people’s lives would be changed and that others will be converted on the spot during the preaching of the word? Absolutely. Do I believe that it takes much more work to exegete the culture in a post-Christian society than before? Indeed.

But we also need to imagine a corporate Christianity for the post-Christendom age in which the gathering of God’s people, with skeptics mixed in, feels less like a lecture or a concert or a TED Talk and more like a family feast. Without the pressure of a weekly TED Talk looming over his head, the preacher can take 10-15 hours of what used to be his preaching prep time and spend it over coffee with skeptical friends and over fettucini and merlot with non-Christian neighbors.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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18 thoughts on “Think, Prepare, and Preach Beyond Tim Keller

  1. Andy, one potential achilles’ heel. You have assumed that Keller does not see the exegeting of culture/congregation (coffee, fettucini/merlot, etc…) as sermon prep as well.
    This does not, of course, undercut your overall thesis.

    Happy hunting, brother.

    • Yeah Phil, you’re right and I’m sure he does consider it prep.

      Overall though the question revolves around the ministry of the word and whether the emphasis should be put on “behind the pulpit” or “from house to house”.

      Thanks for the holler.

      • True that! You know my philosophy…I don’t care where/how you preach…as long as you’re ‘behind the Word’ :).

        Keep up the good work–you always stretch my thinking.

  2. I think you are right that Keller’s model places more emphasis (though certainly not all emphasis) on the Sunday sermon (with the gospel preaches equally to the believer and the unbeliever). Yet such an emphasis may not be as great in other contexts.

    Just as the Christian scholar must do twice the work of his secular counterpart (to understand his Christian perspective as well as non-Christian perspectives), the post-Christendom preacher must do twice the work of the Christendom preacher. Yet, as you all have discussed, the sermon ‘prep’ is not relegated to book study.

    The Stager/Keller dialectic might be seen in Keller’s advice to preachers in different contexts where he says they should spend 6-8 hours max doing traditional sermon prep and the rest of the time with people, who will provide the illustrations and applications needed for the sermon.

    • You know, the more I think about it, the more I think that it’s ridiculous to call having lunch with people “sermon prep.” More like “having lunch”.

      The main point for me is this: you’ve got 50 hours in the week, and you’ve got a church to plant. Wind up your alarm clock for each task. How much of it should be spent going from text to sermon? Not 15-20 hours. Maybe not even 5-10 hours.

  3. Good post, Andy. I’ve been reading J.K.A. Smith’s “Desiring the Kingdom” lately with a friend at church and one thing that’s struck me from that book is how large chunks of modern evangelicalism have sort of neglected the other aspects of liturgy in favor of the sermon. Now, I think Smith overstates his case a bit and I certainly believe preaching is a necessary and wonderful means of grace, but we’ve certainly come to view it as the “make-or-break moment” on Sundays, as you say in your post.

    Also– and I hope this doesn’t sound ignorant — I’m not entirely sure I understand the second question to Keller in your tweet. You seem to be contrasting “missional” with “Christendom” and I guess I’m not clear on what you mean by that.

      • Even though you replied to my comment, I feel like that’s a question directed at Andy so I’ll let him take it.

      • Daniel, of course that experience was part of Paul’s cultural hermeneutics. And of course having our eyes open to similar cultural-hermeneutical inputs is a discipline that we shouldn’t abandon—and one which we might even put into our schedule (think prayer-walking, for example).

        But for the purposes of this discussion, when I say “sermon prep” I mean “sitting (or standing if you’re Philip Bunch) at a desk and going from Scripture text through hermeneutics to homiletics to manuscript or outline. This is something that we can set a timer for and get a pretty good idea of how much time is being allocated to it.

    • Sorry for the murky terms, Gavin. A better way to slice it is by asking “should a preacher in a radical minority Christian population/context spend less time in sermon prep than preachers have typically spent in majority Christian populations/contexts?”

      Does that help?

      • No problem. I actually found the answer on my own accidentally when I was perusing some missional works last night. I’m not the most well-read fella when it comes to missional texts, etc. and didn’t realize that “Christendom” is sometimes used to refer to a specific time period in church history. But thanks for answering!

  4. I think RUF campus ministers have modeled this well for the PCA. The guys I know spend no more than a few hours on the ‘sit down, do the Robinson/Chapell thing’. Most of the time they are drawing from their experience with students, non-Christians, engagement with culture, etc.

    Maybe it’s no surprise that RUF guys have a pretty good ‘success rate’ when they plant churches. They’ve developed a healthy rhythm in their ministry week.

    • Interesting, Daniel. The whole RUF ministry model or rhythm of

      1. Large Group
      2. Small Group
      3. One-on-Ones

      is a great balance. If an RUF minister does about 25% of his time with each of those 3 and adds 25% for misc. ministry, that strikes a very sane and admirable balance.

      In “Christendom”, I sense that Ministers got into the habit of emphasizing the sermon to the exclusion of most of their other tasks.

  5. Just a thought… When we speak in quantitative terms such as ‘How much?’ or ‘More’ or ‘Less,’ do we not run the risk of toe-ing the line in the same way as modern-day Pharisees? In other words, I have spent a lot of time in my growing faith asking how far is too far in terms of sin (e.g. How many drinks is too many, etc?). I think we should view our quantitative desire for good things in the same way we do sinful things. We must be led by the Spirit.

    • Byron,

      The more I reflect on your point, the better I appreciate it. My gut says that if we’re talking about Spirit-led trajectories rather than specific quantitative duties, it’s hard for me to imagine the Spirit I know from Scripture calling a missional pastor in any era, especially Post-Christendom, to hibernate for the better part of the week when there are people to pastor, people to befriend, people to disciple, and the word to apply from house to house.

      • There is one term, yet to be defined, that would add a more robust understanding to this whole process: ‘missional.’
        In other words, I believe we need to define the term in order to be faithful in this discussion for one simple reason.

        Biblically-speaking, what pastor isn’t missional?

  6. Pingback: Sunday Best: The $3,000 Mission Trip, Foodie Culture & the Poor, 6-Day Work Week - Seedbed

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