Tim Keller on the value of Christian mentoring

Tim Keller, an American minister best known for reaching urban professions from Redeemer Church, planted in the centre of New York City, has been mentoring Steve Chong, a young minister from Sydney, who leads Kirkplace Church, Kogarah in Sydney’s inner south.

Keller is in Australia in March for a series of events including the City to City conference.

The first thing you notice about Steve Chong is how energetic he is. But he says that Tim Keller has helped him slow down.

“In terms of how I do things differently, I find that (and this is certainly a generalisation) Tim’s advice to me often lends itself towards slowing down,” says Chong. “His advice often reminds me that I do not need to achieve everything at once and I find this matured perspective on ministry compelling. I believe that in taking his advice, the last couple of years have been a little slower and little more healthy for me with my work.”

Two years ago, one of Dr Keller’s advisors, Jay Kyle, recommended Chong as “an important young leader” to approach for mentoring and they began regular Skype sessions.

After two years of mentoring, Chong says Keller has impacted his ministry.

“Meeting with Tim every couple of months has had significant impact on my work as a pastor because I find myself so quickly buried by the endless amount of tasks that require my attention every day.

“Meeting with Tim is a moment in my diary where I stop ‘ministering’ and feel ‘ministered to’.

“Without fail, he asks me important questions about how I am going with God, with my wife Naomi, and as a dad. Eventually, we talk church life and strategy.”

Tim Keller answered some questions from Eternity about mentoring Steve Chong.

How do we win secularists to Christ? What do Steve and other ministers with churches with secular surroundings need to change?

I think the principles are the same for winning anyone to Christ.

First there’s the ‘negative.’ On our part, we need to learn the person’s existing beliefs extremely well. (Secularists, of course, have lots of strong beliefs, they make many leaps of faith). Then you should show them the weaknesses, contradictions, impracticeableness in those beliefs.

Second, there’s the positive. You must narrate the gospel and story of Christ in a way that shows how Christ provides answers (to their own intuitions and aspirations and problems) that their own beliefs can’t.

Third, there’s just praying and asking for the power of the Holy Spirit to open blind eyes and soften hard hearts.  Now that’s what you would do with a Muslim, a Hindu, or a secularist. Each approach is different because each set of beliefs is different.

Steve’s church, Kirkplace, is in its early stage as a new Presbyterian church venture. Years ago, you had a similar challenge ahead of you as a younger minister. What advice do you give Steve and other young church planters as they start out?

You all need a much stronger prayer life than you think.

The RICE movement of which Steve is the founding leader is one of the most significant Asian-based youth movements in the country. How important do you think Asian-based ministry is in multicultural cities like New York and in particular Sydney?

It is extremely important. Asian peoples are a huge percentage of the human race—and in God’s providence it appears to me that they are being opened by the Holy Spirit to the gospel worldwide.

Virtually every city in the world has a significant population of young Asians who are making great strides to take places of influence and service in their urban centres. Hard to imagine reaching any of those cities without also reaching Asians. I should mention also that, for reasons I still don’t fully understand, Chinese people are particularly open to the gospel in their college years.

Christianity often stands outside the mainstream culture of society. Would you advise Steve in your mentoring of him to ‘make friends’ with culture?

Balance. Don’t try too hard to be culturally ‘with it’ or you will be seen (rightly) trying too hard to be hip and sophisticated. All kinds of people—not just Christians—try hard to be in the ‘inner ring’ of the culture and it looks shoddy.

Instead, just live in the world where your people and neighbours live. Read, watch, go to what they read, watch, listen to and go to. And then reflect on it with the Word and Gospel.

There’s so many ways you could serve the church worldwide yet you’ve chosen to put regular time into mentoring Steve Chong. So why pick mentoring? 

I’m at the time in my life and ministry where I should be doing more mentoring and training. This is a conviction I’ve had and many around me in my church in NYC agree and are supportive. And my wife agrees too. That settles it!

There are two needs mentoring meets, at least: 1) the more objective. The mentor brings expertise, experience, and know-how. 2) the more subjective. The mentor encourages and affirms. Even when the mentor does critique, there is an affirming going on, because the very relationship communicates the importance of the leader’s ministry and life.

I believe you spent some time in one of your Skype sessions joined by your wife Kathy and Steve’s wife Naomi.  Often pastors attract mentoring but how important is it for the pastors wife to be similarly cared for?

It is very important. I might add especially in church planting situations where the pastor is the founding pastor. I think this is a very heavy burden to bear and much of it falls on the whole family.

When a pastor takes a job at an existing church the burden of ‘keeping it all moving’ is simply not as heavy.  Existing churches have more of their own institutional structures that move things along even when there is no senior pastor. So in a situation like Steve’s, Naomi is unavoidably heavily involved in the ministry. So yes, she needs support and nurture too—as a ministry partner and spouse.