It Takes a Community


On Wednesday I had the opportunity to hear Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City, speak to a packed house here in Nashville about his new book, The Prodigal God. After giving an outline of the book, he spent the rest of his time showing how his thesis applied to community. After exhorting us towards honest community and away from comfortable religion – “Religiosity presents no opportunity for people to be sinners,” he read us from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together – he said, “Most people haven’t been affirmed enough to be good repenters.” Put another way, all too often cries of judgement drown out the whispers of grace, and we respond by hiding our failures and forsaking the commandment to confess our sins to one another, an unavoidable facet of true community.

When talking about the garden of Eden, Keller said, “Nakedness is a term used in the Bible about a lack of ease we have with ourselves.”

There was one statement in particular Keller made that has stuck with me. In one of Frederick Buechner’s books, Buechner writes about a sermon that he “will always remember though I cannot be sure that is exactly the sermon he preached because of course it is the sermons we preach to ourselves around the preacher’s sermons that are the ones that we hear most powerfully.” The sermon that I was “preaching to myself” in between the lines of Keller’s sermon included a quote from Larry Crabb that a friend of mine, Tom Darnell, shared in a couple of sermons he preached last year: “The greatest lie believed today is that one can know God without being known by someone else.”

Connecting the sermon I was “preaching to myself” with Keller’s sermon was a passage he read us from C.S. Lewis’ The Four Loves where Lewis explains why two is not the best number for friendship, because, “In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets.”  Keller then said, “If it takes a community to really know a human being, how much more does it take a community to know God?”

It seems everywhere I look these days I’m reminded of the soul-searing danger of avoiding community and my absolute helplessness on my own.


  1. Leigh McLeroy

    Do you know if Keller’s talk is posted anywhere – either audio, or in transcribed form? I’d like to hear or read the rest…

  2. Aaron Roughton

    I remember being surprised at how little regard I had for confession when I read that chapter in Life Together. What a great reminder. Thanks Stephen. And if Keller’s talk is posted, I’d also be interested to know about it.

  3. Brian

    Absolutely, I agree. I, too, have been reminded time after time lately for our need for community – for church. “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Heb 10:25

  4. Tony Heringer


    Tim Keller is a huge influence on our community outreach here at Perimeter Church in Atlanta — in particular the ideas he outlines in his book “Ministries Of Mercy.” That book has had a big impact on my heart. I also love Bonhoeffer’s “Life Together.” In that book he spends a good bit of time discussing the idea of confessing our sins one to another as crucial to building authentic community. It is an excellent treatment of the subject.

    Your quote: “The greatest lie believed today is that one can know God without being known by someone else.” Plus the excerpt from Lewis reminded me of another line from him — sounds like its in the same book: “Only in our friendships can we develop into the man we are supposed to be. It takes someone else to pull the full man out and pull the full man up.”

    Thanks for the exhortation and affirmation of building community – both in our local churches and wonderful spots like this one. This inspired me to go back and listen to Steve Brown’s interview with Tim:

    Do you know if this is a series of books he is writing? Seems like this is a follow up to “The Reason For God.”

  5. Mark Timmons

    I cannot more highly recommend Keller’s book, The Prodigal God. It currently sits here on my wife’s desk, and we are trying to facilitate an email discussion within our extended families about the book (which they all received as an extra Christmas Gift this year).

    I think the message of this book, which is essentially the message of Christ in what Keller calls, The Parable of the Two Lost Sons (i.e. the parable formally known as The Prodigal Son), is extremely relevant for our Christian culture where being a Christian and is pretty much understood as “cleaning up your life and trying to live moral.” Keller’s insights into the Elder brother in the parable are incredibly revealing of the legalism and wrongly motivated morality that pervades most of the American church (me included as the chief). My wife and I have been (are being) profoundly affected by its teachings, and have experienced more joy and freedom in the Gospel as a result.

  6. Tony Heringer


    Thanks for the thumbs up. I’m listenning to the message on the link Stephen gave (under Prodigal God Audio) and he gives a message on this text and talks about the two brothers. A powerful message indeed.

  7. Mark Timmons


    Yes, brother a powerful message indeed. I am so thankful for Tim Keller’s ministry. Through his preaching, God has been reteaching us the Gospel and how it changes us. My heart’s desire and life ministry is to pass along the comfort that we have been comforted with amidst affliction. So…. anyone interested, please check out some free online sermons at Keller’s church website:
    I want to particularly recommend the sermon entitled: Inside-Out Living.

  8. J. Austin McKnight

    What I do fear, is that though it’s important to have honesty in the Christian community, I often fear the wolfs in the midst of sheep. When we confess our sins to someone in the church that isn’t really a believer, it’s dangerous. I bring this to mind because I had done that at one period of time, I was quick to trust and quick to confess and relieve my heart to experience forgiveness. The other member took advantage of my weakness, and the other person was even a Christian! A young Christian yes, lost and saved by grace as I have been, but one who was in a lost period of reprobation and running from God. Afterwards, though I wish we were open and free to confess and trust one another, I maybe fear more than I should who I’m sharing my heart with. Will they take advantage of it or are they a believer who are good stewards who correct and encourage? It’s a sad and difficult subject to consider.

  9. Ron Block


    J. Austin,

    One of the cures for misuse of information in the way you describe is an overall transparency that permeates our lives. That way we don’t have a facade that can be used as a weapon against us. Since we’re open and honest with everyone, no one will be surprised. No one will be able to take advantage of it. Of course the only way to really develop this transparent honesty is by caring so much more about God’s thoughts of us than man’s. A man’s transparency, used by the Holy Spirit, is a sort of handle for others to find Christ in a deeper way in their own lives.

    It is of course crucial to find committed, mature believers who can mentor us and help us to see things more clearly. Talking about a besetting sin (especially the more sensual varieties like food or sex or drink) with an immature believer is not a good idea.If we desire fresh wisdom rather than commiseration we will seek out long-time, mature Spirit-led mentors. Sometimes we tell others our problems not really wanting solutions or changes in our thinking but sympathy, especially if we have a propensity for self-pity.

    In my own life I have found community absolutely crucial to growth. A few years ago I found a local church, and then a Wed night fellowship group, and have experienced more growth in my life in this season than in a very long time. Lone wolf Christianity, although attractive to one’s ego, is not really a viable option; having been there and done that I can speak freely from experience. Yes, I had Tozer and A.B. Simpson and Norman Grubb and C.S. Lewis and George MacDonald, but I also need people in my life who will be sounding boards, iron sharpening iron, servants, and who will let me serve them as well. That Body life is essential – the foot can’t say to the hand, “I don’t need you.”

    A George MacDonald quote from Lilith to end
    “What right have you to treat me so, Mr. Raven?” I said with deep offence. “Am I, or am I not, a free agent?”

    “A man is as free as he chooses to make himself, never an atom freer,” answered the raven.

    “You have no right to make me do things against my will!”

    “When you have a will you will find that no one can.”

    “You wrong me in the very essence of my individuality!” I persisted.

    “If you were an individual I could not, therefore now I do not. You are but beginning to be an individual.”

  10. Stephen Lamb


    Tony, as I understand it, The Prodigal God is not part of a series with The Reason for God. They were both published close to each other just because he’d been working on both of them for several years. He has said, though, that The Prodigal God was written more for Christians, while The Reason for God has non-believers as its primary target audience.

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