In every generation, the church is gifted with a few influential leaders — dynamic voices that emerge and leave an indelible mark on countless lives with the gospel. Pastor John, this would include you in our current era. However, as you well know, all such leaders eventually exit the stage — a harsh reality we faced this spring. And this void left by such leaders can evoke fear about the church’s future — an anxiety put to words by Natasha from Jacksonville, Florida, in her email to you.
“Pastor John, your ministry has built my and my husband’s faith for the last twenty years,” she writes. “We adopted three girls from Liberia — inspired to not waste our lives. I’ve always felt so much encouragement in my walk knowing I’m part of a larger body of Christian believers and leaders. My problem is the fear that I find myself feeling over the state of the modern church. Many leaders have fallen to temptation or quit the ministry altogether. It seems very few last as long as the older generations did. When Tim Keller passed away earlier this year, I found myself worried over what leaders — and what quality of leaders — will take the baton in the future. I know the Lord wants me to find my hope in him and him alone. However, I find myself thinking negatively and would like some insight into the hope of the Christian church when the elder statemen — like yourself and Tim Keller — are gone.”
This question has a special relevance for me because I can remember the very place I was standing on our back porch in Greenville, South Carolina, when I was fourteen years old as the fearful thought entered my mind, “What will we do if Billy Graham dies?” I mean, I can remember that just so clearly. It was a very powerful moment.
Some of our younger listeners may not even know who Billy Graham is, right? I was talking to somebody the other day — they did not know who he was. I thought, “Oh my goodness!” Billy Graham was the most well-known evangelical Christian in the twentieth century.
As an immature, provincial, fourteen-year-old Christian, I thought, The future of Christianity hangs on the preservation of Billy Graham. So, I have tasted this anxiety expressed in this question. Is there a healthy, strong future for the Bible-believing, evangelical church when influential leaders are passing off the scene?
Now, I think I could point out some factors among the younger generation today that would be encouraging. I think I could do that. But I think it will have more lasting and deeper effect on our encouragement if I cite instead five Scriptures that relate to this issue very definitely.
1. Jesus stays the same.
The author of the book of Hebrews says, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7). Do you know what the very next words were out of that author’s mouth after he said, “Remember your leaders”? The next words were these: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).
Now, why did he do that? Why did he say that? Why was that the next thing to say after the command to remember the leaders and imitate their faith? Why a promise that Jesus is the same from generation to generation? Surely he did that to counter the fear that if leaders are passing off the scene — which they were; this is past tense in Hebrews 13:7 — then we’re going to be bereft of the kind of leadership that we’ve been used to and that we need. To remedy that fear, the writer says, “Actually, Jesus will be there, and he will be the same. He will do what needs to be done.”
2. God keeps his people for himself.
When Elijah was despairing over the condition of Israel in his own day, he said,
I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away. (1 Kings 19:10)
“Ultimately, the perseverance and the strength of the church is owing to the will of the sovereign Christ.”
Now, the apostle Paul picks up on Elijah’s despairing words and asks in Romans 11 if, in his own day, God had rejected his people the way Elijah feels like it’s over for Israel. And he quotes Elijah’s words. But then he writes, “But what is God’s reply to [Elijah]?” God’s reply is, “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal” (Romans 11:4) — from which Paul concludes, “So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace” (Romans 11:5).
The key words are “I have kept for myself.” So, God never leaves the fate of his people to mere chance or to the vagaries of human history and the rise and fall of leaders — even Christian leaders. He does the keeping of his people.
3. Godly leaders come from God.
The existence of godly leaders in Christ’s church is Christ’s gift to the church. It’s Christ’s gift to the church — not history’s gift, not the church’s gift, not fate’s gift. Christ gives leaders. They don’t just happen. They are Christ’s appointment, not the mere work of man.
So, Christ “gave” shepherds and teachers to the church to equip the saints (Ephesians 4:11). Elders, “pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you” — etheto in Greek, from tithēmi, meaning “set you,” “put you as” — “overseers” (Acts 20:28). The Spirit did that. Man didn’t do that.
Paul says in Colossians 4:17, “Say to Archippus, ‘See that you fulfill the ministry that you have received in the Lord.’” The Lord gives the ministry. Jesus says in Luke 12:42, “Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom his master will set over his household, to give them their portion of food at the proper time?” The Lord sets managers over his household. This is not a mere human thing. It’s not a mere matter of the ebb and flow of history. The Lord of history appoints leaders.
So, our role is Matthew 9:37–38, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest [the Lord of the church, the Lord of the harvest, the Lord of the mission, the Lord of the world] to send out laborers into his harvest.” That’s what we should be praying. And we usually just restrict that text to missionaries, but it means that anywhere there’s some initiative needed to harvest and to grow the church, pray it down.
4. Christ preserves his church.
Jesus said in Matthew 16:18, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” So, ultimately, the perseverance and the strength of the church is owing to the will of the sovereign Christ — not to his leaders, but to Christ himself, who uses leaders and raises them up. We must always look finally to him.
5. God can bring leaders out of nowhere.
When we read the history of the kings of Israel, one of the things that stands out is the quality — the faithfulness — of the kings and how it does not depend on who their father was. In other words, a very bad king may have a good son. A good king may have a bad son. So, godliness in the line of Judah’s kings may skip a generation or two.
Now, you might feel this is pessimistic because I am suggesting that can happen in the evangelical church. But the fact that God is in control of that — and this has happened many times before — means there’s always a future. For example, Jotham was a good king — not a perfect king, but 2 Kings 15:34 says, “He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord.” But his son, Ahaz, was a wicked king. But his son, Hezekiah, was a faithful king. But his son and grandson were wicked kings — Manasseh and Amon. But Amon’s son, Josiah, was a good king.
What this implies is that the godliness of leadership in one generation is no guarantee of the godliness of the next generation. But more hopeful is the other implication: the ungodliness of leadership in one generation is no guarantee that the next generation will be ungodly. I’ve seen this in the church today. Just when you think that the sources of faithful leadership have all gone astray, faithful leaders come out of nowhere.
This is what God loves to do. In fact, this is precisely why he chose to make Abraham and Sarah the parents of all future godly leadership, because it was humanly impossible. Abraham was too old; Sarah was barren. All hope of godly leadership coming out of their loins was futile — it wasn’t going to happen. But Paul makes it crystal clear what God was doing, and he knew what he was doing. God, he says, made the promise to Abraham that he “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17). There it is.
So, maybe this is the word to close on with this issue of leadership: if you look around and you wonder, “Will there be faithful pastors and leaders to come?” and you don’t see what you want to see — remember, God calls into existence things that do not exist.