Friday, September 14, 2007

"Who will replace Billy Graham?"

Hearing about the Billy Graham television special tonight got me thinking about the public place of Christians in our culture today. God continues to grant us the presence of Graham, but D. James Kennedy recently passed away, and we were recently reminded of the life of Mother Teresa through a Time Magazine article detailing the struggle of her dark night.

These figures, and others like them in their generation, tend to represent a Christian public figure who is public because of their devotion to their faith. In my classes at a secular college, when you mention Mother Teresa, there is still a general recognition of her faith tied to her life’s work in India. When Graham and Kennedy are remembered as Christians visible to the public at large, it tends to be in the context of their orthodoxy and their passion for evangelism. These guys were and are pastors in a recognizable, biblical sense and that is how the world knows them even if the culture can’t associate that category with them.

Excluding recent scandals, the evangelicals who are visible to the public eye now tend to be those who are known for their corporate acumen. This new breed of pastoral leader is much easier for the culture at large to categorize because we are very comfortable with the notions of manager and CEO. There are exceptions to be sure, but I just don’t know that there are currently any individuals who are in the public eye for being pastors in the biblical sense of the word.

There is another category of visible Christian, but that ilk tends to be prosperity, self-help preacher who, in my opinion, lost any semblance of orthodoxy a long time ago.

Why is this the case? I think there are two, symbiotic reasons. First, our culture has simply changed. We are losing our corporate capacity to categorize “pastor.” Our common church culture is further and further in our past, and we are moving more and more in a secular direction. So, it could be argued, even if there are visible pastors out there, our culture would not know exactly what to do with them except to maybe marginalize them.

The second reason is that pastors have followed the cultural trend. Conventional ecclesiastical wisdom is more influenced by corporate technique than by biblical mandates and definitions. According to some best-selling books about church, the sizes of our parking lots have more to do with our weekend “success” than the careful handling of Scripture and souls. And as the pendulum swings to an inappropriate extreme in one direction (the corporatization of congregation) so it swings to another inappropriate extreme in the form of social gospel emergent leadership. As emergent logic tends to go, if our culture is more accustomed to political liberalism than theological orthodoxy, the appropriate response is to pick up the former while dumping the latter. We must be relevant, after all.

Sometimes the students I teach at Christian colleges wonder who will replace Billy Graham. I think we are long way away from “replacing” the role Graham has played in our world. But a good first step would be for the evangelical world to recapture the profoundly transforming, world-changing, and even outrageous, category of pastor.