LYNCHBURG, Va. (BP)–Recently, I sat in the packed auditorium of Thomas Road Baptist Church, and I actually shivered.
It was not cold.
It was not pain.
It was dread.
Joined with tens of thousands of Christians, my wife and I paid our final respects to our pastor, Dr. Jerry Falwell. Dignitaries walked across the stage. Greetings were given from the White House. Condolences were offered. Along with songs by the choir, Drs. Franklin Graham and Jerry Vines preached powerful messages.
The shiver that went up my spine, however, had nothing to do with the proceedings, or the grief we all feel.
In each corner of the sanctuary, men of renown walked slowly, even carefully. They were more than compatriots of the chancellor of our Liberty University; they are members of a singular generation. We are slowly watching the end of an era. Our heroes are either dying or retiring.
Think about it. The generation of men and women who are now entering their twilight years were more than just visionaries; they were trailblazers. They were part of the first generation that called the first full-time youth ministers. They built the first generation of church gymnasiums. They were the first generation to speak on a national stage in television ministries. They ushered in the era of the “megachurch.”
The names are familiar to all Christians: Adrian Rogers, W.A. Criswell, Herschel H. Hobbs, Jerry Falwell. Men such as these do not come along often. Men with the courage to act on a vision much larger than themselves. Men who dared to believe that God could do something larger than the status quo. Every year at the Southern Baptist Convention, I watch the men of this generation. They are walking much more slowly now. They have retired from their pulpits, or they have assumed less active roles in ministry.
I shuddered because my generation is not ready.
We — the brash new generation under the age of 50 — prove we are not ready virtually every day. We prove we are not ready when we brush past these spiritual giants, in a hurry to get to the next appointment. We prove we are not ready when we scoff at their suggestions as outmoded and antiquated. We prove we are not ready when we turn a deaf ear to their wisdom. We prove we are not ready when we attempt to shuttle them aside in a raw grasp for power, even within our own Southern Baptist Zion.
For the past few years, I have become increasingly frustrated as I have watched young preachers turn on our elders. I mourn when I hear of another young minister demand a “seat at the table,” as if leadership was our birthright. I shudder when I read blogs of men who have never grown a single church, or accomplished anything to deserve to have an opinion, criticize those who have toiled the fields of souls, sweat through all-night prayer meetings, and bled on the battlefields of spiritual warfare.
For men such as Jerry Falwell, these developments saddened them, but they did not surprise them. He watched as young ministers attempted to reinvent the ministerial wheel. He quietly encouraged them when they would subsequently call for advice, after their efforts failed. He bristled when he continually heard of the decisions of Rehoboams, who mocked the wisdom of their elders and instead followed the green advice of their friends.
My role as president of Liberty Theological Seminary became clear to me, once I sat behind the desk. At the age of 40, I was (and remain) too young, too brash, and too green to inherit such a large work. What these men built over the course of decades could be ruined in moments. So the position I adopted was simple — I shut up, sit down and listen to my elders. I have a vision for the work, to be sure. However, having a vision and having direction are two separate issues.
In the most transparent terms, I have lamented for over five years now as I have seen the Southern Baptist Convention meetings turn into uncivil wars. The young are attempting to cannibalize the elders. We are mimicking the tragic choices of Rehoboam in I Kings 12. Instead of listening to the tested discernment of the men and women who have built our denomination, we instead hold press conferences and post our opinions on our websites. We no longer read books, because we listen to our own podcasts.
We are slowly losing the generation that included men such as Dr. Falwell. We are not benefiting from their wisdomÖbecause we are too busy measuring their offices for new curtains.
The lesson is clear: If you have to demand leadership, you do not deserve leadership.
Ergun Mehmet Caner (firstname.lastname@example.org) is president of Liberty Theological Seminary, and professor of theology, history and apologetics for Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va.