On May 15, 2007 Jerry Falwell died at the age of 73. He was a man who remained faithful to what he believed God had called him to do to the end of his life. I pray that I will have the same legacy.
Growing up in the conservative Christian circles that I did, Jerry Falwell was one of the celebrities of the faith. Some people in our circle actually thought he was liberal, though. Liberty University was usually perceived as a pretty liberal Christian college in our church and so Jerry Falwell was considered somewhat liberal as well (not theologically, but in separation from the world).
As I have grown in my philosophy of ministry, I have of course departed from my ultra-conservative background and also departed from the way that Jerry Falwell led his church. I have a great deal of respect for him, but in ministry style, philosophy and methodology I came to differ with him. He also became very closely associated with and in many ways led the religious right in politics, and I don’t align with them as well.
With all of that said, I was very sad to hear of his death. He was one of the older men of my spiritual heritage, and it is sad to see him go. I hope that his family is very encouraged by the faithful legacy that he left and that we will all be encouraged to “fight the good fight of faith” to the very end.
As I have reflected on his death, I believe that he was part of a generation of Christian leaders that is fading away. I have perceived that his generation of Christian leaders were known for their fiery and somewhat angry preaching style, a traditional worship service, coats and ties, very conservative and republican politics, confrontational evangelism practices and very strict personal lifestyles. They have been known to boycott Disney (how dare they! :-), have antagonistic and mean spirited attitudes toward people they don’t agree with, and are generally known for what they are against. This sounds like I am presenting them negatively, but they held these things as a badge of honor. They were never embarrassed to be known for these things.
There seems to be a new generation of leaders arising in the church. I have observed that this new generation of leaders differ a lot. This is not true of everyone, but many of us have characteristics like conversational preaching, culturally relevant worship services, casual clothing, an openness to other political views, relational evangelism, concern for social justice in the US and around the world, sensitivity to environmental issues, and looser personal lifestyles. It is not uncommon at all for this new generation of Christian leaders to drink alcoholic beverages, watch rated R movies, participate in dances, smoke cigars or pipes and listen to secular music. The previous generation of leaders considered these things sinful.
So, how have things shifted so much in one or two generations? I don’t have the answers for everyone, but I can answer for myself. I just think that the previous generation of leaders were wrong about those things and that the way they led the church made it easier for our culture to hate Christians. I don’t mean that to sound too harsh, but it is what I think. The interesting thing is that if you compare the doctrinal statement of the new generation of leaders with the previous generation, you will not see a single change. We believe the exact same things about God, the Bible, Jesus, the church, sin, salvation, etc. We simply differ on how those beliefs should be lived out.
Men like Jerry Falwell leave us a rich heritage of faithfulness and passion about the things of God. There are many things they did well, and there are many things that we should seek to emulate. My prayer is that we will learn from them where we can and move forward confidently as God leads us to reach our generation with the hope of the gospel.