Who is going to replace them?
I had a four week vacation in July/August. Pastoring at a small church means that having people lined up to preach can be a bit challenging, but it went smoothly. Two local pastor friends, my one staff colleague, and then the fourth week was “elder preach” day. Three of our stellar elders each took on a 10-minute segment and shared something the Lord had been teaching them. It was outstanding. Donna, one of the elders, talked about listening to God. And when I returned from vacation, she shared with me what I re-learn almost every week. The very thing that you study, pray and prepare for in a sermon becomes the learning edge for your own life. It happened to Donna. Right after she shared with others about listening for God’s voice, she found herself freshly attentive to the Lord and, lo and behold, she heard God speak a couple distinct words for her own life. Hold onto that for a minute.
Evangelical folks of my generation (an extremely youthful 63) have lost a number of our most influential writers and teachers in recent years. It’s certainly not a complete list, but the folks most formative as we deepened in faith and entered ministry are dwindling–Henri Nouwen (d.1996), Brennan Manning (2013), Dallas Willard (2013), my own mentor Eugene Peterson (2018), and two more in the last weeks: Ron Sider (July 27) and Frederick Buechner (August 15). These are deep losses. My bookshelves are filled with their writing, and I regularly revisit their wise counsel. For any Harry Potter fans, these worthies might resemble the wall portraits of deceased Gryffindor headmasters in Dumbledore’s office–sometimes they still speak to me.
I doubt if I’m any different than folks of each of the prior generations, who have seen beloved and influential people going home to be with the Lord and ask: “Who is going to replace them?” Far be it from me to doubt God’s goodness and ability to raise up new writers, teachers and preachers and pastors, yet with full transparency when I look around I must still ask: “Who is going to replace them?” If I’m truthful…I’m not sure.
The men (yes, I’m painfully aware they are all men, which reflects both an era and our own foolishness) I listed above all had unique abilities. They were exceedingly different from one another–Nouwen was a contemplative Catholic priest and Manning a charismatic defrocked one, Willard a USC professor and Peterson a pastor. Sider drove the evangelical world nuts by continually reminding them that the gospel made social activism mandatory, even as he drove progressives crazy by constantly bringing up scripture and holding to traditional positions on sexuality and abortion. Buechner was an ordained pastor who never led a church, though he was invited to preach all over the world. Rather, he found a calling as a remarkable writer of novels, sermons, memoirs and theological musings. Evangelicals never fully embraced Buechner because he occasionally trotted out speculative theology or critiqued those who felt too sure of their own. But we could never stop reading him. He wrote story and reminded us that the gospel was a story that could overwhelm us if we got too close. So we did.
“Who is going to replace them?” The question is still a live one for me. But it brings me back around to my elder Donna’s sermonette and experience–listening for the voice of God. And I’m sharing the question with all of you because I wonder if you may be an answer to this very question…and the vacuum I fear. Certainly in 2022, the roles and titles may be different. Maybe it’s blog writers, house church pastors, self-publishing authors, podcast hosts, filmmakers…but is it possible that what the Church is going to need in this next season is you? Are you listening, anew and afresh, for God’s voice and leading? Are you willing to say “yes” to what the Lord calls you into?
Just one last thing. The people I’ve highlighted in this musing shared a certain humility that often avoided the limelight in order to enter into a deeper level of faith in Jesus, and had egos small enough that they managed, at least sometimes, to hear the voice of God. Who is going to replace them? Who, indeed.
Peace of Christ,
Dan Baumgartner is the senior pastor at The Cove in Santa Rosa CA and serves as a member of The Fellowship Community Board.