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Passing the Torch of Christian Leadership

By Craig von Buseck
CBN.com Ministries Director

CBN.comHave you noticed how many of the major Christian leaders have gone on to heaven in the last few years? With the passing of luminaries like D. James Kennedy, Bill Bright, Ruth Graham and Jerry Falwell comes a chapter of American church history that is seeing its twilight.

It has been a glorious chapter, beginning in the 1940s with the famous line from newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst. Hearing that the evangelist was preaching against communism, Hearst ordered his editors: “Puff Graham."

"Either communism must die or Christianity must die," Graham famously preached, and Hearst sent a memo to all of his papers' editors, ordering them to give Billy Graham extra coverage. Suddenly the North Carolina Christian evangelist was a household name.

At the same time, a fiery Pentecostal faith healer named Oral Roberts was grabbing headlines as he crossed the country holding tent meetings. Thousands of people were healed and brought to salvation as they attended these rallies.

Both Graham and Oral Roberts soon seized the electronic media to take the Gospel to the masses, first on radio, then on television. Billy Graham went on to harness the power of film through his Worldwide Pictures division.

Now, after years of glorious ministry, with abundant spiritual fruit, Billy Graham and Oral Roberts are mostly out of the spotlight as their sons carry on the work of the ministry.

We're seeing this changing of the guard taking place in many prominent ministries today:

  • Franklin Graham is now the president of both the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and the humanitarian organization, Samaritan's Purse.
  • After Morris Cerullo purchased of the former PTL Network, his son David began to oversee operations, eventually being named Chief Executive Officer.
  • Marilyn Hickey has groomed her daughter, Sarah Bowling for the leadership of her ministry. Together they co-host the Today with Marilyn & Sarah TV program, and travel around the world teaching and preaching the Gospel.

Here at CBN, Gordon Robertson has been with the ministry since 1994, and has served as co-host of The 700 Club since 1999. In 2007 he was named CEO of the Christian Broadcasting Network, and now oversees the daily operations of the ministry.

But we have also seen the passing of the guard in several ministries:

  • Jerry Falwell groomed his son Jerry Falwell Jr., 44, to become chancellor of Liberty University, which Falwell founded in 1971 to turn out "champions of Christ." His younger brother, Jonathan, 41, became pastor at Thomas Road Baptist Church, which Falwell founded.
  • Joel Osteen succeeded his father as pastor of Lakewood Church. Ironically, Joel had only preached once in his life, the week before his father's death in 1999. The broadcast of the Lakewood Church worship service is one of the most-watched religious television programs in the world.
  • Even before he died in 2003, Dr. Bill Bright passed the torch of leadership, after 50 years as founder and president of Campus Crusade for Christ, to his long time associate, Dr. Steve Douglass.

The winds of change are blowing through the Church in America and around the world. New leaders are emerging to take the place of their fathers and predecessors.

But what is the message of this new generation?

Evangelism; discipleship; social and political action; Christian education; humanitarian relief -- of course, all of these things are necessary and important. But these new leaders cannot be successful if their strategy is that their individual ministries will do the work alone.

Jesus has given His Church the Great Commission (some would call it the great reminder):

Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. (Matt. 28:19, NLT)

Today, Christianity encompasses only 1/3rd of the world's population, with 2.1 billion believers. According to Adherents.com, Christianity is the largest religion in the world. But with a global population of more than 6.7 billion people, there aree still 2/3rds of the world's people who need to be reached with the Gospel.

Despite the charisma and abilities of wonderful Christian leaders, they cannot fill this gap on their own -- even with the wonderful technology that they have at their disposal.

It simply cannot be done.

Generals don't win wars alone. They must have the cooperation and labor of the officers and the troops to take the victory.

Using another military analogy, no war was ever won with air forces alone. Media ministries, which I consider to be the air forces, as powerful as they are in touching lives with the Gospel, will not be able to reach the world's people with the Good News. The air forces need the ground troops -- the writers, speakers, pastors, teachers, missionaries, Christian school principles, Christian college professors, social activists, humanitarian aid workers, home group leaders, Sunday school teacher -- along with every individual Christian to see the Great Commission fulfilled.

The Apostle Paul gives us God's strategy for taking the Gospel to ever nation, tribe, and tongue:

And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ… (Eph. 4:11-13, NKJV, italics added)

The day of the Christian "superstar" has passed. It is wonderful to have inspiring men and women of God who are gifted to teach and preach the Word of God. As Paul points out in these verses, we need the evangelists, prophets, teachers, pastors, and apostles. But if the saints merely listen to the Word and do not act on it, then the efforts of these leaders are severely limited, if not completely diminished.

Paul explains that the main responsibility of the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers; the so-called 5-fold leadership -- these gifted and anointed Christian leaders -- is to equip the Saints to do the work of the ministry.

Unless those in 5-fold ministry take seriously their role to equip the Saints to carry the Gospel to the world, I don't believe that the Great Commission will be accomplished.

But if these leaders will humble themselves and throw their energies into equipping the Saints to take the Gospel to the nations, then I am convinced that we will be amazed at what God will do through individual believers to see the Great Commission fulfilled.

As we view the changing of the guard of Christian leadership, I pray that this new generation will humbly equip the individual Christian to recognize their personal call to be the ministers of reconciliation that God has called them to be.

Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God. (2 Cor. 5:18-20, NKJV, italics added)

The day of the one-man (or woman) show in the Church is over. It is time to take the admonition to equip the saints seriously, doing all that we can to see the people prepared to preach the Gospel in their spheres of influence.

Writing great books is not enough.

Producing television shows is not enough.

Building Christian colleges is not enough.

Organizing political and social action is not enough.

Providing humanitarian relief is not enough.

Doing one-on-one evangelism is not enough.

Preaching and teaching is not enough.

But doing all of these things together in a coordinated and cooperative way, utilizing the network of the local church, along with Christian media, Christian adademia, Christian legal advocacy, Christian politicians -- each member of the Body doing its part, believing God for signs and wonders to follow the preaching of the Word -- that, I believe, will provide the spiritual and natural energy needed to see the Great Commission finally fulfilled.

I pray that this new generation of leaders will catch this vision to equip the Saints and will boldly implement it in their various ministries, so that together we can proclaim, Amen! Come Lord Jesus!

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Craig von  BuseckCraig von Buseck is Ministries Director for CBN.com. Send him an e-mail with your comments.

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