Letter to Future Leaders
Up & Comers:
Leighton Ford gives the charge to a new generation who will guide the church into the next century.
-by Leighton Ford
Ten Years ago, Presbyterian minister, evangelist, and church leader Leighton Ford founded Leighton Ford Ministries to identify and develop emerging young leaders. In 1992 he began the Arrow Leadership Program, using a nonresidential, tow-year schedule to train groups of 25 people ages 25-40—many of whom are already in ministry positions—in evangelism and leadership skills. “I sensed a desire among the younger generation of emerging leaders for a highly personalized leadership development program,” says Ford. “They hungered for mentoring relationships with older leaders and affirmation between peers—and above all, a program that stressed character development alongside skills for growing ministries.”
Ford’s advice to the 50 young leaders featured in this issue of CT is embodied in this letter to two students completing the Arrow program.
Dear Danny and Chris,
As you graduate, my thoughts are drawn back to 50 years ago this fall. I was 15 then, and had just been named president of my hometown Youth for Christ. That position gave me the chance to try my own wings in leadership, and it put me in touch with come important evangelical leaders. Oswald Smith, the well-known missionary pastor, taught me to pray. Bob Pierce, founder of World Vision, opened my eyes to the world. Harold Ockenga, the consummate pastor-scholar and itinerant president of Fuller Seminary, inspired me with his biblical and intellectual preaching and in many ways treated me like a son. Billy Graham came to my small city and encouraged me when I saw meager response. Later he became my mentor and brother-in-law.
That generation of post-World War II leaders, which emerged on the national and international scene with tremendous vision and energy, has now largely moved off the stage. Interestingly, I do not see many visionary leaders in their late forties and fifties taking their places; those in that age range tend to be managers of their elders’ visions and the organizations they had built. But I do see God rising up a new band of leaders among men and women who are under 40, like you.
British novelist Graham Greene once wrote, “The door always opens and lets the future in.” Because of this, you and your peers bring me great hope. The world in which you are assuming leadership, however, is very different from the one in which my peers and I started out 50 years ago. Here is my prayer for the two of you as you assume leadership roles in today’s world.
1. I pray that you will be “hopers.”
A theologian friend of mine speaks of the “ontological priority of the future.” Those are big words that catch a vital truth: God is always ahead of us and moving us on.
In 1946 we were just entering into the Cold War between the East and West. For nearly 40 years the image of the Cold War dominated our thinking as a nation and, to be honest, as Christians. We saw ourselves as on a holy crusade against communism and for Christ. That in itself was never sufficient biblical grounds for action, but it nevertheless fueled a lot of the energy and money that went into Christian missions.
Today we have moved from the Cold War to cultural wars and religious conflicts within and without nations. As a nation, we fumble around, searching for a purpose. Likewise, our mission as Christians seems more complex and less clear. The “enemy” is not so clearly identified, and the battle goes on within as well as without the church. But our ally is very clear. As a friend once wrote to me, “Remember, Leighton, God really is God. He’s not applying for the job.”
And so as you minister in a world often steeped in confusion and despair, I hope you will breathe expectancy. God always has another move!
2. I pray that you will be world Christians.
In your commitment to Christ, stay keenly aware of what is happening in the world. No longer does North America call all the shots; if this is true economically and in geopolitics, it is even more true in our calling to serve Christ.
In 1974 I served as program chairman of the International congress on World Evangelization, held in Lausanne, Switzerland. Under the leadership of Billy Graham, nearly 3,000 Christian leaders came together from around the world at a time when many of the old-line churches had lost their nerve for missions. It was also at a time when there had been 25 years of amazing growth of the church around the world. What struck many of us at Lausanne were the outstanding leaders from what we then called the Third World—from Latin America and Asia and Africa—leaders of tremendous spirit and ability. They didn’t always make us feel comfortable. Some of them had some very critical things to say about the shortcomings they saw in the North American church, and it made some Americans angry. But it brought home powerfully that the whole church must be the mission force, and that we must forge a global partnership.
It also emphasized that the whole world, including the “Christian West,” is the mission field. The world has come to our cities—most of our taxi drivers in Charlotte, North Carolina, are either Ethiopians or Nigerians. The mission field is not only “over there” but is also “right here.”
Chris, you recommended to me the book Amazing Grace, Irving Kozol’s stories of the people he met in the Bronx. Last night I was reading about a guy who was born in jail when his mother was incarcerated and now, in his late twenties, was dying in another jail from AIDS. We, in what we once called “Christian” America, don’t have a lot to brag about.
To be a world Christian calls for a kind of humble boldness—humility in the awareness of our own failures but boldness in the knowledge of our position in Christ. Hans Kung, the German theologian, says that we need to be “Christo-centric but not narrowly so.” I like that. For me it means that we can live and speak with the great confidence that Jesus is the unique Son of God and Savior and Lord. But we have this treasure in very earthen vessels, so we should listen with great respect to others—and learn from them.
I recommend that you study the great American missionary E. Stanley Jones. I had the privilege of meeting him, and his writings had a great influence on me. Jones went to India with a high sense of what he could bring to the Indians, but he soon discovered that they were a very religious and devout people, with prayer and much wisdom. The one unique thing he knew he brought was Jesus. Jones would bring together Hindus and Buddhists and Muslims and nonbelievers in roundtable sessions. They would listen to each other, seeking to understand with respect. For his part, Jones would speak boldly and without apology of Jesus. To him, salvation was not something we achieved but something we received. I covet that humble boldness for you.
3. I pray that you will be visionaries like Jesus.
Clear vision matters more today than ever because the world is changing so quickly. At the end of our century, in which we have gone from Model T’s to modems, strategic planning in most companies is not over a five- or ten-year time frame, but two or three years. Asian businessman Bob Wong has noted that “In the ’90s you don’t have to be big. You just have to have vision and move fast.”
Jesus knew what it was to move fast. When he sent his disciples out, he told them, “Do not take a purse or bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road” (Luke 10:4)
But he could move fast because he had spent time with his Father and was very clear as to his call. He also had taken time with his disciples to sharpen their vision.
That’s why I hope you will be visionaries like Jesus. Vision is not just that of an entrepreneur who can visualize a great scheme or project. Vision is to see as god does. Vision grows when you take time to observe what is happening in our world—what the needs are and what God is doing; to reflect prayerfully and biblically on what you see; and to act, beginning in small ways, on what god helps you to see.
4. I pray that you will be kingdom seekers and not empire builders.
In my opinion, we have had too many “Christian” enterprises that have been more about building the ego of the leader and the impressiveness of the church or organization than about seeking the will of Jesus. Some of them have come crashing down.
Certainly there is a place for godly ambition. The young John Mott—one of the greatest evangelists and Christian social leaders at the turn of the century—was a student at Cornell University when he heard a British athlete say in a speech, “Young man, do you seek great things for yourself? Seek them not. Seek first the kingdom of god and his righteousness.” Eventually Mott received the Nobel Peace Prize for his leadership of the YMCA and for his contributions to reconstruction after World War I. But his was a kingdom-seeking ambition.
It is interesting how the understanding of leadership has changed in my lifetime. In management and business the trend has been away from autocratic, authoritarian, top-down leadership to empowering, participating, bottom-up leadership. Someone has said that to build pyramids you needed one person who could think and 10,000 who could grunt. But you and I are not leading grunts today. For the most part, we are leading people who, through experience and education and communication, have learned to think for themselves.
Jesus aimed to build up people. The heart of his leadership was not so much in giving his disciples a plan they had to follow as it was in putting his own Spirit in them and setting them free to be all that God had called them to be. That is being a kingdom seeker.
5. I pray that you will model the inclusiveness of Jesus.
I have been impressed in watching the two of you—an African American and an Anglo American with very different personalities and styles—working in tandem on a mission to the heart of Knoxville. I know it hasn’t been easy. You have been very open about the conflicts of personality and culture that you have faced. You have wondered if you could work through all this and stick together. But you have. You have been humble and open enough to recognize your own faults and weaknesses and to learn from each other.
The church and society in America need to see that kind of diversity lived out, first, because the gospel is about reconciliation, and our actions have to show that; and second, because most of the unchurched people we are trying to reach are turned off by anything that smacks of arrogance and exclusiveness.
Let me say something else that is very much on my heart. Both of you have shown great respect for your wives, each of whom is a gifted person in her own right. I hope that you will show that same regard for the women with whom you work in leadership. I am deeply convinced that God calls all of his people to leadership.
When my wife and I first went to the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., in the mid-fifties, women were not permitted to sit on the main floor. They could sit in the balcony and listen—without breakfast! That was then, and it’s embarrassing to remember. Today Mother Teresa and Elizabeth Dole are keynote speakers at the National Prayer Breakfast. You are going to be working with schools and corporations and institutions where women are not just permitted to be leaders but are wanted and respected. I wish that were as true of the church. I hope you guys will be strong, secure men who, not with paternalism but with mutuality, will lead with and be led by God’s women.
6. I pray that you will have a pioneering spirit for the gospel.
Those post-World War II Christian leaders I spoke of at the beginning of this letter saw a new world they hadn’t been aware of before—with huge opportunities. Billy Graham saw the world as spiritually hungry and mastered the use of crusades, motion pictures, and radio and television to spread the gospel. Bob Pierce saw the orphans of China and Korea and started a compassionate ministry of social outreach. Oswald Smith saw the opportunity for the local church to be a force for world missions and started annual mission conferences, which were copied by many other churches and resulted in many recruits and dollars for world missions. Harold Ockenga saw the need for a gospel that would be biblically true, intelligent, and socially aware.
In the same vein, I pray you will have pioneering spirits. You don’t need to plan on building a huge organization. You may want to do it more on a local community level where you can be deeply and personally involved. You will want a gospel that is very whole, concerned with body, mind, spirit, and community.
It doesn’t matter whether it is “big” or “small.” Dream dreams for God. See as Jesus did—he saw sheep harassed and helpless without laborers. Bleed and long as Paul did that the gospel be preached where it was not preached.
Chris, you told me how you take drug users off the street, help them identify their entrepreneurial skills, and the help them to see how God can use those skills in legitimate and beneficial ways. You have also told me how you listen carefully to the language of the gangs, because the way they speak shows you how you might speak to them. Danny, you told me how you couldn’t preach a sermon on the street corner to the guys in Knoxville because they wouldn’t listen. But you could talk to them about their buddies who had been gunned down in the last year. You could ask how long they expected to live, then offer, “I am a preacher. Would you like me to preach your funeral? What would you like me to say?” From there you could tell them what you would like to have said at your funeral. What a creative way to communicate the gospel!
You have heard me say over and over that one way that we will communicate to your postmodern generation, with its skepticism toward anything absolute, is by being storytellers. Mark tells us that Jesus told many things with stories, and without a story he didn’t tell anything. Stories feed a deep hunger in the human soul. They have a way of reaching your generation, which is so visual and so entertainment-oriented that it finds it difficult to listen to old-style linear exposition. Exposition is important, but we need to bridge into it.
7. I pray that you will stay attuned to the Holy Spirit.
We are accustomed to hearing that we live in an era that is extremely secular and hostile toward Christianity. I know there is some very deep opposition. But I also believe that God’s Spirit is at work in deep ways we haven’t yet seen.
Diogenes Allen, a philosophy professor at Princeton Seminary, once told me that when he was a graduate student in philosophy at Princeton, God wouldn’t get a mention in the faculty lounge—except for a skeptical laugh. In that same lounge today, however, God is seriously discussed. In his book Christian Belief in a Postmodern World, Allen says he believes “a massive intellectual revolution is taking place that is perhaps as great as that which marked out the modern world from the Middle Ages—the barriers to Christian belief erected by the modern mentality are collapsing, and philosophy and science, once used to undermine belief in God, are now seen in some respect as actually pointing toward God.”
Science taught us to doubt as the way to knowledge. But you can’t doubt everything. And now I believe we’re at a point where we are moving from pervasive doubt to pervasive longing.
The Canadian writer Doug Coupland, who wrote the book and coined the term “Generation X,” has written another book called Life After God. Toward the end he says this:
Now—here is my secret: I tell it to you with an openness of heart that I doubt I shall ever achieve again, so I pray that you are in a quiet room as you hear these words. My secret is that I need God—that I am sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me give, because I no longer seem to be capable of giving; to help me be kind, as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love.
I was impressed with the young pastor who told me a few weeks ago that he went to Borders, the mega bookstore in his city, and they agreed to organize a reading group on the Spiritual Journey. He is not going to be preaching or leading a Bible study. But they will be reading a number of different books about spirituality, including some by C.S. Lewis. That is an example of seeing the world and then meeting its deep spiritual hunger.
8. I pray that you will seek a heart for God.
That is a description of David, who was “a man after God’s own heart.” Like King David, may your doing always grow out of your being. Christlike character isn’t just a matter of living by the rules and being moral. It is a matter of heart.
In the years since the fall of Jim Bakker and PTL, I have had cause to look at my own heart in new and deeper ways. I have seen my own shadow side, parts of me that I didn’t like to see or I didn’t want to acknowledge. I realized more than ever that leadership is a journey. There are skills to leadership. There is an art to leadership. But leadership is a matter of becoming, of a journey to the center.
A young leader called me a few weeks ago—a man who has led in building a large, multiracial church. He was going through a time of deep discouragement and depression over the conflicts he had faced; he probably was very close to leaving the ministry. After I listened to him for a while, I said, “I am so thankful you are going through this.” He responded in amazement, “What? Why?” And I said, “Because it is better for you to face this now at 40 and realize these tendencies and deal with them than to wait until you are 60. You will be a better, stronger, deeper, more caring, more sensitive leader because you have gone through the pain.”
The old Eastern theologians used to say that the time “between dreams” is the most critical time in our spiritual lives. Then is when we need to stay awake until we see what God’s next dream is. God is doing more, perhaps, in those times than at any other to grow our hearts for him.
9. Finally, Chris and Danny, hug and older leader!
Be nice to us who are getting along. We need it! Having just turned 65 this last month, I think more of what it is like to grow older and to begin to lose the edge. What happens to our ministry and organization after my time? These thoughts are not always kind to one’s self-esteem. It is no easier to let go of a ministry you have helped to birth and grow than it is to give away a daughter or a son in marriage.
So please love and respect and encourage your senior leaders. Express appreciation. Share yourselves with us. Give us that hug around the shoulder or the heart that we need. We don’t always know how to respond to it, but we need it.
God is opening the door. He is letting in the future. You are part of that future. My prayer is that you will always be led by Jesus, and lead like him, and to him.
Your friend and older brother,
Copyright © 1996 Christianity Today.
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November 11, 1996, Vol. 40, No. 13, Page 16