Following the unexpected death of the Jerry Falwell, many are revisiting his legacy. Some remind people of his numerous controversial remarks, while others praise him for his political and social influence.
Critics and supporters alike wonder who will take his place–not so much as leader of Thomas Road Baptist Church or Liberty University–but as a public face and voice of American evangelicals.
The guessing game has been going on for some time. Google “the next Jerry Falwell,” and various names are found: Jerry Johnston, Rod Parsley, Rick Warren. Expect many others to add to the speculation in coming days.
A more important question is not who might be the next Jerry Falwell, but how that person should act and talk. Do evangelicals in general or Baptists in particular really need another controversial and polarizing public figure?
Someone may well take over the unofficial mantle of Falwell and ascend as a frequent guest on various media programs. I do not know who that might be, and I will not probably even have a say, since no one took a vote to elect Falwell as the public face of evangelical Christianity in the first place.
I do have a few pointers to whoever might emerge, however. These are also good suggestions for all of us who claim to be Christians.
First, listen to people and engage in polite dialogue with them. I watched Falwell on a number of television talk shows that devolved into nothing more than a childish shouting match. Falwell would call other people on the programs, even fellow Christians, names and question their patriotism and faith.
These vicious comments were laid out before the whole world to see. Why would anyone want to become a Christian when we behave this way? Christian leaders in the future should listen more and attack less.
Next, focus on things that really matter. Spirituality should never take a backseat to politics.
Christians today desperately need leaders who are not married to a political party. When we become too close to one party, we lose our prophetic voice and become nothing more than court prophets.
Like many of his contemporaries, Falwell over-focused on just a couple of issues. The obsession with abortion and homosexuality pushes a lot of other important moral issues aside. Christian leaders should pursue policies advocating a “seamless garment of life” and offer a consistent prophetic witness on other issues like poverty and the environment.
Third, be careful and deliberate in what you say. Many of Falwell’s problems came because he did not fully consider the consequences of his words before saying them. As a result, he would often later apologize, such as when he claimed that 9/11 was caused by pagans, abortionists, feminists and others instead of terrorists.
By then the damage was already done. Those comments not only hurt the image of Christians, they also often drove people away from God. Christianity would often have been better served had Falwell simply kept his mouth shut. Christian leaders need to be much more careful with their words, so they do not drive people away.
Finally, be sure that love is obvious in everything you say and do. Christians are supposed to be known by our love, not our condemnation. Unfortunately, Falwell too often put forth an image of Christians as being hateful and judgmental.
We can preach the gospel without coming across as mean. We have to make sure that we preach and live the love of Jesus. As Paul reminded, without love we are nothing. The world desperately needs the love of Jesus. Christian leaders should be sure that all they say and do demonstrates that love.
I do not doubt that Falwell is now with our Lord and Savior. My prayers and thoughts go out to his family and friends. I was quite harsh on him in my book (For God’s Sake Shut Up!: Lessons for Christians on How to Speak Effectively and When to Remain Silent), but I still had hope he might become a more positive public figure for Christians.
My hope and prayer now is that the next generation that arises to take his place will be more careful and less polarizing with their words. In short, I hope the next Jerry Falwell sounds a lot less like Jerry Falwell.
Brian Kaylor is communications specialist with the Baptist General Convention of Missouri.
Click here to order Brian Kaylor’s book For God’s Sake Shut Up!: Lessons for Christians on How to Speak Effectively and When to Remain Silent from Amazon.com.