Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Reflections on the Death of Jerry Falwell

After an entire week of press coverage, what more could possibly be written about Jerry Falwell? In the brief, 7-day period since his sudden death, he has been praised by Fundamentalists, condemned by leftists, mourned by thousands of students and parishioners, and had his life analyzed by every major news network in the world.

Nevertheless, although I am admittedly late to this game, I've had seven days to reflect on the life of this giant of a man. I did not always agree with Falwell. In fact, there were times in recent years when I thought his public statements ill-timed, unwise, and not well-thought-out. Still, there is something about this man of God that I truly admire. In fact, there are several godly principles he clearly exemplified with his life that are worthy, both of being admired, and being assumed by the next generation of pastors.

Speak as a Prophet. Sure, his post-9/11 comments were the epitome of "wrong place, wrong time, wrong everything." Still, there is something intriguing, and even attractive about a man who will state his convictions clearly. Just weeks prior to his death, Falwell stated in a national interview that he believed God would continue to judge our nation as long as we continue to tolerate and bless immorality. At the same time, he also made clear his love of this country. Hearkening back to the example of Jeremiah, Falwell had the capacity, as no one else I have known, to strike an appropriate balance between "prophet" and "patriot."

Be a People Person. 10 years ago, I was a "nobody" seminary student studying at Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. While writing an ethics paper on the death penalty, I came across one of Falwell's opinions on the subject. Once I decided to include his thoughts in my paper, I emailed his office in order to confirm that I had understood him correctly. "There is no way I'm ever hearing from this guy," I thought to myself. But at least I could, with integrity, tell my professor that I had attempted to contact the source.

But I did hear from him . . . about two hours after sending the email. His reply was both personal and congenial, and he took a couple of paragraphs to address this young "nobody" seminary student's question, as well as to tell me how delighted he was that I was pursuing a degree at Southern, how much he thought of Al Mohler, and that he had prayed for me, my family, and my future ministry while typing his response.


You don't forget things like that, and I have heard from others who knew him personally talk of how he loved making personal connections. Students at Liberty University knew this about him, probably more than any other group, which brings me to the next principle.

Seek to Relate to all generations. In a day that assumes the neccesity of homogeneity for effective ministry (i.e.you need someone young to reach someone young, someone old to reach someone old, and someone single to reach another single person), thousands of young students in their late teens and early 20s are mourning because their 73-year-old chancellor is dead. If you don't think that is a significant statement about Falwell's ability to relate cross-generationally, you are simply denying reality. Falwell was a living, breathing example of the fact that all ages, races, and tongues are human beings created in God's image. Liberty students that I have met spoke highly of this man as one who related effectively to a younger generation, and he never had to get a tatoo or pierce his ear to do it. He was always himself, and always let others be themselves.

Let your Message match your life. Unlike so many other television preachers, no one ever caught Jerry Falwell in a motel room with a prostitute, or seeking to have sex with his secretary, or searching for a sensual massage from a gay man, or in his office rolling MJ. After all his years of battling the pornography industry, no one ever found any on his laptop. Bottom line: when the man spoke about porn, drugs, alcohol, and other vices as being harmful to the body, destructive to the reputation, and damning to the soul, he really believed it. Disagree with him if you will, but no one can ever accuse Jerry Falwell of inconsistency.

Make the Gospel the Priority. Though he is more well-known outside Lynchburg for his controversial political views, Falwell always kept the Gospel and its spread at the center of his life and ministry. I never saw him do a news show without finding some avenue to talk about the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In fact, I don't think I remember a time when he didn't challenge the interviewer publicly to repent and believe . . .on the air!

In addition, Liberty University has become a school known for the sending of missionaries to North America and the world. With a great partner in such scholars as Elmer Towns, Falwell also stressed the necessity of church planting as no other public figure I know of. Colleagues of mine who are graduates of Liberty have told me that frequently in classes they would hear such sentiments as "why go a build on another man's foundation? Why not plant a church?" Indeed, Falwell himself was a successful church planter; taking Thomas Road from 35 to several thousand over the five decades he served as Senior Pastor. As one who has a responsibility to recruit those who will be successful in church planting I can tell you, when I'm looking for the good ones, I talk to Liberty University!

And while most who recognize his name more quickly associate him with the political, Falwell's real contribution can be seen in missions efforts he initiated all over the world. The Gospel was truly his central passion.

Value Longevity. In a day where pastors think they deserve a gold watch for staying longer than 50 months, Jerry Falwell managed to stay in the same place ministering, growing, raising up leaders, and leading his congrregation to fulfill the Great Commission for more than 50 years! The growth of Thomas Road Baptist Church and Liberty University are the prime examples of what can happen when the man of God refuses to look elsewhere at the first signs of trouble. The simple fact is that longevity, as a general rule, produces stability, which produces growth, which produces Kingdom impact. In my own association, the majority of our churches are stable because many of our pastors have been at their churches for at least 15 years. There is little trouble, and even less "turnover" because men of God are faithful to stay where God has placed them. While God certainly moves men to other areas of service, Falwell's legacy challenges us to think that moving every four or five years to another field of service should possibly be the exception rather than the rule.

Leave a Legacy of Leaders. Of course, with Falwell, this example started with his own family. One look at the man's family portrait and a brief synopsis of what his children and grandchildren are involved in will convince you that he knows how to raise up leaders. In addition, the leaders he brought around him now ensure that the ministries at Thomas Road and Liberty will not merely survive, but continue to thrive.

In Jerry Falwell, God raised up a giant of a man, who in turn built an even more gigantic ministry. Nevertheless, the success he enjoyed in this life cannot merely be credited to his notoriety. In the end, his life and legacy must be credited to the grace of God that allowed this man to consistently live the set of core values and principles described above. My God grant each of us that same grace!