Whenever I start to get discouraged about the future of the church, I remember a conversation I had a few years ago with evangelical theologian Carl F. H. Henry on what would turn out to be his last visit to Southern Seminary before his death.
Several of us were lamenting the miserable shape of the church, about so much doctrinal vacuity, vapid preaching, non-existent discipleship. We asked Dr. Henry if he saw any hope in the coming generation of evangelicals.
And I will never forget his reply.
“Why, you speak as though Christianity were genetic,” he said. “Of course, there is hope for the next generation of evangelicals. But the leaders of the next generation might not be coming from the current evangelical establishment. They are probably still pagans.”
“Who knew that Saul of Tarsus was to be the great apostle to the Gentiles?” he asked us. “Who knew that God would raise up a C.S. Lewis, a Charles Colson? They were unbelievers who, once saved by the grace of God, were mighty warriors for the faith.”
Of course, the same principle applied to Henry himself. Who knew that God would raise up a newspaperman from a nominally Lutheran family to defend the Scriptures for generations of conservative evangelicals?
The next Jonathan Edwards might be the man driving in front of you with the Darwin Fish bumper decal. The next Charles Wesley might be a misogynist, profanity-spewing hip-hop artist right now. The next Billy Graham might be passed out drunk in a fraternity house right now. The next Charles Spurgeon might be making posters for a Gay Pride March right now. The next Mother Teresa might be managing an abortion clinic right now.
But the Spirit of God can turn all that around. And seems to delight to do so. The new birth doesn’t just transform lives, creating repentance and faith; it also provides new leadership to the church, and fulfills Jesus’ promise to gift his church with everything needed for her onward march through space and time (Eph. 4:8-16).
After all, while Phillip was leading the Ethiopian eunuch to Christ, Saul of Tarsus was still a murderer.
Most of the church in any generation comes along through the slow, patient discipleship of the next generation. But just to keep us from thinking Christianity is evolutionary and “natural” (or, to use Dr. Henry’s term “genetic”), Jesus shocks his church with leadership that seems to come like a Big Bang out of nowhere.
Whenever I’m tempted to despair about the shape of American Christianity, I’m reminded that Jesus never promised the triumph of the American church; he promised the triumph of the church. Most of the church, in heaven and on earth, isn’t American. Maybe the hope of the American church is right now in Nigeria or Laos or Indonesia.
Jesus will be King, and his church will flourish. And he’ll do it in the way he chooses, by exalting the humble and humbling the exalted, and by transforming cowards and thieves and murderers into the cornerstones of his New City.
And, be kind to that atheist in front of you on the highway, the one who just shot you an obscene gesture. He might be the one who evangelizes your grandchildren.