A Conversation with LeRoy Lawson

07_CEP_Lawson_JNMeet Our Contributing Editors: In this, the second of our series of interviews with CHRISTIAN STANDARD’s contributing editors, an elder statesman talks about—and speaks to—the young leaders our movement is producing.

Interview By Jennifer Johnson 

Let’s start with the positive: what encourages you about our young leaders?

Their commitment, their curiosity, and—for the most part—their hard work. They have chosen ministry in response to a demanding call, not as a secure job with benefits.

They also know the difference between doing religion and serving Jesus. I’m not sure I knew that when I started out. When I planted a church early on, I basically replicated what I had known. I hadn’t thought through the implications.

Today’s students are thinking; they’re asking serious questions about the church and the Lord we serve, and they are discerning the distinction between doing religion as usual and serving Jesus in ways that will attract the attention of a secular age. So they come up with solutions that may be a bit unnerving to us old-timers, but they’re doing it thoughtfully, and I respect that.

 

This is a difficult time, but that also makes it kind of fun. Do you ever wish you were 30 years old again?

In some ways. But if I could choose when to be born and where, I would want to be born when and where I was, because I’ve lived through a sea of change and each successive decade has been increasingly fascinating. I wouldn’t give up the resulting perspective for anything. So I am content to vicariously enjoy the challenge through my students and the young ministers I know.

 

So that’s the positive. What are your concerns?

I will sound like the old people when I was young, sometimes catching myself grumbling about their poor work habits, their procrastination, their preference for the easy road. I suspect every generation feels this way. However, I still want to accentuate the positive, because I see a lot of exceptions.

 

You’ve said you don’t feel younger leaders read enough.

They spend a lot more time online, of course, and they’re more knowledgeable than we were, but I don’t know that they have assimilated the knowledge into a coherent philosophy of life or ministry. That does concern me.

Many of them also don’t read enough of the right books. For instance, there’s no end to the stacks of leadership books. Many just repackage the same principles, and if you limit your reading to more of the same, you won’t grow.

There’s no substitute for a well-fed mind, and there’s no quick and easy way to satisfy its hunger. So my counsel would be to read more, read more widely, and read more deeply. Keep challenging your prejudices and presuppositions.

If you do, you will speak with greater humility. One of the good things about higher education is the more of it you get, the more you realize what you don’t know. When I was handed my brand-new PhD, I said, “If a medical doctor knows as little in his field as I know in mine, well, we’re in trouble.”

Some of the preaching convinces me the ministers don’t know what they don’t know.

 

In addition to reading widely and well, do you have any suggestions for assimilating what we learn into this philosophy of life and ministry?

Good reading is a dialogue. You are in a conversation with these authors, and it’s in the dialogue that questions are raised that challenge your own point of view. Eventually out of the dialogue a positive philosophy of life should emerge so that we act on principle, not just react on instinct.

 

We’ve talked in our contributing editor meetings about our younger leaders living out the ideal of not being the only Christians. How are you seeing that play out?

For one thing, these young people simply can’t be bothered with denominational trappings. They are seeking to identify the essentials and wondering what all the fuss is regarding nonessentials. The positive part of this is these young leaders are willing to sacrifice for Jesus, but not for rules and rituals.

The downside is a lack of respect for their heritage. They make me uncomfortable because I am a son of the Restoration Movement. It’s where I was nurtured and encouraged to find my identity, so I have a deep sense of belonging. Now what I see missing in the younger generation—and I’m not criticizing them for it—is they don’t feel they’ve been nurtured in the same way, and they’re kind of embarrassed by our eccentricities. That is normal for young people, but the downside is they don’t have a strong sense of belonging to anything.

 

Well, now we have smaller tribes. People are filling that need to belong but choosing different communities; a church planting network, for instance, or a regional group of pastors.

Yes, and I commend them. They are going where the action is. So long as that action is in the service of and not in mere rebellion against the Christ-honoring principles of their heritage, may God bless them.

 

Like so many things in life, it’s a both/and. We’re a group that has intentionally created something with fluid, constantly morphing boundaries, yet at the same time we like to have the boxes checked and know where the lines are.

If I had my way, we’d all spend serious time in other cultures. You do enough of that and you realize how fluid these boundaries are, and how important it is not to be trapped in a single corral. As you can see, I prefer fluid boundaries to no boundaries—but I get pretty nervous around the box-checkers.

I was a teenager when television came to my hometown, and I was a married man before I owned my first TV. It was so much easier then to think I knew everything. Consider what your generation and younger are exposed to compared to where I was. So, sure, your generation is going to be less boxed-in than mine. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, unless unbridled emotions take the place of tested principles.

 

And yet some things are timeless. What does the younger generation need to keep in mind? What are the things that won’t change?

They need to equip themselves for the slings and arrows of criticism; if they do anything worthwhile they’ll be misunderstood and opposed. They need to accept loneliness as the price leaders pay.

They need to prepare for the high cost of loving. If you decide to love, you will suffer. There is no escape. Our culture sings about romance, we idolize sex, we emphasize the selfish and the transitory aspects of loving. But if we decide to love in the agape sense, we will be wounded.

When we’re children and we hurt ourselves, we run to an adult for help. When we’re adults, we’re the ones who are run to—and we can’t run. So when you say, “’Til death do us part,” you’re saying an awful lot. When you take on the burdens of parenting, that’s a lifetime load. And when you enter into a loving relationship with fellow believers, when you’re committed to being part of a community, in the end you will be scarred.

But you’re tougher for your scars.

 

This applies to claiming a tribe, in our movement or somewhere else. It means hanging-in, even in the messy parts, even in the times you want to run.

Some people naively think if they can sign on with a different tribe, they’re not going to have to put up with a mess. But they’ll encounter messes wherever they go, even if they keep moving from tribe to tribe.

Our young leaders need to grow into loyalty, into a willingness to stay the distance and invest in each other for the long haul. Anybody can start a marathon, but not everyone has the staying power to finish one.

 

What have you learned the hard way that you want to caution them about?

When I went to the funeral of Don Jeanes, the former president of Milligan College, the Milligan chapel was full and I thought, Here I am attending the funeral service of one of my dearest, closest friends. Along with his hundreds of other dearest, closest friends.

Prepare when you are young for when you are old, even though there’s no guarantee you’ll get there, because in old age you regularly withdraw the assets you deposited in your faith-hope-and-love bank when you were younger. It’s almost too late in your advanced years to build up a good balance. Don made deposits in his relational bank for a lifetime. He didn’t live long enough to make many withdrawals, but when he died he had a very large balance. This quiet man had made a huge difference.

I’d also remind them none of these long-term relationships—marriage, friend-
ship, partnership, ministry—can be held together without grace, and that means forgiving others and accepting their forgiveness. And although the grass may look greener on the other side of the fence, remaining on your own side for a good long ministry is much to be preferred. So keep your relationships in good repair.

 

And what would you say to them in encouragement and blessing?

One of the best things about the Christian life is that you grow younger as you grow older. Once you’ve figured out that God is competent to run the universe, you can relax and let God do it. Your job is to enjoy. The apostle Paul’s exhortation implies a promise: You can “rejoice in the Lord always.”

 

Jennifer Johnson, herself one of CHRISTIAN STANDARD’s contributing editors, is a writer living in Levittown, Pennsylvania.

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