Recently, Dr. Tim Keller, lead pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan, announced a transition plan that will ultimately see him pivot out of his current role as Senior Pastor and into a training and equipping position with Redeemer’s church planting initiatives. The news trickled across social media in the wake of the Sunday morning announcement and picked up steam in the days that followed. In the pseudo-hysteria following this announcement and previous ones, regarding other pastors around the country, I found myself wondering how and why people like me tend to hoist individuals like Keller into impossibly lofty places of admiration and respect.
Don’t hear me say there’s no room for it; I simply feel it’s prudent to tread lightly here. And besides, I’m numbered among the guilty. I’ve had my fair share of ministry heroes and there are even a few pastors on the “national scene” I still listen to regularly today. In His kindness, God has given us a great gift in accessible resources that we shouldn’t take for granted. But slowly, our infatuation with what’s happening in the church down the street has become sort of an obsession with what’s happening across the country. And discontentment makes its home in our hearts and minds as we struggle to keep up.
The question I often find myself asking is, “Is there any type of precedent for this kind of following in Scripture?”
Well, yes. Following Christ Himself. But beyond him? The lines are muddled.
Among other instances throughout Scripture, we find Paul, in the first letter to the Corinthians, admonishing a group of believers for bickering over whose tribe they belonged to. “For it has been reported to me…there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, ‘I follow Paul,’ or ‘I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Cephas,’ or ‘I follow Christ’” (1 Corinthians 1:12). Paul goes on to ask the group if they thought Christ himself was divided. I can’t imagine anyone laughed when he said it. Paul even says he is grateful that none of the group can claim to be baptized in his own name. “Paul” is a lesser name here. Often, we point to the scenario as a what-not-to-do lesson in following Christ only, but there is a more commendable kind of following, too.
Later in the same letter, Paul does posit himself as a man worth following or “imitating”, but he does so conditionally. That condition? “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). Far removed from the glory-hungry, self-promoting false teachers of the day, Paul understands his inability to drum up self-value and worth. He is utterly convinced that, apart from the gospel, he has nothing truly good to say (1 Corinthians 2:2). Christ is worthy. Paul is a conduit. Whatever you see of Christ in me, go and do likewise. Do not as I do, but as Christ does through me. Paul’s posture here is truly remarkable. And we credit every bit of it to the Spirit’s work in and through him.
So, this is the setup we’re dealing with, with a keen eye toward modern, western Christianity: the man most worthy to be followed on the face of the planet has tread where we cannot go, conquering death, hell, and the grave in one fell swoop. In his stead and rooted in the power of the gospel, God has raised up a group of forerunning, nationally recognized leaders for whom we are to be thankful and for whom we should pray often. But by and large, God has set in place leaders of lesser prominence. Leaders who serve humbly week in and week out, only without the volume turned up. These are leaders who exude a quiet faithfulness.
More than likely, you and I are the products of this quiet faithfulness. We stand on the shoulders of men and women who dug their heels in where God had planted them. Plodding men and women whose names will never grace the covers of books found in retail. Men and women whose online followers may never number in the thousands, or even the hundreds for that matter. Men and women whose greatest one-liners will grace only the ears of a few. And yet, these are the men and women God uses. Over and again, far and above what our minds could possibly conceive, He uses them.
And He uses us. As we are, in the places we are in, in the moments we’re living in, and in the lives of the people with whom He has surrounded us. We are reminded that, in many respects, life as a believer is intensely local. Our efforts in discipleship land close to home. So, what does that look like? Perhaps something like this:
Before I know the travails of a pastor 3,000 miles away, I want to be steeped in the plight of my neighbor next door. Often times, carrying the burden of another isn’t difficult because of the weight of the burden itself; we simply have little interest in picking it up. Before I know point 2A of a sermon preached in Texas, I want to wrestle with what I’ve heard this week from the pulpit at my church in Kansas City, feeling the full weight of it against the crevices of my life I'd rather be left untouched. And if I catch wind that yet another pastor has fallen, I want to be more apt to hit my knees right where I am, pleading with God for His protection in the lives of those who pastor me.
This is that quiet faithfulness. It feels a lot like waking up where you are. Pastor, be encouraged. God has given you a people to lead and He has given them you. Church member, be likewise encouraged, and be jolted out of slumber and away from the idealism that would have you dreaming of greener, Christian pastures. And, together, let’s figure out what it means to live more grateful for the people who dot the timeline of our past and what it looks like to be more intentionally invested in those who make up our present.