Young Leaders: Who Will Replace Eugene Peterson and Other Giants We’ve Lost?

Eugene Peterson hospice care

Just a few days ago, Eugene Peterson died. Like you and so many others, I felt the loss quite deeply.

In the last few years, not only have we lost Eugene Peterson, but also Billy Graham and Dallas Willard among others.

When a giant voice in ministry disappears from us, the question that’s really on my mind these days is who will replace them? Do we have a younger generation of voices being forged who are able to offer the depth of wisdom, insight, grace and perspective that we’re losing when we lose a giant?

To be sure, age and wisdom are frequent companions. To expect a 30-year-old to say what 65-year-old Dallas Willard or Eugene Peterson would say is unfair.

Fast forward a few decades and imagine a world in which perhaps thinkers like Ravi Zacharias, Tim Keller, Barbara Brown Taylor, N.T. Wright and others are no longer with us…and then what?

Of course, no one can truly replace the unique voices lost. But isn’t it our hope that every generation will have its voices?

Deeper, though, is this question: Are the conditions even favorable today for producing men and women who can step into the void?

I fear the answer is no, or at least I’m not really sure.

Why? Well, for a voice to endure—to have real significance—it needs depth, not just breadth.

We live in mostly in the age of breadth. And that makes me worry just a little bit for our collective future.

If you want to get a sample of what living a life in the unforced rhythms of grace is like, listen in on the interview I was privileged to have with Eugene Peterson in the summer of 2017. He was 84 years old at the time, speaking from his home in Montana. I was in my home north of Toronto.

I was in awe of how he said what he said as much as I was what he said. There’s no question he had spent a lifetime drinking from a deep well. His answers were unhurried, honest, unscripted and real.

My interview with him was also one of the last he ever gave. The week after we recorded, he announced his retirement from public life and interviews. A few months later, I received a handwritten letter from Eugene and his wife, Jan, thanking me for the way I did the interview. I will hang onto that letter forever.

You can listen to it below, or for free on Apple PodcastsSpotify or wherever you listen to your podcasts.

So what does it take to cultivate a voice that has depth? What would it take for you to nurture a voice that speaks meaning into the lives of others during your lifetime, and perhaps beyond?

There are at least seven things I’ve noticed that the voices I admire have in common. I am not claiming to have done any well; these challenge me as much as they may challenge you.

But they’re real nonetheless.

1. YOUR INPUT SHOULD ALWAYS EXCEED YOUR OUTPUT

Any of the great voices you admire, not only in theology and ministry but in any discipline or field, have spent their days reading, reflecting, listening, learning, processing, wrestling and in the case of Christians, praying, far more than they have speaking, writing, broadcasting or sharing.

In other words, their input exceeds their output. And that’s where the riches lie.

We live in an age where, I fear, in many cases, the output of many leaders exceeds their input. That’s dangerous.

In the financial realm, when your output exceeds your input, you go bankrupt. Your intellectual, emotional and spiritual life is exactly the same.

Because we now have media and an audience at our fingertips and in our pockets, and we can all be celebrities in our tiny universes, the temptation to speak out, broadcast and opine (see below) is constant.

If you want to live a life worth living and have a ministry worth following, your input should always exceed your output.

2. YOUR PRIVATE WALK NEEDS TO BE FAR DEEPER THAN YOUR PUBLIC TALK

In a similar vein, the private walk of almost every significant voice is far greater than their public talk.

As you watch the tragic and almost constant implosion of pastors, politicians, athletes and business leaders today, you have to wonder if at the root of it all is a private walk that couldn’t sustain the public talk.

Jesus had no public life for 30 years. He simply prepared for three decades, building a solid foundation that not even betrayal and death could shatter. (He was, remember, fully human as well as fully divine, so this wasn’t just for show.) Then he taught, fulfilling his ultimate mission in three years.

That’s a 10:1 ratio of preparation over accomplishment.

You’d be hard pressed to find anyone today who spends 10 hours preparing for every hour leading or speaking. Honestly, most of us barely spend an hour preparing for every 10 hours of leading. Hence, the shallowness of soul we suffer from these days.

If you want to your public talk to truly resonate, deepen your private talk.

3. MAKE THE WORK THE REWARD

We live in a culture that’s hopelessly motivated by reward. From the number of followers you have, to how much money you make, to the fame and notoriety more and more people seek, our culture is fascinated with fame and reward.

Most thought leaders never set out to be famous. In fact, they usually find the notion foreign.

Too many leaders today see the reward as the reward—the fame, the sale of a start-up to a VC firm, 70 bajillion downloads of your podcast.

If you’re seeking to be famous, you may find your few minutes here or there.

But for any legacy that lasts, just know this, the work is the reward.

So make the work your reward. Do the deep work whether anyone is listening, reading, watching. One day, you may look up and discover other people are listening.

And if not, no worries. You already got your reward.

4. DON’T OFFER YOUR OPINION ON EVERYTHING

Notice that many of the thought leaders you so deeply admire don’t offer their opinion on everything.

They’re not weighing in on every act by politicians, or every move by business leaders. As Eugene Peterson said in my interview with him, “I don’t read the newspaper much. I can’t find much about God and Jesus in them.”

Instead, he worked on translating Galatians from Greek to English during the race riots in Baltimore in 1968. Peterson says ordinary citizens arm themselves with guns and weapons, but Peterson said that while people were worried about what was happening in the city, he was worried about what was happening in people.

So he brought the biblical text to them in a fresh translation. That was the origin of the Message. (And when the riots stopped, he didn’t stop translating the Bible. See point 3 above.)

We live in a reactive culture, where too many of us think we need to have an opinion on everything. You don’t.

No, giants will speak out on some major issues of the day (think of Bonhoeffer in WWII Germany, or Christine Caine on human trafficking), but mostly they’re not reacting, they’re following a different track.

In a world drowning in information, giants focus on meaning. Meaning takes time. Opinion doesn’t.

You know what our culture needs? Less opinion, more thought. Less information, more meaning.

5. FOCUS ON THE TIMELESS, NOT THE TIMELY

One precept of publishing is that the more current a book is, the more dated it becomes.

If you’re talking about being on your Snapchat listening to Drake while sipping your cold brew coffee, you’ve pretty much located yourself firmly in 2018.

A timely word is almost always a timeless word.

What makes the voices we admire most is that their writing and meaning transcends time.

You can read C.S. Lewis almost 60 years after he died because he speaks into the human condition and eternity in a way that still resonates well into a world he never lived in.

The word that makes the best sense of the times always roots itself in what’s timeless.

So enjoy your cold brew, but stretch back and move forward far beyond it.

6. WORK TWICE AS HARD ON YOUR CHARACTER AS YOU DO ON YOUR COMPETENCY

It’s so easy to work on your competency.

When I was in my 20s, I believed your true potential lay in taking the lid of your competency. Read some books, get the degree, hustle, network with all the best leaders and go to conferences, and you’ll develop your skill set so well that the sky’s the limit.

Well, over time I’ve learned that competency gets you in the room. Character keeps you in the room.

I imagine that one of the things you admire most about the thought leaders you follow is their character. And truly, the reason they had a lifetime of contribution to make was because they didn’t let their character disqualify them from public life.

Because you’re driven enough to read to (almost) the end of a blog post, I think you’ll do just fine working on your competency.

But if you really want to live a life worth living and have a message worth sharing, work twice as hard on your character as you do on your competency.

7. CHOOSE PURPOSE OVER PLATFORM

This has been a recurring theme of this post, but it’s because we are all so ambitious these days. In moments ambition can be godly, but it is also a deadly trap.

I love how Eugene Peterson explained the origins of the Message to me in our interview. The furthest thing from his mind was to write a Bible translation that would be widely used, let alone sell millions of copies around the world and change how a generation interacted with scripture.

It was the 1960s. Peterson, he told me, had a small group of men at his local church in Baltimore that he met with for Bible study. None seemed interested in the Bible.

So Peterson decided one day to go back to the Greek and translate a passage freshly, to move the ancient words into the idiom of the day. He brought his fresh translation to the men the following week, and they engaged. They’d never heard scripture like that before. So Peterson kept transcribing passages for that small study. Thirty-five years or so later, the final version of The Message would emerge.

In an age of striving celebrity and instant internet fame, never forget that purpose can give you a platform, but platform will never give you a purpose. In fact, platform pursued for its own sake will leave you stunningly empty. It will betray you and consume you and spit you out, your body strewn about as the latest wreckage in yet another spectacular crash.

Purpose is different. It endures whether you have a platform or not. It endures whether you’re alone with your wife in a home in rural Montana or the author of a best-selling book, whether you are sought after or forgotten.

Best yet, it will give you a fulfilled life. Fulfillment alone doesn’t happen because you became well known, grew a church or organization.

True success happens in the little things, which are really the big things: when your wife or husband loves you more today than they did when you got married. When you have a rich relationship with your kids. When your friendships run deep and when you wake up every morning in the steady assurance that you are loved and are caught up in a story so much bigger and better than you.

That’s the good stuff.

Can I give you one last current example? Yesterday, I got news that a bucket list kind of thing happened…I got invited to speak in a place where Christians, especially pastors, rarely get invited to speak. It was a drop-the-phone-kind of moment.

But as I sat down for dinner last night with my wife (it’s just us now in our home…the kids are grown and on their own), I told her how wonderful it is that we can truly celebrate this moment together. We’ve had our share of struggles over the years, and we’re at a place we never dreamed we’d be.

I have a friend who received an international award a few years ago and flew across the world to accept it…alone. His marriage had crumbled. (This isn’t judgment, I have so much empathy and affection for him.)

I was reminded once again that in life, it’s not what you do, it’s who you do it with.

My wife and I will head to that event together, happily, and that matters more than doing the event itself.

One of the things I’ve loved most about Eugene Peterson—it came out again in our interview—is the obvious closeness he had with his wife Jan.

So how do you cultivate a deeper life?

A big part of the battle is overcoming the things that get in the way. Talk to the giants you admire, and you realize they’ve had to battle cynicism, fight off or avoid burnout, wrestle down their pride, and stare the emptiness of a life devoted to self in the face.

I write about all of those things and how I’ve battled through them in my own life in my book Didn’t See It Coming: Overcoming the 7 Greatest Challenges That No One Expects and Everyone Experiences. 

In the book, I show you how to battle to the other side of cynicism and reclaim hope, how to move through burnout and figure out how to stay out of it, how to avoid moral compromise and find fulfillment in success rather than the emptiness so many leaders find.

Join the 10,000+ leaders so far who have picked up a copy of Didn’t See It Coming and are realizing the way it is isn’t the way it has to be. I’m praying this book does for your soul what the journey has done and is doing for mine.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

What voices do you admire, and what do you think the ingredients are to craft a life worth living?

This article originally appeared here.

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Carey Nieuwhof
Speaker and podcaster Carey Nieuwhof is a former lawyer and founding pastor of Connexus Church, one of the largest and most influential churches in Canada. With over 6 million downloads, The Carey Nieuwhof Leadership Podcast features today's top leaders and cultural influencers. His most recent book is “Didn’t See It Coming: Overcoming the 7 Greatest Challenges That No One Expects and Everyone Experiences.” Carey and his wife, Toni, reside near Barrie, Ontario and have two children.

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