by Whaid Rose

Three influential Christian leaders—reflecting on their lives and legacies

I’m told that the ancient Olympic Games included a race in which the prize was given, not to the runner who got to the finish line first, but rather to the one who finished with his torch still lit.

This speaks to the goal of the Christian race—getting to the finish line with Jesus’ light in us still burning brightly with reputation still intact, testimony still strong.

This is especially important for Christian leaders whose torch lights the way for other runners, and so far in 2023, several have crossed the line. I would like to call attention to three of them.

These 3 Men Trusted God

In early January, Jack Hayford, longtime pastor of Church on the Way in Van Nuys, California, author of “Majesty” and hundreds of other worship songs, and the fourth president of the Foursquare denomination, died at age 88.

In mid-April, Charles Stanley, the influential Baptist pastor and televangelist who preached from his Atlanta pulpit for more than 50 years, died at age 90.

Then in early May, Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, and co-founder of the Gospel Coalition, died at the age young 72, ending his battle with pancreatic cancer.

These men represent different theological constructs, pursued different ministry callings, and left behind different accomplishments, but shared a common motivation and passion. They trusted God with abandon and had an uncommon capacity for seizing every opportunity to advance the cause of the gospel.

Jack Hayford

So, for a quick review, we begin with Pastor Jack Hayford. His influence increased as his small Southern California congregation grew into a mega-church during an era when mega-churches weren’t as common. Not only so, but it became known as the “church of the stars” as Hollywood celebs came to faith through Hayford’s ministry and made Church on the Way their home.

But what marked Hayford’s preaching and teaching and most endeared him to the church-at-large, was his charismatic style coupled with compelling biblical scholarship. Thus, in its 2005 front-page article on Jack Hayford, Christianity Today dubbed him “The Pentecostal Gold Standard.” That “he uncomplicated the Holy Spirit” is one of the greatest compliments to Jack Hayford.

He was also a bridge-builder among churches and denominations, charismatics and non-charismatics alike. A worshipper at heart, he gave the Body of Christ numerous worship songs including “Majesty.” He leaves behind an archive of books, sermons, radio and television broadcasts, and deep friendships throughout the body of Christ.

He demonstrated what Matt Redman calls (in his book on worship) “the gentle persuasion of authority,” whereby he commanded the respect of many, even his detractors. Pastor Jack, as he was affectionately called, was “the gold standard” in so many ways.

Charles Stanley

Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the country, a bold and dynamic leader was making his mark. His name was Charles Stanley, the fundamentalist Baptist preacher who distinguished himself as a faithful and passionate preacher of the Word of God.

His pulpit was at First Baptist Church in Atlanta, from which he preached for more than 50 years! Stepping onto the stage each week with Bible in hand and preaching without notes made him a staple, not only for his vast congregation, but for millions who tuned into his television broadcast.

It’s been noted, that though he had an earned doctorate, Charles Stanley never wore his theology on his sleeves. Instead, he focused his preaching on the practical aspects of the Christian life, modeling a close walk with God in prayer as the secret to victorious living.

A 2010 Lifeway Research survey rated him the third most influential Protestant pastor in America, behind Billy Graham and Chuck Swindoll. But in my estimation, the most telling commentary on the life of Charles Stanley relates to an incident that happened early in his ministry.

A Defining Moment

During a church business meeting, the ringleader of a power group opposed to Stanley’s leadership of First Baptist reached back and smacked him hard in the jaw! Stanley stumbled backward, then after regaining his composure, stepped back beside his opponent and stood there without saying a word.

That was a defining moment, not only for Stanley himself but for his son Andy, who was only 13 at the time and had a front-row view of the incident. By Andy’s own account, “It was in that moment that my father became my hero.”

That is high praise, indeed. It says more about Charles Stanley’s character than his 50-year tenure as pastor of one church, the fact that he was once president of the Southern Baptist Convention, the many books he wrote, or his founding of a radio and television ministry through which his sermons have gone around the globe in more than 100 languages!

It also bears mentioning that Stanley’s legacy includes several influential leaders who grew up in his congregation, including Louie Giglio and Andy Stanley, now among the nation’s most influential pastors. It’s true: “We teach what we know, but we reproduce what we are.”

Tim Keller

Then there was Timothy Keller, a young seminary graduate with a burden to plant a church in, of all places, New York’s lower Manhattan. Keller was a Presbyterian and envisioned a local church rooted in the Reformed tradition with a contemporary flavor and a heart for reaching the unchurched in the inner city, especially young professionals and skeptics.

In God’s good grace, Redeemer Presbyterian Church, founded by Keller and his wife Kathy in 1989, quickly grew to become one of New York City’s leading churches—and Keller, one of the nation’s most influential pastors.

Keller, too, didn’t wear his theology on his sleeves, but rather focused on people’s practical needs and devoted his intellectual ability, of which he was extraordinarily endowed, to answering objections to Christianity, with what has been described as “winsome apologetics.”

Tim Keller’s Legacy

He wrote multiple bestselling books, including Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. He inspired many to become involved in urban ministry, and to pour energy and resources into planning inner-city churches. He launched a church-planting network (Redeemer City to City) and co-founded The Gospel Coalition, a movement of diverse Christians seeking to support the local church by creating timely and trusted resources centered on the gospel of Jesus Christ.

But as Mike Cosper notes in his recent CT tribute to Tim Keller, “Every leader’s legacy deserves reflection, of course, and no one lives out his or her public life with a perfect record.” Cosper explained, “Few people were as capable as [Keller] of provoking scorn, as his work and witness seemed equally offensive to both ends of the political, theological, and ideological spectra.”

That is probably due to Keller’s out-of-the-box thinking on some of the religious and political hot buttons. It’s been said of him that “He believed that everyone deserved to be heard and was uniquely able to learn from people with whom he had little in common. He relished spending time with people opposed to his views.”

One Final Testimony

It therefore came as no surprise (to me, at least) that his memorial service was held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I suspect that none of Redeemer’s multi-campus sites was sufficient to facilitate the large crowd, so St. Patrick opened its doors, reflecting the close relationship Keller fostered with Catholics in his community.

The service, carefully scripted by Keller himself, featured five hymns that chronicle the Christian journey from sinfulness to redemption to resurrection and glory. One wonders what Cardinal Dolan, who not only welcomed the crowd, but sat through the entire service, was thinking as the congregation rousingly sang Charles Wesley’s Amazing Love (And can it be that I should gain an interest in my Savior’s love)?

If walls could talk, St. Patrick’s sweeping arches may have said to one another “we’ve never heard anything like this before!” Turning his funeral service into one final testimony to the gospel was a stroke of brilliance, which was so Tim Keller.

It turns out that of these three men, Keller was the most effective in engaging the secular mind with the gospel, as tributes and remembrances pour in from publications such as the New York Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, etc., all to the glory of God!

God Gave Them Uncommon Strength

Scripture tells us that “The eyes of the LORD run throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him” (2 Chronicles 16:9). In Jack Hayford, Charles Stanley, and Timothy Keller, God found such servants and gave them uncommon strength.

Obviously, so much more could be said of them, and others could be mentioned, including Pat Robinson, founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network, Regent University, and the American Center for Law and Justice, who also died in early June at age 93.

But this selection is sufficient to stir our hearts regarding living and finishing well, about walking closely with God and serving Him with passion, about matters of character and integrity, about what Eugene Peterson called “a long obedience in the same direction.”

Theological Training Played a Key Role

Furthermore, my work with Artios Christian College compels me to call attention to the key role theological training played in shaping these men. All three went to seminary in their formative years, and Hayford’s last big effort, while still in his prime, was founding what is now the King’s University. It is no doubt a reflection of the value he placed on theological training and ministry preparation.

I should add that the one decision, which I made as a young man, that has most shaped my life—after my decisions to follow Jesus and to marry Marjolene—was to apply myself to theological training.

Now, almost four decades later, my conviction concerning the value of robust theological training has only grown stronger, and I consider being associated with a ministry of this sort in this season of my life to be a tremendous blessing.

And for the sake of clarity, let me emphasize that theology is for everyone, not just seminary students, and that Artios exists to equip all the saints for the work of the ministry, not just those wanting to be pastors. If you would like to deepen your understanding of God’s Word and experience deep discipleship, your friendly Artios team is just a phone call or email away.

They Walked Closely with God

Finally, it bears repeating that all three men walked closely with God. Hayford continually called believers to a life of worship and prayer, to walk in what he called “kingdom authority.”

Stanley spent so much time on his knees that he was dubbed “the mystic Baptist” in a 2013 CT interview. His whole life was driven by his mantra, “Obey God and leave all the consequences to Him.”

Being a Presbyterian, Keller was unique in his piety. I just finished reading his book titled Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God, which I highly recommend.

So, what’s the takeaway? Why this article? Why pay so much attention to such men?

Suffice it to say, in addition to acquainting a younger generation with these spiritual titans, it is to cast the maxim that “leadership is influence” in real life examples.

Each of Us Is a Vital Link in a Chain

It is to remind us that we stand on the shoulders of many gone before us, that each of us is a vital link in a chain that connects faith to faith. And to convince us that our lives can count for something bigger than ourselves.

For personal application, watch a good funeral; I never miss an opportunity; it’s how I realign my heart. Also make a list of the people who’ve most impacted your life and thank God for them. Then ask yourself whose life you’re impacting and what will people say when you cross the line? Doing so will provide fresh energy and inspiration for finishing well.

And how grateful we are to Pastor Jack, to Dr. Stanley, and to Tim Keller, for their example, for finishing with their torch still lit, reminding us that doing so is well within our reach.