When Apple lost its founder…

“Tradition is the living faith of the dead. Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” – John Armstrong, during a meeting at Chicago UBF

Every once in a while a company is so deeply impacted and shaped by a single leader that this person becomes the very identity of the entire organization. There can be no doubt that such has been the case with Apple and the recently deceased Steve Jobs. Newspaper headlines were overflowing with discussions on how Apple will continue without their charismatic genius and their most creative brain. There was one article in particular, published in the New York Times, which I found very interesting and relevant. One must not stretch analogies too far but I immediately had to wonder whether there are parallels between how to run a company and a church. The question is: can churches be (functional) one-man shows as it had been the case with Apple and Steve Jobs or Microsoft and Bill Gates? And the answer to that question is a very emphatic “yes”.

The Church account is full of charismatic leaders. It always has been so and, as it seems, it always will be. Their names are acknowledged and revered by Christians all over the world: Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Whitefield, Moody, and the list goes on and on… At any given point of Christian history there have been leaders who possessed an extra-portion of the Holy Spirit’s anointing and who were thus used by God in a unique and remarkable way. And like Steve Jobs they often possessed the ability to hit the nerve of their culture so precisely, or better let me rephrase this, they were always years ahead of their contemporary fellows that almost everything they tackled ended up having a noticeable and sometimes even lasting impact. There is certainly nothing wrong with this. It is how God, in his infinite wisdom, has chosen to work at times. But the question is what to do if the leader passes away. Will the church continue to thrive and do well? Will the movement sustain its dynamic and power?

Unfortunately, in many cases the church did not continue well. Collin Hansen, in an excellent piece on pastoral succession, mentioned one negative example among so many. Charles Spurgeon, the gifted man of God in the 19th century, is one of my all-time favorite preachers. He not only preached more than 3,000 different sermons and led thousands of people to Christ but he also trained young men as pastors. Several men had the privilege to learn from the “prince of preachers”. Yet, the death of this great man of God caused a gap and damage in his own church congregation that remained irreparable. When I visited London several years ago I was eager to see the great Metropolitan Tabernacle, the place, which regularly drew thousands of people Sunday after Sunday to his powerful voice. To my disappointment, only the front facade of this former mega-church seemed to have survived the two fires and the bomb drop during World War II. It was even sadder for me to see that the damage, which the loss of Spurgeon himself had caused, was even greater, as also pointed out by Hansen.

Let me come back to the news article. I think there are some very insightful and valuable lessons one can learn from this piece. Steve Jobs’ successor at Apple is Timothy Cook. Relatively soon after Job’s death was announced he wrote an email to his employees reassuring them that Apple is not going to change. As the article points out, this can certainly be good or bad. There is a very fine balance to strike. Even more intriguingly, the author speaks about the legacy of Steve Jobs becoming a trap. To illustrate his point, he talks about the Walt Disney Company. Let me cite:

“In the years after the death in 1966 of the entertainment company’s founder, the executives strived to stay true to Walt Disney’s spirit. For years, Mr. Disney’s old office was preserved like an untouched museum. Its executives often praised corporate decision-making by saying, “Walt would have liked it.” But by the late 1970s, Disney was struggling after a string of box-office flops and was the subject of a hostile takeover attempt.”

Somehow, these lines sounded too familiar in my ears; uncomfortably familiar.

What are the lessons to be learned? First, sticking to a legacy of a single person can stifle and choke the church. What is true for business, such as the above-mentioned Disney Company or Apple is also true to some extent for the church. Simply asking the question whether the deceased leader would have liked something is not enough. Even worse, it is a sure ‘recipe for problems’. This kind of attitude is very likely to kill every new initiative and idea simply by stating: “This is not how XYZ would have done it” or “We never did this under his/her leadership.” It is one of the surest ways to slowly kill a church.

Second, change is a necessary must. Walt Disney’s company had to radically change to return to success. Apple will have to change to adapt to a superfast, evolving culture. And every church has to change to keep up with God’s guidance imparted through his living, dynamic Holy Spirit.  There can be no way around it. A musician from my all-time favorite orchestra, the more than 125-year old Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, once said: “Everything that does not change is dead.” And if you think of how protective all of the orchestra members are when it comes to their own traditions and historical legacy, it is a remarkable sentence. As paradoxical as it may sound, it is by means of change and adaptation of how they are preserving and retaining and reliving their traditions. I am not saying that every change within the body of Christ is good. But change is certainly a sign that there is life in the church even after having lost a powerful, able leader.

Third, the article talks about maintaining the “heart” of Apple. And what the author means by this are the creativity and the enthusiasm of Steve Jobs. In our church we probably wouldn’t call it “heart” but rather “spirit” (small “s” as opposed to the Holy Spirit). The spirit of a leader has to continue. It is crucial to understand that the spirit is not just methodology or knowledge. It goes far beyond that. It cannot be captured accurately in a few bullet points.

What is the spirit of UBF? What is the spirit that the generation to come should inherit and take over? I am in no position to write about this. It will take the wisest people of us and the help of outside counselors to answer this question well. Most of all, it will require us to honestly re-examine our history and the life of the founder of our ministry: the many good, as well as the painfully bad. And even though I argued that this sentence should no longer count as an all-decisive argument, let me finish by saying: “I think our founder would have wanted us to do so.”

In loving memory of Dr. Lee on the occasion of Founder’s Day.


(Artwork used with kind permission from: http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/images/view_photog.php?photogid=809)


  1. Thanks, Henoch, God surely gave you a gift of the crystal clarity of clear communication! A great tribute for Founder’s Day today, in memory of the mentor who has most shaped my own Christian life during the last 22 years of his life from 1980 to 2002. For sure, as with Steve Jobs, Dr. Lee’s matchless legacy lives on (by God’s grace). Yet, we should likely not say, “That’s what Dr. Lee did (or did not do).” Again, thanks Henoch for a great piece!

  2. Excellent observations, Henoch.  Recently the “one man show” issue came up in the Indianapolis Colts football (American) team. They relied on Peyton Manning for many years. Some consider Peyton the best quarterback ever to play the game. But when Peyton was finally sidelined for most of this season because of a neck injury, his backup made his first NFL start, after being with the Colts for 3 years. 

    The result? The Colts are winless so far! They are 0 and 4 and have a -45 point differential. They are playing horrible even though they still have several hall-of-fame caliber players, especially at wide receiver. 

    Pastorial succession is FAR more important than quarterback succession. We must have plurality of leadership!

  3. Ben and Brian, thank you for your kind words. It was a very interesting incidence that Steve Job’s passing was so close to the celebration of Founder’s Day at Chicago tonight.

    Brian, i do not necessarily think that having a powerful, charismatic, spirit-filled leader is a bad thing even if it may look like a one-man-show. Even in today’s evangelical scene in North America, you see a number of pastors who are the “go-to-guys” and primary drivers in their respective congregations. The churches of John Piper, Tim Keller, John MacArthur certainly profited enormously from the charisma of their prominent leaders. Their fruitful ministries are wonderful.

    The problems arise when a church becomes too dependent on a leader so that the leader himself becomes a functional idol for the church: not necessarily because the leader is praised and “worshiped” but because the congregation relies and trust their pastor for things only God can provide. 

    And another thing: Tom Brady from the New England Patriots is a far better quaterback than Peyton Manning! :)

    • Well I’ll take Matthew Stafford and the 2011 Lion’s any day!

    • Darren Gruett

      Brian, we will see what happens on Monday when they face the Bears. I cannot believe the Lions are undefeated.

  4. I don’t know where to post this but I just wanted to thank everyone for making my mornings a happy one. The tone of conversation these days on this site is very motivating and encouraging. People still don’ t laugh at my jokes but that’s ok too.

  5. Hi Henoch. Thanks for this article.

    Here’s a quote from G.K. Chesterton that seems appropriate.

    …all conservatism is based upon the idea that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are. But you do not. If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change. If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white you must be always painting it again; that is, you must be always having a revolution. Briefly, if you want the old white post you must have a new white post.

    The bottom line: If you really want things to remain the same, you have to change them.

    One of the remarkable aspects of UBF in its early days is that it was a truly indigenous evangelistic student movement. Students caught a gospel-centered vision that deeply resonated with them. If we want that same thing to happen now, in 21st century North America, we’ll have to accept that the vision that will truly capture the hearts and minds of today’s generation will have a different look and feel.

    • Joe, so good to hear from you. Thanks for your comment and for the quote by Chesterton. i can understand why Chesterton was such a great inspiration for C.S. Lewis. And his illustration beautifully shows why change is necessary: not for the sake of change but actually to retain and cherish the valuable that is worth keeping. 

  6. James Kim

    Henoch, thanks for timely blog on Founder’s day celebration. I don’t know much about business world, but in the early church pioneering, the Apostle Paul appointed elders (pleural) in every town (Titus 1:5b).I believe this is God’s wisdom to run the church not by one charismatic person, but through team leaders (elders). Alexander Strauch wrote in his book, “Biblical Eldership” the importance of shared leadership. He said, “Collective leadership can provide a church leader with critically needed recognition of and balance for his faults and deficiencies. We all have our blind spots, eccentricities and deficiencies—We can see these fatal flaws so clearly in others, but not in ourselves.” God has used UBF very preciously for the last 50 years. In the course of time we developed certain traditions and cultures. But we cannot dwell on them because we have many new challenges in this rapidly changing world. More than ever before, we need wisdom and the guidance under the leadership of the Holy Spirit.

  7. Henoch,
    For a second I thought you had converted to Catholocism. I agree with you that sticking to the legacy of a person can potentially stifle a church. But so can trying new things or constantly trying to reinvent oneself. I am not saying this is what you are arguing but trying to allude that what changes is men. What does not change is God the Holy Spirit leading the Church to all truth. Great men may come and go, and emphazise different forms of leadership, spirituality and mission, but what they teach should always be firmly grounded in the truth. And no man, nor church mission, no form of change can replace the Holy Spirit in this respect. 

    Some may hear this message and say, “Amen, I agree with this. Our church leaders should be led by the Holy Spirit.” But I am saying more that because there have been many great men that have claimed (and probably were) led by the Holy Spirit and yet came into error in many other aspects of their lives. And these men did not claim papal infallibility. So if we just say in a very general sense that the Holy Spirit leads Church leaders, and these church leaders do not claim papal infallibility, then it makes it hard to know when he is being led by the Spirit and when he is being led by his own sinful inclinations. Ofcourse, one way to know is if he is following the bible but that brings up the parrallel question of whose bible interpretation is right. 

    I feel this is where papal infallibility shines the brightest. Because it leaves the Church with the reassurance that on matters of faith and morals, the Holy Spirit will prevent the most sinful of leaders from teaching error. And in this day of moral relativism, doctrinal relativism, agnosticism, denominationalism and emerging ethical questions, scientific discoveries and attacks on the human person (in ways unimaginable to our ancestors), we need to know that the Holy Spirit is running the show. We crave certainty in these matters even if we do not subscribe to papal infallibility. I think that at the very least, even if we do not buy into the papacy, we can atleast see the great merit and need of knowing with certanty that a Church is being led by the Holy Spirit through a magistarium.

    So that the death of one man really does not change our hope in the Holy Spirit continuing to lead the Church. Hence, if the Holy Spirit were preventing the CEO of Apple from releasing inferior products, then we need not worry who the CEO is because we know that Apple will always release the products we need in our emerging culture. 

  8. Thanks, James, Gerardo, It’s cute that side by side we have a case for a “pleurality of leadership/elders” and for “papal infallibility” right next to each other. :-) Boy, God surely puts up with us! :D

  9. Sarah Kim

    Thanks for the article. Living up to comparisons from the past, especially comparisons to an influential deceased founder’s past, can be daunting or even paralyzing. On another note, it reminded me of CCC which God has given grace to buck the trend, growing and reaching many more since Bill Bright’s passing. Their change of name to Cru also made a stir, estranging some and encouraging others. “Donors have all these pleasant memories and you have new recruits barking at the old name and saying it is antiquated.” (Christianity Today) But they seem to have gotten something right. Perhaps this way of evolving/flexibility, while keeping its core, is partly why CCC or now Cru, is going strong, years after this change of leadership.

  10. Thanks, Sarah. Stories of great Christian leaders whose ministries floundered after their death, might perhaps be one of God’s many ways to help us Christians (i.e. fallen sinners) to realize that the only One we truly ever desperately need is Jesus.
    Martyn Lloyd-Jones was one of the greatest preachers of the 20th century. But when he died, his ministry dwindled with it, simply because no one could command the presence that he did, or preach in the unique way that he did. Though he did mentor and disciple a new generation of Christian leaders and preachers, no one really received the baton. Those who tried the hardest to be the next ML-Jones were unfortunately the “most boring and unbearable of preachers.”
    What could we do (besides prayer and Bible study) to avert a potential decline in our ministry, which might already be happening in some quarters?

    • Ben, 

      Excellent question: “What could we do (besides prayer and Bible study) to avert a potential decline in our ministry, which might already be happening in some quarters?”

      Scott Moreau has some very good suggestions. 

      1. UBF has to develop a concrete ecclesiology.

      2. UBF Christians should make it a rule constantly to examine themselves and publicly discuss their administrative problems.

      3. It is imperative that UBF respect each person’s individuality and conscience and help them develop true freedom in Christ. 

      As Joe has pointed out for many years now, UBF must address these things soon, otherwise there will be more and more “vocal enemies”:

      Thus, shaming and shunning methods that would be more likely to woo Koreans will have the opposite effect on Americans. Further, Americans who have thus been shamed will be far more likely to become vocal enemies of their former group.” 


  11. Hi James, Gerardo and Ben, thank you very much for your thought-provoking comments. I agree with James that a church, in general, should be led by several elders and the pastor is certainly one of these elders. Furthermore, i think there has to be accountability in the church: everyone has to be accountable to another person and elders cannot be an exception. And as MacDonald once put it: pastors need pastors, too.

    I was arguing that Christian history is full with exceptional Christian leaders whose lives inspired thousands of followers. Spurgeon through his exceptional gift for preaching was certainly one of them. And i respect Dr. Lee for the way God has used him. The question is whether we as a church depended too much on Dr. Lee. And another question is how we have been doing in dealing with Dr. Lee’s legacy (in addition to Ben’s excellent question).

    Gerardo: i am very sorry but i wasn’t able to fully understand your argument for papal infallibility. And from a historical point of view, weren’t there several popes, especially during the time of Renaissance who committed horrible atrocities?

    • FishEater

      No need to be sorry Henoch. I am just very bad at communicating my thoughts. Essentially, I am saying that if Apple (or the CEO of Apple) was prevented by the Holy Spirit from releasing bad products, then we as customers need not worry about the company replacing its CEO or board of directors. 

      This leads us to place our assurance in the Holy Spirit working through Apple.

      Many Popes did commit horrible atrocities while in office. This is a historical fact.  But just as Steve Jobs made many bad decisions in his role as a Father to his illegitimate child, this does not say anything about the validity of the Holy Spirit preventing Steve jobs from releasing inferior apple products as CEO of apple. If the Holy Spirit worked only with sinless men, then we would not have the original 12 disciples. But I am not trying to turn this into a debate. I am just putting this forth in response to your article. 

      I laughed when I read your comment Dr. Toh. =) 

    • Thanks, FishEater, for acknowledging my awkward humor. Sometimes I just have to find a way to laugh, mainly at myself. Otherwise, I will go crazy! It just reminds me of the classic line by Heath Ledger, playing the Joker in the Dark Knight, when he said in his unique weirdness, “Why so serious?”

  12. Hannah Love

    Hi :)

    Can I share a somewhat relevant blog entry by my pastor.