By Bob Smietana
In the summer of 2005, not long before Billy Graham began one of his last crusades, evangelical scholar Mark Noll was asked to predict who might be able to fill Graham’s shoes as “America’s pastor.”
The answer, Noll said, was simple—no one.
“So many different things went into the making of the influential figure that he was,” Noll told the Associated Press. “It’s hard to imagine they would come together in exactly the same way again.”
Other pastors might fill stadium-sized megachurches or top the best-seller lists. Others might befriend U.S. presidents or send their sermons out over the airwaves.
But none may ever duplicate Graham’s success.
Still, some of America’s more famous faith leaders may be able to claim some of the aspects of his influence. Here are a few (in no particular order) who have captured the attention of Americans —or at least a portion of Americans—in recent years.
And a look at why they could step into Graham’s shoes—and why they likely won’t.
Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church
Warren, pastor of one of the best-known Protestant churches in the country, has some of Graham’s mass appeal.
His book, The Purpose Driven Life, was a blockbuster success. And for a time, he seemed to step into Graham’s role as America’s pastor.
But in recent years, he appears to have stepped back from that role to focus more on his pastoral work in Southern California.
Why he could: Mass appeal, personal charm.
Why he won’t: Doesn’t seem to want the job.
Paula White, televangelist and presidential adviser
No religious leader may be more welcome at the White House these days than White, a prosperity gospel preacher in Orlando, Florida, and longtime friend of President Trump.
She’s there as often as once a week, serving as spiritual adviser and life coach for White House staffers, says religion reporter Julia Duin, who profiled White for the Washington Post.
White may be controversial—but she may be the most influential Christian leader in the country, at least when it comes to politics.
She certainly serves as a key faith adviser for the president.
Why she could: Has the ear of the president.
Why she won’t: Ties to the prosperity gospel and controversial past.
Craig Groeschel, pastor of Life.Church
Groeschel might be the most important megachurch pastor you’ve never heard of.
With 27 campuses spread across the country, Life.Church, which began in Oklahoma, rivals some small denominations for size—with some estimates as high as 100,000 attenders.
Life.Church also sponsors YouVersion—the Bible app that’s been downloaded more than 200 million times and lends its digital resources to churches around the country.
Yet, for the most part, Groeschel has shunned the political realm—focusing more of his time on writing for and speaking to Christians rather than speaking into the public square.
Why he could: Preaching skill, reputation.
Why he won’t: Doesn’t seem interested.
Franklin Graham, evangelist and nonprofit leader
As head of two iconic evangelical nonprofits—the Billy Graham Association and Samaritan’s Purse—Franklin Graham is set to carry on his father’s work.
He’s often in the public eye—a frequent guest in the media and ever-present on social media. He’s also continued his father’s work as an evangelist, though on a smaller scale.
Why he could: The Graham name and organization. Political savvy.
Why he won’t: Lacks some of his father’s one- of-a kind charm and mass appeal.
Joel Osteen, megachurch pastor, best-selling author, televangelist
Known as the “smiling preacher,” Osteen might be the best-known pastor in America after Graham’s passing.
Osteen’s congregation, Lakewood Church, housed in a former NBA arena in Houston, is one of the largest in the country.
A best-selling author and star on Christian television, he has filled arenas during his speaking tours around the country. But Osteen’s prosperity gospel may repel as many Americans as it attracts.
Why he could: Mass appeal and media might.
Why he won’t: Lack of political ambition. Prosperity gospel ties.
Tim Keller, author, speaker, retired pastor
Keller, a best-selling author who stepped down last year as pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, has served as a go-to faith expert for journalists like New York Times columnist David Brooks.
Keller is influential among people in the pew and pastors alike and held a fairly high profile role as a faith leader in New York City, with a church that appealed to skeptics.
Why he could: Appeals to a wide audience, especially those who are skeptical.
Why he won’t: Speaks more into faith and culture than politics. Lack of appeal outside urban centers like NYC.
T.D. Jakes, megachurch pastor and multimedia entrepreneur
Jakes, pastor of the Potter’s House in Dallas, one of the nation’s largest African-American churches, combines his skills as a preacher with an entrepreneur’s savvy.
A best-selling author, Jakes has also produced a number of movies and is a regular on television, including appearances on Oprah Winfrey’s network.
In September 2001, TIME magazine featured Jakes on its cover with the title, “Is this man the next Billy Graham?”
He’s steered clear of politics for the most part and has yet to reach the kind of mass appeal Graham had.
Jakes is also associated with several controversial teachings, including the prosperity gospel and modalism—although in 2012 Baptist Press reported Jakes said he embraced an orthodox definition of the Trinity.
Why he could: Skill as a preacher. Multimedia savvy.
Why he won’t: History of controversial beliefs, lack of political ambition.
Beth Moore, Bible teacher and author
Moore might be one of the most influential lay people in America, with her best-selling Bible studies taught in local congregations across the country.
She’s one of the few authors who can sell out arenas for her speaking engagements—and she is a social media powerhouse.
An abuse survivor, Moore has become one of the leading online voices calling churches to deal with sexual abuse and misconduct.
She has some of Graham’s gift of charm—with the ability to keep people listening to hard truths.
Why she could: Skill as a speaker, personal charm, social media savvy.
Why she won’t: Not interested.
Wilfredo “Choco” De Jesús, pastor and evangelical leader
Leader of one of the largest Hispanic Protestant congregations in the U.S., De Jesús was named one of TIME’s most influential people in 2013.
During his tenure, the congregation at New Life Covenant Church in Chicago grew to more than 17,000 people, making it one of the largest Assemblies of God congregations in the nation.
As a leader in evangelical, Pentecostal, and Hispanic church circles, De Jesús is part of a movement that’s often under the radar but is growing in influence.
Why he could: Skill as a preacher and church leader.
Why he won’t: Lack of national appeal.
Greg Laurie, pastor and arena evangelist
Laurie, pastor of Harvest Christian Fellowship in Southern California, is the main speaker at the Harvest crusades, open-air events modeled after Graham’s famed evangelistic events.
According to his ministry, almost 6 million people have attended the stadium crusades in the U.S. and overseas.
Laurie has crusades planned this year at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, California, and AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Why he could: Skilled evangelist, able to draw large crowds and fill stadiums.
Why he won’t: Lack of national appeal.
Why there might not be a “next Billy Graham”
All of these individuals have facets of what made Billy Graham “America’s pastor,” but none is able to hold them all simultaneously as Graham did.
More than a decade later, Noll’s insight still holds true. There’s no likely successor on the horizon for Graham, who was laid to rest last week.
That’s in part because America has changed over the last five decades.
In some ways, Billy Graham’s death marked the end of an era, as a fractured media, less interest in church, do-it-yourself ministries, and a divided evangelicalism present different challenges to today’s leaders.
And Graham had a unique set of gifts. Tall, handsome, charismatic, with a voice that made people want to listen, Graham could charm the most cynical listener.
Even those who never answered the call to follow Jesus still learned from Graham. He could tell people they were sinners—and not have them run for the hills, says author and editor Jon Sweeney.
“The most unusual thing about Mr. Graham’s success was the unlikely combination of personal appeal (looks, voice, reputation, likeability) with a message of sin and condemnation,” Sweeney wrote recently.
“He was able to point at millions and say, ‘You are a sinner,’ and the millions kept watching and listening. Why they did not turn off their televisions, or stop going to those ‘crusades,’ is the real mystery.”
Instead of another Billy Graham, America might instead need a multitude of preachers, doing the work he left behind, argues Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College in Illinois.
Beth Moore agrees.
She was asked at Graham’s funeral who might be the next Billy Graham.
“What if there’s not just one?” she replied on Twitter. “What if instead there are 10,000s of them all over the globe? They’re the ones we could walk in on & find facedown, crying out to God for souls.”
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BOB SMIETANA (@BobSmietana) is senior writer for Facts & Trends.