End of an era, or new beginning

Culture | Remembering Campus Crusade for Christ founder Bill Bright

Issue: "California's total recall," Aug. 2, 2003

Back in the 1960s, Bill Bright telephoned me in San Francisco. I was a pastor and Christian magazine correspondent; our church used Campus Crusade for Christ materials in our evangelistic training and outreach programs. Under his leadership, Crusade already was on its way to becoming the world's largest evangelistic ministry. He asked me to join the staff as editor of a new magazine, to come aboard and help reach the world for Christ.

Although I sensed a calling to remain in the pastorate, I nevertheless asked: "How much does the job pay?" He mentioned an astonishingly low figure, and said it was the same amount paid to all Crusade staffers, including himself. I sputtered that my growing family's monthly expenses exceeded that figure. No matter. He said I would find that my income would stretch farther as I allowed the Lord to take over my finances. He challenged me to test and see.

"Oh, by the way," he added, "like other staff and myself, you'd have to raise your own support. The Lord will enable you to do that, too."

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That was vintage Bill Bright: marketer, organizer, recruiter, down-to-earth strategist, leader by example, friendly encourager, faith-filled optimist, a focused visionary who was at once both a soul-winning activist and a humble pietist who lived what he believed. He was committed to fulfilling in his lifetime the Great Commission to proclaim Christ worldwide. For him, this meant in part harnessing the resources of the church and providing tools to get the job done. Yet he began most days on his knees over an open Bible, and at the end he was calling on believers to spend more time fasting and praying. Heaven's resources were needed, too.

The end (he would call it a new beginning) came at age 81 on July 19 in Orlando following a three-year struggle with pulmonary fibrosis. William R. "Bill" Bright will be remembered as one of the most important figures in evangelical history. Without him, the church might have been poorer spiritually-and less-populated.

I never joined Crusade's staff, but over the years I got to know Bill and his wife, Vonette, along with many Crusade leaders Bill hand-picked, and to observe firsthand some of their ministry throughout the world, from coffeehouse one-on-one encounters and campus rallies to training sessions in jam-packed stadiums. Bill's passion, enthusiasm, and entrepreneurial spirit were contagious. He encouraged his talented leaders to be innovative. They formed some 70 niche subministries aiming the gospel not only at students but also the counterculture, the radical left, athletes, politicians and diplomats, business executives, the military, prison inmates, the media community, and many other groups.

Beginning with his own small outreach to UCLA students in 1951, Bill Bright grew Campus Crusade to its current 26,000 full-time international staff and 225,000 trained volunteers in 191 countries, with headquarters in Orlando. Its two best-known evangelistic tools are a 77-word mini-booklet he wrote, "The Four Spiritual Laws" (an estimated 2.5 billion copies distributed in some 200 languages), and the Jesus film (the most widely translated and viewed movie in history: seen by hundreds of millions of people in 234 countries speaking some 800 languages).

Not a spellbinding orator, he was somewhat shy when it was his turn to address a crowd. An advocate of simplicity in communication, he tried to stay within an 800-word vocabulary in his writings (more than 100 books and booklets bear his byline) and speeches so that even the least educated could understand. To detractors, however, he made the gospel too simple. Some didn't like his close association with other evangelical leaders identified with the so-called religious right. Other critics held that because of the very size of Campus Crusade-by every standard the biggest in a generation featuring big parachurch organizations-Mr. Bright came to see the organized church as an adjunct of Campus Crusade rather than the other way around. Still, they had to acknowledge his effectiveness. He accomplished what he set out to do.

"What he set out to do" has an often-told story behind it: how he came to Los Angeles in the 1940s with an economics degree from an Oklahoma state university and launched a specialty-foods and candy business; how he became a Christian at age 23 under the teaching ministry of the venerable Henrietta Mears at Hollywood Presbyterian Church; how he studied five years on the side at Princeton and Fuller seminaries to learn more of Christ and the Bible; how he married Vonette Zachary only after she also received Christ under Miss Mears's influence; and how the couple signed a pact to become "slaves" to Christ and devote the rest of their lives to introducing others to Him.


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