In 1957, West Side Story opened on Broadway-a ground-breaking musical that romanticized switchblade-wielding street gangs. The following year, Pentecostal pastor Dave Wilkerson, prompted by the Holy Spirit, drove to New York City to confront some real switchblade-wielding street gangs, armed only with a Bible. The outcome of that confrontation, though lacking the name recognition of West Side Story hits like "Maria," or "Gee, Officer Krupke," is still rippling outward.
I grew up in a "New Testament" church that was very emphatic about the cessation of New Testament charismatic gifts. I actually still agree with that view-for the most part. But Dave Wilkerson's account of his ministry in The Cross and the Switchblade made me wonder if God could make some exceptions and pour out His gifts in extraordinary situations, even today. Wilkerson insisted on his own personal ordinariness, but seemed extraordinarily open to the power of the Holy Spirit. He was laughed at, spat upon, struck, and cursed, but persisted in his message of relentless love. Teen Challenge, the ministry to gang members that grew out of this small beginning, is still in operation. Nicky Cruz, his first significant convert, is still evangelizing.
Wilkinson moved to Texas in 1971, where he founded World Challenge as an international gospel outreach, but in the 1980s he was called to return to New York City. He rented an auditorium on Times Square and started preaching to a congregation that became the Times Square Church, later purchasing the Mark Hellinger Theater on Broadway as a permanent home. Nancy French, at National Review Online, recalls the teeming, emotional, almost chaotic worship services there, where Pastor Dave would warn ladies not to leave their purses on the seat when they stood to pray or sing, because they might get snatched. "And for those of you who came here expressly to steal, we welcome you," he would say. "You came here thinking you'd leave with a few bucks, but you'll leave knowing the life-changing love of God. Stay as long as you'd like."
Life-changing love seems to be what Dave Wilkerson was all about. He'd had his knocks, but to all appearances remained faithful, steady, and on-message. He was known for prophetic utterances and warnings to America, which America has not paid much attention to, but even those did not appear to distract him from his central mission of calling people to Christ. All kinds of people. I may not have agreed with all his doctrine, but I agree with his heart. His sermon on "Anguish" convicts me (see video clip below). On Wednesday, April 27, he wrote on his blog, "To believe when all means fail is exceedingly pleasing to God and is most acceptable. . . . When all means fail-his love prevails. Hold fast to our faith. Stand fast in his Word. There is no other hope in this world."
Just a few hours later, his own means failed, and he died in a head-on collision on a Texas highway. When I read about it on Thursday morning, I gasped aloud: "Oh, no!" I never met the man, and if you had asked me the day before if he was still living I wouldn't have known. His passing was not big news, in a week dominated by birth certificates and royal weddings. But his influence was wider than anyone knows.