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July 26, 2003
Column #1,143

World's Most Successful Evangelist Dies

     Bill Bright, 81, the world's most successful evangelist, died July 19 of pulmonary fibrosis. A man who once called himself the "happy pagan," created Campus Crusade for Christ International (CCCI), an extraordinary salvation army of 26,000 full-time staff who raise their own salaries plus 225,000 volunteers evangelizing in 191 countries.

     It did so through 60+ ministries with a $374 million budget, that far outgrew the ministry which began at UCLA with newlyweds Bill and Vonette Bright in 1951. The Josh McDowell Ministry alone has presented the Gospel to 8 million college kids in person. In the mid-1980s, my son, Adam, wrote in chalk on Duke sidewalks, "Josh is Coming!" However, only a quarter of the U.S. staff of 7,000 work on 1,100 campuses.

     Every major leadership group is hearing the Gospel message through CCCI ministries. In Washington the Christian Embassy quietly leads Bible studies with U.S. Senators, Members of Congress, top Executive Branch leaders, Pentagon "flag officers" (generals and admirals), the diplomatic corps, and the annual Presidential Prayer Breakfast for 3000.

     Executive Ministries present the Gospel to 20,000 business executives in dinner ministries, 5,000 of whom make a commitment to Christ. I attended one where astronaut Charlie Duke spoke of his conversion. Athletes in Action mobilizes sports stars to bring the message. Here's Life Inner City strengthens urban churches. Global Resources sends short-term missionaries around the world. The Medical Strategic Network equips medial professionals to penetrate their spheres of influence. Family Life leads weekend retreats for 75,000 couples. See http://www.ccci.org.

     Bright's most original tactic was to boil down the Gospel message to 77 words called the "Four Spiritual Laws" in 1957. Hundreds of millions have been distributed on laminated cards.

     His most effective strategy to reach a billion people who cannot read and another billion functionally illiterate was to create the "Jesus" film, two hours of Luke's Gospel. A stunning 5.5 billion viewers have seen it in 820 languages, and another 246 translations are in process.

     When he was a Youth With a Mission volunteer in Africa, my son showed the film on a white tarp to the Masai tribe, in front of their mud huts which they share with cattle. "It was the first film they had ever seen," Adam told me. "When it first started, tall Masai warriors peeked behind the screen to see the people up there." Out of 100 men, 10 made a commitment to Jesus.

     That's how 188 million people accepted the Lord in live showings of the film.  CCCI volunteers then planted 150,000 churches. Of the 1 million new churches started in the 1990s around the world, three-quarters used the Jesus film to build their congregations.

     Donors have made the Jesus videotape available to every home in Alabama, South Carolina and many in Texas. Mel Gibson, who has created a new Jesus film based on John's Gospel, visited Bill Bright last week.

     In San Antonio, CCCI is led by Soapy Dollar, an Apache born out-of-wedlock who lived in 16 homes by age 6. The orphan accepted Jesus at age 8, became a youth pastor and joined Campus Crusade 32 years ago. Today he oversees a staff of four in Priority Associates reaching business professionals, four more in a Military Ministry, a student ministry at eight colleges and three high schools, an Hispanic ministry and a nightly radio show where he reads Scripture and takes live calls.

     Bill Bright was running a small business in Los Angeles when he was invited to Hollywood Presbyterian Church. Though sitting in the back row, he was asked to join 400 young people on Wednesday night to hear Dr. Henrietta Mears, who created America's first graded Sunday School curriculum. "She made Christ and being a Christian the most exciting adventure for him," Mrs. Bright told me. Dr. Mears challenged him to follow Paul's leadership and ask God, "What would you have me do?" Soon he launched his campus ministry.

     His courtship of Vonette, whom he knew slightly from his hometown in Oklahoma, began with a three sentence note he sent her. She ignored it in her freshman dorm until one November night she wrote him a 10 page letter, and got special delivery air mail response. On their first date, he asked her to marry him. She accepted, but worried that he had become a "religious fanatic," visited him in California with her skeptical mother.

     The day before he died, she sat on his bed in a red outfit with her pearls to celebrate his coronation day, and spoke by phone with 5,000 Campus Crusade staff in Colorado.

"He was the most perfect man on this earth, other than Jesus," she told me.

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