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EVANGELISM IN ACTION: Evangelist sees silver lining in dark economy cloud

DEVILLE, La. (BP)–In a time when many churches and organizations around the SBC are cutting budgets and staff, there’s at least one evangelist who thinks recent hard financial times provide a great opportunity for the church.

“I think what this will do, it will bring us to desperation, and desperation is the point at which God sends revival,” says longtime evangelist Bill Stafford, referring to the current economic turmoil. “God is going to teach us a principle of trust and faith and show us a dimension of His sufficiency, where people will hunger to come to church. Not to hear about the doom and gloom, but to hear about the living Christ who is in me and all of His sufficiency is my sufficiency.”

Stafford has been preaching for almost 57 years, most of those in full-time evangelism. He quit a career in combustion engineering when he was called to preach at 19. Since then, he’s preached all over the country and even earned the nickname “Wild Bill” in the Southern Baptist Convention for his straightforward preaching style.

He’s also preached at the SBC Pastors’ Conference, and this past June, he was an inaugural inductee into the Conference of Southern Baptist Evangelists’ Hall of Faith. Recently, he’s become familiar to a whole new audience for his role as Mr. Rudolph, the grumpy next-door neighbor in the movie “Fireproof.”

Stafford preaches a revival each September at Sherwood Baptist Church, which produced the film. Last year, after one of his sermons, Sherwood’s executive pastor, Jim McBride, approached him, telling him they’d tried out eight people for the part of Mr. Rudolph.

“You have to try out,” McBride told Stafford. “We can’t find anybody. None of them can say ‘Caleb’ mean enough.”

Stafford laughs recounting the story.

“I said, ‘I can’t act.’ They said, ‘You do it preaching!'”

Stafford agreed to audition, and says, “When they saw it, they said ‘That’s it! You got it!'”

At almost 76, Stafford shows no signs of slowing down. His 2009 calendar is already full. And while his and his wife Sue’s nest egg has not been immune to the recent upheaval in the financial markets, he says they continue to do what they’ve always done — trust God to supply their needs.

“It’s not about money,” he said in an interview prior to a mid-November revival service at Philadelphia Baptist Church in DeVille, La. “It’s about dealing with whatever’s in my life that would shackle me from living the Spirit-filled Christian life. Money is one of the biggest enemies we have if it’s our master. Money’s a good slave but a poor master.”

Stafford stresses this concept of mastery over selfish desires — including the desire to gain or keep money — at every revival he preaches.

“Jesus spoke more about my possessions and about things than He did about my salvation,” Stafford said. “He constantly talked about that.

“We’ve sort of let that slide by. We haven’t dealt with it as a real important part of breaking selfishness in me and keeping compassion for others. Selfish people never see anything except what they need. They never get into the truth of giving. That’s not just money. That’s my whole self.”

Stafford says a person’s attitude toward money is a good indicator of their spiritual maturity.

“Jesus said so much about it because the money I have and the possessions I’ve obtained will either be a blessing or a curse according to my attitude toward them,” he said. “Jesus never wants me to trust in things. That’s why He taught me faith in Him.”

And he believes the move to trust God with one’s whole life is the key to revival.

“Revival comes whenever people begin to get sick of themselves and where they are,” Stafford said. “[People] must put off the old man and appropriate Jesus. That’s the way revival comes — when we get into that mode and say ‘Wait a minute, I can overcome this stuff.'”

Stafford has exemplified this teaching in his own life by never asking for a set amount of money from any church where he’s preached.

“Sometimes [a church will] say ‘let me give you this,'” he said. “And I say, ‘No. Let me come and trust God. Just take an offering. Let the people obey. That’s the only way I know to operate.’ That’s been a principle that has set me free. I can go anywhere and never have to worry about my needs.”

Stafford thinks the current state of the economy could help bring about a similar faith in more believers.

“I think we’re going to learn more about faith and obedience and dying to self — how to take the promises of God,” he said. “He’s got a promise for everything I need. Every promise He’s laid down in the Word is always sufficient and true. We haven’t been living by that.

“In America, we thought prosperity was God’s blessing, when it may have been a curse. Because we got comfortable in doing what we wanted to do like we please.”

Stafford said he will just continue to trust God, and God will continue to open doors for him — like his recent movie role.

“[The movie] is just another example of how God kicks the doors open for me,” he says. “I’m not a great sermonizer. God just keeps kicking the doors open.”
Laura Erlanson is operations coordinator for Baptist Press.