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FIRST-PERSON: A conversation with Bill Bright

LAKE FOREST, Calif. (BP)–The following is a brief interview via telephone I conducted last year with Campus Crusade for Christ’s founder, Bill Bright, who died July 19 at the age of 81.

Rick Warren: Would you share with us some of the things God taught you over your 50 years in ministry?

Bill Bright: First of all, I want to thank you, Rick, for the privilege to speak to the many pastors who read your newsletter. I have a special concern and burden for … church leaders. You are the most strategic men and women in any community. That’s the reason it’s so crucial that you be men (and women) of God, who seek first the Kingdom of God.

The most important lesson I’ve learned is to love God with all my heart and soul and mind and strength, obey His commandments and to trust His promises and relax. I work day and night. I have for 50 years in the Crusade ministry and before that I had my own business in other matters.

But I can tell you; God honors a heart that is in tune with His. The number one priority I believe of every pastor — any believer for that matter — is to truly seek first the Kingdom and love God and obey and trust.

Warren: Bill, many years ago — when you were influenced by Henrietta Miers and under her influence — I remember you drafted a contract with the Lord and part of it said, “I am your slave.” Can you tell the pastors about that?

Bright: Actually, I’d been somewhat of a … I wouldn’t say a pagan (my wife doesn’t want me to say that), but I was a non-believer and agnostic. I had no God; no Savior all through college and graduate school. And while I was on the faculty of Oklahoma State University extension, and a businessman in Hollywood, in my early 20’s — through the influence of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood and Dr. Henrietta Mears — I received Christ. I fell in love with Him.

I immediately enrolled in seminary at Princeton, later at Fuller. I really loved the Lord from the very beginning. I was overwhelmed with His love. That I — a sinner — while I was yet in my sins, He died for me. My wife and I were growing together and very busy in serving the Lord. One Sunday afternoon (I’ll not go into details why), God led us to sign a contract — literally to write out a contract of total surrender of our lives to the Lord Jesus Christ — to become His slave.

And, of course, He is our example, our model — Philippians 2:7 speaks of Him becoming a slave. The creator of a couple hundred billion galaxies became a man, the God-man. [The Apostle] Paul refers to himself in Romans 1:1 “a slave of Jesus Christ.” We felt the most important thing we could do was to become as slaves of Jesus — signing a contract to that effect, laid everything we owned or ever would own on the altar, and we’ve been slaves now for 50 some years, and I must tell you it’s the most liberating thing that’s ever happened to me.

Warren: I believe one of the secrets of effective ministry is keep it simple — be simple. You work real hard at that. Simple does not mean shallow and simple doesn’t mean simplistic and simple doesn’t mean superficial. It just means understandable.

Bright: Jesus taught in parables so the masses understood Him gladly.

Warren: One time Einstein said, “You don’t really understand something unless you can say it in a simple way.” Saddleback [Valley Community Church] is in one of the more educated areas in America, yet I find that the simpler I get, the more God blesses it.

Bright: I try to stay within an 800-word vocabulary with everything I speak or write.

Warren: I didn’t know that, but I knew you were a master of simplicity and that’s why God has used you globally — and not with just a few intellectual giraffes. You put it out there so people can understand it. Another thing I’d like you to talk about is the power of tool-making. You’re a tool-maker. When Bill Bright dies and goes to heaven, the tools that you’ve built are going to outlast you — “The Four Spiritual Laws,” the transferable concepts, the “JESUS” film. Here at Saddleback we do a lot of tool-making, too, because I believe that it’s tools that help get the word out.

Bright: Would you believe I’m still reading Andrew Murray? I think he’s been dead 150 years. And Oswald Chambers, probably 100 years. I’ve written over 100 books and booklets and videotapes and things, and I expect by God’s grace that those will be around long after I have been enjoying the celestial city.

Warren: If you could go back to your first year of ministry, is there anything you’d do different? Are there some successful mistakes that you’d say, “I learned not to do that again!”

Bright: I think the most important thing I’ve learned — in a positive way — is to encourage people to pray. Before we began our ministry at UCLA, we organized a 24-hour prayer chain, dividing the 24 hours into 96 15-minute periods. As a result, in almost every meeting we had at UCLA — faculty, sorority, fraternity and dormitory — people indicated their desire to follow Christ.

Warren: That’s the power of prayer.

Bright: I think more recently, in 1994, God taught me the power of fasting and prayer. I think it’s the spiritual atomic bomb of all the disciplines.

Warren: There are a lot of pastors reading this who are facing the discouragement of criticism. Obviously you’ve had to deal with criticism all your life. How do you respond? How do you handle criticism?

Bright: Dead people don’t have any feelings. We’re supposed to be crucified. As a matter of fact, whenever I get hate-filled letters, I write them and tell them I love them. I’m not stressed over that. I always listen to criticism because I want to learn if there’s something I need to know. But I’m never troubled with those things because there’s only one person in this world I have to please and that’s Jesus — the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. If I please Him, He’ll take care of the rest.

That’s the reason I emphasize to all of our leaders — Seek first the Kingdom of God, love God with all your heart, soul and mind — and God takes care of everything else. People give me credit but I say, “I’m the slave. The Master deserves the credit.” When problems arise, the Master carries the load. That’s what He wants. “Cast all your cares on the Lord.”

I’d say to all the pastors, don’t be intimidated by any critics in your church. Just love them. You’re commanded to love them whether you want to or not, as you walk in the Spirit. And I must say one of the most important qualifications to serve God is to do it in the power of the Holy Spirit — anything we do in the energy of the flesh is wood, hay and stubble.

One of the great lessons I learned early on was to draw upon the supernatural resources of God day by day, moment by moment. For as we all know, our bodies are temples of the living God.

Another lesson I learned: I used to be very, very critical of the church. I saw all these people going to church and doing nothing. As you know, very few people witness for Christ. I saw them living as though they didn’t even know the Lord. I became impatient with the church and said, “I don’t want to waste my time talking to Christians. From now on I’m going to work with non-believers and when they become believers, I’m going to keep them separated from the old believers so they won’t catch the same thing.”

I was wrong. I discovered that these people who were not fruitful for God, and who were living in defeat, were really hungry for help. When I loved them and showed them how they could know the power of the resurrection and the fullness of God’s Spirit and the power of God’s Word — the cleansing and the blood of Christ — miracles happened.

Warren: I know the pastors reading this can sense your total dependence on Jesus Christ, your humility. I think vision is highly overrated today. I think what really blesses a ministry is, if you want the power of God in your life, its humility and integrity. I’ll take a person who’s humble and has integrity over a person who has vision any day. A lot of people have vision just based on ego, but it’s in that dependence upon God that we get His vision and develop more trust in Him.

What would you say is your life’s message?

Bright: My life’s message is be a slave of Jesus. And all that involves. Love your master, trust your master and obey your master. Obviously, I’m a son of God, heir of God, joint-heir with Christ, and if He was described as a slave — Paul and Peter and the other apostles were slaves — this to me is the highest privilege anyone could know. I evaluate everything I do in light of what He wants me to do. I try to relate every move, every day, in light of how I can help fulfill His Great Commission and fulfill His commandments.

Warren: What’s the greatest risk you’ve taken in 50 years of ministry?

Bright: I guess to purchase Arrowhead Springs [the Campus Crusade facility in California]. To purchase Arrowhead Springs — which cost $6.7 million — and we gave $2 million for it. We had no money. We borrowed $15,000 for deposit. The owner in the contract made it very certain that the moment we failed to come up with the monthly payment, we were out without any delays. God never failed us. We’ve been able to train probably a million and a half people there over the years. And it literally revolutionized our lives. In those days, $2 million would be like $25 million now.

Warren: Easily! Besides the Bible, what books have really played an important role in your life and in your ministry?

Bright: It’d be hard to say. The most important, of course, would be the Word of God. Every morning before I eat or do anything else, it’s been my practice through the years to get on my knees and read the Scripture in a spirit of reverence. The Bible is not just another book. It’s God’s Word to us: holy, inspired and inerrant. I read it in that respect. I don’t worship the Bible. I worship the One who inspired men of old to record it. It’s not just another book. I don’t read it just to get a lesson to pass on to somebody else. I read it for my own nourishment, my own spiritual growth.

Warren: In your 50 years of ministry the world has changed a whole lot. What would you say to a pastor about sharing the Gospel in a rapidly changing world?

Bright: I would say be culturally sensitive. I would say also learn how to write and learn how to speak. You can go to local schools. There are all kinds of extension universities and seminaries around where you can learn how to preach and teach and write. Communication is so crucial. And understanding the culture — why, in some big cities, there are 200 different languages spoken.

I’d like to add a word, if I may, Rick. As you know, I have fibrosis of the lungs, for which there’s no cure. I discovered it about three years ago. I began to praise the Lord. That’s what James commands us to do — God — through James and through Paul. God commands in Romans 5 to rejoice. I learned many years ago, in all things to give thanks and rejoice, whatever the circumstances.

So I began to rejoice and praise God that I’d soon see Him. Then miracles began to happen. The just shall live by faith, that which is not of faith is sin, without faith it’s impossible to please God. When you’re praising and worshiping Him, even with a broken heart, that releases God’s power because He honors faith.

Jesus said in John 14:21-23, “If you obey Me, I will manifest Myself to you.” I think one of the greatest lessons I’ve ever learned is to praise the Lord, rejoice, give thanks no matter what the circumstances. I can tell you that the last two years or so of my life have probably been the most delightful and most productive of my entire 80 years.

Warren: That is amazing! It’s the power of praise. It unlocks doors.

Bright: It does. I’d like to encourage everyone, no matter what your problems — financial problems, physical problems — if you’re having marital problems, take it all to Him. Cast it all on Him and rejoice in the certainty that if you trust Him and obey Him and love Him, He will take care of you.

Warren: Is there anything else that we haven’t talked about that you would like to add?

Bright: In the last 50 years, my number 1 priority — as an expression of my love and act of obedience — has been to do like Christ came into the world to do — to seek and save the lost. I’ve tried to dedicate my life to seeking and saving the lost and helping fulfill the Great Commission, winning and discipling people of the world.

And in the process we’ve helped take the Gospel to over 6 billion. But in the last two years, we’ve helped take the Gospel to over 2.5 billion. No telling how many of those have come into the Kingdom. Most important is — after they become believers — is to make disciples. We need a million new pastors — at least — to help take care of all the new converts worldwide.

Warren: That’s my vision, too, my burden. As I’ve watched the “JESUS” film reach so many of these people for Christ, the Bible says we have different roles to play. Paul says, “I planted, and Apollos watered, but God gave the increase.” Part of our role here at Saddleback has been the Apollos role — and that is to plant the churches right behind the showing of the JESUS film. Because, at that point, you have all these new converts to Christ, and they need discipling. And we try to water the pastors who need training.

Bright: That is absolutely crucial. Dr. Steel of Dawn Ministries — a church planting ministry — recently told me that out of the million-plus church starts in the last few years, over 750,000 of them he attributes to the showing of the JESUS film.

Warren: I have no doubt about that. It’s the most effective evangelistic tool ever invented, the JESUS film.

Bright: To God be the praise. He gave me the vision. I was a brand-new Christian, a businessman who had a great interest in communication and promotion — that was the nature of my business. So when I became a Christian, I looked around and saw then the church of 6,500 (the church in Hollywood) — most of the people didn’t do anything. God gave me a vision to do a film on the life of Jesus. We took everything Hollywood had to offer and finally 33 years later, God was waiting for Paul Eschelman to be born and reared so he could take it over. God has used him and, of course, all of our staff all over the world. We partner with probably 2,000 different Mission groups.

Warren: We’re one of them. Purpose-Driven ministries have been partnering with Crusade around the world on the JESUS film, and we’re so grateful for that. Bill, this has really been an honor. I feel like this is an historic interview.

As we close, I’d like to ask you to pray for the pastors of this next generation, for young Christian leaders and pastors around the globe — that they will have a heart for the Great Commandment and the Great Commission — just as you’ve had.

Bright: Father, Holy, Holy Father, we bow, in reverence and awe before Your majesty. You’re the omnipotent creator of all things. You sent Your only begotten Son, the creator under Your leadership to be our Savior, our Lord, our Master, our King. We ask in His name, the name to whom You’ve given all authority in heaven and on earth, to prepare millions of young men and young women to serve You on the front lines of spiritual warfare, to be men and women who seek first Your Kingdom, who love You with all their heart, soul and mind, who trust Your Word and obey Your commandments and are faithful to You, Father.

I pray in the holy, holy name of Jesus for a continued spiritual harvest that will bring billions into Your Kingdom and liberate them out of the darkness and gloom of Satan’s kingdom and bring them into the glorious Kingdom of light of Your Holy Son. In His name, we worship and praise You. In Jesus’ name, we give You praise together. Amen.

Warren: And Father, I want to pray for Bill and Vonnette Bright. Thank You for the influence that they’ve had on my own life and the lives of millions and millions of other Christian leaders around the world. Thank You that You’ve given him these many years of effectiveness and fruitfulness, for his influence. I thank You for his humility, for his integrity, for his commitment to be a slave of Jesus Christ and the model that he is for all of us.

We do pray for the healing in his heart, according to Your timetable, and his lungs and that You would give him the exact number of days that You have for him on this earth. Thank You for the purpose and the mission and the life message You’ve given to him. May You give him the strength to fulfill each day that You give him between now and the time that You take him home to be with You. Lord, help him to sense the love from the thousands of pastors and church leaders who will read this interview and will be praying for Bill and for Vonnette, and we do pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Warren is pastor of Saddleback Valley Community Church in Lake Forest, Calif.

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