“Jesus said, unless a grain of wheat fall to the ground and dies it remains only a single seed but if it dies, it produces many seeds” (John 12:24, NIV - UK)
On the afternoon of April 27, on a Texas highway about 95 miles southeast of Dallas, a 79-year-old man died in a car crash.
Like many others around the world, I was saddened to hear the news. I first met this man when I was in my early 20s, and the example of his life and ministry has long been an inspiration to me.
He achieved great things in his life and his story is a powerful lesson of what can be achieved when a young person fully commits his life to God.
His name was David Wilkerson. He was the author of the best-selling book, The Cross and the Switchblade, which was made into a Hollywood movie.
It’s a powerful and true story of how many drug addicts and gang members became Christians when Wilkerson first went to New York City.
Years later he had the faith to buy one of the biggest theaters on Broadway and found the non-denominational Times Square Church. David Wilkerson also founded Teen Challenge, which uses a biblically based recovery program for drug addicts.
Today and every day, approximately 24,000 men and women are experiencing the saving and delivering power of Jesus Christ from life-controlling issues in Teen Challenge centers all around the world.
My first meeting with him was when he came to speak at the Royal Albert Hall, London where my dad was chairman of his meeting. I later met him on his bus when he was doing a tour of America.
He was a very down to earth and humble man who never lost his love for God and people.
Wilkerson was just 26 years old when his ministry started to move to another level.
I want to make some observations to make on Wilkerson’s life and ministry.
1. He was a man who prayed and obeyed
He’d been brought up in a Christian home and was a pastor of a small rural church. But then he made a decision which was to change his life and ministry and end up touching millions of people around the world.
On February 9, 1958, Wilkerson felt the Holy Spirit prompting him to spend late evenings praying rather than watching the Late Show on TV.
Two weeks and two days later, during his late night time of prayer, he felt prompted to pick up the February 24, 1958, edition of Life magazine. When he reached pages 30-31, he wept as he looked at an ink sketching of seven members of the Dragon Gang on trial for killing 15-year-old polio victim, Michael Farmer. He felt the Spirit say to him, ‘Go and help those boys.’
Although Wilkerson had never been to New York City, 350 miles away, he found himself three days later in a courtroom where the gang members were on trial.
The judge threw Wilkerson out of the courtroom. The press photographed the skinny preacher being physically detained by court officers, and by the next day the picture made the front page of New York’s papers. One unexpected—but as it turned out, providential—result was that Wilkerson became accepted by New York’s toughest and most blood-thirsty street gangs as the preacher who was arrested for trying to help other gang members.
That late night time of prayer opened up the global ministry Wilkerson founded. Great movements of God always start small. They invariably begin in the hearts of an individual or small group who get real with God and who are quick to obey Him.
2. He had a powerful compassion for people that motivated him to reach out to people
The Cross and the Switchblade tells how compassion for the lost of New York caused Wilkerson to resign as a church pastor in his safe town and reach out to the toughest street gangs in New York.
At times he stood face to face with New York’s murderers, heroin addicts and the worst of criminals in his quest to bring hope to the inner cities.
As news of what Wilkerson did became well known, his ministry became global and he traveled around the world, spending a lot of his time in church circles and conferences. But the love God had put in his heart would not go away.
Nearly 30 years after Wilkerson wept in his study, the Lord touched his heart again. In 1986, while walking down 42nd Street at midnight, Pastor Wilkerson’s heart broke over what he saw.
At that time, Times Square was populated mainly by prostitutes and pimps, runaways, drug addicts and hustlers, along with strip clubs and X-rated movie houses. Wilkerson cried out for God to do something—anything—to help the physically destitute and spiritually dead people he saw.
Recalling that life-changing night, Wilkerson said, “I saw 9-, 10- and 11-year-old kids bombed on crack cocaine. I walked down 42nd Street and they were selling crack. Len Bias, the famous basketball player, had just died of a crack overdose, and the pusher was yelling, ‘Hey, I’ve got the stuff that killed Len.’ I wept and prayed, ‘God, you’ve got to raise up a testimony in this hellish place … The answer was not what I wanted to hear: ‘Well, you know the city. You’ve been here. You do it.’” Wilkerson once more obeyed God and opened Times Square Church in October of 1987.
Wilkerson’s last mission on earth was to be an advocate for the poorest of the poor—to provide relief and support for hungry children and widows and orphans. After founding Teen Challenge, World Challenge and Times Square Church, he sought to feed starving children in the most impoverished countries in the world. Today, Please Pass the Bread is saving the lives of thousands of children, through 56 outreaches in 8 countries.
This compassion for the lost and hurting people marked Wilkerson's ministry. He had the heart of Jesus. When the Lord saw the hungry multitudes, “He was moved with pity and sympathy for them, because they were bewildered (harassed and distressed and dejected and helpless), like sheep without a shepherd,” )Matthew 9:36, AMP).
It’s only when our hearts start to break for people that we can begin to minister to the countless broken people of our world.
3. He believed that people’s lives could be powerfully changed by an encounter with Jesus Christ
He believed that people who came in touch with the crucified and risen Christ could and would have their lives radically changed for the better.
He believed that no one was so hopeless that they could not be saved. He believed God could change the lives of gang members and transform the most desperate drug addicts.
He believed that if people repented of their sins and turned to Christ, then the blood of Jesus shed 2,000 years ago at Calvary is still the only effective remedy to cleanse people and ‘wash them white as snow.’
He believed in the words of the great old hymn “To God Be the Glory” that the “vilest offender who truly believes that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.”
And he believed that the presence and power the Holy Spirit would enable each newly born believer to live a victorious life of freedom and fulfillment.
In other words, he believed in the amazing saving grace of Jesus Christ. But he also believed in the sustaining grace of Christ in all circumstances.
These are the very last words he wrote in his final blog: “To those going through the valley and shadow of death, hear this word: Weeping will last through some dark, awful nights—and in that darkness you will soon hear the Father whisper, 'I am with you. I cannot tell you why right now, but one day it will all make sense. You will see it was all part of my plan. It was no accident. It was no failure on your part. Hold fast. Let me embrace you in your hour of pain.' Beloved, God has never failed to act but in goodness and love. When all means fail—his love prevails. Hold fast to your faith. Stand fast in his Word. There is no other hope in this world.”
4. He shaped messed up people into outstanding leaders
Nicky Cruz was a leader, but very messed up. The son of parents who practiced witchcraft, he was the teenage leader of one of the most dreaded street gangs of New York known as the Mau Maus.
But through the ministry of Wilkerson he not only committed his life to Christ, but went on to become a famous evangelist and author of the book Run Baby Run.
In turn, Nicky Cruz was instrumental in the conversion of Sonny Arguinzoni, a gang member and drug addict. Arguinzoni was inspired to start Victory Outreach International. Today it has grown to a fellowship of over 700 churches and ministries in 33 countries. Most of its growth has taken place in the toughest inner cities on the planet.
It was at a Nicky Cruz meeting that another prominent Christian leader, A.R. Bernard, a former Muslim, came to Christ.
The church he started in Brooklyn now has 30,000 members. His church, the Christian Cultural Center, is the largest church in New York City and has one of the fastest growing congregations in America. He has gained the respect of national and world leaders alike.
When you give your life fully to God, you have no idea who you will reach and how many lives you will touch for God.
5. Wilkerson was a man of faith and initiative
He dared to believe that God worked miracles when people dared to believe God. He believed that a dynamic church could be launched in the heart of Times Square, New York City.
In 1987 in an area of Manhattan that was then riddled with X-rated movie houses, strip clubs, prostitution and drugs, he started Times Square church.
At first the church occupied rented auditoriums, later moving to the historic Mark Hellinger Theater, which the ministry bought in 1989 and in which it has operated ever since. TSC later expanded when it bought 65,000 square feet of space in a building on Broadway adjoining the former theater.
Wilkerson told Charisma: “We originally came here to find a holy remnant who would welcome repentance and set an example that people could live a righteous life in the midst of Babylon or Sodom.”
For nearly a quarter of a century, the church has faithfully ministered right across the racial and socioeconomic spectrum of life in the Big Apple. Over 60 nationalities are represented in the congregation. Today thousands continue to pack into multiple services.
When I travel to the United States, I try to stay over on a Sunday night in New York whenever possible. This past freezing January I quickly made it through customs and took a cab straight to Times Square.
I left my bags at the hotel reception and rushed past the flashing multicolored images of leading brands and top shows. I glanced up at a huge display of the latest media Messiah, my fellow countryman Piers Morgan, and then arrived a few minutes late for the 6 p.m. Times Square Church gospel service.
Outside it had seemed very cold, naturally and spiritually. The moment I stepped inside with choir and congregation fervently worshipping the Lord, I felt the warmth of the Holy Spirit so suddenly and so strongly that I began to cry.
The fires of God, I quickly realized, are still burning strongly on the altar that Wilkerson first built many years ago.
6. He lived a godly life and believed in the power of holiness
Wilkerson always believed that a holy life was the secret of knowing the blessing of God. He didn’t just believe in the Spirit. He believed in the Holy Spirit.
His teaching was unashamed, old-time gospel and straight down the line. He was full on for righteous living. He often seemed like a biblical prophet in the way he spoke out against sin, both inside and outside the church.
I heard firsthand how he was invited to speak at a major television ministry, but he refused to go. He believed, correctly as events turned out, that there was sin and wrongdoing at the highest level of the ministry.
He prophesied that God’s judgment would fall. “Within a year the birds will be flying through an empty building,” he told a friend of mine.
He was right. The televangelist concerned was exposed for a wrong sexual relationship and he went to jail for financial crimes. The buildings that had attracted such huge crowds were empty within the year.
But there was also a less publicized and gentle side to the holiness represented in the life of Wilkerson. He loved his family and lived faithfully as a family man. He and his devoted wife, Gwen, had four children and 11 grandchildren. Who knows what fruit is yet to come from them?
7. He stayed faithful to God and his calling
All his life he served the Lord. His son Gary has quoted Acts 13:36 which says: “David served the purposes of God in his generation, then he died.”
Gary wrote: “Dad lived life to the fullest, obeying God with devotion and loving Jesus radically. Like King David of old, after having served God’s purpose, he died. I know if my father were able to encourage you with his words today, he would invite you to give your all to Jesus, to love God deeply and to give yourself away to the needs of others.”
Today Wilkerson is like a seed that has fallen into the ground. But I believe that both his death, as well as his life, will yet produce many other seeds. You can be one of them. Follow the example of David Wilkerson. Choose to live a life fully committed to God.
Wes Richards is the senior pastor at King’s Church International in the UK.