2016-06-30
WASHINGTON, March 28 (RNS) -- Though he now has only half his normal lung capacity, Campus Crusade for Christ International President Bill Bright is still planning how his already wide-ranging ministry can expand its evangelical message across the world.

Diagnosed last fall with pulmonary fibrosis and already battling prostate cancer, the co-founder of the 50-year-old ministry is editing books, preparing video presentations and making plans to foster the training of future Christian leaders through a university housed at New York's Empire State Building.

His illness has slowed his physical pace, but it has not diminished his faith, Bright said in a telephone interview from Arrowhead Springs, Campus Crusade's former headquarters in San Bernardino, Calif.

"I'm rejoicing and praising and giving thanks to the Lord because he is so wonderful," said Bright, 79. "I've learned that life and death are not that much different and, you know, to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord so a Christian can't lose."

Bright's attitude has buoyed his staffers as they adjust to the fact that their longtime leader is ailing.

"His attitude is so consistent and refreshing that it's hard to be sad around him," said Crawford Loritts, associate director of Campus Crusade USA.

Bright, the 1996 winner of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, is being honored this year by his fellow evangelicals.

The Evangelical Christian Publishers Association is scheduled to give him its Gold Medallion Lifetime Achievement Award in July. The National Association of Evangelicals chose him for its first-ever Lifetime Ministry Award earlier this month. Bishop Kevin Mannoia, NAE president, said Bright maintained his faithful focus when he informed him that his health would not permit him to make the association's annual meeting in Dallas.

"The amazing thing about Dr. Bright is that in whatever circumstance he's in, he's always ready to pray, to be interested in the mission of the church and to literally verbalize the ongoing joy of his personal walk with Christ," Mannoia said.

Bright waves off the accolades about his mission and ministry and gives God credit instead.

"I'm not just trying to be superspiritual," he said. "That's Christianity. That's what the Bible teaches we should do. ... We play games with God when we think we own anything. At best, we're stewards."

Bright said the $1.1 million Templeton prize money is still being used around the world to promote fasting and prayer, a cause that became his focus after he observed his first 40-day fast in 1994. He has spearheaded annual "Fasting & Prayer" conferences since then.

Bright has worked to encourage unity among Christians, bringing denominations together for conferences.

"This idea of division is not of God," he said. "Criticism and fault-finding and anti-anything in the life of believers on the part of another is wrong."

The former owner of a confections business, Bright takes his ministry's focus on evangelism personally.

In a video presentation at the NAE meeting, friends and family members recalled how he would share his faith with everyone from taxicab drivers to telephone callers.

"This isn't the wrong number," his son Brad recalled his father telling an unsuspecting caller to their home. "This is a divine appointment."

The evangelistic mission began to drive Bright soon after he converted from a "happy pagan" to a Christian in 1945. In 1951, he and his wife, Vonette, founded Campus Crusade for Christ to fulfill what Bright felt was a calling from God.

"The vision God gave me was for the world, but you can't start on the world level so I started on the campus," he said. "We now have about 70 ministries and projects all under one label."

Once just a ministry at the University of California at Los Angeles, it has grown to include 22,000 full-time staffers and almost half a million volunteers. Now based in Orlando, Fla., Crusade's U.S. and worldwide ministries include outreaches to diplomats, professors, executives, families, military personnel and athletes.

Given its broadened focus, Bright expects that sometime the ministry will change its name.

"We've been developing a name called "Here's Life, World," he said. "One day, we will transition. It's like Coca-Cola changing its name."

And like the soft drink company, Bright has used trademark items to help propel the ministry into the eyes of the general public -- across the country and the globe.

"I'm a businessman, and marketing has had special fascination for me," he said.

He devised a little pamphlet titled "Have You Heard of the Four Spiritual Laws?", which explained how people can become Christians. It has now been printed more than 2.5 billion times in more than 200 languages.

Inspired by God and filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille, Bright conceived the idea of a movie about the life of Jesus. Thirty-three years in the planning, the "Jesus" film now exists in 645 languages.

"I'm sure hundreds of millions have received the Lord," he said of the film. "All I can do is praise God again. I can't claim any credit for it."

Last year, Bright officially announced that Steve Douglass, the Crusade's executive vice president, would succeed him by this August.

Bright said Douglass has been the "president in action" since that time, though he keeps Bright informed about major decisions.

Douglass said he is succeeding a man who is "one of the most humble guys I know. And yet at the same time you look at the rather indelible impressions he's left on the Christian community in the area of evangelism."

Douglass recalled being struck by Bright's humility back in 1969 -- the year he joined the staff -- when they made a trip to Japan with an evangelical team and Bright took the worst of the four beds available to them.

"He took the upper bunk in the creakiest old bunk bed you want to see," Douglass said. "The guy does not seek his own. He does whatever's best for the other person, whatever's best for the ministry."

Other staffers credit Bright for serving as a mentor and an encourager of diversity, including his creation of a special fund to help minority staff members raise money for their financial support. The majority of U.S. Crusade staffers -- including the Brights -- must do their own fund raising for their salaries.

"Bill Bright has brought what I would call New Testament stewardship -- and what others would refer to as business practices -- into ministry and, in addition to that, he has also brought a visionary faith that has stretched all those around him," said Dennis Rainey, executive director of FamilyLife, a Crusade division focused on supporting families.

U.S. Senate Chaplain Lloyd Ogilvie, Bright's former pastor, recalled how Bright was greeted by a stream of people at the 25th anniversary celebration of Prison Fellowship in February.

"He took time for each one," said Ogilvie, who said Bright calls him to encourage him in his work. "He has a wonderful way of focusing in on each person as if that person were the only person in the crowd."

With much day-to-day work now in the hands of younger staffers, Bright, a prolific author, continues to write and edit books and is working on programs to help train people through the International Leadership University, which began with classes at the Empire State Building in 1999. He hopes the university will offer Christian, Internet-based education for future leaders worldwide.

"In a sense the dreams that burn in my heart today are much bigger than they were when we started," Bright said. "There are fresh ideas every day practically."


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