The life of evangelical churches and their spiritual leaders has been portrayed in some recent films and series. Can they help us start conversations?
Pastor Gary Wilkerson talks about his father, the meaning and impact of the Protestant Reformation, and the key role that sound doctrine and the Holy Spirit should play in the church.
Among the many activities that are taking place worldwide to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation during 2017, the city of Madrid (Spain) will host a Protestant Congress from July 12 to July 14.
One of the well-known speakers invited will be the pastor and President of World Challenge, Gary Wilkerson. He believes the Reformation “is one of the most important things since the book of Acts, one of the most important worldwide awakenings that we have ever seen.”
“Reformation is not just a theological understanding, it is a life transformation, with great importance in the four corners of the world”, Wilkerson says in an interview with Evangelical Focus.
Wilkerson is also the auhtor of "The Cross, the Switchblade, and the Man Who Believed", a book about his father, David Wilkerson, who was the president of Teen Challenge and “had a extravagant devotion to Jesus and a deep love for his family”, Gary recalls.
According to Wilkerson, the Reformation and the Pentecostal charismatic movement “are linked together and very influential around the world: the Reformation bringing people back to Jesus by faith alone, by grace, and the Pentecostal movement bringing back the Holy Spirit's influence.”
He explains that “sound doctrine is crucial, because sometimes in the pentecostal charismatic movement we are not rooted and grounded in the Word of God.”
But, at the same time, “many churches are missing the fact that the Bible does preach and teach that the Holy Spirit still moves powerfully today, it still anoints the gospel preaching, still heals the sick and touches people's lives in miraculous ways.”
“The Reformation is not just a celebration about what God did 500 years ago, but about how that is impacting our lives today”, Wilkerson concludes.
Gary Wilkerson responded to questions of Evangelical Focus in the following interview.
Question. David, you knew your father David Wilkerson better than anyone. What would you highlight about him beyond his public figure?
Answer. I think there are two things that went on behind the scenes, that a lot of people did not know about my father.
The first one is that he had a extravagant devotion to Jesus. He spent four, six, sometimes even eight and ten hours, locked in his study with prayer, studying the Word, with his Bible marked and highlighted. He was so serious about pursuing Jesus wholeheartedly.
I think he understood we live in a world of people pursuing materialism, chasing after their own ambitions, and he wanted to be sure that he set his heart to seek the face of Jesus.
The second thing was his family life, even though he was a strong preacher, and prophetic in his word, when he was at home he was very joyful, happy. He loved being with his family. For me, as his oldest son, he would take me out on long bike rides, we played football and basketball together.
He loved to talk to me and my family, and my children as well when I grew older, about the Lord. He would take me and my kids and shared the things of Christ with us.
I try to incorporate those two things in my own life, I set a serious amount of time everyday to be with the Lord, and truly spend as much time as I can loving my wife and children.
Q. When your father was a the top of his carreer, around 1987, he founded a church in a dangeros neighborhood of Times Square in New York and dedicated his life to take care of the outcasts of society. He ddi that instead of jumping into public life -media, politicians, he even received calls from US presidents-. Do you know why he took that decision?
A. Back in the mid 1980's he was travelling all around the world preaching, sometimes five nights in a row in five differen cities. He found himself begining to preach the same sermons over and over, he did not feel he was fresh, so he took almost a year off and started to spend more time alone with the Lord more intensely.
He was friend with a man named Leonard Ravenhill, who was also a great revivalist and preacher. He gave him many books from the Reformation: Calvin, Zwingli, Luther, and the Puritan writers from England. He noticed how different their voices were than the modern voice, which seemed light and trivial, compared to the depth that these men had.
He spent a year studying and seeking God deeply, and out of that came a desire not just to have a deep knowledge of God, but to be able to know God so well that you love people deeply.
That put a love in his heart for restarting the ministry he started back in 1958 in New York City, working with gang members, reaching guys like Nicky Cruz, who the book “The Cross, the Switchblade and the Man who Believed” speaks of.
He wanted to go back to the city, and raised up a testimony that God has the power to bring life in the midst of the darkest situation. The city was horrible at that time, 42nd Street was full of prostitution, drug sales, adult theaters. So he started a church originally one block away from that, right on Time Square, and began to reach out to the poor, the lost, the lonely, the broken. And before long thousands of people gathered there, now the church has around 10,000 people.
I believe the whole neighbourhood has totally been transformed though prayer. If you walk along Time Square, instead of finding adult theaters, gangs or drug sales, you will find Disney stores, restaurants, places for children to play, parks. It is a whole new world now, and I believe that is the power of the gospel, many lives have been transformed.
Throughout those years of successful ministry, he was invited to be at the White House, Congress, in the media, interviewed in talk shows... But he wanted to be a man hidden with God, he did not want publicity.
I believe it was a prophetic call of God, in a generation where pastors are lure to become popular, successful, rich. Sometimes even people even get in ministry because it is a way to get fame and fortune.
I think God used him prophetically to say, “this is not about our name, but about the name of Jesus being lifted up.” I think not everybody has to do that, but for him it was that prophetic call of God.
Q. David Wilkerson was a Pentecostal pastor who defended "sound doctrine" while emphasizing that "supernatural things could happen through imperfect human beings." Is that still true today?
A. Sound doctrine is crucial, because sometimes in the Pentecostal charismatic movement -that I am gladly a part of and I hold that heritage with great honor- if we are not careful, we are not rooted and grounded in the Word of God. What happened is that people who are from the Pentecostal charismatic background begin to call it strange fire.
There was even a conference here in America called Strange Fire, and it was denouncing the whole of the Pentecostal charismatic movement. But for me personally, I truly believe that the only reason why people call it strange fire is because they do not realize what true fire is.
I do not want any strange fire, I do not want excesses or things that are not biblical. My father told me that as well, that if you dig into the Word, if you do what the Word says, and don't look for any fancy new wave, don't look for anything that excites the congregation or draw the crowd, you will stay in the Word.
I think that, a lot of us, if we are not careful, end up in that strange fire. Because we do not have fire at all, and we need that fire.
That is what many churches are missing, the fact that the Bible does preach and teach that the Holy Spirit still moves powerfully today. It still anoints the gospel preaching, still heals the sick and touches people's lives in miraculous ways, it still fills people with the Holy Spirit and with power.
Without those things I do not think I want to be a pastor or travel the whole world preaching. I need His power, I need the Holy Spirit power and not my own.
Q. How has your father's example influenced your ministry and the work you do now?
A. He has had a great influence in my life and in the whole family. My brother is in the ministry, my two sisters too. I have cousins, aunts and uncles, nephews and nieces... So many people in the ministry now based on my father´s influence.
He influenced me to be able to care for the poor, to love people that are hurting. And that is why I am the president of a ministry, called World Challenge, we work in about 60 different nations.
What we do is we pray and we ask the Holy Spirit to give us insight to know who are the poorest of the poor, the most broken, the most hurting and needy. We go to those communities, sometimes it is a rural village in Africa, or Cambodia, or urban cities like Manila, in the Philippines, or even here in America, some of the largest cities.
We go and begin to help people, not only giving them things like food if they are hungry, like the Bible tells us to do, but also in the long term we try to bring solutions, help them solve their problems.
For example, in Northern Uganda, where there was a civil war, and they were taking children and forced to become child soldiers. We went to that area, and began to help them to bring their children back, we gave them food, offered orphan care.
But in the long run, we needed to see those families brought back together, healed, able to make a life for themselves. Now we are working with about 100,000 people in Northern Uganda, and seeing villagers that are providing for their own families, instead of building orphanages, they are taking orphans into their own homes, and solving their problems.
My father told me to care for the poor, minister to them, but also bring them the gospel, so that they will have faith to believe that if they are hungry, they can pray for food, for their own gardens, for work to provide for their family.
Miracles are taking place, and I thank the Lord and my father for helping me think that way, it is becoming very fruitful all around the world, in many, many deep ways.
Q. Traditionally, the Pentecostal environment has not been seen as something closer to the great influence that Protestant Reformation has had in modern history. Our perception is that this is changing, do you agree?
A. Absolutely. First of all, I would say that the two are connected because the Holy Spirit is always bringing his children back to the Word of God. Opening up discoveries that are missing, not new things that are not Scriptures, but things in the Scriptures that people are adopting and incorporating into their lives and the church.
So the Reformation was great, it was foundational, without that nothing else could be built upon it. And then, as a next step, the Pentecostal charimastic movement became another addition, not to the gospel, but to that that was missing about the way churches live the gospel.
I believe they are linked together, both are very influencial around the world. The Reformation bringing people back to Jesus by faith alone, by grace. And the Pentecostal movement bringing back the Holy Spirit's influence.
We do not want the Father, the Son, and the Bible. It is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. It is very important that we use the Bible to highlight who the Father is, who the Son is, what the Son has done for us and that is what Reformation did. Justification is what the Son has made through the Father's calling on His life.
The Holy Spirit in many circles has kind of left out, just like a step-child, but it is not, it's a full part of the Trinity, and it needs to be honored and allowed to do what He wants to do in the church.
I think the charismatic movement is obviously growing. I travel all around the world, I do pastor conferences in front of 10,000 pastors in some countries in Africa. It is hard to get away from what God is doing in the renewal movement, because there are many new places where the Holy Spirit is pouring out. People are being saved, churches are exploiting, and I would hate to miss what God is doing is this generation.
I think the only resistence that non-charismatic Pentecostal people can have is when the churches that are Pentecostal get into excesses that are not biblical and we sort of spoil the good with that which is not true.
So if we stay true to the Word and allow the Holy Spirit to move, then we are tied and rooted to both the Reformation and the Pentecostal awakening.
Q. How would you define what the Reformation movements started by Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and John Konx meant?
A. I believe it is one of the most important things since the book of Acts, one of the most important worldwide awakenings that we have ever seen.
Without the Reformation we would have been stuck, not only in dead religion, but we would not have real life. The church would not be alive today without it, we would not see all the good works that were started out of that.
The Reformation is known for its theology, but it also opened up the door to the type of things that World Challenge is a part of, to take care of the poor.
Things like Salvation Army. Even my father's ministry, Teen Challenge, was started out of that understanding that we are saved by grace, and that gracefulness of being justified by grace alone, frees us to serve others, because the Bible says: “To whom much was given, of him much will be required.”
When we understand justification by faith alone, we understand we were given so much, and we want to give that away. So Reformation is not just a theological understanding, it is a life transformation, with great importance in the four corners of the world.
Even people that do not know about Martin Luther, or are not able to say what Reformation is, have been impacted by it. Because they have been taught the Word of God by men and women of God who understand the gospel because of what primarily Luther have done and discovered, and others after him.
I am excited this summer I get to be in Germany and stay in the monastery where Luther did much of his writings and where he lived, I will be spending a couple of nights in Luther monastery, so I am looking forward to be part of the great history of Europe, the European awakening there when the reformers literally touched the whole world.
Q. One of the principles of the Reformation, along with the Five Solas, was that the "Church is reformed and always being reformed". How should we apply this principle to the evangelical Christian churches of today?
A. We are always reforming, nor for the sake of reforming, but for the sake of bringing back, to form once again, what was the initial form in the Scriptures.
I am not interested in trying to reform the church into some kind of clever, new ideas, getting men's ideas, borrowing things from the world to attract the world. I do not have interest in that, and I do not think the Bible does either.
It tells us to always be reforming, only in the sense of always looking back to what you are missing from what the Word has to say, and then bring that back and refocus your life.
For instance, when Jesus gave his revelation to John, he writes to the seven churches, and each one of those churches had something to reform. One of them was begining to tolerate the spirit of Jezabel, and Jesus said: “No, you need a reformation, you need to get back to understand that the Word does not allow that type of sexual inmorality within the church.”
Sometimes reformations are corrections, sometimes it is adding things from the Word that have been missing.
In every generation it seems like the church begins to lose its way, and then God sends reformers, just to say: “Let's get back, let's reform this aspect of the gospel that is missing from the life of our churches.”
Often, there is revival because people realize that something is missing in their lives, and because of that, they look to the world to satisfy that hunger of their soul. Unless we continue to see the Spirit revives his church, people began to backslide and drift, the fire of God and the passion of the Holy Spirit begins to be missing and we drift. The Lord Jesus' reformation constantly brings us back.
Q. Spanish people are very grateful for your willingness to visit Spain for the Congress commemorating the 500 anniversary of the Reformation this July. What prompted you to participate in this Congress?
A. I think that what the Holy Spirit puts on the leaders hearts to hold this conference is an amazing opportunity. It is very rare to bring together both Reformation teachings and the charismatic Pentecostal Holy Spirit movement.
Oftentimes, they are separated, I notice it all around the world. People with a Reformation mindset tend to be almost against Pentecostals, and Pentecostal people look towards Reformation people as being dry, dead, lifeless. I am extremely excited about a conference that brings those two together.
When I heard about it, and the invitation to be a part of it, I was so overwhelmed with joy. I am looking foward to hearing the rest of the speakers and being part of the fellowship together.
But the Lord also puts a message on my heart, that I believe it will call people to a serious, devout, radical relationship with Jesus Christ that encompasses both the Reformation teachings and the charismatic teachings, to get deeper into sound doctrine and the fire of the Holy Spirit.
Putting those two things together, we will be able to change the world.
Q. Is there anything else you want to say?
A. I believe God is going to do great things. I encourage you to come to this celebration of what God did. It is not just a celebration about what God did 500 years ago, but about how that is impacting our lives today. I want to encourage people to get involve on this, do not wait. God is in the move, and He will do great things this summer.