Thursday, 16 July 2009

Bill Bright and Campus Crusade for Christ

I've just finished reading John G. Turner's in depth study: Bill Bright & Campus Crusade for Christ: The Renewal of Evangelicalism in Postwar America (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2008). Relatively unknown in Britain, Campus Crusade is an ubiquitous presence on college and university campuses in the United States, more so than the Inter Varsity Christian Fellowship even. It differs from IVCF (UCCF in Britain) in that its focus has, until relatively recently, been very much on evangelism, rather than the nurture and development of generations of students.
Bill Bright is not one of those names that trips off the tongue when talking about late twentieth-century American evangelicalism. Turner's book restores him to his rightful place in that story, at one point claiming that if Billy Graham was America's pastor, Carl Henry American evangelicalism's theologian, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson the champions of American evangelical political engagement and Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker its leading TV evangelists, then Bill Bright was a genuine evangelical multi-tasker straddling all four worlds - quite an audicious claim really, but one that's not without some truth! (pp. 23-4).
Obviously, Turner's book foregrounds the narrative history of Campus Crusade, and includes much valuable detail on some of the internal debates that have marked its development, but the book is about much more than this as well. Its sub-plot is the story of how evangelicalism in the United States has escaped from the separatist and fundamentalist ghetto to a much more open and engaged position. On Campus Crusade itself, Turner comments effectively on Bill Bright's leadership hinting where necessary at his autocratic style, and his inability to deal effectively with differences within his staff team. Turner shows how Campus Crusade's ethos really reflects Bright's personality and background (albeit not very successful) within business. Bright has sought to keep his organisation focused on the simple aim of evangelism, soul winning, and his Four Spiritual Laws, a kind of saleman's patter that Bright and his staff have used to initiate conversations about the gospel, has become well-known. Throughout the book, Bright's almost slavish dedication to this evangelistic technique, with its stress on the bottom line of making a decision for Christ, shines through. I'd have liked to have seen a more thorough theological discussion of this in the book, and more reflection on its actual, rather than percieved, success. Grand claims are made about the amount of people who made a decision for Christ through the use of the Four Spiritual Laws, many no doubt genuine, but one has inevitably to wonder! It just sounds too formulaic, too contrived, too tightly packed and too generic. What does emerge though is Bright's own dedication to the task of personal evangelism, and Turner fills his study with instances of Bright going out of his way to witness to people in all sorts of realms of life and introduce them to the claims of Christ.
For a British reader one of the most intirguing aspects of the book has to be Bright's political involvement. From its earliest days in the 1950s Bright saw Campus Crusade as a bulwalk against Communism. Some of the almost hysterical rhetoric of the threat that many Americans felt Communism posed is quite amusing to read from this distance, but the allying of evangelicalism to right-wing, and often very right-wing, politics is more perplexing, even problematic fro this side of the Atlantic. Of course, this link became still closer when Reagan became US president, but its odd that during the Reagan years, Campus Crusade seemed to have entered a period of lull and retrenchment, at precisely the time when evangelicals were reaching public prominence. Jim Wallis, the founder of the Sojourners network appears at regular intervals in the narrative as a kind of sparring partner with Bright from the 1970s onwards. But surely a more incisive reading of the evangelical relationship with Republican politics needs to be more hard-nosed; were figures like Reagan actually using evangelicals like Bright, and Billy Graham too, in a much more cynical way, tapping into the very large numbers of votes that they could swing the ways of Republican presidential candidates? Were Bright and his contemporaries within late twentieth-century American evangelicalism actually just deeply naive in the final analysis?
Campus Crusade seems now to have beeen jolted into life following the lull it entered in the 1980s; in the twenty-first century Campus Crusade had grown massively, partly the result of large-scale immigration into American from south-east Asian evangelicals. It has also become much more integrated within the wider evangelical world and more at ease with American cultural mores, although it still maintains a very conservative stance on gender issues, being a leading advocate of complementarianism, and a strong voice in the anti-abortion anti-gay rights lobby.
Bright's final years struck me as quite sad in some respects. Bright had oppossed the charismatic movement quite vociferously in the 1960s, but mellowed when his son came home speaking in tongues. In his later years, though, Bright hooked up with Benny Hinn, of all people, and became very interested in the whole idea of healing ministry! He was also involved in the Evangelicals and Catholics Together project which speaks of a more encouraging ecumenical spirit, and much to his credit, resisted that other big evangelical failing, trying to hand on his ministry to members of his own family. He seems to have handled his succession very well, something that can't be said of all that many prominent evangelicals!!
Perhaps still more impressive was the way in which he worked at mending relationships with those he had disagreed with during his lifetime, both within Campus Crusade and outside; figures that included Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo. So despite my misgivings over the form of evangelicalism represented by Campus Crusade and Bright's politics, I was encouraged by Bright's passion for personal evangelism and his long-standing personal integrity. John Turner has written an admirable volume, very highly recommended for anyone wishing for a good insight into the American evangelical sub-culture.

1 comment:

Dr Digby L. James said...

Thanks for this review. I shall look out for the book. I was converted after contact with Campus Crusade and subsequently worked with them in Birmingham and Liverpool between 1974 and 1976. I met Bill Bright in 1975 and he came across as a very humble man who loved God. But after discovering older evangelical writings, especially Whitefield, I was thrown out - I could no longer go along with the Pelagian evangelism. My wife was horrified to learn that Campus Crusade was coming to Liverpool - and then I arrived and helped me (along with others) in writing an article about Campus Crusade for Evangelical Times (it's now on my website, along with Stuart Olyott's 1968 critique.

I shall now go and order this from Amazon.