I love reading biographies, probably because I’m interested in people and in finding out something about the person behind the persona. Autobiographies are good, although perhaps somewhat sanitised; well-researched and rounded biographies are better because they can often get deeper behind the façade and reveal something more about the subject. Biographies written (or co-written) by family members, such as this one, may sometimes present a ‘cleaner’ life story although this is not a sanitised, clean-cut life story.
David Wilkerson’s son Gary, with his co-author Scott Sawyer, presents a very honest evaluation of a man who for many was the greatest evangelist to young people of the 20th century. Gary’s inside knowledge of life within the Wilkerson family, combined with Sawyer’s knowledge of David’s ministry life (as his editor for many years) provide a more comprehensive picture of the man than might have been expected.
David Wilkerson was for me, like many of my generation, something of a hero figure. The first Christian book I read after I became a Christian in the early 1970s was The Cross and the Switchblade, a book which I’m sure needs no explanation or further discussion here. As a result of reading the book Wilkerson became one of my Christian heroes. One of the problems of reading biographies of your heroes is that they might just begin to topple off the pedestal as you find out more than you might have wanted to, or expected. There’s a little of that in this book but on reflection he comes out of it still a hero.
Aside from his early years as a street preacher/evangelist in New York the story reveals Wilkerson to be very much a modern-day prophet – something he didn’t necessarily regard himself as. Yet as Gary points out right at the beginning one of Wilkerson’s common phrases was “What do you see?” Whether in Nairobi, New York or on hillside in East Texas – which became the location for his Teen Challenge Leadership School, he was continually seeing and envisioning things which others couldn’t see. He established a church (Times Square Church – now 8,000 strong) in New York in a Broadway theatre when everyone else believed it was impossible to do so.
Time and again he would have ‘words of knowledge’ for individuals at his Crusades or in services which were transformative. It’s probably impossible to calculate how many lives were impacted by Brother Dave’s ‘no punches pulled’ preaching. Certainly the number of church leaders who graduated through Teen Challenge numbers in the thousands and all these were young people others would have dismissed or ignored.
There were flaws though, many, as Gary points out. He wasn’t the world’s greatest father or husband – mainly due to the time he spent away from home doing ‘God’s work’. There were times of great austerity, tempered with times of generosity. He was often impulsive and some of his business decisions were very un-businesslike. He took risks, he made mistakes, and he hired and fired people almost on a whim at times. He was often very insecure and certainly had many periods of anxiety, even depression and
seemed to constantly doubt whether he was doing enough for God. He once announced to the world in a sermon that he was going to die in three years (he lived another 30+) because he believed that’s what God told him; pity he didn’t tell the family first! He preached salvation through grace but seemed to feel in his own case that he hadn’t done enough ‘works’ to justify his own salvation.
Reading these aspects of his life raised the question how did a small town preacher from Pennsylvania have the courage to go to New York and do what he did amongst a community that would quite happily have killed him? How did he have the nerve to speak so powerfully, and apparently fearlessly, to the ‘delinquents’? Because God told him to do so.
There’s so much more in this book than I can relay here. All I will say is that if you think you know David Wilkerson, or even if you don’t, then you’ll find a few surprises here – even a few shocks. But what you will discover is a man who dedicated his life to doing God’s work, to preaching salvation to those who perhaps least expected it and was always ready to go where he felt God was leading him regardless of the consequences. Is he still a hero of mine? Undoubtedly so. In many ways I have a higher regard for the man now, he seems more human and I’m reminded that God uses each one of us, imperfect as we are, if we allow him to.
July 21st, 2015 - Posted & Written by Together Magazine