John M. Wilkerson died last September and I have been neglectful in writing about it. Rev. Wilkerson was known as a pastor who led congregations in Florida, the Bahamas, Wisconsin, Minnesota and California. But he was much more than that. He was a mentor to some of the greatest leaders in evangelical Christianity.
As a pastor he had an impressive career. In Kenosha, Wisconsin, he laid the foundation for a new, vibrant, giant congregation that is still dominant. In Ft. Worth, Texas, he took over an old, tradition bound, Pentecostal church, helping it transition into a new generation.
As a person, John had many gifts that the evangelical Christian world sorely needed. He was classy, calm and mellow, which was something of a contradiction within the boisterous Afro-Pentecostal culture where he ministered. And he was kind and soft spoken, something almost out of place among the hard driven, competitive Fundamentalists, who nevertheless appreciated his effective knack at evangelism.
Wilkerson’s legacy is how he inspired young ministers, including many within his own family. His son, Rich Wilkerson, pastors in Miami. His nephew, David Wilkerson, was a bestselling author.
When the Assemblies of God jealously rejected their own Loren Cunningham and his Youth With a Mission, John Wilkerson boldly and openly celebrated what was happening. Here was an idea that President John Kennedy had lauded. The Peace Corps had reportedly borrowed many of Cunningham’s ideas. Why not cheer for our guy?
While some pastors openly attacked the Full Gospel Businessmen’s Fellowship International, Wilkerson hailed their ideas and encouraged young Christian entrepreneurs who went onto make millions of dollars and support missions worldwide. Businessmen felt at home, even encouraged, in the churches where he was pastor.
When the Jesus Movement started, Wilkerson took a front row seat. Stately, with their country club good looks and dressed to the nines, John and Bonnie Wilkerson would welcome the barefoot, dirty, hippies to their churches.
When the Catholic Pentecostal Movement began, they had open arms.
He always kept his sense of humor about people, about life and about God. Nothing seemed to surprise him or panic him. Everything provoked a smile.
As one might expect, Wilkerson’s churches always boasted the most innovative youth groups. In Kenosha, Wisconsin, his youth director, Dick Eastman, ran a thriving program with youth retreats and “Ski Camps.” It was a teenager’s dream. But when Dick went onto lead the prestigious evangelical organization Every Home for Christ, Wilkerson was his biggest cheerleader.
Wilkerson did not seem jealous of other ministries. Rather he enjoyed them, as if they were his own achievements as well.
If John was handsome and polished, his wife, Bonnie was beautiful and witty. John and Bonnie Wilkerson were an inspiration to a whole generation following behind. As a young traveling speaker and writer, I spoke for them in many of those churches and was on the receiving end of their friendship. John and Bonnie Wilkerson made you feel that what you were doing was the greatest thing that had ever been done.
Born in Hammond, Indiana, January 16, 1930, John M. Wilkerson died September 12, 2014. Leaving Bonnie behind.