One of the unique memories of my childhood was the trips from my home church to the annual Free Will Baptist Convention. Occasionally other pastors and their wives would hitch a ride with us on the large buses we would charter. On one occasion, I remember wondering why some old preacher and his wife were riding along with us. Nevertheless, this didn’t stop me from running up and down the aisles of the bus! Little did I know that if I weren’t careful, my behavior might earn me a dishonorable mention in the memoir of that older preacher—who turned out to be Bobby Jackson, Free Will Baptist’s most noted evangelist in the second half of the twentieth century.
Though we haven’t known each other personally throughout the years, recent years have afforded us the opportunity to develop a relationship. It was then no small irony that I purchased the final copy of Bro. Jackson’s memoir that he had with him at the National Convention in July. He has since been kind enough to answer some questions about his book for the Forum.
Helwys Society (HS): Bro. Jackson, the Helwys Society deeply appreciates you taking the time to answer some questions regarding Yesterday and your 50+ years of evangelistic ministry.
Bobby Jackson (BJ): My wife, Jane, remembers that boy on the bus, and the potential she saw. Woman’s intuition, I guess. I remember the bus ride. You received that last book because we didn’t anticipate the number of people who would want a copy. As long as Amazon stays in the printing business, we hope not to get down to the last copy again.
HS: What has been the general response to your book? What has surprised you most after hearing back from readers?
BJ: The response has made the ten years of working at it worthwhile. Jack Williams’s comment, “This book needed to be written, and you’re the one to write it,” was encouraging. One of the most satisfying feedbacks has been the number of people who said, “I began reading the book and found it so interesting I couldn’t put it down.”
Many of these were folks who had never heard of me or the ministry until they read the book. The local newspaper editor was one of those. In his review he said that the reader could feel the cold wind and rain blowing through the cracks of that tenant farmhouse.
One preacher blamed me for keeping him up too late at night reading the book. Certain portions of the book seemed to be more interesting to different groups of people, and since each chapter is a story within itself, there’s a little something for everybody.
HS: Did you ever seriously consider entering the pastorate?
BJ: Never. There have been a few churches over the years that really put pressure on me, but at the time there were over 100 meetings scheduled. I would never consider changing my place of ministry until I was convinced that I had finished what I was doing where I was. I knew someone else would take the pastorate, but if I walked away from those meetings no one else would or could do that. So, it never was even tempting. One or two of them, Jane would have pastored if they had called her!
HS: I recently came across two articles online that offered advice to pastors about hosting guest preachers. Given your humorous and sometimes unpleasant experiences being in countless churches and homes, what advice would you give to pastors who invite preachers in for special services and meetings?
BJ: When the pastor says on the phone, “We have reserved a motel room for you,” I turn to Jane and say, “They have us a motel room,” she responds with a thumbs up, “Yes!”
It is much more convenient to have your own private space (and bathroom). Don’t think for a minute you are being inhospitable by putting an evangelist in a motel. If he lives on the road all the time, he’ll appreciate it.
Concerning meals, my schedule is more flexible than my body. It really doesn’t matter. Whatever is convenient for people is fine. Some preachers don’t eat supper before they preach. They say it hinders their preaching. One such preacher who didn’t eat, and after his sermon, a little boy told him, “Preacher, you might as well have gone on and eat.” My preaching may already be bad enough. Nothing can make it any worse.
Concerning finances, if you plan to pay the evangelist on the level with the pastor, keep in mind that he has no housing allowance, retirement fund, social security payment, insurance, car allowance, vacations, or other benefits, and would need to preach 52 weeks to make the annual income of the pastor. One reason evangelists have come and gone among us over the years is they could not support a family on the income.
HS: I have heard many marvel over the years at ministers like yourself who have had to be away from family for prolonged periods of time. How did you practically cope with this in the “pre-cell-phone age”? How did your wife handle this?
BJ: I wished my life away one day at a time, counting the days that seemed like weeks, before I’d get home. Those long lonely weeks away from my family were the most difficult part of the ministry. Jane now thinks perhaps she should have homeschooled the boys, but at the time there seemed to be no other way.
Jane will have to answer how she handled it. I can only say that she never complained in her loneliness nor insisted that I stop the work and stay home. She and the boys traveled with me every summer.
HS: Your book recounts so many experiences that help your readers understand what your ministry was like. However, is there is a unique spiritual challenge that an evangelist faces that is distinct from other forms of ministry?
BJ: Not that I am aware of. I’ve never said that the Lord called me to be an evangelist. I may announce that one day! He called me to preach the Gospel. When and where, I have left up to Him, one day at a time. There is so much that overlaps in preaching, whether pastor, missionary, or evangelist. Timothy was a pastor whom Paul told to do the work of an evangelist. He also said in Ephesians that the evangelist is given to the church to minister to the saints. The various ministries have so much in common that I have never considered myself unique in any way.
HS: Do you think the type of evangelistic ministry that you had still has a place in evangelical life today? Specifically in the conservative Baptist movement? To put it differently, what do you think the role of the “traveling evangelist” will look like in the next 50 years of Christian ministry?
BJ: It should have, but I fear it doesn’t. Having ministered in a small segment of a rather small denomination, I certainly cannot speak for the overall conservative Baptist movement. It appears, however, that the Southern Baptists and Independent Baptists are not having local church evangelistic meetings as they once did.
Confrontation evangelism is “out” among evangelicals. Attendance is a problem, pastors say. If so, then Sunday and Wednesday nights are on their way out as preaching services.
In the New Testament there is a ministry for the evangelist. How that is related to the present “traveling evangelist” is not clear. There is still a place for the preacher who can effectively present the Gospel message, but the “traveling evangelist” is on his way out.
The role of the “traveling evangelist” in the next 50 years will probably resemble the role of the American Indian in the American way of life during the last 50 years.
By the way, today, December 14, is my 81st birthday. The role of this old “traveling evangelist” has already been reduced to indirect influence.
HS: Thank you for sharing with us more about your book and ministry.
Reader’s Note: Bro. Bobby Jackson lives with his wife, Jane, in Greenville, North Carolina. He continues to engage in evangelistic work, though not quite at the pace of his earlier days. Readers may write to him at 1412 E. 14th Street, Greenville, NC 27858, or email him at email@example.com. His book may be purchased through Amazon.com.