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Gary Wilkerson: David Wilkerson: The Cross, the Switchblade, and the Man Who Believed

Gary Wilkerson, with R.S.B. Sawyer, David Wilkerson: The Cross, the Switchblade, and the Man Who Believed (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), ISBN 9780310326274

David Wilkerson: The Cross, the Switchblade, and the Man Who Believed is an honest and candor assessment written by the son of David Wilkerson (founder of Teen Challenge and personality behind the famed story The Cross and the Switchblade). As he reminisces with graphic stories from his childhood, Gary Wilkerson evaluates his father’s life and ministry until his death in 2011. Wilkerson’s chronicle contains a window into the verve of a man who pioneered an inner city ministry and also prophesied of the end-times. For myself, as a youth, The Cross and the Switchblade was the first book I read from cover-to-cover. The astonishing stories caught my attention as I sought to discover the foundational experiences of a preacher who left his pastorate in rural Pennsylvania and moved to New York City.

Wilkerson’s formative years were based in a strict Pentecostal-holiness home, as the second child of five children. His father, also a pastor, ran a tight ship as a parent. As the son of a preacher, “no” was the operative word. No movies, no sports, no television, no extracurricular activities in this Pentecostal-holiness culture. Gary, as his son, was privy to his father’s private stories, sharing them with serious reflection and humor.

David Wilkerson’s amazing ministry had many twists and turns, yet the foundation remained living by faith on every occasion. Whether he ministered to a recovering drug addict or proclaimed a message about judgment in America, Wilkerson was never deterred by problems or money. However, what is remarkable about this memoir was Gary’s openness about his father’s successes and failures. Though Teen Challenge is by all accounts a success story, he also relates the tragedies. On one occasion, he shares the story of a police officer who contacted the ministry because a Teen Challenge card had been found in the hands of a dead woman who overdosed on the roof of a building.

Many well-known personalities associated with Wilkerson’s ministry were depicted with frank fondness. Nicky Cruz, the converted gang member of the Mau Mau’s was a noticeable figure. Dallas Holm, the musician and songwriter, became a friend to Gary, teaching him the enjoyment of motocross while his family lived in southern California. Pat Boone, intrigued by the miraculous stories contacted Wilkerson. Ultimately, without the television star’s persistence, the movie version of The Cross and the Switchblade may have never materialized. In due course, David’s brother, Don Wilkerson associated himself with Teen Challenge. Leonard Ravenhill, one of the few mentors David accepted, introduced him to Puritan writings and books. Of course, David’s wife, Gwen and their children’s’ sacrifices for the ministry are intertwined throughout the book.

Wilkerson’s visionary ministry at World Challenge in Texas and the consideration that he was a prophet, from his book The Vision, are deemed as trail blazing works and controversial. However, when he founded Times Square Church in Manhattan, as a pastor, his message turned toward grace. The newsletter World Challenge Pulpit Series, included his current sermons, which were mailed to millions throughout the world.

I have three take-aways from reading this book. First, God can do miracles when you live by faith. An ordinary preacher from rural Pennsylvania believed God called him to New York City and he obeyed God’s voice. Second, one can struggle with being good (because of a legalistic background), yet encourage others to higher acts of faith. Gary Wilkerson keenly wrote that his father’s “authority came from his own suffering” (205) and related numerous moments when his soul was in anguish. Third, humility, dedication, and sacrifice remain the essential virtues to aspire in the Christian ministry.

In short, I would highly recommend the reading of this book for pastoral ministry. David Wilkerson, though imperfect and vulnerable regarding his sense of significance, discovered strength only in a fervent prayer life with the Lord. Gary Wilkerson’s raw and visceral description of his father’s spirit produces a full view of authentic ministry based on the God’s grace. David Wilkerson struggled all his life with self-worth, yet he recognized that God loved him deeply as he preached that same message to others. Indeed, a discerning reading of the book declares that the cross is mightier than the switchblade.

Reviewed by Cletus L. Hull



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Category: Church History, Summer 2016

About the Author: Cletus L. Hull, III, M.Div. (Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry), D.Min. (Fuller Theological Seminary), Ph.D. (Regent University), has served as a pastor with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) for 36 years and psychiatric chaplain for 34 years. He is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Biblical Studies in the Oral Roberts University College of Theology and Ministry. He has researched the growing Disciples of Christ churches in Puerto Rico and has an interest in the significance of the Stone-Campbell churches in American Christianity. His article, "My Church is a Mental Hospital" appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of Healing Line. He is the author of The Wisdom of the Cross and the Power of the Spirit in the Corinthian Church: Grounding Pneumatic Experiences and Renewal Studies in the Cross of Christ (Pickwick, 2018) and The Call: My Mission and Our Ministry at Trinity United Christian Church, Lower Burrell, PA (Word Association, 2019). Twitter: @cletus_hull, Facebook,

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