Frank Cox, right, senior pastor of North Metro Baptist Church in Lawrenceville, welcomes evangelist Bill Stafford during a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the church’s new worship center in 2006. Cox and other pastors expressed their thanks recently to the ministry of Stafford, who died Sept. 15. NORTH METRO/Special
CHATTANOOGA — “His messages always pointed to the sufficiency of Christ,” said Harris Malcom upon remembering evangelist Bill Stafford, who died Sept. 15 at the age of 86.
Stafford was a longtime resident of Chattanooga, Tennessee, but a very familiar face to Georgia Baptists. That came not only as an evangelist, but also in his role as Mr. Rudolph, the grumpy neighbor to Kirk Cameron’s Caleb Holt in 2008’s “Fireproof.”
Malcom, a Georgia Baptist regional state missionary, played the role of John Holt, Caleb’s father, in that movie. However, at one point producers Stephen and Alex Kendrick asked Malcom to also read for the part of Mr. Rudolph. Malcom isn’t sure how serious they were in considering him for the role. But in the end, he testified, they made the obvious choice.
“That part was so different from [John Holt],” he said. “Bill was perfect for playing Mr. Rudolph. He flew in one Saturday and shot all of his scenes in one day.” Even Stafford’s boots, for which he was known, made it into his role in the movie (see clip below).
His foray into acting aside, it was Stafford’s ability to preach the gospel for which he will be most remembered. Even as he fought the effects of dementia, his devotion to preaching remained evident, say friends.
When he was serving as pastor of Harmony Grove Baptist Church in Blairsville, Stacy Dyer invited Stafford to lead the church’s revival services.
“He did that for around five years,” said Dyer, now pastor of Shoal Creek Baptist Church in Cleveland. “He was, in my opinion, one of the most powerful preachers I’ve been around. Anointed by God, he was determined to stick to Scripture.”
While Stafford could become animated behind the pulpit, Dyer said the evangelist always kept a focused message.
“They’d call him ‘Wild Bill’ when he’d hoot and holler, but he told me that if it can’t be said in 25 minutes, it shouldn’t be said. He was such a great preacher he’d have you laughing one minute and crying the next. He reached all generations, from kids to senior adults.”
Stafford answered a call to preach at 19 years old. Growing up, he wanted to be a comedian and loved Red Skelton. “I wanted to be cute,” he said. “I entertained the high school two times a week.”
As president of International Congress on Revival, he preached the gospel to thousands around the world, including South Africa, North Ireland, Australia, Zimbabwe, and many European countries. In 2008 he was inducted into the Southern Baptist Evangelists Hall of Faith.
More than an evangelist
Stafford preached for Senior Pastor Frank Cox and those at North Metro Baptist Church in Lawrenceville many times. That relationship went beyond the pulpit, though.
“He was a great encourager and friend,” said Cox. “He loved our church and ministered to us in many ways, such as when my dad died.
“Bill Stafford was one of the most loved evangelists who came to our church. He was the first, really, to teach our people about being generous and giving, preaching once an entire week of revival on sacrificial giving. He taught on living a life like Christ’s and every time he came we knew we were going to hear a word from God.”
Georgia Baptist Regional State Missionary Mike Everson considered it an honor when Stafford asked him to be his pastor advisor and serve on the board of International Congress on Revival. Years before ICR’s founder, Manny Beasley, had asked Stafford to take over as head of the evangelistic organization when Beasley could no longer do so.
“There are a lot of guys who are great in the pulpit, but Bill was also great out of it,” said Everson, for whom Stafford preached revivals when Everson was pastor at Second Baptist Church in Warner Robins and Prays Mill Baptist in Douglasville.
“Bill’s preaching connected with so many people. He was real in and out of the pulpit and had a tremendous effect on others. One of my grandsons was saved in his ministry. He had a tremendous impact on my whole family,” said Everson.
In recent years Stafford’s schedule slowed down as he battled dementia. But even as his mind slipped while living in a nursing home, Everson related how his devotion to Christ sure didn’t.
“One day Bill was getting ready to lead a Bible study in Psalms to other residents. He knew it was getting harder to teach. His son was there visiting, and Bill pulled him to the side and asked that he pray for him to teach the lesson well.”
On other visits Stafford didn’t recognize his son. There were days, said Everson, when he couldn’t remember his own name. There’s one name he did remember, however.
“After their conversation Bill would look at him and want to get one thing clear,” Everson noted of the evangelist who for all he knew was looking at a stranger. “He’d look and ask the most important question of all.
“’Do you know my Jesus?’”