This week (May 19) saw the sudden passing of one of the most important and significant evangelists of the last half-century, Ravi Zacharias, at just 74 years of age. Ravi’s battle with a rare and aggressive cancer was very brief, being diagnosed in March this year, just a few months after stepping down as president of RZIM to focus on his busy international speaking and writing ministry.
Converted to Christianity while recovering from a suicide attempt in his native India and soon thereafter emigrating to Canada, Ravi began developing a preaching and teaching ministry in North America in the 1980s. After theological studies in the USA and a growing itinerary as an evangelist, he was propelled to visibility in the global Christian community at just 37 years of age when he spoke at the inaugural International Conference for Itinerant Evangelists in Amsterdam in 1983 at the invitation of Billy Graham. With a passion to reach questioners and thinking skeptics around the world, as well as to equip Christians to reach their neighbors with the cogency of the gospel, Ravi Zacharias International Ministries was formed shortly afterward. Over the 36 years of the organization and counting, God made miraculous financial provision and today around 100 evangelists are affiliated with RZIM around the globe, preaching and defending the gospel. I’m thankful for the leadership of Ravi’s daughter, Sarah, and my friend and former colleague at the Zacharias Trust in the UK, Michael Ramsden, in carrying on the work of RZIM.
My first acquaintance with Ravi Zacharias’ work was while serving as an itinerant evangelist for Saltmine Trust in the UK. An old friend and pastor had given me a series of recordings based on Ravi’s book, Can Man Live Without God. I listened to the lectures with great interest. Just over a year later, while working in West London as the director of evangelism for an evangelical Anglican church in Fulham, I bought the book and couldn’t put it down. I was 24 years old and had for some time been an avid reader of the work of C.S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer, and so an apologia for the gospel was foremost on my mind. I recognized in Ravi a deep love of Christ and the gospel, a keen and penetrating mind and a passion to reach those who shape the ideas of culture.
My first meeting with Ravi was in 2001 at a student event in Oxford. I remember sitting in a historic church listening to an energetic, white-haired Indian gentlemen with crystal-clear English, expounding on the significance of John’s prologue to a room full of skeptics; I listened with rapt attention as he graciously and skillfully handled their questions. Soon thereafter I was invited to join the organization as an evangelist-apologist in England and began travelling with the ministry. For the next seven years I had the privilege of working with Ravi and what was in those days a much smaller international team. After two years in the UK ministry, Ravi asked me whether I would go to Canada to get an apologetics work up and running there. It was an immense privilege to serve as Executive Director and lead apologist of RZIM Canada for five years – a time in which I learned much from Ravi and my international colleagues. I will always be thankful that Ravi brought my family to Canada to serve the cause of the gospel in this land we have made our home.
My time with Ravi and RZIM was a critical season of learning and preparation for the ministry God has called me to today, and I am only one of a number of leaders who would consider Ravi one of their key influencers and mentors. His legacy in the life of many who defend and extend the kingdom in our time will be felt for generations.
Few evangelists have ever reached so many across the world and found themselves in cultural settings frequently closed to ministers of the gospel as Ravi. His winsome personality, international cultural heritage, persuasive oratory and powerful intellect were used by the Lord to grant him access to political, business and academic arenas that many who preach Christ never enter. In this he helped blaze a trail for others.
Christian people acquainted with his ministry often misunderstand Ravi by positioning him as a Christian intellectual or an academic, because he undergirded evangelism with a thoughtful apologetic addressed to the heart. And while he was certainly keen of mind and wit, in my experience Ravi showed relatively little interest in academic apologetics and never regarded himself as a Christian intellectual by vocation, though he encouraged others in those endeavors. Rather he was an evangelist first and foremost who creatively, winsomely and cogently presented the gospel, in both speech and print, in the light of the questions, doubts, fears and illusions of a fallen humanity. One vital key to Ravi’s success was his desire and ability to truly listen to people’s questions in a troubled and apostate era and seek to get to the heart of the human longings expressed within them. He would frequently ask, what is the deepest question behind the question that people long to be answered.
Ravi was a masterful storyteller, frequently wrapping the moral argument for God in a powerful and vivid word picture of a conversation or experience he’d had somewhere in the world. His stories were always human stories, and his sensitivity to people’s brokenness regularly shone through. His Indian heritage also enabled him to use the universal language of story in powerful ways around Asia, the Middle and Far East, giving him a global appeal. His usefulness to God and the kingdom, like a shooting star burning brightly for nearly four decades, is hard to overstate. The challenges for his family in these intense years and the impact on his health of a gruelling and unrelenting schedule provide both an example of sacrifice but also reflective moment for examining the complexity of faithfully serving the Lord and what it takes to balance kingdom-life priorities biblically.
I will always remember Ravi as an immensely gifted, gracious and faithful father in the faith – a very fallible human figure, with foibles and failings like the rest of us, having feet of clay. But above all I will remember him as a devoted servant of Christ and friend from whom I learned so much in the vital years of my own development. His warm heart, keen insight, sense of humour, generous spirit and passion for the kingdom which I experienced, not just from the platform but around the table, on the plane or train or in an armchair in the hotel lounge after a busy conference will remain with me the rest of my life.
See you in the resurrection dear Ravi. The fulness of the kingdom lies ahead.