ORLANDO, Fla. — Bill Bright, a shy Oklahoman who lived for years as a "happy pagan" before building Orlando-based Campus Crusade for Christ into one of the most effective worldwide evangelical organizations, died Saturday night at his home in Orlando, Fla., of complications of pulmonary fibrosis.
Mr. Bright, 81, had been ill with the debilitating lung ailment for more than three years, and in several recent interviews said he did not fear his approaching death.
"A Christian can't lose," he once said. "If we live, we go on serving him. That's an adventure. If we die, we're in heaven with him, and that's incredible."
With quiet dynamism, the diminutive, self-effacing Mr. Bright overcame his abhorrence of approaching strangers with the Gospel, leading Campus Crusade to a pre-eminent position in the religious world, respected across a broad spectrum of denominations.
"Bill Bright was, by any standard, one of the greatest Christian leaders of the modern era," said the Rev. Howard Edington, former pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Orlando, where the Brights were members. "Yet I have found to my great admiration that he was one of the most genuinely humble men I have ever known."
In 2001, as Mr. Bright's health began to fail, he passed the presidency of Campus Crusade to his chosen successor, the Rev. Steve Douglass.
"Not only have I lost a dear and lifelong friend in Bill Bright, but the world has lost one of its greatest visionaries and faithful servants of Jesus Christ," Douglass said.
Mr. Bright was born on his family's Oklahoma ranch in 1921, outside the small town of Coweta. He was one of seven children, with a mother who was very religious and a father he described as "a materialist and a humanist."
Growing up, Mr. Bright was "an agnostic, and just a happy pagan all through my high school and college years," he recalled. "I enjoyed life. I was fun-loving."
During World War II he moved to Los Angeles and started a gourmet food business.
"I found that I had some creative ability in marketing and packaging," he said. "I had a superior product and promoted it all over the country."
Mr. Bright was driving by the First Presbyterian Church in Hollywood, Fla., in 1945 when he felt an urge to stop.
"It was almost as though an invisible hand reached out and pulled me into the church," he said. "It was the strangest thing, even as I think about it now."
As in every other endeavor, Mr. Bright was systematic in his decision to devote his life to Christianity. "I was a spiritual illiterate, so I went to seminary for five years to learn everything I could about the Bible and Christ and religion and, in the process, God led me to put aside everything I'd worked day and night to build for something better."
His success in "witnessing" his Christian faith on the campus of the University of California, Los Angeles, speaking to fraternities and sororities, gave him the idea for Campus Crusade for Christ.
Although the product had changed, Bright's marketing skills never deserted him. He targeted campus leaders and athletes, figuring that they would be the most effective in spreading the Gospel to others.
The organization now has an annual budget of $450 million, a full-time staff of more than 26,000 and more than 225,000 trained volunteers.
Over time, Mr. Bright refined his approach as Campus Crusade spread from college to college and country to country, and moved beyond academia to prisons, the military, families and the inner city.
"My philosophy is designed to train leaders," he said. "We have thousands of leaders who have developed because they have been given responsibility."
Although best known for evangelizing on college campuses, Campus Crusade programs also include the circulation of 2.5 billion copies of a religious tract written by Mr. Bright, "The Four Spiritual Laws." Written in 1956, it has been printed in 200 languages.
Campus Crusade also produced a movie version of Jesus' life, called "The Jesus Film," viewed by more than a billion people in 200 countries and translated into 800 languages and dialects, according to the ministry.
In 1996, Mr. Bright won the Templeton Award for Progress in Religion, a sort of Nobel Prize for his field.
More than three years ago, when it looked like the pulmonary fibrosis would soon end his life, Mr. Bright pronounced himself ready. Although attached to an oxygen tank and largely confined to his home, he remained resolutely upbeat.
"I view this (dying) as truly one of the great experiences of my life," he said. "Adversity is not something to be feared; it's something to be embraced.
"I've had the most incredible life," Mr. Bright said. "I have been married to the most wonderful woman for 52 years."
Mr. Bright is survived by his wife, Vonette; two sons, Zachary and Bradley; sister, Florence Skinner; brother, Forest; and four grandchildren.
Compiled from reports by The Orlando Sentinel and The Associated Press.