A pastor from Durham has sights on converting the world to Christ
Posted April 13
Updated April 15
Eighty-four national flags jut out from the back wall of King’s Park International Church in Durham. Each flag represents the nationality of a church member or a country where King’s Park engages in long-term ministry. Pastor Ron Lewis mentions his church’s international missions from the pulpit often. One week, when taking the offering, he notes: “This church is making an impact all across the world – China, the inner cities.”
This week, however, Pastor Ron isn’t preaching. Instead, he stands in the front row in blue jeans, a blazer, and a blue collared shirt. He has short, brown, combed-over hair that betrays just the slightest hint of gray.
As the 12-member gospel band blasts through a worship set, Ron bobs up and down, lifts his hands in the air and glances at his iPhone. His congregation likely understands. He’s probably checking in with his wife, Lynette, and their adorable twin daughters or his three grown sons, or the pastors at King’s Park’s Raleigh, or at his Chinese-language or Spanish-language locations; or his co-pastors at the multi-site New York City church he also leads.
Ron Lewis has borne much fruit, and his reach is growing. He and Lynnette were recently featured on the front cover of Charisma, a national Christian magazine.
Eventually, the music reaches a fever pitch. The band’s sanctified “woahs” float over the first 10 rows of parishioners seated in a semicircle on ground-level and up the steep slope of plastic, red-cushioned chairs in the back. The music fills the auditorium with ease. When the band sings “There’s an army rising up!” the congregation erupts with cheers. Apparently they’re the army.
When the final song ends, Pastor Ron saunters up to the pulpit. He welcomes his guests with news from King’s Park’s campus ministry’s weekend retreat: 20 students were baptized.
Senior Pastor Ron Lewis is a tough act for Senior Associate Pastor Reggie Roberson to follow. Reggie begins his sermon with a story about a village in India. There was a drought, and the local religious leaders had been sacrificing to all the many gods of the local religion, begging for rain to no avail. When a few missionaries showed up and screened a movie about Jesus to the villagers, it started raining. At the precise moment Jesus was nailed to the cross, the rain shifted from a gentle pitter patter to a thunderous downpour and the drought ended. The whole village erupted in cheers, and a mass conversion event followed.
As Reggie preaches, Ron looks on intently. He seems proud of Reggie and of Jesus. The whole village was converted, details be damned. At several points, the congregation applauds the unnamed missionaries. They helped evangelical Christianity triumph over the local religion, another victory.
When Ron takes the stage again, this time to give the benediction, it’s unsurprising that he launches into a story:
A few days ago, he was driving down the highway, talking with his son on the phone. He lost track of what he was doing and ended up going way too fast. Police lights flickered behind him. Fortunately, Ron and the officer ended up having “just a great conversation.” Pastor Ron didn’t get a ticket. Ron tells the congregation that before he went off on his way, he got out of his car and popped the trunk – not to prove that he didn’t have illegal substances, but to grab the officer a copy of Charisma.
“Now, folks, if that ain’t God’s favor, I don’t know what is.”
Pastor Ron and his church are set on converting everyone – police officers, Indians, the Chinese, Russian Jews – one sermon, mission trip and copy of Charisma at a time. Converting the world is an urgent task. It’s only by hearing the story of Jesus Christ and accepting him as Lord and Savior that one can escape the pits of hell and enjoy eternity in heaven. As long as people are getting converted, Ron and his congregation can take heart in knowing that they’re working hard as soldiers for God’s kingdom, and God’s kingdom always claims victory on its march through the kingdoms of men.
Ron’s ambition is not unprecedented. Pastors hailing from rural North Carolina have conquered the world before.
At the age of 16, a boy named Billy, the son of a dairy farmer, journeyed from his home just outside of Charlotte to a tent revival led by Dr. Mordecai Ham. Initially, Billy was put off by Ham’s assertion that he was a sinner, but eventually he came around and wound up a preacher.
The Rev. Billy Graham’s take on the gospel, which simplified the message of Christ to its bare minimum – if you admit you’re a sinner, ask for forgiveness, and commit to following Christ, he will give you eternal life –was accessible to all. By 1956, Graham’s message had spread across the US, and he set his sights on the globe, first through a six-city tour of India. On the final day of his largest ever crusade, in South Korea, Graham preached to a crowd of 1.1 million.
It seems impossible that a young American preacher could see a picture of Graham preaching to a million potential converts in an exotic land and not feel the overwhelming pull of American, world-changing ambition. Pastor Ron describes Graham as a “standalone hero to everyone.”
Ron was converted after leaving his home in Greensboro to study at UNC-Chapel Hill. He had no background in Christianity – his mother was Jewish – but a little old lady gifted him a Bible before he went away to school. It sat on his shelf until his curiosity got the best of him.
As he turned the pages, an obsession with Jesus Christ took hold, and he quickly found himself in need of guidance. He wanted to understand Christianity. He didn’t immediately look to celebrities like Graham. Instead, he turned to a Methodist pastor in his hometown of Greensboro who helped him along for a time.
Eventually, Ron found a new mentor: Rice Broocks, a campus minister at UNC. Like Graham, Lewis was unfettered by the traditional trappings of denomination and dogma. He admired Broocks because he was a powerful preacher, despite the fact that he was a part of the charismatic and controversial Maranatha Campus Ministries movement.
Now, as he seeks to lead his church in its quest to convert the globe, Ron reveres Graham. In a recent sermon, Pastor Ron reminisced about the times he and his brother mocked televangelists, only half-joking when he thanked God for not striking him down on the spot for laughing at Graham.
Throughout most of his career, Graham remained apolitical, serving as a spiritual advisor to politicians on either side of the aisle. Billy’s son, Franklin, however, makes headlines for his anti-Muslim, anti-LGBTQ+, and pro-Trump outbursts. Ron was recently invited to Franklin Graham’s office for a meeting with a state political leader. Ron insists they didn’t talk politics; he was only there to pray. Pastor Ron follows Billy’s example closely, refusing to pick a side when pressured by conservatives or liberals. Wrestling honestly and taking a conservative or liberal stance might alienate potential converts who disagree.
After President Trump announced his travel ban, Pastor Ron posted a new blog to his website titled “Syrian Refugee Opportunity.” It focused on Jordan Lewis Ministries’ (an evangelistic charity named after Ron’s deceased son) work in the Middle East, where “over 1000 refugees are meeting in hundreds of special Bible based discipleship groups spread across the region.” Last year, answering questions about House Bill 2 was difficult because Ron “just didn’t care about bathrooms.”
Whether employed as a copout to avoid honest discussion, or as the result of a genuine belief in the superiority of God’s kingdom, Billy Graham’s inoffensive, apolitical gospel is the fastest way to convert people around the world; Political beliefs, social issues, and the behavior of other Christians are prevented from influencing a potential convert’s decision about Christianity, regardless of the fact that a religion is almost precisely a collection of behaviors and beliefs about social issues. And, convincing people around the world to accept Christianity is Ron Lewis’ calling.