SAN ANTONIO, Texas Wide-open Texas roadways. Cerulean skies brushed by bitter winter breezes. A young man in a pickup. The radio blaring. All the ingredients for a really bad Country Western song.
For Max Lucado it was the making of spiritual revival.
Lucado, on Christmas break from college, was delivering machinery parts across the Panhandle State; his pace somewhere between tootling and determined. And, in an era three decades before the advent of satellite radio, Lucado had the AM radio tuned into the only station from which he could receive a signala Christian station broadcasting sermons.
In the isolation of the pickup cab, Lucado listened as a man, whose name he never caught, preached that God forgives a rebellious heart and desires for His children to return home to Him.
"I had to pull over and compose myself," said Lucado, at that time his parents' own prodigal son.
It had been years since Lucado adopted his parents' faith while still a young child. As a teen and young adult he developed a pattern of rebellion that included excessive alcohol use, womanizing and being generally troublesome.
To get their youngest child back into the fold, his parents nudged him with an ultimatum: If they were going to pay for his education, Lucado must enroll in a Christian college. During four semesters of mandated Bible courses at Abilene Christian Universitywhere the young Lucado found professors who genuinely cared about their studentshis rebellious shell began to crack.
"That really is what awoke me," he said of Abilene Christian University.
Three months after that roadside encounter, Lucado finally abandoned his reliance on his parents' faith by choosing to make it his own.
He hasn't glanced back. In the mid-'80s Lucado and his wife, Denalyn, moved to Brazil where they served as missionary church planters. Five years later they were back in the states where Lucado accepted a post as pastor of Oak Hills Church in San Antonio. The 90-year-old church now boasts 6,000 members. He's also a popular speaker and prolific writer, his books selling more than 50 million copies in 28 languages.
Starting at the beginning
Yet, 30-plus years into the ministry, Lucado finds himself starting all over again at the entryway to his faith.
"For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believed in Him would not perish, but have eternal life. John 3:16
With more than 60 books bearing his name, Lucado has just released a new one dedicated to the cornerstone Scripture of the Christian faith, "3:16: The Numbers of Hope," based on John 3:16.
"I think it's the greatest sentence ever written in the history of mankind," Lucado said in a phone interview from New York where he was doing promotional work for the book. "It embodies so much. The verse gives everyone something. It strengthens the faith of Christians and it can create the faith of non-Christians. Every word in John 3:16 proves that we are all known and loved by God."
Like most of his books, this one began as a sermon series at Oak Hills. Even though the building-block verse found in John 3 is equivalent to an elementary primer for Christians, Lucado found an avid audience for the series.
"The church responded so well to this passage," the pastor said, adding that he was stunned to discover in a subsequent search of book indexes on the topic of John 3:16 that only two projects have been published over the past 50 years.
"When an author finds a great topic that he thinks is underrepresented, he jumps on it," Lucado said.
So do Christian retailers.
Even before the book's release, it has spawned an enormous multiproduct campaign, with a marketing budget in excess of $1.5 million dollars, said Heather Adams, director of publicity for Thomas Nelson, the book's publisher.
"There was something about this idea of 3:16 that, early on, it stopped being a book, and it became a cause," Lucado said. "This passage is at the core of what we believe. It's the epicenter of Christianity."
Through at least eight different partnerships the 3:16 concept will be featured on jewelry created by Santa Ana-based Bob Siemon Designs, inspirational greeting cards by Hallmark-owned DaySpring, apparel by Kerusso, evangelism tracts by Good News Publishers, The Stories of Hope DVD and Songs of Hope CD by Indelible Creative Group, the "3:16 The Church Experience," Bible study by LifeWay Church Resources, the "3:16 The Numbers of HopeThe Worship Musical," through LifeWay Worship Music Group and promotional tools from Vista-based Outreach.
A highlight of the project will be a Palm Sunday simulcast, which falls on March 16. Yep, 3/16. A televised 3:16 special is also planned for Easter Sunday.
Lucado said he is hoping the book and its related resources will prompt 316 million encounters worldwide, which he describes as "face-to-face" visits between a human being and John 3:16. Several of the products will be released simultaneously in a dozen languages.
The Texas pastor describes the book as a "word-by-word" entryway into the Christian faith, something he believes is essential for America's culture.
"I'm hoping this elevates the conversation to a national level and we would once again talk about spiritual things," the former missionary to Brazil said.
Grace, hope and truth
Just as many of his books have centered on grace and hope, this one does as well, but don't look for Lucado to sugarcoat the truth. He's clear on the single-path-to-God doctrine pivotal to the Christian faiththrough Jesus Christ and Him alone. Lucado said he understands that concept isn't politically correct, but his job, as a pastor and writer, is to disseminate the truth.
"The blurring of the line is unhealthy and it's dishonest," Lucado said firmly, but in the tone of a gentle shepherd whose desire is to deliver hope, not condemnation.
Christians, he added, have no reason to apologize for their faith or the Scriptures.
"A pluralistic society has no place for eternal punishment, so consequently, hell is removed from the discussion," he said. "It's a heavy, heavy topic. However, to be honest to John 3:16, we have to acknowledge it."
At the same time, Lucado appears compassionate when he discusses the scope of those words.
"I don't believe hell is a place for people who seek to do good and fail, but it's for people who seek to reject God and succeed," he said.
He said the Lord listens to someone who denies His existence daily for only so long before he He honors their wishes and leaves them to fend for themselves.
"God honors that request, and on the day of death there will be a separation," Lucado said.
The man called "America's Best Preacher' by "Reader's Digest" is equally emphatic about the eternal hope available for those willing to hear and accept the truth found in John 3:16.
"Christianity is distinctive; it's different," he said. "Jesus blazed a trail for all of mankind. In other religions it's 'You work and God will save you.' In Christianity, 'Christ did the work and you know that you are saved.' "
Lucado admits the task to reach so many people is daunting, even with the vast products available through the campaign. But this is also the same man whose name has appeared on the CBA, the trade association for Christian retailers, hardcover best-seller list every month for more than a dozen years.
"We live in a world of four billion people," he said. I don't think we'll ever do too much with 3:16 … if we do, may God be praised."