There is a place you can go in the world to learn about evangelism. It is a place unlike any other I have found, where the beauty of God’s creation and the darkness of humanity’s sinfulness stand in such stark contrast to each other. It is a place where evangelism is the focus of the conversation three hundred and sixty five days a year, and where Christians can talk about, observe, and practice sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ. The place is Key West, Florida.
The venue is Keys Presbyterian Church, a small and always struggling little congregation of the OPC. Let me set the scene for this venture into evangelism. While it could be in New York’s Central Park, or in the park in your own town, tonight it is at a boat dock called Mallory Square in Key West. Tourists from the cruise ships pour onto the streets to eat and shop and then stand side by side with locals and other vacationers to watch the sun set over the Gulf of Mexico with cheers and celebration. Amid the arts and crafts exhibitors, street performers, food carts, and general merriment, some pause to listen to a thin, bearded man speak about God, sin, the Bible, Jesus, and repentance. Three nights each week for the past twenty-six years, from two hours before sunset until two hours after sunset, he has been faithfully preaching the gospel at the Sunset Celebration, where the Gulf of Mexico meets the Atlantic Ocean.
The man on the pier is the Rev. William V. Welzien, pastor of Keys Presbyterian Church—better known to the locals as “Bible Bill.” Now a sixtytwo-year-old grandfather, Bill grew up in Chicago during the hippie movement.
After graduating from high school, he traveled the world with no money to find adventure and discover himself. For more than two years, he moved from place to place as a free spirit, looking for answers and experiences. But in his travels he repeatedly encountered obnoxious but well-meaning Christians, who told him he would find the answers he was looking for in a relationship with Jesus Christ.
Finally, at a desperate moment in his travels, God gloriously saved him, and Bill spent the first months of his Christian life being discipled at an evangelical church in Jerusalem. His conversion story is a powerful one that is still featured on the Pacific Garden Mission radio drama series Unshackled.
Then it was home to Chicago, where he began to study at Moody Bible Institute. During his studies at Moody, his teachers noticed that he had a steel-trap mind and remembered everything he read in the Bible, and also that he had a natural inclination to tell everyone he met about Jesus Christ. Soon he was leading Moody gospel teams. One of those was a visit to a homeless ministry in Key West. An offer was waiting for him to take over that ministry when he graduated.
But by the time Bill and his young family arrived in the Florida Keys, the ministry that drew him there had all but evaporated. He was left with an apartment to live in, a handful of supporters to help pay the bills, and a ministry he would have to develop on his own from scratch.
As he walked the streets of the city, he discovered that nearly everyone in town would visit the Sunset Celebration at least once or twice a week. So with the help of friends from Open Air Campaigners, he devised a gospel presentation and became one of the “performers” on the pier. Over the next two or three years, his presentations got deeper and fuller as he learned to appreciate and incorporate the crisp truths of the Reformed faith. You can find several of his YouTube videotaped messages at Keys-Christians.org.
It is always a thrilling experience to stand shoulder to shoulder in the crowds that throng the pier as he introduces Jesus and God’s plan of salvation to people of all walks of life and of every lifestyle imaginable. It is equally thrilling to watch him spend hours after a message answering questions, handling objections, and using his knowledge of the Scriptures to allow God to speak to them directly from his Word.
Bill is rarely alone when he stands to deliver his message. Others from his church come out to support what he says and the God he represents. In fact, that is how I got to know him. Back in 1989, he called the OP offices to inquire about what he could do with the group of followers who had gathered around him, many of whom were converts from his preaching. “We meet together on Sundays to study God’s Word and to praise him and pray — I think we have a church,” said Bill. And since that time, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church has had a warm and continuing relationship with the man and the group that God raised up around him.
With his steel-trap mind now focusing on Reformed theology, he was welcomed as a ministerial member of the Presbytery of the South in 1990. For more than a decade, he has been a member of their Candidates and Credentials Committee and is their Bible examiner who quizzes prospective ministers on their knowledge of the Scriptures.
God has done amazing things with this evangelist and the ever-changing group that gathers around him. With the help of the OPC Loan Fund, he provided them with a two-story office building at mile marker 10 on US Highway 1, which they converted into a first-floor worship and classroom area and a second-floor apartment for the Welziens and their nine children. Then with bountiful, unsolicited gifts, the group was able to pay off the mortgage on their property, build a home for their pastor and his family, and convert the second-floor apartment of their “Bible Center” into a dormitory for groups and individuals who want to learn about evangelism and help with the ministry.
Groups from more than one hundred churches have stayed at the Bible Center, studied evangelism with Bill Welzien, and gone with him to the pier to support the preaching ministry and engage in gospel conversations with those whose interest is piqued by the presentation. And more than two dozen pastors have spent time as guests of the Bible Center to learn the art of street preaching and the winsome style of confrontational evangelism that Bill Welzien has developed.
No one knows how many lives have been changed by this unique ministry. But many of those who have heard the gospel at Mallory Square have gotten back in their cars or onto those cruise ships and have returned home to Iowa, Montana, Maine, or New Jersey with new hearts. They have found their way into evangelical churches. And they want that now-balding evangelist to continue to preach the gospel at the pier. So an organization called Keys Evangelistic Ministries was formed to receive their gifts and to keep this work of evangelism going. Together with Keys Presbyterian Church, they partner to allow the small congregation to have a half-time pastor and to keep a half-time evangelist down at the pier sharing the life-changing message of the gospel.
The author, Ross Graham, is the retiring general secretary for the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension and the president of the board of Keys Evangelistic Ministries.