You could tell me a lot of stories of famous pastors who have failed. Let me tell you about the faithfulness of a man you’ve never heard of.
I first saw E. G. Von Trutzschler from afar in the fall of 1971. I was a young man of 16 years, and my life in San Diego was all about surfing. One day while driving to the beach with three other guys whose lives were equally about surfing, I offered my best friend a hit on the joint I had lit up. He picked that time to tell me, “I don’t do that anymore. I became a Christian.”
I was stunned. But I couldn’t deny the difference I was seeing in him, and he began to relentlessly invite me to hear the Christian guy who was responsible for his changed life.
A few weeks later, I walked into a cavernous room where about 750 other high school kids were sitting. To say it was awkward doesn’t come close. The “praise band” (a new term to me) did their thing and then sat down. I waited for the guy to stand a give his speech.
I was massively disappointed when my friend pointed to the man walking to the front and whispered to me, “That’s the guy.” Von, as we called him, was physically unimpressive, wearing thick glasses, and old (at least 40). There was nothing cool about him. I told myself he must really be funny, have great connection abilities—something—because his look wasn’t winning any points!
And then he opened his Bible, read a few verses, and started preaching God’s Word with a power and authority that made you sit still and listen. I heard of a God who punishes sin, sends people to hell, and doesn’t back off from his righteous demands. Von talked that way for about 15 minutes. Then he turned his biblical guns on the young men sitting there. (Von’s ability to draw young men was unique—well over half that group was male.)
I’d never had anyone talk to me like that. Von didn’t seem to care that he was obviously turning off a lot of people. The courage he showed was winsome to a kid who had too many adults pandering to him.
I decided that I’d come back and listen to him again, and I did. For more than six months, I came back every Wednesday night. Most of the time, Von didn’t share what I came to know as the gospel. But when he did share that message, it always went something like this:
What Christ did on that cross—there’s nothing you can do to add to it. You can’t work for it, earn it, or merit it. All you can do is fall on your knees, say “Thank you, God,” and accept it as the gift that it is. But you do need to understand that once you accept that gift, your life is over. You have no future, you have no rights. It’s all about him from that moment on, so think it through.
Once you accept that gift, your life is over. You have no future, you have no rights. It’s all about God from that moment on.
I loved and desired the first part of that message. Forgiveness—oh, how I needed it, and still do! But the second part—“Your life is over; it’s all about him.” That’s what kept me from accepting it during those six months. Until the Spirit of God wore me down and drew my heart to want Christ more than I wanted my reputation in school.
Von’s faithfulness in ministering for decades in an average church of about 300 to 400 people became legendary. For a season, the high school youth group grew to nearly 1,000 on Wednesday nights. And then, as the height of the Jesus movement faded, it lessened somewhat. But with Von it was never about the numbers.
“What are you doing with what you know now?” he would ask. “Who are you touching with Jesus’s love now? Are you reaching out to kids in school with no friends?” To young surfers who jealously guarded their reputations, Von seemed to have a secret mission to crush our cliques. (Matthew 25 with the sheep and the goats was a frequently quoted passage.) Slowly, the Spirit of God was conforming us to be lovers of people.
Von was committed to seeing his young people reach the world. I remember him clearly saying, “San Diego doesn’t need another youth pastor—I’ve got it covered! Get out of here!” He brought missionaries in to talk to us regularly, and he backed up their messages with his own encouragement to consider the mission field.
Along with many other young adults from that youth group, I took a missions application and with great fear and reluctance filled it out. For more than 20 years, my wife and I served in Papua New Guinea (PNG) among an unreached people group. My friends Paul and Blair also served in PNG, as did Lon, Jay, Ron, Dave, Scott, Sherri, and others. The best man at my wedding, Paul, was also from Von’s group. He has been in Indonesia for more than 40 years. So has Bob. Bill, Donna, Peggy, Jim, and Sue—all from Von’s group—served in the Philippines for more than 20 years. Kirk in Africa; Greg in Bolivia; Dave, Patty, Eddie, and Maggie in Mexico; Faith in Venezuela—the list goes on and on.
Kids from Von’s group have completed 16 translations of the New Testament, and Von’s spiritual grandkids are working on other translations.
The influence of this gifted, never-went-to-college man, who lived only to see young people come to Christ, goes on and on. Von was never married. He lived simply, even as grateful parents tried to shower him with gifts of thanks. He had many options—a super cool Datsun 240Z car being one of them—that he walked away from. But he would do nothing to jeopardize the authority God had given him to challenge “his kids.” For a long time, he lived in a trailer in the church parking lot, with an extension cord plugged into the church.
I could go on about the unique time it was, the unique location (Clairemont Emmanuel Baptist Church is about 25 miles from Mexico, enabling Von to bring us to Mexico weekly to feed and care for orphans), and the unique man that he was, but as I look back I know the key was the unique message Von had the courage to proclaim. A clear call to accept Christ as Lord caused many to walk away from the youth group. But those who stayed changed the world.
A clear call to accept Christ as Lord caused many to walk away from the youth group. But those who stayed changed the world.
Von had no biological children of his own. But his spiritual kids and grandkids in San Diego—or among the Iteri, Palawano, Gerai, Tarahumara, Yanomami, Sekadau, Lamogai, YembiYembi, Biem, Inalu, Siawi, and other tribal peoples—number in the thousands. The organizations started by Von’s kids—Caravans Ministries, International Action Ministries, and Radius International, among others—have touched thousands of lives.
Others knew him better than I did. He wasn’t a father figure to me; I had a dad. But he was a relentless conveyor of the truth of God’s Word and the folly of living for this world. He didn’t live for the present, and so he emboldened hundreds of us to do the same.
My thanks to Von, and to the Father who brought him into my life, is profound.