In November 1979, while I was a 4-month old sucking down baby milk, Bob Dylan was getting his first taste of the milk of newfound faith in Jesus Christ. Dylan was about to shock the world and confuse and offend most his fanbase with his first tour as a “born again” believer. His next tour would showcase his overtly gospel-themed songs from his new Slow Train Coming (1979) album.
In his book Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life (2017), Scott Marshall shares a story of Dylan’s preparation for his fourteen night stand in San Francisco in November 1979. Dylan had just hired a personal assistant named Dave Kelly to be his spokesperson during this period as he faced the backlash of going public with his new faith. Kelly shares the following story that is one more painful reminder of the devastating effect a divided church can have on would-be rich ministry opportunities:
“While we were in Santa Monica prepping for the two weeks [of concerts] in San Francisco, Bob asked me if I could call the churches in San Francisco. He’d see we had a youth group and an outreach group at the Vineyard so he basically said:
“Why don’ you call the churches and talk to the pastors and organize it so the groups come out to the shows. They could stand outside and give them literature and talk to them about the church and invite them to their church because I’m just going to be there and then gone. It’d be great if some of these people that are interested in knowing about the gospel could be invited by these youth groups back to their churches and services; they could do the follow up. Every night I’m going to preach the gospel to these people and some of them are going to want to follow up. So why don’t we have the church groups outside, stand outside, and some of them we give free tickets, but mainly we want them out there when we finish so they can talk to people and recruit them for their denomination and we can give them all a fair share.”
So I said, “Okay, but churches don’t quite work like that.’ And he said, ‘How many are there?’ I said there’s probably at least fourteen major denominations and he said, “Well, give each of them a night; each church gets their own night.”
So it was like the Baptists Monday; give the Presbyterians Tuesday; give the Pentecostals Wednesday, etc. So I called them up and I got through to several churches….And none of them wanted to do it if any of the others were going to be doing it…None of them wanted to do it unless they were the only one doing it; they didn’t want to have just one night. They didn’t want to share with the other churches. It was a terrible testimony to Dylan. It was devastating to him, really. He was disgusted by it. He could not believe they would really think like that because that’s so unchristian. He couldn’t believe they would leave these kids unattended because of their ego or their own sense that they were right and those other guys were wrong. It was the clearest I’ve seen of denominational separation, of how deadly it is. I’d seen a bit of it before but I’d never seen as much as that. It was really bad.
And so, you know, the half of it was, instead, every cult that ever made San Francisco its base, and most cults have have made San Francisco their base, had their group standing outside. I mean, they were going to be there anyway, I’m sure, but there were no Christians groups out there.”
What a sad, sad story. Jesus must have wept again, recalling his prayer for a unified church in his last hours on earth:
“I pray … that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity” (John 17:21-23).