One of America’s best known and best loved public speakers, Zig Ziglar, died last week at age 86, in Plano, Texas. There’s no shortage of salesman-turned-motivational speakers in our nation, but Ziglar’s life is worth thinking about for a number of reasons. Not the least of which is that he was among the last of a particular breed able to communicate both passionate faith and professional success in such winsome ways that untold millions were affected by his life. On news of his death, even rapper LL Cool J tweeted, “Zig Ziglar rest in peace. Your life inspired us. Thank you.”
Ziglar was born in 1926 in Yazoo City, Mississippi, the tenth of twelve children. His father died when Ziglar was six, plunging the family into years of financial struggles, an episode in his life that Ziglar later pointed to as formative for his appreciation for financial success. Following a military stint during World War II, Ziglar went into sales and after a series of successful positions wound up as Vice President of Automotive Performance Company in Dallas, Texas.
It was in Dallas that the most important event of his life occurred. At age 42, Ziglar accepted Jesus into his life. As he later put it, God gave him a heart transplant. From that moment on, Ziglar’s life followed an entirely new trajectory, one that would lead him from being just one more successful salesman to the spokesman for a new generation of Christian business people—men and women of faith who were serious about integrating biblical faith with successful careers.
His first book, “Meet You at the Top,” was published in 1975. Others quickly followed, all extolling the virtues of faith, integrity, hard work and the value of genuine relationships. It was a recipe for success that caught on throughout America and made Ziglar a cult hero for millions of people. His best-selling books continued—he wrote 30 in all—right up until his death.
Ziglar was certainly not the first public figure to view his spiritual convictions through the lens of American capitalism, but he was surely among the last to do it so unapologeticlly. The nation is different today, and his unique combination of evangelical zeal and passionate sales coaching no longer plays as well.
In the decades following World War II, the nation’s evangelical churches boomed right along with the general economy. The more the nation prospered, the more the nation’s conservative churches prospered, too. That was Ziglar’s era. His message of personal success provided a clear counterpoint to their message of personal salvation. The two meshed very well. It was no accident that Ziglar was a member of First Baptist Church, Dallas, Texas and, later, Prestonwood Baptist Church, two of the nation’s best known mega-churches.
None of this is to criticize Zig Ziglar. I have nothing but admiration for him. He lived a long, faithful and fulfilling life. At the same time, like all of us, he was a creature of his age. And to understand not just his life but what his life tells us about our lives, it’s important to see the larger context.
It’s interesting to set Ziglar’s life alongside one of his Christian contemporaries, Chuck Colson, another notable Christian spokesperson who died earlier this year. The two of them were similar in many ways. Following college, Colson served as Captain in the United States Marine Corps. Later, he attended law school and became a practicing attorney but quickly gravitated to politics. Through the sixties, Colson held a number of political positions but wound up as Special Counsel to President Richard Nixon’s White House.
Caught in the Watergate scandal, Colson was sentenced to prison. But before beginning his sentence, he underwent a profound mid-life conversion to the Christian faith. Later, following his release, Colson’s life took a startling new direction: he founded the nation’s largest Christian ministry to prisoners, Prison Fellowship. Along the way he also became a Baptist minister.
Zig Ziglar and Chuck Colson were similar in a remarkable number of ways: self-made men; military backgrounds; the pinnacle of worldly success; mid-life conversions; passionately in love with Jesus; Baptists; articulate spokesmen for the faith; committed to lives of service to the Kingdom of God.
On one notable level though, the directions of their lives diverged, and here is where things get much more complex and interesting. Ziglar focused on the successful people of the world while Colson devoted his attention to the failures. I’m not saying that Ziglar was wrong and Colson was right. I’m simply making an observation that has great implications for the modern church and the circumstances of ministry in today’s environment.
Ziglar’s personal success stories reflected an ideal of American life that’s no longer the norm. While he focused on the spiritual underpinnings of success, much of his appeal—at least to many of his admirers—lay in the fact that if you got the spiritual part right, financial success would follow. There’s nothing wrong with that. Prosperity is a good thing not a bad thing. The issue, though, is that the economic and cultural realities of America in 2012 are substantially different from those of Ziglar’s heyday in 1980.
Chuck Colson’s perspective was different—although always grounded in the same Jesus as Ziglar served. Colson dealt with the poor, the desperate and those who didn’t fit into the American dream. The prisoners he served weren’t the winners in our nation, they were the losers. While Ziglar was hosting seminars in how to live well, Colson was trying to teach prisoners how to simply live.
As America's economy, culture and political climate continue to decline, it's worth noting that many more people today fall into Colson's field of vision than Ziglar's.
That sounds unfair and doesn’t really do justice to Ziglar’s warm, authentic spirit. But it does reflect accurately the set of expectations that surrounded him. Both he and Colson served the Lord—and served well—as they were led. It’s just that their lives went in such different directions that we should pay attention.
Still, Ziglar made an impact, a large one, when you weigh the facts of his life. Any witness for Jesus is valuable, and Zig Ziglar's witness was greater than most.