John Bisagno, Evangelistic Innovator and Pastor of Houston’s First Baptist Church, Dies at 84 After Cancer Battle

John Bisagno
SBHLA photo.

John Bisagno, an evangelistic innovator and longtime pastor of Houston’s First Baptist Church, died Aug. 5 in Nashville following a battle with cancer. He was 84.

During Bisagno’s 30-year tenure at Houston’s First beginning in 1970, the congregation grew from fewer than 400 to 22,000 members, Baptist Press reported in 1999. During that period, the church also baptized 15,000 people, gave $250 million to missions, relocated from downtown to its current location in west Houston and helped launch the Bible teaching ministry of Beth Moore.

Some 500 Houston’s First members entered full-time Christian vocations, including 100 international missionaries under Bisagno, according to BP.

President of the Southern Baptist Convention Pastors’ Conference in 1972, Bisagno was a frequent preacher at state Baptist evangelism conferences and the Pastors’ Conference. In 1990, he began supporting publicly the SBC’s Conservative Resurgence and nominated Morris Chapman for convention president.

But longtime friend Jimmy Draper said Bisagno’s greatest service to the SBC likely was his innovation in evangelism and ministry.

“He really was the leader in evangelism and soul winning and strategizing how to win people to Christ and create a culture where people were excited about seeing others saved,” said Draper, SBC Executive Committee ambassador and president emeritus of LifeWay Christian Resources.

Following an early career as a Dixieland jazz trumpeter, Bisagno was saved and called to ministry in 1952. He served as an itinerant evangelist for about a decade before accepting in 1965 the pastorate of First Southern Baptist Church in Del City, Okla.

First Southern averaged more than 1,000 in worship attendance under Bisagno’s ministry and pioneered the concepts of praise teams and praise bands, said Draper, who followed Bisagno as the church’s pastor. Many Southern Baptists were surprised when he headed for then-fledgling Houston’s First.

As a condition of his move to Houston, Draper said, Bisagno asked Houston’s First to pledge financial resources toward the Spireno — an acronym for “spiritual revolution now” — evangelistic campaign. The campaign involved assembly programs with evangelist Richard Hogue at 45 Houston middle schools and high schools followed by rallies with Gospel preaching. The campaign concluded with two and a half weeks of revival services at Houston’s First and the Sam Houston Coliseum.

The result: 4,011 professions of faith, BP reported in 1971.

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SOURCE: Baptist Press, David Roach