Billy Graham’s death today at the age of 99 gives me a moment to pause and reflect on his influence in American Christianity. I’m not alone as I see so many people expressing both sorrow at his passing and memories of his great accomplishments.
Graham’s influence can partly be attributed to the times in which he lived. His crusades persuaded many people to follow Jesus Christ both in person and through television. He had a simple way of preaching the basics to the everyday person in such a way that it could be received. Though he sat with Presidents and celebrities, he never seemed to let that become his purpose. From the excellent obituary in the New York Times we are reminded about the vast influence of Dr. Graham:
In 2007, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association estimated that he had preached the Gospel to more than 215 million people in more than 185 countries and territories since beginning his crusades in October 1947 in Grand Rapids, Mich. He reached hundreds of millions more on television, through video and in film. (Link below)
Confession. My experience with Billy Graham isn’t all wine and roses. I grew up in a faith family that often scoffed at Graham’s crusades and the multitude of people who poured forward to pray for salvation. (To be honest, my tribe is so independent that I’m not saying ALL of them felt that way. But I heard many criticisms, corrections, and dismissals.) That sounds really harsh and I wouldn’t say it just that way but after reading some Facebook posts from some who still cling to that perspective I know it’s still true. Yes, it is my conviction that the Bible teaches that our salvation experience with God includes baptism that washes away sin. Graham invited people to say a “sinners prayer” to be placed in a right relationship with God. We differ. But somehow for me, that doesn’t translate into dismissing the greatest evangelist of my generation. Billy Graham was an evangelist. The work of discipleship and growth in God’s will was left up to the teaching and ministry of local churches. I am pretty sure he knew that he had one job: bring people to Jesus.
– Admiration for Billy Graham –
My admiration for him has grown over the years. I admire his strong convictions about the Word of God and the passion for reaching out to the lost that characterized his efforts. I admire him for his high moral character and faithfulness to God, even as other televangelists crumbed into the morass of greed and sexual sin. I admire the way he had a connection with his audience. Stadiums full of expectant hearts awaited him during the crusades. Local churches were invited to participate and to follow up with the respondents. Everything I can see about his efforts point to Jesus Christ and not Billy Graham. I respect that.
I don’t think there could be a Billy Graham today. The advent of the internet widens the field of influence among many teachers and preachers. The spirit of division and hatred that has a big influence over our country has even influenced our churches. Though as I noted earlier there were always critics among the churches, today I think that the cynics, punsters, and self-appointed saviors would be relentless in the attempt to destroy his efforts. The fact that there is no Billy Graham-like figure today demonstrates the truth of the matter. The televangelists who draw large-scale audiences today mostly do not resemble the humble and Bible-centered approach that Graham took.
My appreciation for Billy Graham is not based on total agreement with him on everything he said and taught. But he brought awareness of God’s presence and a positive influence on our country through some very difficult times.
My guess is that the current generation if they have heard of Graham at all, will think of him as a relic of the past. Maybe so, but our world was better off because Billy Graham loved Jesus Christ and stood before masses to beg them to follow Him through books, television specials, and in crusades.
God bless all the voices that keep calling us to look to Jesus … that call us out of the world of darkness into His marvelous light … they remind us that out here hope remains. JED