Will There Ever Be Another Billy Graham? I Hope Not
On February 21 Billy Graham passed away at the age of 99. It is estimated that he preached to more than 210 million people in over 180 countries. The numbers of people he spoke to through television and radio are incalculable. In 1996 the LA Times estimated that the crusade airing then on KTLA would reach a global audience of 2.5 billion people by the end of its 30-day run. No person in Christian history, including Jesus and the apostles, has shared the gospel with more people than Billy Graham.
On February 23 The Wall Street Journal ran a story with the headline asking the question, “Will There Ever Be Another Billy Graham?” Thomas Kidd has written an excellent article posted on the First Things website that echoes the sentiments of many.
No. There will never be another Billy Graham.
As Kidd points out, Billy Graham came at a unique time in American history in which television became the primary mover of media and the culture had a respect for Christianity. Billy Graham was uniquely gifted both in persona and preaching for such a time as this.
Things have changed. The media industry has fractured into a diverse collection of social and ideological networks all vying for people’s attention. In the current moral climate, the word evangelical no longer gets good ratings. I do not think Billy Graham could do what Billy Graham did in the current cultural context.
God used one man, Billy Graham, to reach millions with the gospel. Will it ever happen again? I hope not.
One man is not enough if we desire to reach millions in what’s now and especially in what’s next.
If God used one man to reach millions with the gospel, can you imagine the greater impact that millions could make by following the example of that one man? We do not need another Billy Graham. We need millions of them.
What was it about Billy Graham that God can use in the rest of us to preach the gospel to an even greater audience?
The most common word included in the headlines of America’s media outlets as they began to report on Billy Graham’s passing was the word humble. From Presidents to actors, from reporters to singers, from Catholics to Jews, they all describe Billy Graham as humble.
Grant Wacker of Duke Divinity School shares a story from approximately 2007 when he and his wife were able to visit Mr. Graham in his home.
"We found him sitting in his easy chair in his study. As soon as he saw us, he struggled to his feet and asked whether we would like some iced tea. After he settled back into the chair, his assistant said, 'Billy, Grant is writing a book about you.' Graham responded, ‘Why?’
The Bible is filled with verses about the paradox of humility. Humility is not weakness, but controlled strength. It is through the brutality of humility that Jesus is raised to a place where his name is "the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."
In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, it is the meek that shall inherit the earth. James 4:6 says that God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. On numerous occasions, the Bible affirms that humbling oneself is a powerful means to a God-given end.
In a social media-saturated society that is about likes and views, we are misguided to think that we need someone else who can garner Billy Graham’s popularity. What we need are millions of Christians with Billy Graham’s humility. Millions who are able to say something powerful, yet not be condescending. Millions who are able to carry on a conversation without engendering an argument. Millions who can do some really radical things like Mr. Graham did such as apologize, admit that you don’t have all of the answers, and be transparent.
The Pastor to Presidents also had an enormous impact on prisoners. In fact, Billy Graham was buried in a pine casket built by inmates in Louisiana’s infamous Angola Prison. The casket was lined with material from mattress pads and comforters bought at Wal-Mart. In total, the casket was worth about $215.
If God used one humble man to make an impact from Pennsylvania Avenue to one of America’s worst prisons, imagine the difference it would make in our current culture if millions of God’s people exhibited Christ-like humility.
In 1948 Billy Graham was 31 years old. He was transitioning from a Youth For Christ evangelist into running his independent evangelistic association. While holding a crusade in Modesto, California Billy Graham met with traveling partners George Beverley Shea, Grady Wilson, and Cliff Barrows. They drafted an agreement that if followed would help protect each of them from looming temptation and preserve the integrity of the ministry they were seeking to build. A written document was never produced, but the four principles of the agreement have been widely circulated.
The pact included things such as integrity in reporting crowd sizes and the numbers of people responding in meetings, measures of financial accountability, honesty in publicity, and sexual behavior. Each man pledged that he would not travel or be alone in a room with a woman other than his wife.
The breach of such things as were mentioned in the Modesto Manifesto have been the reason countless preachers and evangelists have fallen during the 60 years Billy Graham’s ministry reached masses of people for Christ. What if more had taken morals as seriously as did Mr. Graham?
Christianity has entered an interesting era in America. Casting off the restraint of the church’s apparent legalism in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s where there was a lack of grace, Christians seem to have entered a new place of grace in which there is no moral restraint. The guy guzzling beer the pub on Saturday night will be leading worship at Re____________ Church on Sunday afternoon. The pastor who tells us to live simply and radically on mission does so under the cover of fabricated fog beneath a half million dollar light and laser display. Church leaders make impassioned pleas to stop sex trafficking but make plans to meet together on Sunday night to watch a movie filled with gratuitous sex.
If nothing is too far for us there is no difference in us. The foolish thing about current Christianity is that perhaps we have become too obtuse in our liberty to realize that Jesus has called us to morality. If you and I need to be reminded of Jesus’ moral expectations for our lives, ask a person who is not a Christian. They can articulate perfectly what our problem is. We major on forgiveness and have forgotten that we are also called to obey His commands.
The call of Christ is to come out of the world and redeem it. Billy Graham was effective at this not because he was relevant, but because he was different. People respected what he said because he demonstrated the power of a life set apart for Christ.
Grace is important, but so is obedience. One cannot truly enjoy grace unless it leads to obedience. In James 1 we are called to be doers of the word. Those who do not are likened to a man who looks at his appearance first thing in the morning and changes nothing. He goes through the day looking disheveled. Everyone notices it but him.
But the man who looks at his appearance in the mirror, which James here calls ironically “the law of liberty” and changes himself accordingly is blessed. This little epistle teaches us a critical lesson. There is no liberty unless there is law.
We must have a passion for the gospel, but if we do not take Christ's commands seriously we have no hope of reaching our culture with the gospel. If one man lived a principled, obedient life and reached millions, imagine what millions could do if we did not just claim grace but kept the commands?
In 1949 Billy Graham held a crusade in Los Angeles, CA. It was scheduled for three weeks. It was extended to eight. On the first night, there were about 6,000 people huddled under a tent which was referred to as the “canvas cathedral.” On the final day of the meeting, nearly 92,000 people filled a stadium. In the days leading up to the crusade, there were over 1,000 prayer groups meeting throughout the city. It is estimated that 350,000 attended the crusade and that more than 13,000 people came to Christ. It was during this crusade that Louis Zamparini, former Olympic athlete and subject of the recent movie and book Unbroken, was born again.
In response to the crusade, publisher William Randolph Hearst sent out a two-word telegram to newspaper editors across the country that read, “Puff Graham.” It was a directive to cover the story of this rising star of a preacher in LA. It is commonly believed that it was this welcome publicity that put Billy Graham in the national spotlight.
In July, preceding the November LA meeting, Billy Graham was in Winona Lake, Indiana with a group of evangelists from Youth For Christ. The night before their week-long crusade in Winona Lake began, about 50 men met in the Rainbow Room of the Westminster Hotel for prayer. The prayer meeting went on for hours. Early the next morning, around 3 a.m., Armin Gesswein, a Lutheran pastor and seminary professor stood in the middle of the room and called attention to the fact that Billy Graham would soon be going to Los Angeles.
Billy Graham stood with Bible in hand and knelt in the front of the room. He read from Joel 3:13 and 14,
"Put in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe. Go in, tread, for the winepress is full. The vats overflow, for their evil is great. Multitudes, multitudes, in the valley of decision! For the day of the LORD is near in the valley of decision."
The men surrounded Billy and began to pray fervently for the coming crusade. The Spirit of the Lord fell mightily upon the men, particularly on Graham. Many attribute Graham’s success to early publicity, but Graham always pointed to prayer.
On my weekly Facebook Live show Biblical Conversations on Culture, Scott Lenning, who worked with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association for 19 years, said that when Billy Graham would call into his team he would not ask about fundraising, plans, or progress on preparation. He would first ask about how many people in the city were mobilized for prayer.
Prayer is a basic discipline of the Christian life. Any Christian can pray. Every Christian should pray. The Bible constantly calls us to pray. If God moved so mightily through one praying man, imagine what God might do if millions of us were calling upon the same Almighty God that those men petitioned in the Rainbow Room of the Westminster Hotel in Winona Lake, Indiana.
The funeral service for Billy Graham was a fitting reflection of his life and ministry. It was a simple, powerful, presentation of the gospel. Scott Lenning shared with me another powerful statement about Billy Graham. He said, “If you ever heard Mr. Graham speak, you had to consider your salvation.”
In ever sermon Billy pointed people to the reality of their sin. The penalty of God for sin. Their need for salvation and the fact that Jesus Christ is the only way to God.
When it came to preaching the gospel, Billy Graham did what others are fully capable and called of doing. If God used one man to share this powerful, but simple saving message that resulted in scores of people coming to Christ, imagine what may happen if millions of people did the same thing. What if millions helped millions more consider their salvation?
So, will there ever be another Billy Graham? Probably not. I hope not.
I am not trying to be crass as I say this. I understand how God can use one man to stir us all. If there were another Billy Graham, I assure you I would welcome him, but I am not waiting for him. My hope is not that there would be another Billy Graham, but that there would be millions of them who come after him.
Why not me? Why not now?
I can seek to be humble, moral, prayerful and share the gospel as often as I can now. Imagine what may happen if millions of us did not wait on that next man, but we seek rather to do what the last man did - humbly, morally, and prayerfully share the gospel with our audience.
What was your experience with Billy Graham? Did you ever meet him, attend a crusade, or watch him on television? What did you learn from him? How did his life and ministry inspire you? Please share.