I was just 13 when I first heard Billy Graham preach. At his urging, back on that autumn day in 1959, I decided to give my life to Jesus Christ as my Lord and Saviour. It was the best decision I have ever made and so I have remained for ever thankful to God for Billy Graham.
William Franklin Graham was one of the world’s global citizens, but this week, at age 99, he died in his native state of North Carolina. He preached in more countries to more people than any other man in history. Amongst his preaching tours he visited Sydney three times (1959, 1968, 1979). On each occasion the gospel he preached affected thousands – changing individuals, families and communities. His was a global mission that affected local communities. It was a high-profile ministry that transformed the lives of little people.
In the media world of power and politics he was known for his relationship with Presidents. From Eisenhower to Obama every President met with Billy Graham. This brought positive public relations for both the President and Billy Graham. It also brought negative public relations because of his close association with Richard Nixon. But while Billy Graham widely used the public media and networked with people of influence – his life and mission were not about politics or power. It was always about Jesus and the way of salvation. He was concerned for the good of his nation, as he understood it – but his real concern was bringing Jesus to people and people to Jesus. As President Clinton is reported as saying: “When he prays with you…you feel he’s praying for you, not for the President”.
As a preacher, he became the model for evangelistic preaching for a generation. Sadly, we seem to have lost some of his model. He always aimed to bring people to make ‘a decision for Christ’. His preaching was peppered with “The Bible says…” and sought to make clear the way of salvation by the death and resurrection of Jesus. Each night he finished by inviting people to come forward to the front of the meeting as a public statement of their commitment to Christ. Thousands came forward for prayer, counselling and referral back to a supporting church in their locality. Technically, he spoke with an extraordinary combination of great clarity and incredible speed to huge audiences. He filled the old Sydney Showground with overflow to SCG next door. We listened, often in the rain, with only the aid of 1950’s sound equipment, as he spoke night after night for the best part of a month in each city.
As a man, Billy was first and foremost a Christian – saved by the same message that he gave his life to preach. His character was constantly under public scrutiny. Over nearly seven tumultuous decades he inevitably made some mistakes, which he himself acknowledged. But he did better than avoid scandal, he actually raised standards. In an age when Hollywood presented evangelists by Elmer Gantry, Billy Graham established new standards of financial transparency and accountability, sexual purity and marital faithfulness, and desegregated ministries and crusades. Social critics may have wanted him to do more, but his task was to preach Christ and allow the social impact to follow from people’s decisions for Christ.
People outside of Evangelicalism were astonished at Billy’s ecumenical impact. He united people across normal barriers because Evangelicalism is gospel rather than institutional centred. In the 1950’s the mainline Protestant churches were dominated by Cultural and Liberal Christianity. Evangelicalism was often spurned as low brow, anti-intellectual, emotionalism. Some denominational figures such as Sydney’s Anglican Archbishop Howard Mowll and some denominations such as NSW Union of Baptist Churches were evangelical, but by and large Evangelicals existed in the mainline churches, rather than leading them.
However, Billy Graham did not come as a Baptist but, ignoring inter-denominational ecumenism, he came in the name of non-denominational evangelicalism – to do what Evangelicals do best; evangelise. In so doing he not only reached the society with the gospel but also enabled Evangelicalism to withstand the late twentieth-century collapse of Cultural and Liberal Christianity.
However, the main impact of the Graham crusades was felt at the grass roots of our society rather than in the public domain. Certainly, many who made a decision for Christ, later fell away – but the long-term impact in the lives of individuals, families and churches can still be found across Australia. Half the students training at Moore College to become Ministers during the 60’s were converted at the ‘59 crusade. Nearly all the youth group I lead were converted in the ‘68 crusade. The church I pastored doubled in size during 1979, largely as a result of the that year’s crusade. At university I met a girl who, as a young teenager, was converted in 1959 listening to Billy Graham on a landline in Broken Hill. That’s how my wife became a Christian.