This past week, Billy Graham passed away at age 99. He was probably the most effective evangelist in all of church history. Over his long career he shared the gospel with over 215 million people. He was not a perfect man, but he was an example to Christians and Churches on what it means to have the heart of an evangelist and to be singleminded in our Great Commission to the world.
When Billy Graham first burst on the scene, many ministers struggled to understand his popularity. As a preacher his gifts were average, more or less. Yet his simple “John 3:16” message was drawing crowds by the tens of thousands. Naturally, Graham’s career was made possible by the labors of effective promoters, but there was much more to it than this. Graham’s career followed in the wake of the modernist/fundamentalist controversies, in which modernists solidified their place in the Northern Baptist and Presbyterian denominations. This resulted in an exodus of separatists groups from the mainline churches. This exodus gave birth to a handful of denominations, but also a large amount of congregations resolved to remain independent.
As a generalization, separatist groups fit into two categories. The first category were those that gracefully embraced their outsider status and focused on doctrinal purity (our denomination, the OPC, fit in here). The tendency for doctrinal purists is to talk amongst each other. The danger is that we loose sight of the “world” that remains uninitiated in our parochial concerns.
The second category were those that focused on “reclaiming America for Christ.” Former cultural insiders resented their loss of cultural influence. They nursed this bitterness and allowed it to grow. Some began to be influenced by other outside movements. Some of the loudest voices identified with various fringe conspiracy theories. At times these conspiracy theories were racist, anti immigrant, and anti-Semitic. Some were convinced that FDR’s blue eagle insignia was the Mark of the Beast and that progressives were part of a Communist plot to take over the world and destroy the Christian Church.
Against this backdrop we begin to understand why Graham’s “John 3:16” preaching was refreshing to so many. As a theologically conservative Southern Baptist, Graham demonstrated to doctrinal purists that the supernatural message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is still “the power of God unto salvation.” Graham’s example challenged them to lift up their heads and look out on the world to see that the fields are ripe for harvest. God’s desire is for his gospel to be offered to the wide world. At the same time, Graham’s example was a challenge to the culture warriors. Graham demonstrated that preaching the love of Christ was a more excellent way to influence culture. This way resolutely eschews fear and hatred.
Segregation grieved the evangelist. He sought to desegregate his crusades in 1952 or 1953. But it also grieved him that his audiences were overwhelmingly white. How could he build a bridge into minority communities? Graham invited Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to offer the opening prayer at Maddison Square Garden crusade on July 18, 1957. Billy Graham introduced King to the crowd, saying, “A great social revolution is going on in the United States today. Dr. King is one of its leaders, and we appreciate his taking time out of his busy schedule to come and share this service with us tonight.” Although Graham strived to be non-partisan, this was a provocative, political act. It was also a stand made necessary by the Great Commission. Graham was standing up for the theological truth that in Christ there is “neither Jew nor Greek.”
Graham’s personal politics leaned conservative. Graham acknowledged with regret that he allowed his social views to become an unnecessary stumbling block for the gospel. This is the lesson he learned after being burned by his close relationship with president Nixon. Graham confessed, “I came close to identifying the American way of life with the kingdom of God, then I realized that God had called me to a higher kingdom than America. I have tried to be faithful to my calling as a minister of the Gospel.” (2007). In the same interview Graham elaborated, “I’m all for morality, but morality goes beyond sex to human freedom and social justice. We as clergy know so very little to speak with authority on the Panama Canal or superiority of armaments. Evangelists cannot be closely identified with any particular party or person. We have to stand in the middle in order to preach to all people, right and left. I haven’t been faithful to my own advice in the past. I will be in the future.”
“We have to stand in the middle in order to preach to all people.” It reminds me of the words of another evangelist, the Apostle Paul, who wrote, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings” (1 Cor. 9:22-23).