Message and Method
This article, from Graham's speech on the care of converts, originally appeared in the August 3, 1959 issue of Christianity Today.
A few years ago I was in Dallas, Texas, and we had a crowd of 30,000 to 40,000 people. I preached and gave an invitation and practically no one came forward. I left the platform a little bit perplexed and wondering what had happened. A saint from Germany put his arm around me and said, "Billy, could I say a word to you?" I said, "Yes." He said, "Son, you didn't preach the Cross tonight. Your message was good, but you didn't preach the Cross." I went to my room and wept. I said, "Oh, God, so help me, there will never be a sermon that I preach unless the Cross is central." Now, there are many mysteries to the Atonement, and I don't understand all the light that comes from that Cross. But to lift it up is the secret of evangelistic preaching.
Response to the Cross
Evangelism must seek the response of the individual. A lady said to me sometime ago, "You know, Mr. Graham, our minister is a wonderful person, but for the life of me, I don't know what he wants us to do." There are many people like that. Are we failing to explain those things that to us are elementary? What is repentance? How long has it been since you preached a sermon on repentance just as you would explain it to a group of children? Dr. Louis Evans, one of our great Presbyterian ministers, said that in, his preaching he found that the religious intelligence of the average American congregation is that of a 12-year-old. "I always talk to the people now as if they were children," he added. Dr. James Denney once said, "If you shoot over the head of your congregation, you don't prove anything except that you don't know how to shoot."
I've found that there is something powerful about using the language God used. And I go back to words like repentance and faith and the blood. Somehow the Holy Spirit makes it plain in simple terminology. That is what Christ did. When Christ preached, William Barclay says, he took his illustrations on the spur of the moment. He did not sit in a study and think them out. One day he saw a fig tree and used it as an illustration.
We make it so complicated. Jesus explained things so simply that the common people heard him gladly. Of course, the Pharisees missed it. The intellectuals failed to grasp what he was talking about. Many times the condition of our hearts governs the receiving of the message, as much as does the explanation.
I think that the evangelist must recognize that many factors lead to a person's commitment to Christ. I would go so far as to say I do not think I have ever led a soul to Christ. A pastor's sermon, a mother's prayer, an incident in battle—all these contribute to a process toward conversion. And those who will be converted in these meetings will be people who were not converted by the preaching of Billy Graham. I never claim that I lead anybody to Christ. I am just one in a series of many factors that bring people to this giving of themselves to the Savior.
People come in different ways. Lydia was led by her emotions, the Philippian jailer by his will, Paul by his conscience, and Cornelius by his intellect. I certainly do not say that all come the same way.
It seems to me that evangelism must avoid over-emotion. Years ago I found that I could work on the emotions of the congregation and get people to respond, but without tears of repentance. They were tears of a superficial emotion. People come to Christ by hearing the Word of God. However, emotion does have its place. You cannot imagine two young people in love kissing each other out of a cold sense of duty. And the evangelist cannot offer free pardon for sinners and forbid any reaction of joy. The dread of emotion in religious experience has gone to extreme lengths. Dr. Sangster says: "Some critics appear to suspect any conversion which does not take place in a refrigerator." In his little book Let Me Commend he goes on to say that "the man who screams at a football or baseball game, but is distressed when he hears of a sinner weeping at the Cross and murmurs something about the dangers of emotionalism hardly merits intelligent respect." Folks can sit in front of a television set and watch "Gunsmoke," or "I Love Lucy," and laugh and bite their fingernails off. But if there is any joy or tear or smile over religion—then we are to watch out for emotion. That is one of the devil's biggest laughs.