(Today, Billy Graham went to be with Jesus. I wrote this article three years ago. I repost it here now as my tribute to the man and his legacy.)
Most of us have never known a world without Billy Graham.
Graham came to international prominence in the historic Los Angeles Crusade in 1949. So if you are 75 today, he was already famous when you were just ten years old.
Billy is 96 now. His crusade days are over. But his legacy stills looms large.
Personally, aside from members of my family and Jesus himself, no one has had a longer or stronger impact on my life and ministry than this man whom I’ve never had the privilege of meeting.
Many of us can say the same thing.
Last month, my wife and I visited the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, North Carolina. It’s down-home and simple, even corny at times, yet always done with understated excellence. A fitting tribute.
As we walked through the exhibits, I was struck by the realization that every Christian, especially everyone in ministry, can learn several lessons from the life of this humble servant whose life still impacts the world.
Especially today, when it seems almost impossible to make a simple statement about faith without offending this or that ideological camp, Billy Graham stands tall as someone who set the standard for never compromising, but never causing unnecessary offense either.
As I ate a tasty, nutritious, modestly-priced lunch (of course) in the library’s cafeteria, I jotted down these 5 lessons we can all learn from the extraordinary life and legacy of Billy Graham.
1. We Can Be Innovative Without Compromising
Billy always capitalized on the latest technology and techniques to share the gospel. He used radio, television and movies in an era when many ministers were still referring to them as “tools of the devil”.
In his crusades, alongside the solos of George Beverly Shea and the choir led by Cliff Barrows, he featured musical guests as varied as Ricky Skaggs, DC Talk, Bill Gaither, Cliff Richard and Johnny Cash. His impact on music was so strong that he became the first non-musician to be inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1999.
He appeared on virtually every TV interview show there was, including The Tonight Show, Phil Donahue, David Frost and Larry King. He was even on The Woody Allen special and Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.
Today it seems like every minister who uses new technology, music or secular venues is criticized by fellow ministers. It’s hard to imagine anyone pulling off what Graham did for decades.
Even the photo I chose to use in this post is an example of that. Everyone likes to think of Graham in prayerful poses, but we need to remember that, in the heyday of his ministry, he posed for some ultra-cool photos with his good friend, strong Christian, but always the “bad boy” Johnny Cash. Can anyone imagine a minister posing for a shot like that with today’s country or pop equivalent without being denounced as a traitor to the gospel?
But Billy did it. Despite how avidly he embraced every possible new method, there was never any hint that Graham or his message were compromised or that he was just following the latest fad.
2. We Can Be Straightforward Without Being Rude
Billy Graham’s presentation of the gospel has always been as direct as a laser. But, unlike many who strive to follow in his footsteps, he never came across as strident, condescending or rude. Graham is proof that taking a strong stand for the truth of the Gospel does not have to push people away.
Jesus was a friend of sinners. So was Billy Graham.
3. We Can Have Excellence Without Extravagance
If you’ve ever been to the Billy Graham headquarters, library or attended a crusade – all three of which I’ve been able to do – you were probably struck, as I was, by the extraordinary excellence that infuses everything, without any of it looking or feeling extravagant.
From the last half of the 20th century until today, it seems that many Christian leaders equate excellence with extravagance. Not all, but many. Graham’s example shows us that opulence, extravagance and over-the-top displays of ostentatious wealth are not the same as excellence. In fact, he always insisted that the gospel was presented best when the excesses were stripped away.
But he also knew that the simplicity of the gospel message is never an excuse for shoddiness, laziness or lack of preparation. We can present it with both excellence and simplicity. No one did both better than Billy.
4. We Can Receive Honor Without Ego
Has anyone received more personal honors or more fame for a longer stretch of time over the last century than Billy Graham? He has been on the list of the Most Admired People in America a record 57 times, almost double the number of times for the second place person (Ronald Reagan at 31 times).
Yet the character trait that may be used most often by anyone who has met him is “humble.”
In fact, he has always seemed uncomfortable with every honor he has received, preferring to deflect all attention off of him and onto the person of Christ instead. This was also evident at his library. As much as I left it admiring Graham, I was even more grateful for his testimony of exalting Jesus.
5. We Can Be Influential Without Getting Political
Billy Graham has met with 12 presidents in a row, from Harry Truman to Barack Obama. No other person comes close to that length or depth of influence.
But he’s never been perceived of as a political figure. In fact he has turned down numerous requests to run for high political office, including that of the U.S. president.
Perhaps more importantly than that, Graham was a leader in the civil rights movement. He insisted on full integration of every Crusade he held, including famously telling two ushers to remove the barriers between white and black sections in a 1953 crusade (in Chattanooga, Tennessee) or they’d have to hold the crusade without him.
He invited Martin Luther King Jr. to pray at his New York crusade at a time when that was about as scandalous a thing as a white man could do. According to the Graham Library exhibit, King referred to his partnership with Graham on integration by famously saying, “You stay in the stadiums, Billy. I’ll take care of the streets.”
The Next Billy Graham?
Billy will never conduct another crusade. And we’ll never see another ministry like his again.
But I’m not sad about that. I’m grateful. And I’m hopeful.
Despite today’s polarizing climate, both against the church and within it, the legacy of Billy Graham tells us that the simple truth of the gospel will always win out.
I’m not looking for the next Billy Graham.
Before Billy Graham came along, a lot of people were looking for the next D.L. Moody. But Billy Graham wasn’t the next D.L. Moody, he was just Billy.
So let’s stop looking for the next Billy Graham, or trying to be the next Billy Graham. There was only one. That’s the way it should be. Instead let’s ask, like Billy did, “what is God calling me to do? Who is God calling me to be?”
Then let’s do and be that.
Embrace every vehicle for spreading the gospel. Take a strong stand. Preach the gospel as God leads you, then cheer on others who preach it using new methods and technologies that you might not understand.
Stop grousing about ministries that look new and strange to you. Billy Graham’s ministry looked new and strange to many churches in the 1950s and ’60s (and ’70s, and ’80s…). But those critics have faded away, while Billy and his simple gospel message stand taller than ever.
No, you and I won’t have Graham’s worldwide fame or impact. But the greatest reward Billy will ever receive is the same one each of us should be striving towards…
“Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Copyright © 2018 by the author or Christianity Today.
Click here to read our guidelines concerning reprint permissions.