Billy Graham’s Houston-Gulf Coast Crusade

It wasn’t a bad performance, even for Billy Graham. On the day his Houston crusade began one Sunday last month, Graham had breakfast with the Houston Oilers football team, and then conducted the team’s chapel service. That afternoon the Oilers faced the Oakland Raiders. They trailed by a touchdown late in the game, when tight end Mike Barber, one of the team’s enthusiastic Christians, caught the game-winning pass in the end zone. The pass was thrown by substitute quarterback John Reaves, his first start since 1978. Reaves is also an outspoken Christian, whose response to reporters after the game was, “Praise the Lord. I just put faith in Jesus. I was saying prayers the whole game. I’m going to celebrate tonight by going to church.”

It did not hurt any that Barber and Reaves were in all the papers on Monday since Barber, by long-standing arrangement, was scheduled to give his testimony at the Graham crusade on Monday night.

Chill winds and rain kept the crowd at Rice Stadium to 14,000 the first night of the crusade, but attendance built steadily during each of the eight nights, growing to 55,000 on the final Sunday. Inquirers responding to Graham’s salvation invitations numbered 8,312. Contributions more than covered the $905,000 cost of the crusade, and the additional money will be used to finance the cost of the crusade telecasts, which are planned for next spring.

Graham expressed some disappointment in the extent of participation by local church organizations. Postponing the crusade a year was considered, but the evangelist’s schedule was too crammed for that, and so preparations went ahead.

If there is an American city that needs to hear Graham’s message, it is Houston. The nation’s fourth largest city and its number-one boom town, Houston is plagued by rising crime rates, a growing homosexual population, and the ills of big-city life.

Louie Welch, president of the Houston Chamber of Commerce, delivered some decidedly un-chamberlike words in his welcoming address on the crusade’s opening night. He said, “Dr. Graham, since your last visit here [in 1965] we’ve gotten meaner … there is a greater tolerance toward the misuse and abuse of sex, and drugs, and all the things that have been destructive through man’s long and checkered history.… We need the cleansing influence of Christianity, the moderating salt of the earth.”

Some 600 ministers from 45 denominations attended the School of Evangelism held daily during the crusade week. The Graham team encourages participation from all Christian denominations, not only those in accord with the team’s creedal beliefs, so there were some ministers in the audience unaccustomed to hearing strong messages on the need for soul-winning preaching.

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One of those messages came from John Bisagno, whose First (Southern) Baptist Church in Houston has exploded in growth since his arrival 12 years ago. His noontime Bible studies in a downtown storefront are jammed by businessmen.

According to Bisagno’s speech to the pastors, the following are keys to church growth: convincing the members they can win the world for Christ; developing in church services a spirit of love, warmth, brightness, and happiness; preaching a verse-by-verse exposition of the Bible rather than topically; being a good motivator; winning souls personally; building the Sunday school; working hard; and above all, having faith. Graham gave the ministers some advice from his own preaching experience: preach with authority, with simplicity, with repetition, with urgency, and to a decision. He discounted his own preaching skills, saying “I’m not a great preacher. I’m sort of an exhorter. I’m an ordinary preacher, communicating the gospel, and the Lord has seen fit to honor it.”

During the week of the crusade, news outlets across the country, from local radio stations to the NBC “Today” show, were suddenly buzzing with speculation about who would become Billy Graham’s successor. As it turned out, the speculation originated with Graham himself, coming from a candid newspaper interview with Louis Moore, religion editor of the Houston Chronicle. In the interview, Graham said that the board of directors of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association had just met in Dallas to contemplate what to do when Graham retires (he is 63, in good health, and has no plans yet to retire). He said that at one time he thought his successor might be Leighton Ford, his brother-in-law and an associate evangelist with the Graham team. However, Ford has “more or less quit crusades … he has become sort of a world religion strategist and a leader,” Graham said, adding that he is certain Ford is being considered for the presidency of Wheaton College.

Graham continued: “There are some who think my son Franklin may some day be the man. That was brought up at the [board] meeting because he has my name [Franklin is William Franklin Graham III; Billy is William Franklin Graham, Jr.] and is being ordained in January. He has his own organization which he has built from scratch. He is a very powerful speaker and Bible teacher and very authoritative in the pulpit. He has a presence about him.”

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The younger Graham, 28, was present in Houston, but demurred completely from speculation about whether he might succeed his father, commenting that God’s gifts are given to each person individually. The elder Graham said he had not expected his statements to get such wide publicity, but that the comments, as they appeared in the Houston Chronicle, were accurate.

Later in the interview, Graham ruminated on the thought of someday leaving the crusade trail. He said sometimes he thinks he might like to pastor a small country church in the mountains of North Carolina, but that he is determined to stay true to his calling, evangelism. His wife, Ruth, is also strongly committed to his crusade work, he said. “When I became pastor of a church, and then president of a college, she sort of chaffed under that role because she felt God had given me the gift of evangelism.”

Threats To Soviet Christians Rouse Congressmen

Growing concern over Christians who are imprisoned and harassed for their faith has made some congressmen redouble efforts on behalf of religious freedom. One result is a new nonprofit organization called CREED—Christian Rescue Effort for the Emancipation of Dissidents.

Patterned after groups that support Jewish dissidents and publicize their plight, CREED attracted broad bipartisan support at a fund raiser in Washington. Sen. Roger Jepsen (R-Iowa) and Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), both outspoken Christians, established the group more than a year ago. Their work has been endorsed by Jewish congressmen and by liberals and conservatives of both parties.

Jepsen was instrumental in securing Baptist pastor Josif Ton’s recent safe release from Romania (CT, Oct. 23, p. 55). At the CREED meeting, Ton publicly expressed appreciation to Jepsen “for saving my life.” Ton was threatened with official retaliation in Romania for publishing accounts of religious persecution.

Ton tells a story whose happy ending is due, in large part, to the political clout that was mustered in Washington on his behalf. Jepsen, in appealing for financial and volunteer support for CREED, repeatedly pointed out that the support of people in high places can make all the difference. “The white light of publicity helps the dissidents,” Jepsen said.

He and Kemp have written numerous letters “to particular people about particular situations.” As a result, Jepsen claims “lives have been changed and persecution has lessened.”

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Another Christian in exile who spoke at the briefing concurred. Pastor Georgi Vins gave an impassioned testimony of what it means to walk with Christ behind the Iron Curtain. Alexander Ginzburg, released along with Vins in 1979 in partial exchange for two Soviet spies held in the United States, said the families of imprisoned Christians suffer a nearly complete loss of financial security. Ginzburg, a Jew, spent nine years in prison for aiding dissidents.

With the family’s main wage earner removed from the picture, “the families of prisoners find themselves in the most desperate circumstances one can imagine,” Ginzburg said through an interpreter. And their poverty is deepened if they remain faithful to their loved ones because the cost of visiting an imprisoned husband equals between two and five months wages. Vins, who now resides in Elkhart, Indiana, stressed the moral support that persecuted Christians need. “I appeal to Christians in the West to write letters to prisoners and their families. Tell them, ‘We love you; we know about you; we pray for you.’ ” Vins said he believes there are more than 300 Christians imprisoned in the Soviet Union because of their faith.

Ernest Gordon, CREED’s president since September, called the group “a new sign of the times, a working of grace, a sign of hope.” Former dean of the chapel at Princeton University, Gordon said, “because deliverance from bondage is God’s work, it is ours as well. This ministry is surely the basic Christian mission of our time.”

Echoing this theme was philosopher Francis Schaeffer, who called CREED “the beginning of what Christians should have been doing for many years.” He sharply criticized Christians who would define political activism of this nature as “unspiritual.” In what some saw as a departure from Schaeffer’s earlier thoughts on political involvement by Christians, he said, “Dare we say it is unspiritual to use political means to stop these things?”

Observing that Christianity poses an increasing threat to Communist governments facing economic breakdown, Schaeffer warned that only restraint imposed from outside—from the United States—can soften the blows of persecution on Christians who live out their faith in spite of state-imposed atheism.


Ncc Holds An ‘Ecumenical Event’

The uninformed observer may at times have thought it was a meeting of evangelicals, what with the concern for “biblical illiterates” and the call to nurture spiritual life. But the talk came from the National Council of Churches (NCC), together for a two-day celebration and evaluation of the ecumenical movement.

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Originally, the NCC hoped 2,000 would attend its early November Ecumenical Event, pulling the council out of a lag in enthusiasm and helping it plot its reaction to a political climate that has abruptly skewed away from the NCC’s generally liberal positions. The turnout was disappointing, however, with just over 700 participants gathered in Cleveland.

They elected a new president and spent much time discussing the religious Right. The council, consisting of 32 Protestant and Orthodox church affiliates with a combined membership of 40 million Christians, elected James Armstrong as its new president.

The United Methodist bishop of Indiana, Armstrong is widely known for his social activism. He has campaigned for civil rights, peace in Vietnam, disarmament, and hunger relief. He intervened to prevent bloodshed at the crisis at Wounded Knee in North Dakota, and stood vigil in protest of the death penalty at the Utah execution of Gary Gilmore. But Armstrong’s election also reflects a growing NCC concern to keep its activism spiritually based. The bishop is regarded as an excellent Bible student and preacher, and has said his social stands were made “on the basis of deep ethical and religious convictions.”

“I regard the spiritual life and the nurture of the inner world essential if we’re to be what we have been called to be in the world,” he said. Still, Armstrong added his voice to others warning against the style and substance of Jerry Falwell and Moral Majority. The bishop said Falwell is not biblical and “his sexism and rigid legalism dehumanize the very persons for whom Christ lived and died.”

Ethicist Max Stackhouse also addressed the participants, telling them “ecumenical Christians must resist the heretical efforts to ‘Koranize’ the Scriptures, to void [church] traditions, and to break communion with other Christians, as several self-ordained media preachers are doing.” He labeled the religious Right “Christian Ayatollism.”

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