Graham’s freewheeling comments reflect the character and charisma that have spurred his career as a Christian crusader.
Surveying a quarter-century of U.S. church life would not be complete without the insights of evangelist Billy Graham. As readers reflect on major trends since the fifties, they will want to study Graham’s insights on evangelicals and the churches. In this interview with CHRISTIANITY TODAY editors, he also stakes out his position on a number of current issues, including those of both a personal and a controversial nature.
What are some of the most significant changes on the American church scene in the last 25 years?
There are a number of things that come to mind. First is the emergence of evangelicalism as the most significant religious movement throughout the world, as well as in America. You could almost say that its growth has been explosive, and that its force continues to increase.
Second has been the emergence of numerous parachurch organizations. They have had a tremendous impact. Their influence has been felt in many ways, including on the so-called mainline denominations.
Third is the new understanding between Roman Catholics and Protestants. Twenty-five years ago we could hardly speak with each other openly. In our crusades today, thousands of Catholics feel free to attend. I have preached in Roman Catholic schools, and have even received honorary doctorates from them. This could not have happened 25 years ago.
Another thing is the emergence of television evangelism and Bible teaching. This has already had a wide effect, and will probably grow in significance in the future.
Along with this has come the emergence of large numbers of evangelicals taking strong political positions. This has probably already made a historic impact on American life, whatever the future holds for such movements.
Finally, I would mention the charismatic movement. The words “Holy Spirit” and “Pentecost” no longer belong exclusively to the so-called Pentecostal denominations. The charismatic impact has now become widespread among many denominations, including the more liturgical churches.
Do you foresee an evangelical resurgence in the mainline denominations?
Yes, there is definitely such a movement in all the major denominations. Certainly there are more evangelicals in mainline denominations now than there were 25 years ago, especially laymen. Evangelical seminaries have grown greatly and are full, whereas, on the whole, the more liberal ones do not have as many students. Pulpits in many denominations increasingly are being filled by students from the more evangelical seminaries. Surprising statements are now coming from many denominational leaders, who are admitting they must take a closer, more sympathetic look at the evangelical revival.
What have been the most serious shortcomings of evangelicals?
There has been an unhealthy tendency toward individualism—a tendency on the part of some individualists to go their own way. Also, I think we have failed to communicate to the “world church” some of the positive things evangelicals are doing, such as in the area of social work. I have also been concerned because too often we have tended toward superficiality—an overemphasis on easy-believism or experience rather than on true discipleship. We have sometimes offered cheap grace and cheap conversions without genuine repentance. In addition, evangelicals have not tried to capture the intellectual initiative as much as we should. We haven’t challenged and developed the minds of our generation. Though there are many exceptions, generally we evangelicals have failed to present to the world great thinkers, theologians, artists, scientists, and so forth.
Where have evangelicals been strongest?
In evangelism. In 1960 a small group came together in Montreux, Switzerland, to discuss the possibility of unity among evangelicals. After listening to several days of discussion and debate—and after much time together in prayer—I became convinced that evangelicals today would never get together except around one word: evangelism. That was the beginning of seed thoughts that led to the 1966 Berlin Congress, which in turn led to many regional congresses on evangelism (such as Amsterdam, Bogotá, Singapore, Minneapolis), and later the 1974 Lausanne Congress on World Evangelism.
Where do you stand on the issue of Christian unity?
We must take seriously our Lord’s prayer in John 17, “that they may be one as we are one.” Someone has said the closer we get to Christ, the closer we get to each other. But already there is an ecumenism throughout the Christian world. Everyone who truly knows Christ is a member of the body of Christ—regardless of denominational label. When our Lord spoke through John to the seven churches of Asia, he rebuked them for their sins, but he did not tell them all to join the same church—that wasn’t one of their failings. I have no problems working with anyone, under any label, as long as he knows the Lord Jesus Christ as his Savior and is living the life of a Christian disciple.
You seem to have taken a more “liberal” stance on some issues, while some evangelical leaders appear to be getting more conservative. How do you explain this?
I do not agree with that observation. The majority of evangelicals are not going in opposite directions. In fact, there is far more agreement among evangelicals today than possibly at any time in my lifetime. There are, perhaps, some differences on social and political questions that are more evident today because of our visibility. The pendulum swings back and forth on some of the social, economic, and political issues. But most evangelicals recognize they have responsibilities in these areas in certain contexts. I have been called “liberal” in some areas because of my stand on certain social issues; I have been called “conservative” theologically. I accept both labels, and believe that I stand in the mainstream of evangelicalism.
How do you assess the impact of the charismatic movement?
As I said, it has made a great impact on virtually all denominations. It also has brought together in a new way many Christians from various backgrounds and persuasions. Of course, there have been extremists in some places who have given it a bad name. I am encouraged to see many charismatic leaders stressing the need for deeper Bible study and balanced biblical doctrine. By and large it has been a positive force in the lives of many people.
What counsel do you have for maintaining financial integrity in religious ministries?
Many years ago I decided that one of the greatest testimonies we could ever have in our own ministry was total integrity in everything, including the reporting of numbers of those attending our meetings, and in financial matters. We therefore formed a strong board of directors and turned all finances over to them. It was only a few years ago, however, that we began to make our finances public—there simply was not the interest before. If I had any advice to give to my brethren in parachurch organizations, it would be that they have total integrity, strict accountability, and public disclosure of finances. I think we see all these in the way Paul handled the money he collected for the Jerusalem church.
How would you compare yourself to Jerry Falwell? Is the Moral Majority a help or hindrance to the public’s understanding of the gospel?
On the whole, I have never heard him say anything theologically that I did not agree with. I am thankful for all who proclaim the gospel and seek to win people to faith in Christ. We need to remember that God has called people to different ministries and has given us different gifts.
There may be a danger in getting too involved in partisan politics—there are many potential snares. I am somewhat concerned when we get specific political issues intertwined with the gospel (such as SALT treaties or the Panama Canal issue); this confuses people about the essence of the gospel. It could also have the tendency to dilute the gospel. I think this was one of the errors I made in my early ministry, and it is one I am seeking to correct. I am trying desperately to stay out of partisan politics, although sometimes it is rather difficult. The whole matter, of course, is a complicated issue. Christians have always debated exactly how they should relate to secular and political issues, and there certainly are many social and political issues that have a moral dimension. We need great wisdom to know where our responsibilities are in this area.
Which is more important, mass evangelism or one-on-one evangelism?
One-on-one evangelism. In my judgment, there is no such thing as mass evangelism—that is a misnomer. If you speak to two people, you are speaking to a group. All so-called mass evangelism must be built on a foundation of one-on-one evangelism to be effective.
You hare said that the world won’t be won from a stadium. Have you given too much emphasis to stadium rallies?
No, I don’t think so. God called me to this particular segment of the field where the seed is to be sown. He has raised up scores of methods of evangelism that are very successful, probably more successful than ours. But the concept of crusade evangelism has also been used of God. Often a great deal happens as a result of crusades, far beyond the immediate meetings. Dr. Robert Evans was recently telling me that he has uncovered more than 25 evangelical organizations in Europe alone that started as a direct or indirect result of our crusades in Europe.
Recently the Lord has opened up a whole new ministry of evangelism for us. For our April telecast, we tested call-ins for spiritual counseling, and had counselors standing by in three cities. With our limited number of phones and counselors, we were able to talk to over 1,000 people on each of four nights; many thousands attempted to call. An average of 375 made commitments to Christ each evening. We did not have a toll-free number—people had to pay for their own calls. We are planning to go nationwide with this ministry. Of course, some ministries (like the 700 Club) have already used this method effectively. It is an indication to me that there is a far greater spiritual hunger among the American people than crusade reports would indicate.
What can you tell us about your recent meeting with Pope John Paul II?
I spent about a half-hour with the Pope in very private, intimate conversation. He was extremely warm and interested in our work. I had just been to Poland, and of course he wanted to know my impressions. We discussed the Christian faith, both our agreements and some of our differences. I have great admiration for the Pope’s moral courage, and sent him a cable as soon as I heard he had been shot to assure him of my prayers for his recovery.
Do you feel your meeting with him helped or hindered the evangelical church in Catholic countries?
It helped our meetings in Mexico, because Catholics felt free to attend them. They saw that I was not a bigot or intolerant. Things are changing rapidly in Latin America. The differences between Protestants and Catholics remain very deep and very great, but in many instances, the two groups are at least beginning to talk to each other.
What trends do you see in the Catholic church?
Certainly there is a trend toward greater diversity. Many of the diversities we have seen within Protestantism are now evident in Roman Catholicism. In fact, fragmentation is seen as a great danger by many Roman Catholics. On the practical side, many Catholics in many parts of the world are rediscovering the Scriptures in a very real way. I also sense a new openness to new approaches, including borrowing music and methods we have been familiar with in evangelical circles. When I was at the Vatican I spoke at a vesper service at the North American College, which is a seminary for students from North America. I understand I was the first Protestant to speak there. It was a very inspirational and Christocentric service, with much contemporary music.
Are you speaking out as much as you used to on controversial issues?
I am preaching the same gospel I have always preached. If anything, I am stressing more and more the cost of discipleship. I do not know of a single moral issue that I have not spoken out on at one time or another—everything from racism and apartheid to nuclear armaments and peace. However, I do not feel it is my calling to get out in the streets and lead demonstrations. Nor am I singling out one sin from the scores mentioned in Scripture and riding a hobbyhorse—although I have had a lot of pressure across the years to do so.
I have often denounced the kind of gambling that goes on among speculators in stocks and commodities. Though the exchanges represent legitimate enterprise, some of the business transacted there is motivated by a desire for quick profits. The type of gambling done in Las Vegas is of a different kind: it tends to bring with it all kinds of evils that are recognized even by the leaders of the gambling industry. It’s very interesting, however, to find so many devout Christians working in Las Vegas hotels. The mayor is a believer. There is a Las Vegas that is rarely seen, the Las Vegas of churches and Christians and prayer groups.
There is a difference between sin and sins. There is sin (singular), which is the heart of our spiritual disease, and there are sins (plural), which are the fruit or signs of the disease. If I spent all of my time on sins (plural) I might never be able to get at the root cause, which is sin (singular). The Lord Jesus Christ died on the cross to deal with sin, and not just individual sins.
Do you intend to speak out on other issues of the day?
As I have said, I have probably touched on virtually all issues, at least to some degree, although these are not always carried in the national press. I am concerned about human rights violations; my position is what you would expect from any Christian who takes the Bible seriously. I am against the violation of human rights. But I also have to accept that we are living in a complicated world dominated by evil. If we condoned only those who adhere strictly to human rights (as we define them in North America), we would be severely limited in our international contacts.
I also am concerned about the economic disparity between rich and poor nations. Again, this is not an easy question. It is interesting that some of the OPEC countries are the richest in per capita income. America, I understand, now has the fifth highest per capita income in the world, with four of the Middle East oil-rich nations ahead of us. But Christians must do some hard thinking on this, and on the related matters of world hunger and disease that are so prevalent in some parts of the world.
You are universally regarded as a man of great faith. Have you ever battled with any doubts?
I have never had a doubt about God’s existence since I came to Christ. I did go through a period in the late forties of doubting the infallibility and authority of Scripture. That was settled on my knees in August 1949, in California, when I accepted by faith the Bible as the authoritative and infallible Word of God. That decision has had a profound effect on my life since then.
Have materialism and affluence affected the lifestyle of evangelicals?
I assume you are referring especially to evangelicals in America. We should remember that many of our brethren in other countries know firsthand the reality of poverty.
Yes, it has affected us. On the positive side, our relative affluence has meant we have been able to support missionaries and ministries in many parts of the world. On the negative side, we have sometimes become too preoccupied with our lifestyle, both as individuals and as organizations. The Bible speaks of “the deceitfulness of wealth” (Matt. 13:22) and how it chokes the Word in our lives. Many of the great people of the Bible (like Abraham or David) had great wealth, but God was first in their lives. It is a person’s attitude toward his affluence that makes the difference. God has raised up throughout the years wealthy individuals who sees their riches as a stewardship from God—men like Count Zinzendorf, Lord Shaftesbury, and Lord Dartmouth who gave George Whitefield money for his evangelistic work.
Of course, affluence is a relative thing. Someone we might consider impoverished may be looked upon as wealthy in his own culture. An Indian, for example, who may be getting $600 a year, is considered wealthy by Bangladesh standards, where the income may be $50 or $100 a year. But I believe those of us in the affluent countries must move toward a more simple lifestyle, because we are citizens of the world community and the world church.
This is a concern throughout our whole organization. We all feel a simpler lifestyle is God’s way for us. My wife and I are getting rid of some of the things that we may have held too closely. We have great discussions on this subject.
How have the Old Testament prophets influenced your ministry?
Tremendously! At one time I took prophetic passages and tried to force them into meaning or relevance for today, but I came to see that this was not wise or necessary. I’m referring to things like trying to coordinate what these passages said with current events in the Middle East. But over the years, the prophets have influenced me in several ways. For one thing, the themes of their messages are still tremendously important—the justice of God, the need for repentance, the love of God for his people, and so forth. Also, I have been especially influenced by their lives and their example. I have been challenged by their courage and boldness, and their willingness to swim against the stream. I have been challenged by their devotion to God and their closeness to him. I also have taken heart from their discouragements and failures, because I have also known those times. That is why I read Psalms every day, for in them I see the heart of David and the psalmists.
The Christian life is not a constant high. I have my moments of deep discouragement. I have to go to God in prayer with tears in my eyes, and say, “O God, forgive me,” or “help me.”
You have written on Armageddon, and a lot ofpopular new books are about how to get ready for hard times. Do you have a personal word for evangelicals about how they might get ready for the hard times?
That’s what my book was about—how to prepare both for the great Armageddon that will come some day and for the little “armageddons” we each face in our own lives. The book is not mainly about prophecy or Armageddon; the title was slightly misleading. But each of us faces problems—an illness, a family problem, an economic reversal—and we need to prepare for those times now. Also, we need to realize that God can bring great blessing to us through suffering and difficulties. I do not agree with those who say our lives should be trouble free if we are following Christ.
But to answer your question more directly: the most important thing we can do is grow in our relationship to Christ. If we have not learned to pray in our everyday lives, we will find it difficult to know God’s peace and strength through prayer when the hard times come. If we have not learned to trust God’s Word when times are easy, we will not trust his Word when we face difficulties. And I am convinced that one of the greatest things we can do is to memorize Scripture. The Scriptures speak to us in those moments when we look to the Lord for sustenance and strength.
I have sometimes wondered what would be the most important thing I could do if I knew I were going to be held hostage or go through some very difficult times. I believe the best preparation would be to saturate myself with the Word of God, including memorization. That was the case for Jeremiah Denton (who is now a U.S. senator) when he was a prisoner in Vietnam. We met him and other POW’s when they came back, and learned from them that it was their spiritual strength and their knowledge of the Scriptures that sustained them.
All of us are painfully aware of family breakdown and divorce, even in the Christian community. What would you say to college students and young people? What spiritual foundation can they lay that would help their marriages?
A marriage should be made up of three people: you, your spouse, and God. Christ should be the foundation of a Christian marriage right from the beginning.
A lasting marriage starts during courtship. I would say to a young person who is beginning to think about marriage: “Yield this whole area of your life to Christ, and trust him. Don’t take your cue from the world: realize that marriage is a lifetime commitment. You shouldn’t go into it with the idea you can always get out of it if things don’t work out. And realize that true love is not selfish.
Many marriages end by the fifth year because couples haven’t learned how to adjust. Differences can be settled amicably if both are really seeking the Lord’s will. One of the things Ruth and I have found helpful is that when we kneel to pray together, she prays for me and my problems and I pray for her and her problems or concerns.
A man especially needs to learn to be extremely gentle. A woman must have tenderness from her spouse; she can love him and respond to him if he is tender—no matter what he looks like or whether or not he is successful. We have found that marriage should be made up of two forgivers. We need to learn to say, “I was wrong; I’m sorry.” And we also need to say, “That’s all right; I love you.”
One of the things that has been difficult for you is your very busy schedule. What priority does the family have?
The priority ought to be the home. Many churches are demanding too much time of their people. Some churches also demand too much of their pastor; he shouldn’t be at meetings seven nights a week, and neither should the church members. There is no substitute for time at home—time spent in discussion, or having fun together. However, our purpose is not to watch television together, but to read out loud, or play games, or have family discussions. Some happy families are run in a democratic way: everybody’s point of view on the problems of the family is considered. Family members feel like they belong. And that child in the home needs to know he is loved and he is important, and that he can count on the undivided attention of his father or mother sometime during the day.
Ruth and I will celebrate our thirty-eighth anniversary soon. All our children are now away from home, and sometimes they have said, “We feel so sorry for Dad and Mother there in that house all by themselves.” But we are having the time of our lives! It is a marvelous period of our lives. Ruth has said, “You know, all my life I wanted to travel with you and be with you, but I stayed home with the children. Now that I am able to travel, I find I get too tired.”
“Well,” I said, “I get tired, too, and we will just have to pace ourselves a little bit, because I want you with me.”
We have 15 grandchildren, and we really try to schedule time for them. I think this is a part of our ministry at this stage of our lives.
You have mentioned hyperactive churches. What are some problems you see in so-called super churches?
Churches can be too large and impersonal. They are not really able to minister to their members. Many illustrations of this have come to my attention in the last year. There are church members who tell us they can’t get to their pastor or another person on the staff. Recently a man told me that he had been going to his church for over a year. He said, “I don’t believe there are five people there who know my name.” That is a tragedy. Of course, some very large churches have broken the church into smaller groups, so that all the people may be ministered to personally.
Somewhere along the line we need to study carefully how many people a clergyman can minister to. Clergymen are among the most susceptible to nervous breakdowns, and even to attacks of Satan, simply because they are too busy to take time for their devotional life and their families. In many churches we probably need to learn more about the ministry of the laity. The minister shouldn’t be doing everything—he should “prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Eph. 4:12).
I have a friend who is the pastor of a large Presbyterian church. When he went there, he told the elders that his family came first. There would be times when he would be gone, he said, and he didn’t want them asking where. He has a marvelous Christian family, which is a great witness for him.
Does it bother you that so many evangelicals seem to be theologically illiterate?
It bothers me terribly, as much as anything I can think of. One of the great needs in America is Bible teaching in depth. Unless this happens, I fear we will see many distortions and errors creeping into evangelicalism in the future. I think, incidently, that CHRISTIANITY TODAY can have an important role here.
Why are evangelicals so reluctant to ordain women?
I certainly don’t want to get into this particular fight—there are enough battles to be fought without that one. I don’t feel it is my calling as an evangelist to take sides on an issue like this. There are, of course, many evangelicals who take a strong stand on either side, and we need to look carefully to see what the Bible really teaches. But as an evangelist, I try to appeal to a wide audience, so I don’t like to get sidetracked.
You have written a number of books. Would you rather be a writer than a preacher at this stage in your life?
I enjoy both. I find I often need help in writing. I am able to get my thoughts down all right, but I am not able to put them together as well as I would like. Now I am trying to take off two months a year for writing—nothing but study and writing. I am currently working on a new book.
You have preached a lot on the sexual revolution. Suppose a young lady tells you that she has been living with a man and she really enjoys it, and wonders what is wrong with it. How would you reply?
We cannot take our Christian values and force them on the world. Christians have to realize that, morally, we live in a different world.
Anyway, I would tell the young lady—if she were not a Christian—that from a long-term psychological point of view she is making a tragic mistake. From the standpoint of a future marital relationship, I would tell her that what the Scriptures teach is for her best. For example, how can there be real trust and security in a married relationship, or any lasting commitment, if marriage is not taken seriously?
On the other hand, if she were a Christian girl, I would tell her frankly that she is sinning. It is displeasing to God. Our fellowship with him is broken when we tolerate sin in our lives.
Have you set a limit on the number of crusades you will be taking in the future?
No. Some years ago I had thought that by the time I was 62 or 64 I would not have the physical strength to carry on and would have to give up crusades. And I didn’t think there would be that much interest. But we have more invitations from all over the world than we could take in two lifetimes. In fact, wherever we go, it seems that more invitations follow. This happened recently in Japan and Mexico: the pressure is tremendous to go back and hold crusades in many cities we did not visit. And I want to go to some of the cities we have never been to in the United States—like Boise, Idaho, for example.
How old will you be on your next birthday?
Sixty-three on November 7, 1981. I really feel better now than I did in my forties, when I tried to do too much. So long as God gives me strength, I will continue—maybe I can continue until I am 70. But it is all in God’s hands.
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