A new generation learns the lessons of a lifetime in Amsterdam.

There are those who see, in the power of the gospel, boundless vision. Southern Baptists have set out to preach salvation to every last unhearing soul by the century’s end. A Pentecostal pastor in Seoul, South Korea, Paul Cho, is confident his church will have a half-million members by next year. It already has 350,000.

Billy Graham, as he has grown older, has wished to pass along to the next generation of evangelists all that he and his team have learned about gospel crusading. So Graham, enlisting superb tactical help, called together from the cities and the back bush regions of the world as many young evangelists as they could handle, and sat them down in the Netherlands for 10 days of instruction and inspiration.

The International Conference for Itinerant Evangelists, or more simply Amsterdam ’83, accomplished its purpose. The organizers gathered nearly 4,000 participants from 133 countries, 95 percent of whom do what Graham does—that is, preach the gospel from place to place. About half of them have never had any formal training for the work, and very few had ever been to an international conference before. About 70 percent were from the Third World.

The advice from the speakers, who were drawn from diverse countries and church traditions, was ladled out in two main sessions each day and in a myriad of workshops. The instruction was practical and basic. “You’re not going to hear a lot of heavy theological addresses.” declared Graham in his opening words to the assembly.

Evangelist Luis Palau underscored that during his message on the evangelist’s personal life. “More of my fellow evangelists have wrecked their lives because of sexual temptation than for any other reason,” he declared. He spoke from his experience about other personal pressures evangelists face. Tom Houston, of the British and Foreign Bible Society, asked the audience to be aware, when they preach, not only of their content, but of how they communicate, from their dress to their body language. British Anglican Michael Green stilled the assembly to a hush with his razor-edged words: “There are too many self-appointed gurus going around doing their own thing. They are sent out by nobody and they are accountable to nobody.” Green reminded the audience that when Jesus preached, he stepped directly into the grime and stench of the real world. “God didn’t love us so much that he did a telecast to us” from some remote TV studio, Green said.

Article continues below

Because no one had ever tried to contact all the world’s evangelists before, no one knew how many there were. The budget and the space limited the conference to 3,500 participants, but by late last fall only about 1,500 applications had been sent in. By the time the conference opened on July 11, however, registration had jumped to 3,507. That grew to 3,872 by the last day, plus 1,288 staff, stewards, and press people. That size crowd, for that long, with its need for small and large meeting halls, offices, exhibition area, and dining facilities, taxed the facilities of the mammoth RAI Convention Center, even though it has, under roof, the equivalent of 157 football fields.

Amsterdam ’83 was the first event ever to use the entire complex (cost for the 10-day run: about $240,000). KLM Airlines was hired to provide 4,000 flight-style meals for the participants each day, and a British food-service consultant (a retired major with 23 years in the British Catering Corps) signed on to oversee the daily mealtime migrations. The Graham organization raised money in a number of countries to help pay the bills for participants from poorer countries, and the total cost for the event was estimated at $8.7 million.

Werner Burklin, a German executive with Youth for Christ and executive director of the conference, cannot begin to count the number of countries he visited during the last few years, digging down through church hierarchies to find the man-on-the-street evangelists who could gain the most from a trip to Amsterdam. Some countries were tough to crack. The patriarchal nature of Japanese culture meant younger preachers automatically wanted to defer such an honor to their elders. Other countries were easier. From India, Burklin was flooded with a thousand applications, but he could only accept 310. In the Communist bloc, his staff dealt openly and directly with governments, and were successful beyond hope in getting permission for Christians to travel to Amsterdam. Even the Soviet Union permitted a seven-member delegation of observers to go, and it included two Orthodox metropolitans (equivalent to Roman Catholic cardinals). Graham’s staff has been trying to build understandings with Communist governments during his preaching visits to the Soviet bloc, and the success was evident in Amsterdam. (Graham says the best advice he ever received for dealing with Communist countries came from the Vatican: “You can accomplish a lot if you don’t shout about it from the housetops.”)

Article continues below

Graham was overwhelmed by the response to the conference in Amsterdam. He simply had no idea there were so many Christian evangelists throughout the world. The number of participants had to be shut off at 3,800, yet there were another 2,000 evangelists whose applications had come in on time. Even as the event opened, more applications kept coming, and by the last day there were some 10,000 names on hand. That prompted speculation among the conference executives about the need for another such conference.

Amsterdam ’83 was an event that caught fire from the ground up. The crush of Third World participants radiated a vigor and freshness for their calling that ignited their more sophisticated brethren from the West, as well as the conference staff. The fire was sparked from a thousand tiny tales of poignance and spiritual fortitude. Here are a few of them:

• A Third World participant who did not speak English was taken by airport bus to the convention center for registration. Then he was shown to another bus for a ride to his hotel—the routine procedure. But, tears in his eyes, he would not budge. He finally made himself understood. After traveling so far, and getting so close, he thought he was being deported.

• Johannes Gobai, who evangelizes among Stone Age tribesmen in Irian Jaya (New Guinea), upon receiving an invitation, sold what he had—his pigs—to pay for the trip. Although they brought him the equivalent of a year’s salary, it was only enough to get him to Djarkata, Indonesia. Then he learned the conference would pay the rest of his expenses.

• Several years ago, a reading of Matthew 28:19 deeply convicted Ronald Bhoya, a young black preacher from South Africa, of Christ’s command to take the gospel to distant reaches. But apart from one trip to Swaziland, Bhoya had never been out of his country. Nonetheless, he purchased a passport. Then he received an invitation to Amsterdam ’83. As he prepared to take to the streets of Amsterdam in the evangelism campaign to which one afternoon of the conference was devoted, Bhoya beamed. It was a chance to reach a foreign culture.

• A participant who operates a small mission school in Kashmir, India, near the Russian border, was aghast to see thousands of plastic cups being disposed of each day by the KLM caterers. His school also uses disposable plastic cups, but has used the same ones over and over for the last three years. Michael Clarke, the food-service consultant, packed a load of cups for the man to take back with him, and Clarke wrote a letter in his most officious royal prose, to help guide the supply through the labyrinth of Indian customs. Clarke also bought the man a coat and a watch.

Article continues below

• An American seminary professor who conducted a workshop on how to develop seminary curricula for the training of itinerant evangelists realized that most of the participants lacked formal training. He thought his workshop would be successful if as many as 20 people showed up. He was flooded by 238. Such is the abundant spiritual harvest in many developing nations that any evangelist, regardless of the level of his own training, must think of teaching others.

The culture miscues of such a diverse group were evident. On their single day off, the participants were advised to relax and dress casually. For a delegation of Africans, that meant lounging about their hotel, the downtown Marriott, in bare feet. Stewards were startled to see some of the participants, unaccustomed to the ways of the West, drinking cream straight from the pitchers when the convention broke for the first morning’s coffee break. (After a day or two everyone had adapted nicely.) A member of a foreign press contingent shocked the information desk staff when he asked for “350 large vultures,” apparently for the purpose of eating them. After another couple of tries he made himself clear: he wanted 350 lunch vouchers.

The strategy for the conference included a full-time follow-up office to stay in touch with the participants and to help them as it could. The follow-up staff quizzed in detail as many of the evangelists in Amsterdam as they could reach, and they were humbled by the dedication and fortitude they were finding. “I had no idea so many people in the world walk from place to place,” said one staff member, an American. It was evident as the survey sheets came in that many evangelists in developing nations are able to draw crowds of well over a thousand by merely showing up and running a film, no matter that its language might be unintelligible and its culture foreign. (More than one evangelist was reporting good results from the film Mr. Texas, produced by the Graham organization in the early fifties.) The surveys showed that the ministries of many evangelists could be revolutionized by the addition of appropriate technology, such as a bicycle or a public address system, or better films and equipment. The follow-up office will endeavor to procure these things.

Many in Amsterdam were mindful that as the conference closed, the sixth assembly of the World Council of Churches was about to open a half-world away in Vancouver, British Columbia. In a closing press conference, Graham called upon the World Council to renew its commitment to biblical evangelism and world mission. They are subjects in which, he said, the council has deep roots.

Article continues below

The most valuable lessons to be learned from Amsterdam ‘83 seemed to be deceptively simple ones, yet they were woven into nearly all the major addresses. None of the “successful” evangelists or other Christian leaders who spoke seems to have gained a reputation, or persisted in his work, without a robust prayer life and a devotion to Scripture study. During a question and answer session. Graham was asked what word of wisdom he had for new evangelists. His advice, Graham said, was threefold: (1) Study the Word. (2) Study the Word. (3) Study the Word. He said his greatest failure in life is that he has spoken too much and studied too little.

Some of those who were skeptical at how Paul Cho of Korea could shepherd a church of 350,000 were sobered to hear him explain that he rises at 4:30 A M. each day and spends his first hour and a half in prayer. Likewise, some 13,000 of his church members have dedicated themselves to weekly prayer vigils that begin Friday nights at 10:30 and end Saturday mornings at 6.

These two most ancient of strategies for gospel preaching and gospel living, prayer and Scripture study, seem still to be the most potent.

TOM MINNERY in Amsterdam

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.