Events and strategies behind a remarkable summer of evangelism

The manager of London’s best-known exhibition center and a liberal, charismatic sociologist make an unlikely pair to set in motion a chain of events leading to a huge evangelism mission in a country first converted to Christianity 1,400 years ago. But so it has proved to be.

Just over nine years ago the London office of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association got a phone call from the managing director of Earls Court, home of such venerable institutions as the Royal Tournament military tattoo and the Motor Show. It was also the site of Billy Graham’s major crusades in London in 1966 and 1967.

The gist of the call was that structural changes being made to the huge auditorium within the next four years would make it impossible for such large-scale meetings thereafter. Had they any plans for another major crusade beforehand?

The liberal sociologist was Clifford Hill, a distinguished Congregational minister, writer, and well-known broadcaster, especially on racial issues. After many years in the ministry he became disillusioned with the liberal theology he had espoused since theological college. After experiencing charismatic renewal, he worked in London’s East End, seeking to make Christ relevant to the dwindling number of residents in crumbling inner-city areas. He joined the 138-year-old Evangelical Alliance in 1978 as Secretary for Evangelism and Church Growth and was largely instrumental in the group launching the 1980s as a “decade of evangelism.” After he left the alliance in 1980, Hill called together a number of church leaders to launch “New Way London,” an evangelistic thrust in the nation’s capital.

It was several years before these initiatives bore fruit this summer with the arrival in Britain—almost simultaneously—of Billy Graham and Luis Palau to begin separate but complementary evangelistic crusades.

Moral Erosion

That Britain needs “a word from the Lord” can scarcely be denied. In the second half of the twentieth century there has been a huge decline in church going that has affected all denominations and every part of the country. Attendance has dropped from 45 percent of the population in 1851 to 15 percent in 1979. (Some put the current figure at 11 percent or less.)

The decline can be attributed to a number of factors: the secularist view of the elite, whose opinions are heard on television and read in the press; the cumulative effect of two major wars within a lifetime, which destroyed whole communities and caused major social upheaval; the lack of a clear, confident, and consistent proclamation of the gospel by Christians.

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In the last 80 years, Britain has had its moments—as the recent fortieth anniversary celebrations of D day have reminded us. For sheer spectacle and pageantry, no one can match the great state occasions in London. But in truth, the brave British bulldog personified by Winston Churchill is no more—notwithstanding the bravado in the Falklands two years ago.

Having lost an empire, having joined the European Community almost too late, and having allowed class and regional conflicts to flourish at home, Britain is in the grip of a cynicism that has sapped much of the nation’s moral fervor, natural dignity, and sense of purpose.

The Sleeping Church

The Church of England, wrested from the pope by King Henry VIII more than 400 years ago, enjoys a unique position within the national life. The queen is the temporal head of the church; the archbishops of Canterbury and York rank fifth and seventh in national precedence, ahead of the prime minister, and with only the royal family above them. Both archbishops and 24 senior bishops are automatically members of the House of Lords, the second chamber of Parliament. Every square inch of English soil and every citizen, of whatever faith, comes within the network of Anglican parishes.

The Church of England contributes an impressive 27 million (58 percent of the population) to the worldwide Anglican communion of 64 million, but it is largely a sleeping membership because that figure represents the numbers baptized. Only nine million of those have been confirmed as members of the church. Fewer than 1.7 million (6 percent of those baptized) take Communion at Christmas or Easter when attendance is at its peak. (The comparable figures among Episcopalians in the U.S. are: baptisms, 3 million; confirmations, 2.1 million [70 percent of those baptized]; communicants, 1.5 million [50 percent of those baptized]).

The Church of England prides itself on being a “broad” church. It ranges from Catholic, through “middle of the road,” to evangelical. Theology can be radical, liberal, or conservative, according to taste. And charismatics can be found in most camps.

During the nineteenth century, evangelicals and Catholics both enjoyed a revival of interest and support. Indeed, evangelicals were largely credited with the seriousness and industry that characterized the Victorian era and established Britain as a world power.

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During the first half of the twentieth century, however, evangelicals were in decline, driven into a corner by the dominance of Tractarianism (Anglo-Catholicism) and liberalism in the Anglican church. In recent years there has been something of a renaissance among evangelicals, however. A greater emphasis on evangelical scholarship; a sudden influx of candidates for the Anglican ministry following Billy Graham’s first British crusade at Harringay Arena, north of London, in 1954; and the outstanding leadership of John Stott at All Souls Church, Langham Place, London; all served to increase evangelical strength and numbers.

It is claimed that 25 percent of all Anglican parishes have an evangelical ministry, and that 20 percent of the membership of the General Synod, the church’s “parliament,” are evangelicals. About half those training for the Anglican ministry are in evangelical colleges. Evangelicals are well represented on official church boards and committees; and more avowed evangelicals have been appointed as bishops than ever before in living memory.

In the free churches, evangelicalism has traditionally been strongest among the Baptists. But the evangelical renaissance in the Church of England has spilled over into all the main free churches—that is, Methodists, Baptists, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians. Each now has a thriving evangelical group seeking to witness to biblical truth within denominational life. Still, the free churches overall have been losing ground numerically for many years.

Disunity In The Ranks

During the 20 years after the Second World War, the focus of evangelical unity was the Evangelical Alliance and the Keswick Convention, which brought together evangelicals from predominantly Anglican and Baptist churches, together with the Christian Brethren, independent, and historic Pentecostal churches. But in 1967 a split occurred in the evangelical ranks, the repercussions of which are felt to this day.

At a meeting organized by the alliance, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the outstanding British preacher of his generation and at that time minister of Westminster Chapel, London, called on evangelicals in the Church of England and other doctrinally “mixed” and ecumenically involved denominations to cut their denominational ties and come together in an evangelical federation. The meeting’s chairman, John Stott, publicly disassociated himself from this call, and thus the lines of division were drawn. The British Evangelical Council, virtually moribund, sprang to life as the rallying point for those who sided with Lloyd-Jones. Journals, tracts, books, and conventions proliferated extolling his “separatist” view, as opponents dubbed it, bringing dissension and disharmony to evangelicalism, which is still very much in evidence.

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Another development that has undermined evangelical unity in recent years is the charismatic movement. Starting mainly in Anglican churches, where the established structures have been elastic yet firm enough to contain it, the movement has spread to other churches incapable of controlling their less-responsible elements, leading to denominational secession and the burgeoning house church movement.

An Invitation To Graham

With all this, the chances in the late 1970s of a Billy Graham crusade in London were fairly remote. Mass evangelism, as such crusades were perceived, was broadly out of favor. In addition, the younger school of Anglican evangelicals was more concerned with internal affairs; free church evangelicals preferred smaller scale evangelistic methods; the separatists had doctrinal doubts about ecumenical involvement; and the charismatics were busy with their own exuberant worship.

Not surprisingly, therefore, when the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association tried to follow up on the inquiry from the managing director of Earls Court, there was some resistance. Out of the discussions came a suggestion for a comprehensive evangelistic program into which such a crusade would fit. Called “Let My People Grow,” it was largely the brainchild of two Baptist ministers, Tom Houston, now president of World Vision International, and David Pawson, at that time charismatic pastor of a thriving church near London.

“Let My People Grow” failed to get off the ground, but it helped to bring pressure upon the then archbishop of Canterbury, Donald Coggan, an evangelical sympathizer. He called together a group of evangelical and ecumenical leaders to discuss evangelism. This led to the Nationwide Initiative on Evangelism (NIE), launched by Coggan and his Roman Catholic equivalent, Cardinal Hume, in January 1979, and officially supported with varying degrees of enthusiasm by the main churches.

Meanwhile, one of Clifford Hill’s first steps on taking office as Evangelical Alliance Secretary for Evangelism and Church Growth in 1978 was to conduct a survey of evangelical opinion on evangelism. While less than a quarter endorsed the idea of a central London crusade relayed across Britain, as was done in Billy Graham’s 1967 British Crusade, two-thirds wanted Graham personally involved in any evangelistic effort.

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The listeners to a religious program on BBC radio were even more emphatic. Asked whether they were in favor of Billy Graham returning to Britain to conduct a crusade, they voted 13,825 in favor and only 1,166 against. Graham himself indicated his willingness to come, provided the invitation emanated from “a responsible group of clergy and laymen.”

Discussions continued throughout 1979, leading to an invitation signed by 100 church leaders and handed to Graham when he visited Britain in 1980 for the enthronement of the present archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie. By this time the Evangelical Alliance had designated the 1980s as a “Decade of Evangelism.”

After seven months of taking soundings from church leaders of many persuasions, Graham eventually declined the invitation. Though no official reasons were given, it is thought he was advised to give the NIE more time to blossom and flourish, especially without an evangelical consensus supporting a return visit.

Fresh Enthusiasm For Graham

It was time for the younger generation to show its hand. Gavin Reid, an Anglican writer and evangelist, had publicly urged a Billy Graham crusade as long ago as 1975. Eddie Gibbs, formerly an Anglican missionary in South America, was revitalizing the Bible Society by aligning it with the church growth movement. Clive Calver, a Baptist, was coming to the end of a very successful stint as director of British Youth for Christ during which time it had expanded beyond recognition. This enterprising trio drew up a three-year plan for evangelism combining local church initiatives, British evangelists, and the regional meetings addressed by Graham.

It bore a remarkable resemblance to what Gavin Reid had called for in 1975, and owed something to the “Let My People Grow” plan devised two years later. The three men flew to the south of France in 1981 to put the idea to Graham. By this time the Nationwide Initiative in Evangelism was clearly in trouble. Lacking a clear purpose, strong leadership, and adequate financial backing, it did not long survive the end of Coggan’s primacy. It was eventually absorbed into the British Council of Churches, and thereby effectively laid to rest.

A question still remained: Would there be a ground swell of support for a big crusade? The three envoys represented the new, more confident brand of evangelicalism. Clive Calver, in particular, had been instrumental in several large-scale enterprises, from music and teaching tours to week-long conventions in holiday camps. The three assured Graham there would be an enthusiastic response from church leaders to their proposal. He agreed to reserve two months in 1984.

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The envoys were right. The response was immediate and positive. Regional consultations revealed widespread support for the idea. Graham himself had no doubt he could still attract British crowds when he conducted evangelistic meetings in the northern seaside resort of Blackpool during a private visit in March 1982. Nearly 20,000 people packed the theater and overflow halls for the three meetings, with 500 responses. Later that month he met regional representatives and formally accepted invitations to five areas of England in the summer of 1984.

Palau Responds Also

Almost a year earlier, Clifford Hill, having left the Evangelical Alliance, announced that Luis Palau had accepted “in principle” an invitation from New Way London to conduct an evangelistic crusade in the capital in the fall of 1983. A series of satellite minicrusades was planned for key London suburbs in September, to be followed the next month by a series of meetings in a large auditorium in central London.

Early in 1983 there was a dramatic change of plan. The minicrusades would now spill over into October and conclude with a single large-scale rally in the Wembley Arena. The Central London Crusade planned for October was switched to the spring of 1984, probably to be held in a large soccer stadium. The reasons given sounded logical: lighter evenings in the spring, more time for preparation and follow-up. But doubts were expressed by some as to the wisdom of having Luis Palau and Billy Graham both conducting large-scale crusades in England at the same time.

“Mission England” began in 1983 with a six-week nationwide tour called “Prepare the Way,” a road show presenting the challenge of local church-based evangelism, and seen by 46,000 people. An estimated 25,000 took part in training courses entitled “Is My Church Worth Joining?” and “Caring for New Christians.” At least 20,000 “prayer triplets” were formed—three Christians covenanting to pray for three unbelieving friends each. The response was uneven.

Last fall the spotlight fell on the first phase of Luis Palau’s Mission to London—nine minicrusades in the London suburbs lasting between 3 and 17 days. While not exactly setting the capital alight, the 94 meetings recorded total attendances of just over 156,000, with nearly 6,200 responses. The grand finale at Wembley Arena and various fringe meetings pushed the figures to 190,450 and 7,372 respectively. A quarter of the inquirers were under 14, and a third were 14 to 18; one in four had no previous religious connection, and 55 percent were “first-time acceptances.”

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An Enormous Task

As the year ended, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association moved some of its most experienced men into strategic positions within the Mission England administrative structure. Though there were inevitably some differences of opinion between the English and American executives, in the main cooperation was good, and the arrangement worked well. The organizers received a few shocks during the making of a promotional film for Mission England. Street interviews revealed that hardly anyone under 35 had heard of Billy Graham; 80 percent said they would not go to hear him preach.

Mission to London, too, received a salutary reminder of the size of the task ahead when a Bible Society survey revealed that church attendance in inner London was lower than anywhere else in Britain: it was falling by 3 percent a year, and in 1979 dropped below 200,000 for the first time. Only the newer black churches were holding their own—and in some cases advancing.

Early in 1984 the finishing touches were put on the advertising campaigns—$300,000 for Mission England, $500,000 for Mission to London. Both campaigns were handled by professional agencies. Mission England projected a friendly, informal Billy Graham with the slogan “worth listening to,” banking on other media coverage to help the public identify their man. Mission to London, which chose a subsidiary of the famous Saatchi and Saatchi agency, opted for a teasing “Who Is Luis Palau?” approach, acknowledging the fact that Londoners were largely ignorant of his name. Photographs showed him in a formal, though friendly pose, far removed from the more aggressive declamatory figure used the previous year.

Mission to London’s build-up continued with an ambitious house-to-house visitation campaign; the target was four million homes. Mission England, meanwhile, reported that 45,000 attended month-long Christian Life and Witness classes in 300 centers. Massive visitation schemes were also under way in the regions.

A marvelous bonus came Mission England’s way with the invitation from Queen Elizabeth II to Billy Graham to spend a weekend in January at Sandringham, her country home in Norfolk, and to preach to the royal family. At a reception for the evangelist at Lambeth Palace hosted by the archbishop of Canterbury a few days later, 50 church leaders spent several hours in discussions with him. A number of TV appearances followed, and his brief visit climaxed with a packed meeting for clergy and lay leaders from all over Britain in the National Exhibition Centre at Birmingham. Four thousand were expected, but more than 12,500 turned up, braving harsh winter weather. Extensive national media coverage of these events brought Mission England to the notice of the general public for the first time.

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The Campaigns Begin

And so to the missions themselves. As might be expected, there was some opposition—though less than anticipated. Mission to London faced the most serious threat. A few weeks before the start of the mission at Queen’s Park Rangers Football Stadium, an attempt was made to persuade the Greater London Council to revoke its permission for the meetings to be held, on environmental grounds of noise and nuisance to local residents. The move narrowly failed, but council officials were present to monitor the opening meetings, emphasizing the provisional nature of their agreement.

A group calling itself the Campaign for Real Life distributed leaflets outside the stadium, drawing attention to Luis Palau’s alleged association with right-wing rulers in Central America, and the political complexion of Palau’s press aide in London, Harvey Thomas, who works for Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. They staged a short-lived demonstration at the opening meeting.

Criticism of Billy Graham came from two well-thumbed sources. The veteran Methodist peer Donald Soper accused him (and Palau) of old-fashioned fundamentalism. Novelist George Target, a long-time critic and author of the unfavorable book Evangelism Inc., repeated the somewhat dated accusations about psychological manipulation he first made in the 1960s. When the BBC invited him to go to the first series of meetings and see for himself whether his criticisms were justified, he had the good grace to acknowledge over the air that he was moved by what he saw, though he subsequently repeated his original allegations in a modified form.

Initial Success

The inaugural Mission England rally took place in the West Country on a sunny, windy Saturday afternoon at the Bristol City Football Ground. The stadium was packed with an estimated 31,000 people, the atmosphere was light, and when the timeless invitation came, “I’m going to ask you to get up out of your seats,” more than 2,350 responded. Bristol, the city where John Wesley preached his first open-air revival, never looked back after that, even though rain fell heavily on two of the eight nights. By the end of the mission, nearly a quarter of a million people had visited the stadium, with more than 20,000 going forward—two-thirds under 25 and half registering a first-time commitment.

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The next location was Sünderland, a tough, ship-building and engineering town on the northeast coast with high unemployment, and generally recognized as a “graveyard” for evangelists. Though the area is rich in historic Christian sites, evangelical witness is very patchy. To make matters worse, it was so cold that Billy Graham confessed to wearing two sets of thermal underwear, and for the first time in his life wore a hat as he preached. On several nights a cold rain poured. But there were never fewer than 10,000 present, and on one occasion 20,263 crammed onto the grounds. Of the nearly 125,000 who attended, 11,785 responded to the appeal. (The response rate at Bristol and Sünderland was twice that of most Graham missions.) One meeting was transmitted live by BBC radio on its national network and also its world service, with an estimated audience in excess of 40 million. Millions more saw another of the meetings in the form of an hour-long telecast on Independent Television.

The Preachers And The Media

Coverage of the first two missions elsewhere in the national media was generally sympathetic if light. Within the regions it was both strong and positive. The religious press coverage exceeded all expectations. Establishment papers such as the Anglican Church Times and the Methodist Recorder gave the meetings huge and favorable coverage, a tribute to the hard work done by mission director Gavin Reid and director of training Eddie Gibbs, both Anglicans, in winning the support of numerous bishops and leading church figures.

The Mission to London started its month-long run with the 15,000 seat Queen’s Park Rangers stadium less than half full, except for the night well-known Christian rock singer Cliff Richard was on the platform. At the end of the first week attendance totalled 42,500 with more than 2,400 coming forward, no small achievement in a city as unresponsive as London. Press coverage was rather cynical in tone, but Luis Palau had good openings on several radio stations.

At the start of 1984 the British media made great play of the fact that it was the year foreseen by novelist George Orwell when the world would be entirely in the grip of totalitarian dictators, with every freedom curtailed by the state, and the entire population enslaved to the rule of “Big Brother.” Halfway through this summer of mission, many Christians in Britain are beginning to see that in the purposes of God—and almost with a divine sense of humor—1984 could be the year in which large sections of the nation are set free.


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