Satellite and video carry evangelist Billy Graham’s Buenos Aires campaign across Latin America.

Just a few days before opening his Buenos Aires crusade last November, Billy Graham turned 73 years old. As he laid a wreath at the statue of Gen. José de San Martín, nineteenth-century hero of Argentina’s liberation from Spain, a marine band broke into the familiar strains of “Happy Birthday.”

Although he enjoyed the moment, Graham could have wished for no more satisfying a present than what he received the following week: the unprecedented unity that Argentina’s evangelical Christians displayed in backing his crusade. Pentecostals, who compose 70 percent of the country’s evangelical church, set aside differences with their Baptist, Plymouth Brethren, Anglican, and other less-charismatic brethren to offer a warm reception to Graham. That cooperation, fostered by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) and the Christian newspaper El Puente, helped fill Buenos Aires’s River Plate Stadium to overflowing (an estimated 83,500 and 81,000 people at the final two services) with crowds that clapped, sang, and waved Billy Graham pennants. Veteran Graham-watchers said they had never seen such a display at a crusade anywhere in the world.

The show of enthusiasm, however, represented a fragile unity, one that BGEA personnel feared would fragment at the last minute over Graham’s relationship with Roman Catholics. Though known for his increasing cooperation with Catholics in the United States and other developed countries, Graham avoided contact with Latin American Catholic leadership. Such association would be counterproductive, explained Charles Ward, special assistant for the BGEA in Latin America, because of the strong feelings of Latin Protestants against the Catholic church.

Evangelicals in the historically Catholic country are perhaps justified in their feelings, says Argentine Baptist theologian C. René Padilla. “Wherever the Roman Catholic church is the majority, it becomes very Islamic, very associated with the powers that be.”

During the crusade preparations, CEP(Confederacíon Evangélica Pentecostal), the Argentine Pentecostal fraternity that represents 70 percent of the country’s evangelicals, threatened to boycott the meetings after a photo of Graham with the Pope was circulated. Norm Mydske, BGEA director for Latin America for more than 20 years, had to promise an angry CEP leadership that the evangelist would not meet with any Catholic leaders during his stay in Argentina. Just days before the crusade began, however, a rumor circulated that the local bishop’s appointment book listed an appointment with Graham. Mydske issued strong denials (Graham never had plans for such a meeting). Yet as the meetings began, he and other staffers were uncertain whether the crusade would garner sufficient support to fill the stadium.

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Church Growth

Attendance at the crusade symbolized the tremendous change in Argentina’s religious and social scene. In 1962, when Graham last visited Buenos Aires, he preached in 5,000-seat Luna Park. In 1991, the crusade’s choir alone numbered 4,200. Thirty years ago there were between 200 and 250 evangelical churches in greater Buenos Aires. Today, estimates run between 2,000 and 2,500 churches, including some of the largest congregations in the world.

Yet Argentine observers temper their enthusiasm over such growth. In an interview with CHRISTIANITY TODAY, Padilla and fellow Baptist seminary professor and pastor Pablo Deiros cautioned that not all that is called revival is revival. They pointed to “the growth of all religious movements, not just evangelical Christianity, but Jehovah’s Witnesses, Macumba [an African religion popular in Brazil], astrology, and occultism. This will prevent us from triumphalist conclusions.”

Unlike Europe, where the fruit of secularization is the notion that God is dead, “in Argentina it is the religious institutions that are dead. The people believe in God,” said Deiros, “but they do not believe in the priests.”

Church leaders said God has used a variety of social, political, and economic factors to prepare the soil for evangelism. Graham had been invited to return to Argentina ten years ago, but when war broke out with England over possession of the Falkland Islands (or las Malvinas), the local committee canceled the meetings.

“The Malvinas War had a profound effect on the Argentine psyche,” Ward said. “Argentines had believed their army was invincible; the people believed they were the most modern, developed nation in Latin America. But they lost face, and the people began to see their army and their nation in a different light. The army became brutal, murdering thousands of young people. All this resulted in the Argentines rethinking their values, making them ripe for the huge charismatic healing campaigns of recent years and for this crusade.”

In addition, social ministry prepared the country for church growth, said Osvaldo Pupillo, national overseer of the Church of God and prayer chairman for the crusade. “Pentecostalism has always been a movement sensitive to the needs of the people, providing pastoral assistance to meet their needs for food, clothing, and finding jobs. This has given them the opportunity to know evangelicals as people who care,” he said.

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The national turn toward religion has been fostered by a number of evangelists, including Jimmy Swaggart and native Argentines Luis Palau and Carlos Annacondia. Although the preaching has produced many converts, it has been largely unable to train them in Christian discipleship. As a result, there has been a steady hemorrhage of the disillusioned. According to Ward, charismatic growth may be leveling off. One megachurch pastor in Santa Fe had numbered his church’s attendance at about 125,000 persons until a recent count showed that he had only 80,000.

Several observers placed the value of this Graham crusade not so much on the growth it might bring, but on its promotion of discipleship training in churches that had perhaps grown too rapidly. BGEA’s Ward estimates that 18,000 to 20,000 people participated in “Christian Life and Witness” classes.

Evangelical Image

Local evangelicals benefited from the halo effect of Graham’s visit. Despite their rapid growth and increasing clout (a new evangelical Christian political party is presently forming), evangelicals have been culturally marginalized in this officially Catholic country. They were therefore delighted when the evangelist met and prayed with President Carlos Menem, had a press conference reported on the front pages of national dailies, appeared on the country’s most popular talk show, and even showed up in several widely-read comic strips. Menem reportedly told Graham that legislation was being prepared that would abrogate the official requirement that the president be a Roman Catholic.

Churches Show Growth

Billy Graham talks with CHRISTIANITY TODAY about Argentina and his hopes for the future.

What has impressed you most about the way God prepared Argentina for this crusade?

The prayers of so many people here. And the unity of the evangelical churches, which I think is unprecedented—the fact that there hasn’t been any open opposition [to the crusade].

Also, the friendship of the government, including the president. Evangelicals here don’t have much contact with him, but I think that’s going to change. They briefed me on things they’d like said to him, and I was able to represent them and also to share the gospel—although he shared the gospel with me just as clearly as anybody could. And we had prayer together.

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How does the situation in Argentina differ from 1962 when you were here last?

It’s totally different because, in those days, there were only about 200 evangelical churches in Buenos Aires, and today they claim about 2,000. Then there are some giant churches that have sprung up that are some of the biggest in the world.

And the unity of the churches, at least around this crusade, is new. We didn’t have perfect unity last time.

What two or three things would you like to accomplish over the next few years?

I would like to finish my memoirs, but I don’t think I will. There’s far more to it than I had ever dreamed.

And I would like to have strength to continue preaching. My mind and my heart say everything is the same, but my body says, “You can’t do it.” So I have to listen to my body. I won’t be holding as many crusades, and I won’t be preaching as much. I will probably take more one-day public meetings and maybe speak at some conventions.

Perhaps the most intense and favorable attention was attracted when the River Plate futbol (soccer) team qualified for the Super Cup finals just the week before the crusade was to open. To accommodate the home team’s first game, Graham postponed by one day the opening meeting of his crusade. The gesture bought local evangelicals much good will, and it placed religion news not only on the front pages, but also on the sports pages of the national dailies. Many evangelicals noted that for the first time the papers had called them “the evangelical church,” abandoning the traditionally pejorative phrase, “the sects.”

The postponement, however, created a technical nightmare for crusade staff, who had to tear down the huge platform, sound system, inquirers’ ramps to the field, television equipment, and miles of cable after Tuesday night’s dedication service, then reinstall everything overnight following the futbol match.

Satellite Links

The Buenos Aires crusade marked the third major thrust of Mission World, which carried Graham’s message by satellite broadcast and videotape showing to 852 sites throughout Latin America. Previous Mission World efforts included Graham’s 1989 London crusade, which was carried to Africa, and his 1990 Hong Kong crusade, which reached throughout Asia. A fourth and final phase is planned for March 1993, broadcasting to 27 countries in 39 languages over Eastern and Western Europe from a yet-to-be-determined site in Germany.

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Mission World Latin America, said director Bob Williams, “purposely placed a low priority on reaching big cities,” where much evangelism has been done, and instead “placed emphasis on areas where evangelism has not been done.” That “unreached peoples” strategy, however, posed a serious technical problem, said Williams. Little equipment was available for rent in Latin America, and the technical coordinators in most countries had to be recruited and trained in satellite technology.

The 852 remote locations across Latin America were staffed entirely with trained volunteers, and in each location, expenses were borne entirely by local committees. Said Williams, “The average remote crusade committee member has given a month’s salary—not to BGEA—but to the local efforts. I wouldn’t feel proud if we just went in and wrote a blank check. That is just the American machine at work. But when it is of God, people put their incomes and their lives on the line. Some have been threatened by terrorists. That tells me there’s going to be a blessing, because the church is fulfilling the biblical pattern for evangelism.”

Integrating the evangelist’s gift with local churches has increased the response to Graham’s gospel message. In the Hong Kong meetings, Williams said, 8 percent of those present came forward at the invitation; in the remote satellite and video locations, an average of 14 percent responded. Williams expected an even greater harvest from Mission World Latin America and was worried that the 4 million pieces of follow-up literature they had printed would not be enough.

Mission World also involved contextualizing the gospel message. Rather than assuming uniformity in the Latin American cultures, Graham’s sermons were translated into Spanish, Portuguese, and four indigenous Indian languages and dialects. Because Latin American Spanish has distinct regional flavors, different Spanish interpreters were used for different regions.

These translated messages were then paired with pretaped testimonies and music videos that matched the target countries. Thus Mexican viewers were treated to the testimony of a well-known Mexican athlete, while Argentine viewers heard the story of a local futbol hero.

The musical portions of the programs were tailored for their audiences as well. Fifty percent of the Latin American population is under 14 years of age; Mission World field tests drew audiences that were 70 percent 14 and under. So organizers knew their crowds might not respond to the style of the BGEA’s long-time soloist Bev Shea. Williams admitted that the music videos, which featured a rock beat and an MTV visual style, might offend some North American supporters of BGEA. But such cultural adaptation, he said, is an essential part of the church’s world mission.

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For Williams and hundreds of other organizers, the real success of Mission World and Graham’s South American visit was measured not by the technical wizardry or the mass-media attention, but by a scene in Rosario, a city about 100 miles from Buenos Aires. There, several hundred Christians and their curious friends stood in a shabby park adjacent to long blocks of public housing. As their children ran and played, families shared picnic food and earnestly watched the flickering image of Billy Graham on a temporary projection screen.

“If it were simply a matter of inviting people to watch a video of Billy Graham, they might not come,” explained Baptist pastor José Alastra, regional director of the Argentine Bible Society. “But because this crusade is going on in Buenos Aires, they have a sense of participating in a national event.”

As the familiar figure on the screen began to invite his hearers to make a decision for Christ, the image went into freeze frame, and a local pastor stood silhouetted against the screen. As his “live” invitation began, inquirers moved forward. And in that moment, the focus of all the efforts came clear: Someone was being born again.

By David Neff in Buenos Aires.

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