When radio shock jock Howard Stern and his entourage rolled into Cleveland June 9, he may not have given much thought to the city's other famous visitor, evangelist Billy Graham. Both came to the Midwestern city to try to teach the area's youth-Stern to push higher ratings for his syndicated program and Graham to save souls. The contest was not even close.
Graham, who has spoken often in recent months of his burden for today's youth and the world in which they are living, made outreach to youth a central goal of the fiveday crusade at Cleveland Stadium on the shore of Lake Erie. The evening of the fourth day was set aside for a first-ever "Youth Special," including Christian rockers DC Talk and Michael W. Smith, testimony by local basketball star Mark Price, and Graham giving "straight talk from a caring adult."
"Young people today don't know which way to turn," Graham told Cleveland adults. "They don't have the role model of their parents; they're not told in the schools; they don't learn it from their peers. They need to be saved."
With neither choir nor George Beverly Shea present at the youth night, the crusade organizers took a "risk," said Rob Cathcart, executive director of Youth for Christ in Cleveland. "I've a tremendous amount of respect for the Graham organization for all the risks they are taking to reach kids."
Those risks include an unusual alliance among the crusade organization, newspapers, Catholic and Protestant churches, and even WZAK, the city's leading secular rock radio station, which cosponsored and heavily promoted the Youth Special. The crusade advertised the Saturday night event separately from the rest of the crusade, taking out ads on MTV, the local FOX-TV station, radio stations, and movie theaters.
SING A NEW SONG
While crusade staffers anxiously awaited the Youth Special, they were reaping rewards with their traditional nightly services, which attracted an average of 42,000 people per night.
Near the top of many people's minds was the question of how a 75-year-old great-grandfather would relate to thousands of teenagers more attuned to Beverly Hills 90210 and grunge rock.
Jim Colledge, pastor of Hudson (Ohio) Community Chapel, predicted the day before the event that there would be no generation gap. "Kids are dying for someone with integrity. [Graham] is genuine, he's not trying to be a teenager, and that's what will connect immediately with those kids."
Though crusade staffers expected a large crowd for Saturday night, they were surprised when 65,000 youth filled the stands and spilled out onto the field. The audience enthusiastically greeted the Maranatha Praise Band, which opened the show and introduced DC Talk, the band of former Liberty University students who mix hip hop and gospel. Raised arms swayed with the music.
Michael W. Smith, the third and final music act, told the audience, "We're experiencing a little bit of history here tonight." Graham was greeted with a rousing standing ovation, and any doubt that the septuagenarian could relate to the crowd was quickly dispelled.
"I'm an anticlimax to what you've already seen and heard," Graham told the audience. "You've already heard the gospel through what they sang." He nonetheless preached a straightforward, yet hopeful, gospel message, referring to tragedies of war, AIDS, drugs, and suicide. "There is more to live for. There's life to live that Jesus came to give us."
INVITING GENERATION X
The 6,500 inquirers who responded to Graham's invitation represented the generation believed by many to be beyond the reach of churches.
"I've grown up in church all my life, but I've never heard anything like this," Penny Patton, 17, told CHRISTIANITY TODAY. I never realized what [Jesus] did for us. Coming down here was something I needed to do for him."
Though she appreciated the music, Vicky Whiston, 17, was moved by Graham's preaching to come forward at the invitation. "I just felt in my heart I needed to do it."
Afterward, the crusade team was pleased. "In terms of attendance and response, it's beyond expectations," said crusade media director A. Larry Ross.
Though the crusade would last one more day, Cleveland already had handed Graham a victory over Howard Stern, who attracted 10,000 rowdy fans to a rally late in the week.
The Graham crusade, which also included a children's service Saturday morning, drew 257,000 overall, including 24,554 inquirers, which is more than half the number Graham drew in 1972 during a more extended ten-day visit to Cleveland. In the intervening years, Cleveland underwent a long and difficult transition from the epitome of the Rust Belt to a rejuvenated city with typical big-city problems. "It's not a pace-setting city," said Cathcart. "It's a typical American city."
That ordinariness helped teen Melissa Vanderkey make the decision to join her companions on the stadium field at Graham's invitation. "I've been having some really tough times in my life, and I just felt I should come down here and forget about these problems. They really don't mean anything once you see everybody else and realize they have problems, too."
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