As John Glenn prepared to become the oldest man launched into space, Billy Graham may have become the oldest evangelist to preach in cyberspace. On October 24, during his only U.S. crusade this year, Graham boldly took his message where evangelists have rarely gone live before: the Internet.
While Graham preached in person to more than 74,000 in Tampa, Florida, on that Saturday night, another 6,257 simultaneously logged onto computers to hear his presentation of the gospel. The Internet event included music by dc Talk and Jars of Clay in a "Concert for the NeXt Generation," the traditional youth night of Graham's four-day crusade.
INNOVATIVE OCTOGENARIAN: During the 1990s, Graham, who turned 80 in November, has strived to keep pace with technological advances. In Tampa, video cameras shot the event and uplinked the video from the crusade to a satellite that beamed the signal to a Webcast server in Virginia, where the video was converted to a computer-friendly format and presented in real time on the Internet.
Although the video aspect of real-time Internet presentations is not yet perfected, and Graham's movements seemed somewhat stilted and awkward, the clear digital audio feed put Internet crusade "attendees" right into the action. Digital still photos were also loaded during the entire crusade onto the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association's Web site, which received more than 43,000 visits the week before the crusade.
PREACHING ROOTS: For Graham, the crusade took place in familiar territory. Tampa is the city where the evangelist first preached 60 years ago while attending Tampa's Florida Bible Institute.
"I began preaching here in Florida in front of 30 to 40 people," Graham said. "Now, for the first time, the Internet is being used for evangelizing. My hope is that it will reach additional thousands of people in the years to come. The Internet is only the beginning of what is on the way."
Graham recalled revival meetings he held. "I had prepared four different sermons to preach if I was ever called to preach," Graham said about his beginnings in Tampa Bay. "[That first time] I preached all four of them in about the first eight to ten minutes, I was so nervous. I still get nervous before I preach."
Graham, whose movements are slowed by Parkinson's disease, describes himself as old and tired. But during each of the four nights, Graham never faltered when preaching. The final night of the crusade drew the largest crowd, as more than 78,000 filled the stadium and two overflow lots outside.
More than 1,000 churches from 70 denominations came together in preparation for the crusade. Attendance exceeded organizers' expectations. Audiences averaged 64,500 each night, with an average of 4,900 people becoming Christians each night. Graham previously held crusades in Tampa in 1953 and 1979.
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