This editorial originally appeared in the November 18, 1988 issue of Christianity Today.
History will remember Billy Graham as the world's greatest missionary-evangelist. No other person has preached the gospel face-to-face to so many—over 100 million. No other person has led so many to make explicit spiritual decisions, usually to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior—over two million. And no other person has traveled to so many countries to preach the gospel—more than 65.
How could it ever have happened? How could a shy country boy from the foothills of North Carolina sway millions and stand before kings?
Some have suggested that, at root, Billy Graham is a supreme opportunist. At a crucial point in Los Angeles in his early ministry, media tycoon William Randolph Hearst ordered his chain of newspapers to "Puff Graham." The media took over and created Billy Graham, his evangelistic career, and its worldwide success—or so the story goes.
However, Billy Graham's own answer to this puzzle is "the hand of God." The Spirit of God fell on this unpromising material and called him to be an evangelist. And who can deny the evangelist is right? From the very first, Graham's unswerving purpose has been to carry the message of the gospel to all the world-to everyone everywhere by whatever means—so that some might be saved from the guilt and burden of their sins and others aroused and strengthened to live obedient and useful lives for the glory of God. From that goal, he has never deviated.
In his early mission, no doubt the heavy hand of William Randolph Hearst was laid upon him and gave him welcome advertising in his attempts to reach a wider public hearing. But even a superficial reading of Graham's ministry before that Los Angeles crusade (1949) will show a rising young evangelist of exceptional promise. Without Hearst, nationwide and worldwide acceptance might have proved slower in coming, but God's special call upon Billy Graham became clearly evident from the earliest days of his public ministry.
Graham never lacked critics both of his message and his method. They came from Right and Left. Some charged him with the worst kind of opportunism: He warped the biblical gospel to whatever people wished to hear. He taught an "easy believism" so it was alleged: Make a decision for Christ and you will be saved. Others reversed the charge and accused him of legalism: Come forward, turn over a new leaf, and live a life separated from the world.
More serious was a charge by liberals and some evangelicals that he neglected the social implications of the gospel. The fact is, from his earliest days he stressed holy living and the duty of the regenerate believer to serve humankind. The piece of truth in this charge is that Graham laid less stress on political action—to build a better society by passing laws—than he did on right social conduct. The responsibility of the Christian to change society by legal action was always there, but he insisted that we shall never introduce a perfect society by passing laws (however necessary they are). The most important thing is to change people so they will want to structure society rightly and live for the good of others.
Particularly in the early days of his crusades, many fundamentalists and some evangelicals objected to the participation of liberal churches in his campaigns. Moreover, he did not challenge the distinctives of Roman Catholics; this his critics interpreted as ignoring the Reformation.
It is true, Graham rarely confronted liberals with their liberalism or attacked Roman Catholic distinctives. It was not that these teachings were unimportant to him, but they were clearly secondary. His call was and continues to be to preach the gospel and the free grace of Christ, receivable on the condition of faith and faith alone. Graham believes that the good fruit born by this preaching is ample confirmation that his method of presenting the truth positively is right. Countless disillusioned and spiritually starved liberals have found life in the Savior through his crusades. And today Roman Catholics usually make up the largest single denominational group attending his citywide crusades.
As to his methodology, most criticism has focused on the mass psychological appeal of his meetings, with their exuberant singing, intense testimonies by past converts, emotional appeal of the message, and the urgent pressure to come forward and "decide for Christ." Yet what strikes most people who actually attend his crusades and listen to his "invitations" is his lack of emotional tactics. Particularly in recent years, his voice is calm, the words are simple, and the appeal reasonable. Most who object to what is done really believe there is no legitimate role for an appeal to the will based on emotions, and are thus forgetting the wholeness of the human person.
Objections to the financial management of the crusades and the financial integrity of the crusade committee, especially of the Graham Team, are almost nonexistent. The Graham organization has kept meticulously accurate and detailed accounts that can be checked by all who make any contribution. Citywide committees are required to publish carefully audited accounts in local newspapers. And no one has ever seriously questioned the financial integrity of Graham or those who have worked with him.
A serious question raised by some, including a number of evangelicals, is the wisdom of citywide campaigns and the use of TV and radio to communicate the gospel. Are not these modern media-dominated events so expensive and, at the same time, so impersonal that they represent a misuse of kingdom resources?
However, in an increasingly secular society, some can be reached through mass evangelism who would never darken the door of a church. Who can measure how much the crusade "Schools for Evangelism" have built up the body of Christ? Or what spiritual blessings have come on the "Hour of Decision" through radio and television? The Christian works on the principle that everywhere and always, by all possible means, we seek to win the lost and strengthen the church.
This month Billy Graham turned 70. Where will he go from here? With no crystal ball in which to gaze, we can safely say he will go on as he has in the past so long as physical and mental strength remain. Campaigns will be shorter and less frequent, but they will not cease until God lays him flat on his back or takes him home to glory. For Billy Graham, to live is to preach Christ.
And who will be his successor? No one! Jonathan Edwards had no successor. Neither did Whitefield or Wesley or Finney or Spurgeon or Moody or Billy Sunday or Walter Maier or Charles E. Fuller.
Billy Graham is an evangelist. In some ways he is "the evangelist." Certainly he is the evangelist of our time. God raised him up. And when he has gone, it will be up to God to raise up another evangelist for another day.
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