William (Will) Franklin Graham IV is the grandson of Billy Graham and the son of Franklin Graham. CT contributing editor Christine A. Scheller interviewed him when he was in Red Bank, New Jersey, on March 25 preparing for the May 20-22 Jersey Shore Will Graham Celebration that will be held at the historic Great Auditorium in Ocean Grove. Graham is an associate evangelist at the evangelistic organization his grandfather founded and assistant director of The Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove. He is a graduate of Liberty University and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He preached his first 3-day Celebration in Leduc, Alberta, Canada in 2006. Graham and his wife, Kendra, live near Asheville, North Carolina and have three young children.
Last year Harvard professor Robert D. Putman published a book called American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. He and his co-author found that Americans' doctrinal commitments are weakening and they don't believe God is going to send "Aunt Joanie" to hell. How do you preach the gospel to a generation that questions the eternality of hell?
I always go back to the Bible. It's what the Bible says, and oftentimes as Americans— and this is not just in religion, it's in a lot of things—we try to design stuff, today we call it designer religion: "I'll take a little bit of this and take a little bit of that" and so on, and we kind of come up with our own little religion. We try to make our own God, our own idol in a sense. This is what our God is going to be: he's going to be more compassionate, no more hell. But always I go back to this is what the Bible says; not this is what Will Graham says, but this is what God is saying through his Word.
But you have a generation that is not biblically literate and doesn't necessarily respect the authority of the Bible the way society did in the past. And people like Rob Bell are communicating that it hasn't always been clear that Christians believe in the eternality of hell. The fact that CNN, ABC News, and all these other secular outlets reported on it tells me that Bell is tapping into something.
I can't speak for what Rob Bell talks about, but most people I come across still believe in hell. Now the idea of what hell is, that's changing, but there are a few things we do know that the Bible says. One, that there is a place called hell. Just as heaven is real, so is hell. The whole reason God came to search out man was to save us from hell. The Bible says hell was never created for man. It was created for Satan and his angels that rebelled against God. Since man has decided to rebel against God, they were going to spend eternity in hell totally separate from God.
I was watching Bugs Bunny with my kids—you know, good cartoons, the old ones—and Yosemite Sam went down to hell one time and there was a guy with a pitchfork and horns. We don't know what Satan looks like. As a matter of fact, he's known as Lucifer, the Angel of Light. He's probably something beautiful, so we have a lot of misconceptions about hell, but hell is very much a real place. We know it's a place of utter darkness. It's not going to be one big party like on TV. What I found out, even as a pastor, is that when you preach from God's Word, God will speak through his Word to people and it's always relevant. So even to this generation, I still preach the Bible.
Are people still responsive to the kind of preaching your grandfather did?
Oh yeah! People come up and say, "The years of mass evangelism are dead," and I say, "I don't believe in mass evangelism," and they're like, "That's what you guys have always done." I say, "No, we don't. We do personal evangelism, but we do it on a massive scale." Does it work in all contexts? No, but it still does. I was just in India. I had two crusades over there earlier this year. We saw a number of people come forward. The only one we did in the United States last year was in Auburn, Alabama, and it ended up being the largest event I've ever done in the United States.
Has Billy Graham Evangelistic Association changed its approach to events over the years?
The music has changed, but we still have the preaching of God's Word and we still have testimonies. My Hope is something that my dad thought of years ago in trying to reach more people with the Good News. What we did is take my grand-daddy's old sermons and dubbed them into foreign languages with [his] inflections. We do all that same work for My Hope, but instead of filling [a stadium] for three days, we've been working through the churches. The Christians open up their homes. So on these three nights, instead of going to a soccer stadium, they fill their homes with their friends and family and they turn on the television and there's Billy Graham preaching in [their language].
We started something called Rapid Response. Chaplains come along in a disaster, whether it's manmade or natural, and we simply pray with people. Sometimes we literally dig stuff out and pray with them. We have chaplains on the ground in Japan. There was big flooding in Nashville last year; [we were also there after] the Virginia Tech shooting. It was born after 9/11. My dad came up and saw all these people were just crying and in a sense needed someone to hug or to hug them, so they started a prayer center and they had a line going out the door of people wanting to come in and just be prayed for. Samaritan's Purse does a lot of disaster relief work, but the chaplains are from the Billy Graham organization, so they kind of dove tail and they're always working together. It's what happens when your boss is the same boss of both organizations. There's synergy.
What have you learned about evangelism overseas, particularly in the developing world?
Setup-wise for my organization, it's very similar to what happens here, but we are seeing God doing some amazing things. I will say doing crusade-style evangelism here is tougher, but it's not impossible.
Are people more open to crusade-style evangelism in other countries?
That's a standard.
Is that true in Western countries as well, or more so in developing countries?
I have not spent a lot of time [in Europe], so I can't speak for that. But in Africa, in Uruguay, in India, I've done preaching in some of these countries. There's still hunger. You hold a crusade. We just had one in northern India in Gangtok. We had the largest religious meeting that the state [of Sikkim] has ever had. We had ten thousand people there and this is a small community. It's between Nepal, Bhutan, and Tibet.
Who else has been influential in your life, apart from your father and grandfather?
From a ministry standpoint, besides family, probably the pastor I was working with [at Bay Leaf Baptist Church] because he really taught me how to be a pastor. His name is Ron Rowe. I was in seminary and so I was really learning. He had to teach me and we hit heads too. We ate lunch together almost every day. I think a lot of the other staff got jealous because we spent so much time together, but we accomplished more over lunch than any of these guys did in a meeting with him. He really invested in me, even to the point where we took vacations together. We loved being around each other. To this day I still call him my preacher. I call him, "Hey preacher, how are you doing?" and he'll talk to me and give me some advice. He was never the best communicator of God's Word, but he was faithful in it. What he taught me was how to be a pastor. Now you're going to say: what's the difference between a preacher and a pastor? Pastor literally comes from the word that means shepherd, and at those skills, he was by far the best.
I also had two professors at Liberty [University]. I always thought when I looked at the Bible, especially the Old Testament, "Oh, cool story, Adam and Eve, cool story, Abraham, cool story, David," and so on, and what [Harvey Hartman] taught me is that I knew a lot of these stories, but there's one story all the way through the Bible. The other was Paul Fink. He taught me how to study God's Word.
We tend to think of your grandfather as being the nation's pastor—not a fiery preacher, even though his early sermons are pretty strong—but your dad gets bad press for being passionate, outspoken, and a little controversial, especially in regard to his alleged comments about Islam. Is it fair to say that your grandfather is a warm and fuzzy guy and your dad is fiery and controversial?
It gets expressed two different ways. You know my dad has a huge love for the people of the world. That is the reason for Samaritan's Purse. Samaritan's Purse has done a lot more work in Muslim countries than the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has ever done or my granddaddy has ever done.
So when your father makes comments about Islam, they come out of that experience?
Yeah. My dad is in a lot of Muslim countries and he goes as a guest. Even when my dad was running from the Lord, before he came to know Christ, he was living in Muslim countries like Jordon, so he has a great respect and a love for the Arab people.
Are he and your grandfather as different as people make them out to be?
I don't know. I see them very much the same; I see a lot of similarities.
I was impressed recently with your father's rapid response to the events in Japan. It seems to me that he gets more press for things he says than for being able to organize 93 tons of food for the people of Japan. Do you think the media is unfair to him?
Is it unfair? It comes with the territory. We just follow God.
Several people who work for BGEA have told me that your personality is more like your grandfather's than your father's. If you're saying they are more alike than people think, does that mean you're a lot like your father too?
I am, but it's probably better for someone else on the outside to look in and tell me. I'll tell you this: I hope I have the best qualities of both of them. They both have wonderful qualities.
What about your grandmother and your mother?
I definitely have more of my mom's personality. My dad is a very quiet man. I know that sounds weird, because if he's in the press obviously he's talking, and if he's preaching, he's preaching kind of like my granddaddy. My granddaddy is very quiet at home.
Many performers or preachers are introverts by nature.
My dad is one of them. He only comes out of his shell around friends.
But you're not?
No. I've never met a stranger.
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