When Billy Graham began to speak, it was not at all what I expected. It was 1997 at the Cow Palace, a cavernous indoor arena in San Francisco that hosts everything from agricultural exhibits to professional sports. The air was electric. Many thousands had gathered to hear the great preacher. Graham was 78. His health had suffered, and no one knew how much longer he might be able to do the work God had put him on the planet to do. Although I was a young college student at the time, I knew he had preached to countless millions and knew that multitudes had come to faith through his ministry.

So when Graham came onstage to speak, I found myself confused. He cut a striking figure. Tall, elegant, with a profile like a granite cliff and a shock of bright white hair. He spoke with clarity, dignity, and a wholehearted trust in the truth of what he preached. But I had expected more.

I’d had a relationship with Jesus for as long as I could remember. So I was not there to be persuaded but to be wowed. I expected a dazzling oratorical performance. What I heard, though, was a straightforward gospel presentation. Graham extended the gospel—unembarrassed, unapologetic, unadorned. Where was the showmanship, the fireworks, the awe-inspiring display of talent? Perhaps, I thought, there would be no response to the altar call.

But then came the altar call, and I watched in astonishment as hundreds upon hundreds of people strode forward to confess their faith in Jesus Christ. Driving home that night, I realized how badly I had missed the point. And as I begin my tenure serving this extraordinary ministry he founded, it’s worth remembering what Graham taught me that night.

Serving God is not about impressing the crowd, crafting a ...

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