Missio Mondays
Written or edited by Jeff Christopherson (Christopherson3), Missio Mondays is a weekly examination of key missiological issues affecting church planting and evangelism within North America. Read more from this column.
January 6, 2020Missio Mondays

Billy Graham, Prince Albert, and Two Lives Changed Forever

A personal story about a hero who changes lives forever.
Billy Graham, Prince Albert, and Two Lives Changed Forever
Image: Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

If anything is clear from Jesus’ teaching, it is that the Kingdom of God is not at all complicated. In order to participate in the counter-culture Kingdom, we must simply, yet wholeheartedly, trust that the entire realm is dependent upon a lone Sovereign God.

This King has no need for the business that I can deliver, nor is it held hostage to the proper execution of the most brilliant strategic thinking that I can muster.

He requires only one simple course of action: trust.

That action happens to be the only fitting response of a subject to his sovereign.

Affronting as it might seem to all the clever inventions of humanity, Jesus asks only for our allegiance. In that humbling weakness, he assumes the entirety of the responsibility for his plans and does what he wishes with our mustard seed participation.

God takes that inconsequential seed and carefully places it in the fertile soil of his providential desire. Taking on himself the task of master planner, God creates the most intricate garden that bears his image of eternity as its blueprint.

From our fallen stations on earth, we seldom have eyes to see the wonders that God performs with our tiny mustard seed. That humbling and astounding revelation awaits the Christ-follower in heaven.

But from time to time, God’s grace allows us to take a little peek. And these are amazing moments.

As we begin a new year and a new decade, let me share one of these moments. It is a very personal story that profoundly illustrates this great truth.

My parents, Allan and Helen Christopherson, were married on June 4, 1960, in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, Canada. They soon began a family with the birth of their first child, a little blonde haired and blue-eyed girl named Cathy. Three years after that, I was the second and final child to be added to their young family.

My father possessed an eighth-grade education, so his workplace options were very limited. He found work as a laborer cleaning beer storage tanks at Molson’s brewery, which paid enough to support his young family.

His salary package included a prized benefit: free beer. The trajectory of my dad’s life, similar to his colleagues, was not at all promising. Alcoholism had shipwrecked the lives of many, many men and their families at the brewery.

One weekend evening in 1967, my parents decided to go on a date. They telephoned a neighbor to babysit, gave her final instructions, jumped into their little black car, and headed to the old majestic Orpheum Theatre to take in whatever movie the single screen was showing.

It was a movie called The Restless Ones. Popcorn in hand, they settled in to enjoy an evening of escape and entertainment.

As a good movie should, the plot soon captured their attention and they found themselves engrossed in the human struggle illuminated in front of them.

What my parents had not expected was a far more personal struggle that began to surface in their spirits. While watching the spiritual journey being represented on the silver screen, they found themselves being confronted with their personal sin and a desperate need for a great Savior.

While the actors on screen sat in a Chevy convertible, top down, listening to Billy Graham’s preaching emanating through their radio, my parents fell under the deep conviction of the Holy Spirit.

While the actors bowed their heads and prayed to receive Jesus Christ, my dad reached over and clasped my mom’s hand, and together, they wrestled under the heavy conviction of the living Christ.

Something very serious was taking place deep within.

The movie soon reached its fitting conclusion, but to my parents’ surprise, the evening was not yet over.

The lights brightened, and a middle-aged man, dressed in a suit and tie, walked out to center stage and began to address the audience. He instructed that if anyone wished to respond to Christ, that they could get up from where they were seated, walk down the theater aisle, and come pray with him in the front of the theater.

My parents surveyed the audience and didn’t see anyone moving forward. The man patiently waited at the front for several minutes and then very politely thanked the audience for coming out.

My parents got out of their seats and bewilderedly made their way back to their old black car. Something very new was happening. In the safety of closed sheet metal doors and the comfort of vinyl bucket seats, my parents began to talk about the implications of the commitments that they were contemplating.

And on that evening, in a parking lot outside the old Orpheum Theatre, Allan and Helen Christopherson surrendered their past, their present, and their future to the saving power of Jesus Christ.

They had been forever changed.

From that moment forward, life became an adventure. God led my father on a series of immediate faith steps that started with quitting his job at Molson’s brewery, learning a new trade (welding), and eventually leading him to befriend a quiet yet spiritually intense man who God would use to forever change our family.

Jack Conner was a church-planting, faith-walking man of God who loved Jesus so recklessly that following him seemed to always mean many personal inconveniences.

He had already left the comfortable safety of a large church in Fresno, California, that he had previously established, to begin once again—this time in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. When he and my dad first serendipitously met, my dad knew at once that he had found a kindred spirit. Jack was a man whose love for Jesus was obvious in every category of his life.

But Pastor Conner, as a church planter, had one major quirk to which his new congregation soon became very familiar. You see, he didn’t think like a corporate businessman. He really didn’t even think like a normal man.

To some, he actually thought like a madman. He had some quiet, inner compulsion that drove him to make one non-strategic move after the next. Instead of fine-tuning the systems and processes in the new church, he focused the attentions of his leaders outward.

He expected barbers and carpenters and schoolteachers and accountants and welders to be involved in bringing the Good News to places where there was little good news to celebrate.

Soon, new churches were dotting the map of towns, villages, and native (First Nations) reservations all over the north. The Kingdom of God was being revealed in the most unlikely places.

It was spiritually intoxicating.

When you enrolled in Pastor Conner’s school of discipleship, you were signing up for a very problematic church experience. It was a costly discipleship.

Many who visited would soon look for a more “full-service” church that was designed to be in tune to their needs. But those who stayed received a spiritual education that would transform the way that they would see everything. We didn’t know it at the time—I am not even sure that Jack knew it, but he was building leaders for a nation.

God’s gracious hand led my parents and their new faith to jump in the middle of a Kingdom-focused culture. This became the new normal for us. It was a gift.

Fast forward 35 years . . .

My father was invited to be on an interdenominational leadership team that would organize and host a Franklin Graham Crusade that was to take place in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. One of the first organizing meetings was held in a large room where Christian leaders from all walks of life gathered for inspiration and instruction.

My dad found his place at a round table and settled in to take in the evening. His spirit was both excited and grateful to be a part of this opportunity.

The chairman of the initiative walked up to the microphone, made some introductory comments, and then made a request of the audience.

“I would like us to spend our first few moments celebrating what God has already done through the ministry of Dr. Billy Graham. Would two or three of you in this room want to come to the microphone and share how the Graham ministry has impacted your life?”

My dad’s heart began to race.

He sensed the Holy Spirit saying, “Share your story.”

Yet his flesh said, “Speaking in front of a group this large? A room full of pastors? You’re just a welder!”

But before he knew it, he found his feet taking uncertain steps toward the microphone. He told the audience about that day in 1967 where he took his wife to The Restless Ones at the Orpheum Theatre in Prince Albert. He told the group about a skipped alter-call and a quiet yet profound encounter with Christ in a black car.

He told them about the church that they had found, and the adventure they continue to be on. He told them about those two small children who were being babysat by the neighbor were now spending their lives starting new churches all across Canada and throughout Chile. “I do not know how many hundreds of lives are now in the Kingdom because Helen and I went to the movies that day.”

While my father found his seat at his table, there seemed to be a holy hush settling in the room. An elderly man stood up and slowly shuffled his way, not to the microphone, but in a straight line toward my dad.

Tears flowing down his cheeks, he stammered as he introduced himself:

Hello, Allan, my name is Tom. Tom Dice. I am a retired family counselor in the area. I want you to know something, Allan. God asked me to bring that movie to Prince Albert. I rallied my friends and colleagues and we really expected great things to happen. Night after night we played the movie and night after night I stood before the audience and asked them to respond to Christ. And night after night I went home very discouraged and disappointed. Until this day, to my knowledge, nobody ever responded. I thought my project was a failure. I was embarrassed. I wondered if I had heard God right in the first place. But I did hear him, Allan. Now I see that it wasn’t a failure.

With joyful tears running down Tom’s face, he stretched out his old hands and embraced my dad and said, “Now I see. Praise Jesus, now I see . . .”

Tom Dice’ season on earth soon came to an end. As my father’s did a few short years later. Likely my mom’s will in the months ahead as well.

For Tom and my dad, they now see with clear eyes. My mom will see, too. They see with a clarity that can only come from heavenly eyes beholding a King’s perfect design.

When we recall stories such as these, our spirit immediately identifies the hero. It wasn’t Billy Graham, nor his son. Not Tom Dice, nor Pastor Jack Conner. And certainly not my parents.

Each received grace to play a part.

But none were the central figure orchestrating the events that culminated in this eternal win. Each merely invested their mustard seed as the Master Planner nudged their hearts. Each had a simple, yet essential, part to play.

The eternal garden was being devised and cultivated by an all-seeing Designer who merely asked one question: “Will you trust Me?”

And so, it seems, that we answer that question every day by what we do with a very small seed.

A new year. A new decade. Any maybe, while we are in our season on earth – a simpler, more trusting obedience.

Jeff Christopherson is a church planter, pastor, author and Missiologist at the Send Institute - an interdenominational church planting and evangelism think tank.

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Billy Graham, Prince Albert, and Two Lives Changed Forever