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Walking in Billy’s Shoes

John Ortberg offers 6 lessons evangelical organizations can learn from Billy Graham and his team.
Walking in Billy’s Shoes
Image: Bettmann / Getty Images

For more than half a century, the most familiar voice in American spiritual life belonged to Billy Graham. When I was a student at his alma mater, Wheaton College, in the 70s, impersonating his voice was almost a varsity sport. To this day, it is the only impression I can do. Charlie Emmerich did it so well that he would do an annual faux-crusade; he got his picture in the yearbook shaking hands with Billy Graham himself.

Perhaps more striking, the evangelist assembled an organization and a team of leaders who served alongside him throughout the decades. There are maybe a handful of people who have sustained that level of fame for that stretch of time. Of those it is difficult to think of any who have retained the same leadership team over decades of challenge and transition.

This kind of stability does not happen by accident. In a day when leaders (including church leaders) are trying to cull leadership lessons from Attila the Hun and swimming with sharks and whatever CEO has not yet capitulated to the scandal du jour, it is ironic that a preacher who fled organizational leadership for evangelism early in his ministry would end up leading a multi-million-dollar organization that developed a film company, publishing ventures, radio and television branches, and educational and training wings through decades of challenges.

Billy Graham was not simply the central character of American evangelicalism; the organization he formed blazed trails for much of the evangelical entrepreneurial energy that has been unleashed over the past 50 years. What lessons can churches and ministry organizations learn from his ministry as they face the future?

Stay focused

Perhaps the most obvious lesson is the power of focused attention. Churches and other organizations regularly spend months, if not years, standing around white boards trying to craft purpose statements, then go through the same process all over again every time top leadership changes. It is almost humorous that the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s (BGEA) purpose statement was written by business manager George Wilson in a single sitting—it was demanded by the paperwork needed to start a nonprofit organization in 1950.

To spread and propagate the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ by any and all ... means.

It was possible to write this so quickly, of course, because the organization and its namesake had a commitment to a single direction that made a compass needle look fickle. Critics on the left and right might argue about how the gospel was being defined, but no one could question the unswerving tenacity to “spread and propagate” it.

This single-mindedness is all the more remarkable because of the effectiveness and visibility of the ministry. There is a direct correlation between the success of a leader or an organization and the opportunities to get distracted. As churches grow, they get lobbied to start everything from private schools to political action committees. As leaders grow in influence they are begged to use their influence to speak for every cause under the sun. They lose clarity on what businesses call the “golden moment”—at McDonalds, it’s when a hamburger finally slides across the counter.

In the ministry of Billy Graham, the golden moment came when he called for a decision. The sight of this one man, standing on a platform, head bowed in prayer, having presented the gospel, asking God to move people to respond as the words to “Just as I Am” are sung—this moment touches deep chords in those of us who call ourselves evangelicals. At Willow Creek, we sometimes referred to the idea of the seeker service as “doing a Billy Graham Crusade every weekend.” In fact, many churches have been spurred to creativity because they wanted the kind of evangelistic effectiveness associated with Billy Graham to be housed again in the local church.

Never stop growing

A second lesson involves an appetite for what Wallace Stegner once called an “explosion of growth.” Organizations often speak these days about the necessity of life-long learning. It is difficult to imagine, in retrospect, the kind of life-long development needed for a southern preacher to operate on a worldwide stage, in the eyes of a probing and sometimes skeptical media. When Billy Graham spoke at a Wheaton College chapel after many decades of ministry, he said the area of life where he had to be most intentional about growth was the life of the mind. He said that if he had all his life to do over again he would have spent more years in study. (He also confessed that the reason he’d been an anthropology major was because it was supposed to be the easiest field, which spurred a big run on anthropology majors that year.)

The capacity for a strongly anchored faith and a growing mind is evangelicalism at its best. It is part of our heritage as the protestant church: reformed but always reforming. But it has not always been modeled by leaders. Leadership expert Jim Collins noted that perhaps the greatest danger to leaders (or speakers or writers) is that they stick to the single method or book or technique that brought them recognition in the first place and fail to risk growing. Growing churches and organizations require growing leaders. And somehow—from the sources he quoted to the way he related with political leaders—Billy Graham always seemed to be a different leader today than he had been a decade earlier.

Engage the culture

Churches and ministry organizations have also struggled with (or worse, failed to struggle with) engaging the culture. Churches continue to wage worship wars. Ministries and congregations grow as increasingly niched as Nick at Night and Lifetime for Women. There was a tension at work in the Graham ministry that continually thrust it outward. Because it grew out of the fundamentalist movement, evangelicalism has always wrestled with separatism. But because evangelism is by its nature oriented toward those Miroslav Volf calls “the other,” it can never retreat from the culture. So perhaps it is not surprising that Billy Graham crusades have run the gamut from George Beverly Shea to Ethel Waters to Johnny Cash to Kris Kristofferson to Amy Grant to Delirious.

There was always a sense, growing up evangelical, that Billy Graham represented us. When he went on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, it was as if there were an evangelical presence in a place where we least expected it. His willingness to preach behind the Iron Curtain in the late 70s and early 80s subjected him to higher-than-usual criticism, but it also caused many evangelicals to think in fresh ways about the Cold War and the arms race. We sensed that it really was possible to be in the world but not of it.

Grow in humility

One of the most winsome lessons offered by Billy Graham’s life is the power of humility. This is perhaps part of why the team at BGEA has stayed together so long. One of Lyndon Johnson’s biographers noted his Texas-sized ego prompted him to refer to his cabinet members in the first-person possessive. “I’d like you to meet my secretary of state,” he’d say, as if the United States government were peopled by his own personal lackeys. You can hear the same language patterns at many churches when senior pastors refer to “my executive pastor” or “my worship leader.” It’s one thing to master the art of speaking publicly about the value of teams; it’s something else entirely to have a little community that works together in genuine harmony across decades. That requires humility in a leader that cannot be manufactured.

Over the years, many have spoken about what might be called a “trajectory of humility” in the ministry. Gary Wills wrote in his Pulitzer-prize-winning account of the Gettysburg Address that Abraham Lincoln may have been the only war leader in history whose rhetoric actually grew gentler as the war progressed. During a war, a nation’s leader will generally use increasingly harsh language about the enemy to achieve maximum motivation among his own people. Yet by the climax of the Civil War, Lincoln was asking for malice toward none and charity toward all. He was reminding the North of the scriptural injunction to judge not, lest we be judged. Similarly, the Graham ministry has been marked by increased modesty of spirit even as its outward success has grown.

In his early days, Billy Graham would speak confidently about what the square footage of heaven would look like. Over the years, his message gravitated toward that which is most simple, central, and clear. Not long ago, in a national interview, he spoke about the parable where the king would say to his servant, “Well done.” He was asked about his confidence in his own heavenly reward, if he expected to hear those words as well. “I hope so,” was his only reply.

Turn the other cheek

Visibility draws criticism—especially in the religious world. One of my favorite stories in Billy Graham’s autobiography concerns the time he was speaking in Switzerland. Karl Barth took him mountain climbing and later came to hear him preach. Barth said he agreed with most of the material, but did not approve of giving an invitation, and wished Billy would omit the word must from “you must be born again.”

Emil Brunner also attended a message, and when he heard about Barth’s response he disagreed vehemently: “Pay no attention to him. Always put that word must in there. A man must be born again.” And Brunner voted for giving an invitation as well. You can’t please everybody.

But in the evangelical world, sometimes it feels like you can’t please anybody. Dallas Willard wrote about a denominational official who said that after he retired he wanted to write a book on why Christians are so mean to one another. Dallas said there really is an answer to this question: Christians are routinely taught that it is more important to be right than to be Christlike. In fact, being right licenses you to practice what Dallas calls “condemnation engineering.”

It seems like almost every week we read about some wing of evangelicalism attacking another one for not being right on pretty much every issue imaginable. We engage in intramural warfare: groups take out ads, soliciting names on a list to do a little condemnation engineering against other groups. I can’t remember seeing Billy Graham’s name on such a list. He simply did not use up his capital by engaging in in-house battles or responding to personal criticism.

Maintain integrity

Modesto, California, was the site of a meeting related to yet another theme. Sinclair Lewis’ fictional character Elmer Gantry colored many people’s idea of the traveling evangelist, so the core members of Billy Graham’s ministry drafted what became known as the Modesto Manifesto. They made commitments to certain standards of integrity in the areas that could most damage their ministry. One of them had to do with finances; there were not many models of structural accountability for itinerant evangelists in the late 40s, yet they created a standard of financial restraint and openness that has been above suspicion ever since. They also committed to honesty in reporting the numbers of people who attended crusade events, to accountability and avoiding even the appearance of evil in gender relationships, and to work together with local churches. Their decision “to cooperate with all who would cooperate with us” led to much criticism when the cooperators included those who were part of the National Council of Churches. But it became a model to help evangelicals cultivate what Rich Mouw calls “uncommon decency,” the ability to cultivate warm connections while maintaining clear convictions.

The week that I write this, Time magazine has an article about Rick Warren and the influence generated by the success of The Purpose-Driven Life. In talking about his commitment to integrity, he names the person who has been his primary model. Any evangelical from the past 50 years could fill in the sentence.

John Ortberg is pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California.

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