The Scripture says that Jesus “gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Eph. 4:11–12). When Jesus gave out these gifts, one of the men who received the gift of evangelism was the Reverend Billy Graham.
Graham’s career as a famous evangelist was effectively and unexpectedly launched with his Los Angeles crusade in 1949. Graham attracted the attention of newspaper giant William Randolph Hearst, and a crusade scheduled to last for several weeks played to capacity crowds for more than two months. So it began, and so it continued. It is said that Mr. Graham has preached the gospel to more people in live audiences than anyone else in history, reaching more than 200 million people in nearly 200 countries. More than a billion more have been reached through his television and radio programs, and through other media. As a result of his ministry of mass evangelism, several million souls have made decisions for Jesus Christ.
And now Billy Graham is getting ready for what may be his last crusade. From June 24 to June 26 the 86-year old campaigner will conduct evangelistic meetings at Flushing Meadows Corona Park in New York City. Originally the crusade was scheduled for Madison Square Garden, where Mr. Graham conducted a famous four-month crusade back in 1957. But larger crowds are expected, and the new location is in the heart of the most ethnically diverse community in the country. People from 130 language groups live within walking distance of the park. Graham’s worthy and ambitious goal is to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to the attention of every person in metropolitan New York, whether or not an individual happens to attend the crusade in person.
I first heard Billy Graham when I was a young boy, sitting in the grass on the front campus of Wheaton College and listening to his simple message of faith in Jesus Christ. It has been a blessing to hear his evangelistic messages other times through the years, and I praise God for his ministry of the gospel. What are some of the secrets of Billy Graham’s success?
To begin with, he has always maintained his focus on the person of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, on the work of Jesus Christ in offering atonement for sin, and on faith in Jesus Christ as the only way of salvation. “My one purpose in life,” Mr. Graham has often said, “is to help people find a personal relationship with God, which comes through knowing Christ.”
Second, Billy Graham has maintained an uncompromising commitment to leading a life of Christian conduct that is free from scandal and above moral reproach. In order to avoid even the appearance of evil (1 Thess. 5:22), he has been especially careful in his relationships with women, and when he is not traveling with his wife, he always sleeps in the company of godly Christian men. Billy Graham does not accept any money for preaching the gospel in his evangelistic crusades, and he does not accept personal gifts of any kind. Like the apostle Paul, he presents the gospel “free of charge” (1 Cor. 9:18), not claiming any right to remuneration.
Third, Billy Graham has learned the importance of Christian discipleship. The crusade method of evangelism is sometimes criticized for encouraging people to base their salvation on the mere fact that they went forward at an evangelistic rally. This criticism is not without justification. However, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association makes every effort to connect new converts to the ministry of a local church where they can truly become part of the body of Christ. Every person who makes a decision for Christ is encouraged to pray and read the Bible every day, to tell others about Jesus Christ, and to make a commitment to a local church. He or she is also contacted by a local pastor or a qualified lay person who is trained to offer personal discipleship.
This method has proved highly effective. Of course there are always some people who fail to follow through on their public commitment to follow Christ, and of course the full results of Mr. Graham’s ministry will not be known until eternity. However, one comprehensive study showed that over the course of three decades, some 70 to 80 percent of the people who made decisions for Christ at a Billy Graham Crusade were still maintaining their Christian commitment, and that approximately one out of every hundred had entered some form of full-time Christian ministry.
Inevitably, there have been some criticisms over the years—although surprisingly few for a man with such a long public ministry. As an evangelical, Mr. Graham has been criticized for some lapses of theological judgment, and especially for allowing Roman Catholic leaders to participate in his crusades. He has also made a few political missteps, such as his unwise and unqualified endorsement of Richard Nixon. And the word “crusade” itself has been criticized for causing unnecessary offense in the Muslim community. Needless to say, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association is careful to use alternate terminology in the Middle East.
Ultimately, these are all matters for God to judge. Mr. Graham himself has never claimed to be a politician or a theologian, but only a simple preacher with a basic message of faith in Jesus Christ and trust in the Bible as the Word of God. God gave Billy Graham the gift to preach the gospel, and whatever else people may say about his ministry, by the power of the Holy Spirit he has used his gift to build up the church.
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