Thursday, September 11, 2014

What I Learned From Billy Graham

While Billy Graham is still alive I would like to note with appreciation some of the things I learned from him.

First, I learned to preach relevant sermons. I am not sure who first said: “every day read the morning newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other” but no matter who said it, I learned to do it by listening to Billy Graham preach. Some mocked him for so frequently quoting TIME magazine, I took the clue and subscribed to TIME and remained a subscriber for decades, for beyond finding catchy openers and clever illustrations, preaching must reflect life as it is being lived today as preachers bring truth and wisdom to the questions, fears and anxieties of the people who are listening.

In the fifties, when communism dazzled the eyes of the rising generation Billy Graham would say “young people today are looking for a cause, a flag to fly.” As I read this morning’s paper about hundreds of youth making or trying to make their way from Great Britain, Canada and the United States to Syria so they may fight with ISIS, I realize that his analysis is as relevant today as it was then, so I may soon repeat those words, referring at once to the morning paper and at the same time lifting up, as he did, the cross and the gospel as the only true cause worth living for and dying for.

Second, I learned to connect with the centers of society and culture. James Davidson Hunter has spent his life documenting evangelical’s addiction to living on the periphery of culture and society, feebly seeking protection from the world by setting up a parallel culture. Perhaps a case could be made for Billy Graham having contributed to the evangelical desire for a safe haven; he did after all base his headquarters in Minneapolis while living in a remote part of North Carolina.

However, as a child I was taken to his Crusade in St. Louis and I remember his introducing the Governor of the State of Missouri who then gave greetings. Oh, how easy it is to be cynical about that! But the point is this: I have observed over the years that Billy Graham and his associate evangelists took it upon themselves to develop discreet but meaningful relationships with political and cultural leaders, seeing them as unreached people. Billy Graham personally led more than one of these people to Christ. Yes, he made mistakes, like kneeling in prayer on the White House lawn after visiting Harry Truman, and yes, it is certain that Richard Nixon sucked him in. But, to his credit he learned from these mistakes and continued to use his position to talk to people that no one else could talk to.

For me, that meant that while a pastor of an inner city church of about 90 people in Detroit my telephone calls would be received by most of the members of the Detroit City Council. And in a small Ontario city, if I asked the mayor to come and give special greetings to a special meeting, he would duck out of a city council meeting if necessary to come to our church and welcome our guests. If we want to bring some health to our society we have to learn to strongly connect with those whom God has put into positions of political, cultural and business leadership.

Third, I learned to open doors to a wider Christian world. This perhaps more than any one thing brought hatred against Billy Graham, and I use the word hatred advisedly. In fact, we might say that while inventing evangelicalism, he also inadvertently invented the Christian right. When he allowed churches from main line denominations to sign on to the Crusade, which meant that converts from those churches would be channeled back to them, the wrath of the right rose up in a fury that never abated. But, eventually many of the people in those Main Line churches, taught in the Christian Counseling courses, nurtured by BGEA publications and seminars, began to drift towards evangelicalism, and they carried their local church, and sometimes their denomination, with them, and that brought great spiritual health to millions. 

It was not only the main line that he reached out to, but also to the ancient churches, in particular the Roman Catholic Church. I remember his appearance at the Economic Club in Detroit where Detroit’s Catholic Bishop introduced him, and then Billy Graham stood up and joked about the last time he and the Bishop had golfed together. From the days when a Roman Catholic was not allowed to set foot in a Protestant church the idea of a Bishop and Billy joking around about their golf game moved the earth under my feet. 

And so a few years back in our dear Ontario city, when Associate Evangelist John Wesley White came to preach at the invitation of the pastors, relations between churches were so warm that the Roman Catholic Church in that city was the first in history to sign on to a BGEA sponsored evangelistic mission as a fully participating church. I so well remember one of the priests coming down to the front at each invitation and walking back and forth, Thomson Chain Reference Bible in hand, so as to encourage his parishioners to respond. Lately we have seen more and more cooperation between evangelicals and the ancient churches on all levels, and, following Billy Graham’s example, we have discovered that one can do that without compromise, without saying to our people that the differences don’t matter. The differences do matter, but so do the similarities. 

Fourth, I learned to build the infrastructure of the evangelical movement, not that I could ever, by any means, do so on the level which he so amazingly did. Billy Graham understood that even though he had spoken live to more people than any human being in the history of the world, that alone was not enough to move the nation, much less the world, towards God. To address revival in the churches he knew that the main line churches must be brought back to orthodoxy, and to help with that he launched Christianity Today which, under the editorship of Carl F. H. Henry, incessantly spoke to the weakness of Liberal and Neo-Orthodox theology. To raise up a new generation of leaders he sat on the Board of Directors of Wheaton College, and as his active ministry days were drawing to a close he not only launched the Billy Graham center at Wheaton but also set up strong endowments at Wheaton, Gordon-Conwell and other Christian schools.

I am amazed that so few seem to understand the critical role of infrastructure. Our schools, especially in Canada, go begging for adequate funding, they survive rather than becoming strong and viable voices in our land, and this is still true in the United States as well. The only aspect of the evangelical movement that truly prospers is its relief efforts, and that is good, but it rests on a foundation that is beginning to age, show cracks, even settling back into the mud of obscurity. Billy Graham always saw the big picture, always saw that the worldwide evangelical house needed a foundation, plumbing, electrical service and a good roof.

Fifth, I learned to protect my reputation in an authentic way. Billy Graham told again and again the story of seeing a front page photo of a southern evangelist receiving a bucket full of money at the end of an offering and vowing that such a thing would never happen to him. And so BGEA paid him, and all the associates, a salary. No money from a Crusade ever went to him; no one accepted checks made out to them. Every Crusade had to have a local organizing committee, a budget, a fund-raising strategy, and in the end an outside firm would audit the books and publish the audit in the local newspaper. It is a practice which is rigorously followed today and it laid the foundation, not only for evangelical financial accountability, but for accountability in the wider charitable world.

And then there is the private life. Graham always traveled with his assistant T.W. Wilson. Mr. Wilson made the travel arrangements and when there was a hotel, Wilson walked into the room before Billy Graham was on the floor, examining the room carefully to see if anyone had placed anything in it that could then be used against Billy Graham. All of these precautions were followed because he understood that it is not enough to say “I am OK in the eyes of God,” one must also be “OK” in the eyes of the men and women of the world. 

Thank you Billy Graham for being a role model to a child, a teen and finally a person in the later years of ministry; I learned and still learn significant parts of the craft of ministry and preaching from you.