What Billy Graham Meant to Evangelicals
R. Alan Streett
Billy Graham was a TRANSCENDENTAL figure. He was the closest thing Protestants had to a Pope. Whenever he preached, people of all denominations flocked to hear him. He filled stadiums for nights on end, and sometimes for weeks on end. His evangelistic meetings at Madison Square Garden in 1957 lasted 16 consecutive weeks. Over the years 2.2 billion people heard him preach and of those an estimated 3.2 million responded to his gospel call to give their lives to Christ.
Each year since 1948, Gallup pollsters ask Americans to name the one person—male or female living anywhere in the world—who they admire most. The results are compiled into an annual top ten list. Billy Graham makes the list 55 times. Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II follow far behind, capturing top ten honors 31 and 27 times, respectively.
Conservative evangelicals, a small minority of the American population in the decade of the 50s and 60s, trusted Graham and looked to him to speak on behalf of their causes and moral concerns. He had access to the halls of power, rubbing shoulders with governors, senators, and presidents. He dined with them and played golf, and even stayed in their homes as an invited guest. Evangelicals believed, rightly or wrongly, that through Graham, their voice was being heard in high places. And best of all, they knew Graham would share the message of salvation with these movers and shakers. Religion and politics seemed like a natural combination.
As evangelicals grew in numbers and influence, many looked to Billy Graham as the unofficial High Priest of America’s civil religion. They yearned for America to return to its “Christian” roots.
Billy Graham was a TRANSFORMATIONAL figure. Since my days in seminary, Billy Graham was my hero and mentor. When I preached my first sermons, I drew my content directly from his books World Aflame and Peace with God. I studied his every move—how he warmed up a crowd with a few personal anecdotes, the way he folded his hands in prayer under his chin, the inflection in his voice as he pointed to God’s Word and intoned, “The Bible says ….” For hours I stood in front of a mirror practicing his movements, imitating his accent, and calling out to an imaginary audience to leave their seats and come to Christ.
Billy inspired me and a whole generation of ministers to become more evangelistic. In July 1974 the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) sponsored the Lausanne Congress, inviting 2,700 vocational evangelists and missionaries from 150 countries and dozens of denominations to Lausanne, Switzerland for 10 days of training and inspiration. The BGEA provided travel scholarships, lodging and food to those in Third World and emerging countries. Out of these meetings a new generation of evangelists emerged, trained by Graham and his associates. A special committee was formed, composed of scholars and theologians, and assigned the task of defining evangelism. The result was The Lausanne Covenant, the most comprehensive statement ever penned on the nature of evangelism. It was read, adopted and signed by the conferees, setting a new standard for evangelism in future generations.
The Lausanne conference was the turning point for world evangelization because it called upon evangelists everywhere to ascribe to an agreed upon definition of evangelism and to unite in the common mission of reaching the world for Christ.
When I began work on my doctorate, my dissertation topic was “The Public Invitation.” My research took me to the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College (Wheaton, IL), where I watched numerous archived sermons that Graham preached from 1950—1981. I paid particular attention to the way he gave the invitation. When Graham came to my hometown of Baltimore, Maryland for one of his crusades, I arranged a personal interview to get his thinking on the topic. We met an hour before he was to preach.
That night I not only gained insight about his invitations, but insight into Billy Graham, the person. Our meeting took place under the old Memorial Stadium, home of the Baltimore Orioles, in the office of manager Earl Weaver. Mr. Graham sat on a sofa and I in a chair. I found him to be a contradiction of sorts. On the one hand, he was very impressive, even bigger than life. As he stood to greet me, he was taller and slimmer than I expected—about 6’3”, 185 pounds. His striking features, deep eyes, chiseled chin, and sandy hair, set him apart from mere mortals. I was a nervous wreck and giggled a lot throughout the interview. I was like a 35 year old teenager!
On the other hand, Billy Graham seemed unsure of himself. As I entered the room, I noticed him biting his fingernails. Later I observed that all his nails were chewed to the quick. I was shocked—“My hero bites his fingernails!” He was also very self-conscious. At least twice he mentioned how he wished he had gone to seminary for formal ministerial training and apologized for not being a theologian. He treated me as his theological superior. That was unsettling and caused me more anxiety. Here I sat with the world’s best known preacher and he was deferring to me.
About 20 minutes into the interview I recognized Mr. Graham’s son-in-law standing outside the office with his two small children. Billy’s attention was diverted for a moment and he said he hadn’t seen his grandkids in more than six months. I felt so badly. Here I was, a total stranger, taking time away from this man and his family. How often had others imposed on him, just as I, with little concern for his privacy? I suggested I could leave a hard copy of my interview questions with him to be answered at his convenience. He was appreciative and thanked me. I left the room and made my way through an underground tunnel back into the light. Billy later sent me hand-written answers to my questions.
My dissertation was approved and published under the title The Effective Invitation (Kregel). It includes a chapter devoted to Billy Graham’s use of the public invitation. As a result, I was hired as Professor of Evangelism at Criswell College in Dallas, Texas, where I continue teaching students to preach and give effective invitations. I still use the Lausanne Covenant as the basis for defining evangelism.
Over the years I have kept abreast of Billy Graham’s ministry, attended crusades, sat on the platform while he preached, and wept as I watched untold thousands respond to Graham’s call to repent and believe.
I am only one among millions of others that Billy Graham has touched. He transformed the entire evangelical landscape.
Evangelicals loved Billy Graham. He was one of us, our standard bearer, used of God to speak to the nations. We prayed for him as if he were a member of our family. Yet we shared him with the world.
He was transcendental and transformational. He rarely let us down, and the full extent of his influence will not be measured for generations to come.
*R. Alan Streett, PhD is the Senior Research Professor of Biblical Theology at Criswell College (Dallas, TX).