Since the death of Billy Graham yesterday, February 21, my social media feeds have been inundated with quotes, blogs, videos, personal opinions, and stories about the well-known evangelist.
I don’t have any experience with Billy Graham, personally, but he no doubt had an impact on my life. Let me explain.
For me, Billy Graham is a bit of a childhood icon. I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s. We weren’t wealthy. Just regular, small town folk trying to make a go of small farm living, while spending an evening here or there in front of a black and white television that required us to get up and change the channel manually. M*A*S*H was on frequently. The Denver Broncos, too. Every Sunday afternoon during football season, I remember my Dad yelling at Craig Morton from our ugly pea green couch. And of course Johnny Carson and Billy Graham came across the screen quite regularly.
In my view, the evangelist sounded like a carbon copy of what I heard every Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday evening in our own little Baptist Church. I remember wondering what the big deal about him was because he seemed so familiar, even though I’d never met him. I wondered why he was on television and not our own Pastor Kiser, Pastor Matson, or Pastor Johnson. They all said the same things, had the same voice inflections, same body language, hair cut, and suit.
As I grew up, I slowly began to realize there were a few differences between Billy Graham and what my church preached, theologically speaking. Even today, I wouldn’t agree with everything Billy Graham preached. But one cannot ignore the fact that many souls have been brought to Christ through the preaching of a man who was willing to be up front about his faith, the problem of sin, and God’s available rescuing power from that sin and destruction. Those who have grown decidedly against altar calls and decidedly for ongoing personal discipleship instead might have something to say about Graham’s “faulty methods” of evangelism.
There’s a point to be made there. I’ve seen the fruition of altar calls — or lack thereof. Meaning, I’ve known numerous people who have walked the aisle and prayed a prayer, only to go through the rest of their lives stuck. Maybe they were truly saved the night they responded to the altar call, maybe not. But the spiritual fruit typical of a true Christian never grew, because after the music had died down and everyone went home, there was nobody there to disciple them in their newfound faith.
That isn’t the fault of Billy Graham, per se. He was an evangelist, and the job of an evangelist is to tell folks of the Good News of the Gospel. Local church members should be the ones to disciple, but were those who walked the aisle and made decisions for Christ pointed in that direction? Or did the Graham Team pack up their bags, and head to the next town, leaving the freshly born again to fend for themselves?
Newborn babes need help. They need fed milk first, meat later. (I Cor. 3:2) And the problem with televangelism or any type of evangelism that tends toward proclaiming the Gospel and quickly moving on, leaving their new converts behind is that newborns in Christ suffer for it. They need nurtured, fed slowly and tenderly, until they can handle the meat of the Word. And once they’re eating meat, they still need fed and encouraged to keep eating, to take their first step of obedience, then the next, then the next …
They need to be discipled.
“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” (Matt. 28:19)
Not go therefore and make converts and head out of town before those converts even know they’re to be baptized.
I sincerely hope the Billy Graham Crusade made a habit of referring their new converts to local church, or in some other way ensured they’d be discipled in their life long pursuit of Christ-likeness. But if they were anything like the preachers I grew up around, they left their converts out in the proverbial cold, struggling to live, to find food, to know how to walk.
Having said that …
I will personally forever be indebted to Billy Graham for being a willing vessel used by God. I have two brothers, see. One is a year older. The other is a little over two years older. I’m the baby. My younger brother, Larry, though he was raised with a steady stream of Gospel preaching, came out of our childhood home unsaved. He even had a “salvation experience” as a child. But that conversion was either never real, or never developed and therefore felt unreal. And if a conversion experience feels unreal, it might as well be unreal because the ones who experienced the supposed conversion are lost, in that they don’t know what to do next, where to go, and more than that, they don’t particularly want to do the next right thing. They continue to live like a reprobate because they still feel like one.
Every day, he put his life on the line. He battled 112 degree temperatures. He battled drug-toting illegal immigrants who cared naught about whether he lived or died. They either cared about getting to America alive, or getting to America alive with drugs in their pockets. Nothing else.
When he’d catch and arrest them, he’d have to bring them in, book them, complete the paperwork … and next week, maybe the next day, do it again. With the same illegals. The system was broke. Larry soon realized he was putting his life on the line for quite literally nothing. He gave up five months of his life training for the job, which included missing the birth of his one and only son, eventually uprooting his wife and two kids, and leaving them at home in the dessert most of the time because the job, err game, of Catch And Release An Immigrant was so demanding – physically, emotionally, and time-wise.
Needless to say, he was stressed. Stressed about getting killed and leaving his children fatherless. Stressed about getting maimed. Stressed about his family possibly getting killed by an illegal with a vengeful spirit.
But stress and anxiety led to a softer, more receptive heart to the things of God. And one night, he flipped on the television to find Billy Graham preaching the Word to a large audience. It was probably comforting, in that, it reminded him of his childhood. Hymns, suits, old-fashioned preaching, altar calls …
I don’t know any of the details of that night, other than he listened to Billy Graham and walked away a new creature in Christ. He bowed the knee. Told God he needed Him. That he couldn’t do life without Him anymore. That he was a great sinner in need of an even greater Savior who would forgive him. And snap. Just like that, Larry was born again. Clean from sin. No longer powerless to fight sin. Regenerated. Bound for Heaven.
In some sense, I have Billy Graham to thank. But in another sense, and ultimately, I have Jesus Christ to thank. Billy Graham was just a man, y’all. He wasn’t perfect. He made mistakes. He sinned, because until he was glorified yesterday, he was still a sinner, albeit a forgiven sinner. Jesus Christ is the perfect One. The One who saved Larry. Yes, He used a finite, imperfect man as a tool in Larry’s salvation. But Christ did the saving. And with all I’ve read about Billy Graham in the last twenty-four hours, it seems that some of us may be missing the monstrous point that though God uses His people, it is God alone who saves.
I understand what it is to put people on pedestals. I’ve done it with Corrie ten Boom and Charles Spurgeon and other heroes of the faith. I always have to remind myself, though, that my perfect example is Jesus. I’m certainly overwhelmed with gratefulness to Billy Graham for obeying his call to preach the Gospel. But I’m eternally, unspeakably grateful to Christ for His ultimate sacrifice on the cross to save Larry from his sins. Billy Graham was a wonderful but fallible servant of God. But Jesus Christ is Larry’s Savior.
I’m chokin’ up here, so I’ll just close by saying Jesus Christ is why Larry is my brother twice: once in the physical realm, once in the spiritual realm. All the credit for Larry and I being able to spend eternity together with Christ goes to Christ, not Billy Graham … and I think Billy Graham would be pleased with that perspective.