When a handsome, fresh-faced, American 30-something evangelist sporting a sharp suit arrived in London for the first night of a planned four-week series of rallies in March 1954, the organisers were unsure whether Billy would attract a crowd. The UK was still recovering from the effects of WWII; rationing would only be phased out later that year.
Like many other British cities, the capital still bore the scars of rubblestrewn bomb craters. Life for most was a struggle under foggy, soot-laden skies. The UK Church was part of the problem: tired, unsure of what it believed and in steep decline. However, having heard that Billy Graham had captivated large crowds including teenagers in America, the invitation went out.
The meetings were held in a 15,000-capacity greyhound racing stadium in North East London. Haringey had never before witnessed the scenes that followed. Two million people attended what became three months of nightly meetings. Coaches and special trains were chartered to ferry the crowds from across the UK as word spread about this whirlwind American preacher.
From the beginning, Billy attracted young people. His compelling communication style was peppered with contemporary stories and scripture, and he delivered his message with passion and urgency. He avoided spiritual jargon and finished every night with a call to action. The ‘appeal’ was a million miles away from the long-winded preaching endured by many congregations at the time. While a massed choir led the congregation in singing ‘Just as I am’, people goggled with amazement as individuals joined the growing queue.
I think there are five hallmarks of Billy Graham’s ministry, all of which continue to impact youth and children’s ministry today.
Billy famously said he prepared his sermons with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. He laced his words with culturally relevant stories and current events, a technique that was virtually unknown in pulpits at that time. Roy Crowne, former national director of British Youth for Christ, recalls listening to Billy Graham’s preaching when the phrase, ‘the Bible says’, would be used to reference any statement. “It was clearly where he got his authority, rather than from his own views and opinions,” said Crowne. “It is still ringing in my ears today.”
Billy was the first full-time evangelist hired by the newly created Youth for Christ in the 1940s. His style spawned a generation of evangelists and led to local ‘chapters’, or centres, of Youth for Christ to be founded across the UK. These centres organised area-wide meetings for young Christians to attend and invite their non-Christian friends to.
“Billy told us that we were his translators for the next generation, helping put the gospel message into a language they could understand”
Clive Calver, Steve Flashman and Steve Chalke are three notable examples of youth evangelists whose style can be directly linked back to Billy Graham. They toured the UK during the 1970s and 80s with week-long missions involving assemblies and lessons in schools followed up by evangelistic meetings at local churches. That model continues, albeit with major modifications, most notably by The Message Trust, founded by Andy Hawthorne.
Like Billy, these British pioneers faced stiff opposition, often from within the Church. Many clerics disliked Billy for what they characterised as slick Yankee salesmanship, but may better be described as jealousy! Many of his fiercest opponents were swayed, if not won over, when they actually heard him preach. But there was a significant delay before numerous senior Anglican clerics supported him and some commentators suggest this reduced the impact of what could have become a fullblooded English revival.
Call to decision
Billy recognised that a response to the gospel is a matter of both heart and head. It is more than cold hard logic; our emotions should also be stirred by the liberating message. Whenever he preached, Billy would invite his hearers to respond. He called people to stand up and come to the front to indicate their decision to follow or rededicate their lives to Christ. Trained lay counsellors would then pray with them, give respondents literature and invite them to follow-up discipleship classes.
Roy Crowne said: “I was released from Youth for Christ to work on Mission England, so I had the opportunity to meet him on various occasions. He was winsome, humble and engaging. If I was to really nail what I think he did, it was his line: ‘I want you to get up out of your seat and come forward.’ He was convinced that his call to a decision and the appeal was what he would never fall back from. I remember one occasion when he shared with us as a group of evangelists. Thousands of people were responding to an invitation when he stopped them and said: ‘Go back to your seats, you haven’t understood me. This decision will cost you. It could influence your life, it will influence the way you live and the things you do, so I want you to understand that before you come.’ And then he called again and more came.”
Soul Survivor’s summer events attract thousands of young people and an invitation follows the main meeting most nights. More decisions for Christ are probably made during those weeks of Soul Survivor than at any other youth event in the UK today.
The danger of making an emotional response that withers away is a complaint that rises up among parts of the Church that are weary of decisions that don’t stick. Young people may be more prone to making spur of the moment declarations which fade away. By nature, the teenage years are characterised by making choices about a range of issues, which may later be swiftly reversed. But supporters of provoking a decision point out that, without an invitation, individuals can avoid making hard choices. They also point to the thousands of testimonies of Christians who look back to a decision made in response to an evangelistic appeal as the moment when their lifelong faith in Christ was born.
Whether the decline in offering an invitation is due to a loss of confidence in the gospel’s power to transform, or to a dissatisfaction with the emotional hype and temporary nature of the decisions made, is a matter of debate. However, a religion that offers genuine community, delivers supernatural experiences and heals the emotions is what many social commentators would argue Generation Z is looking for.
Billy quickly recognised the power of radio, television, newspapers and film in communicating his message to millions. He wrote regular columns across the US and beyond. He founded Decision magazine and Christianity Today, which is, in many ways, the US equivalent of Premier Christianity magazine. His sermons were broadcast on scores of US radio stations, while edited clips feature on many of his Worldwide Pictures films. One 60s film starred Cliff Richard playing a petty criminal and turning his life around after attending a Billy Graham meeting. More than two million viewers of his films have made decisions for Christ, according to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
Pivotal in his recognition of the power of the media was an early crusade when his preaching was given favourable coverage by the largest newspaper chain in the US. Millionaire newspaper baron William Randolf Hearst’s decision to focus on Billy Graham opened many doors.
Many Christian initiatives in the 1950s and 60s denounced film and TV as an inherently evil media. The enthusiastic adoption of multimedia by Billy helped kill the lie that people of faith should shun these and other emerging new media formats to share the gospel. Today multimedia Christian ministries abound to serve youth and children’s work, including the publishers of the magazine in your hand, which are active in radio and digital formats as well as print.
The power of the internet means today, more than at any point in human history, the Christian message can be shared in every country and to every people group. The potential for effective youth and children’s ministry using new media is breath taking, although reputations can be made and lost overnight.
Billy Graham’s public ministry waned due to ill health before the rise of social media, but there is no reason to believe that he would not have embraced it. His professionalism and sharp communication skills attracted media interest throughout his life, although the coverage was often far from uncritical.
For the first two decades, Billy was reluctant to engage with contemporary Christian music. The culture of his evangelistic team was traditional, featuring massed choirs singing hymns. His favourite and much-used soloist, George Beverley Shea, was most definitely not rock ‘n’ roll with his bass-baritone voice and unshowy delivery.
Although Billy did have ‘youth nights’, the music rarely differed from the classic hymn fare, accompanied by piano and organ. When Cliff Richard shared his faith at Billy’s 1966 Earl’s Court Crusade in London, he sang the traditional hymn ‘What a friend we have in Jesus’ to an acoustic guitar.
“It’s the favour and anointing of God that we need to see in this generation, way beyond natural gifting and rhetoric”
Peter Meadows, pioneer founder of Buzz magazine, Spring Harvest, Premier Christian Radio and other Christian initiatives, recalls a major change when Billy Graham’s UK office persuaded him to front a major week-long youth event at Earl’s Court in 1973. Spree ’73 tapped into the growing phenomena of contemporary Christian music. The programme included Cliff Richard with his full band, Swedish rock choir Choralerna, Parchment, Graham Kendrick and Judy MacKenzie. The final event at Wembley Stadium featured Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins. Speaking at Spree ’73, Billy said: “I am sure that many of you are finding it difficult to adjust to the music of the present generation. Well, I must confess that it took me several years and five teenagers before I made the adjustment.”
By the 1980s, Billy regularly invited contemporary Christian musicians to perform their songs on stage. Toby McKeehan (TobyMac), former lead singer of DC Talk, fondly recalls playing at a crusade in 1994. He recalls Billy’s passion for reaching young people, which latterly led him to risk the ire of older, traditional supporters who didn’t appreciate electronic music: “Billy told us that we were his translators for the next generation, helping put the gospel message into a language they could understand. I saw that he cared enough for the world’s youth to risk the possibility that half his people might not like us joining him on stage. However, for Billy Graham, reaching young people was worth the risk. To me, that showed who he was.”
Standards of integrity
Policies to protect children, young people and those who work with them are commonplace today. However, when Billy began his ministry they didn’t exist. Subsequent sexual and financial scandals rocked evangelical Christendom.
Core members of the Billy Graham ministry team drafted what became known as the Modesto Manifesto during the early days of his ministry. They made commitments to standards of integrity around financial restraint, honesty about reporting on numbers who attended and made decisions for Christ, accountability, working with local churches and personal morality. In the 1970s and 80s, many US evangelists were exposed for adultery, tax fraud, visiting prostitutes, making wild claims regarding numbers of converts and accumulating vast personal fortunes. Despite the attentions and considerable efforts of media organisations to expose similar corruption in Billy Graham, he remained squeaky clean.
The role and influence of his wife Ruth should not be underestimated. The daughter of missionaries to China, Ruth was supportive but formidable, and helped keep her husband grounded and humble.
When visiting a town, Billy and his team would famously avoid staying in five-star luxury, but neither would they opt for a cheap dive. They recognised the need for a good night’s sleep and breakfast, opting for middle-of-the-road hotels that avoided headlines or claims of wasting supporters’ donations.
Billy held himself accountable to his team and rejected a lifestyle of executive jets and luxury homes. Expecting exemplary standards of behaviour from himself and others in ministry created a vital template that continues to influence professional and voluntary Christian youth and children’s ministry today, for which we can be grateful.
Andy Hawthorne highlights two outstanding characteristics that make Billy’s youth ministry legacy formidable: “Firstly, Billy Graham was constantly trying to communicate the gospel with relevance and passion, and secondly he went the distance. I remember serving on Mission England in 1984 and, to be honest, being slightly disappointed with his preaching but overwhelmed by the response when he did an appeal. Few people would say that Billy was the best preacher on the planet, but it’s hard to deny that he was one of the most anointed evangelists that’s ever lived. It’s the favour and anointing of God that we need to see in this generation; way beyond natural gifting and rhetoric.”
What Billy didn’t do
Like every human, Billy Graham had flaws. He was quiet or late to support some notable issues, including the civil rights movement. After the release of recorded transcripts from a conversation with disgraced US President Richard Nixon, he made an apology for his anti-Semitic remarks.
Sharon Anson, director of Grassroots Trust, was invited by the British committee organising his 1989 Mission England to be part of the team of evangelists leading meetings. “Billy sat on the fence on lots of issues like women in ministry, to the frustration of many people,” she said. “I was 27 and the only female evangelist on his team. One of Billy’s team asked: ‘Are you really an evangelist?!’ But Billy never gave me the impression he felt it was strange that a woman evangelist was on his team.”
Despite acknowledging Anne Graham Lotz as “the best preacher in the family”, it was Franklin, not Anne, who took on the mantle of oversight for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA).
One of Billy’s on-the-record ‘regrets’ was that his travelling meant he was often away from home and his family. Some of his children subsequently suffered failed marriages and episodes with alcohol and drugs. Billy was often an absent father, to his considerable regret.
Before his untimely death in 2003, American youth ministry pioneer and co-founder of Youth Specialties, Mike Yaconelli, told me of his deep disappointment that Billy had not wound up the BGEA towards the end of his public ministry as his health declined. Mike was far from a Billy Graham critic, in fact he was widely quoted as a supporter, but he believed Billy had failed Christendom for not closing BGEA down and letting control pass to his eldest son for their fundraising and evangelistic enterprises.