Billy Graham is preaching what will likely be his last evangelistic city-wide campaign this weekend in New York. He has repeatedly said that this three day event (June 24-26) "will be my last [evangelistic crusade] in America, I’m sure." Dr. Graham is 86 years old, suffering from fluid on the brain, and prostate cancer. Earlier this week he said, "I look forward to seeing God face to face."
This prompts me to personally reflect about the life and legacy of this good man. I have admired Billy Graham since I first saw and heard him in the 1950s. His strong and clear voice, joined with a striking presence that simply sparkled, and his clear exposition of the gospel joined with a courageous declaration of Christ’s Lordship, all impressed me then. They still do now. After watching his life on the public stage for over fifty years, and hearing scores (maybe hundreds) of his sermons and interviews, I remain impressed that this is a man who lived a humble, Christ-centered life. I never personally met Dr. Graham, so my personal impressions are second-hand. I do have friendships with people who have served with him at his side day-to-day (and have done so for many years). Everything I have seen in public is confirmed by what these friends tell me.
Dr. Graham remains impressive to me for a number of reasons. I will share only a few.
First, he has preached Christ and him as crucified for an entire lifetime. This is increasingly rare in this generation of "activis" evangelical preachers. He has unflinchingly stayed true to the message of the good news. His calls people to believe the gospel and to repent of their sins and to acknowledge Christ as Lord in the clearest possible ways. He may not say it the way some would like him to say it but he never backs away from the basic message of Christ’s call to believe and follow. Age has mellowed him but it has not altered this message an iota.
Second, he has loved his wife, family and friends very deeply. Those who know him report again and again that he is totally genuine. He has loved "one woman" and has proven that a famous man can face moral temptation and not fall. He is a man who loves people and people love him, consistently speaking of him as a friend who cares a great deal for them.
Third, he has lived and ministered with integrity. There has not been a hint of scandal about his life or ministry. With every passing year this seems even more admirable in the modern American religious scene. Financial matters have always been handled with care by the Graham Association and scores of other ministries have thereby been helped by this example.
Fourth, he has often taken courageous stands in hard places. The most striking was his stance on civil rights and integration in the South in the 1950s. I grew up in the old South and I know how costly it was to do this at the time. He was a role model to me and prompted my early entrance into civil rights struggles as a teenager. I also know how he responded to evangelicals who attacked him over the years. He would never strike back and always prayed for those who opposed him. (I know very personal stories that underscore this powerfully!) The longer I serve in public ministry on a bit larger stage the more impressed I am by this model, which again has deeply impacted my thinking.
Fifth, though he sometimes engaged partisan politics (even showing a measure of naivete in the process) he has regularly pulled back and states again, through it all, that the gospel is his central message. He even noted this week, in preparation for the New York campaign, that "There are many times I went too far in talking about those issues. I think this time (now at the end of his public life), I want to stick only to the Gospel." I wish other evangelical preachers would follow his cautions in terms of partisan politics. I also wish others had his humility when it comes to admitting he has made mistakes.
Sixth, and I think this could be the most important contribution of all, he has used his considerable influence to lead a multitude of others to undertake worldwide evangelization. From Berlin to Lausanne he has formally urged the calling and equipping of real evangelists. And he has helped to train a myriad of folks to do evangelism in the Billy Graham Schools of Evangelism held now for five decades. It is this secondary influence that has most impacted my life since my call to evangelism is directly impacted by both his life and legacy. I am not a "campaign" evangelist who reaches multitudes but one who engages in equipping the church to do its mission (Ephesians 4:11-12). Dr. Graham’s encouragement of such work has directly encouraged me.
There are a number of ways that I could offer criticism (honest opinion?) about the Graham ministry and legacy. I did not agree with some of his words or actions with regard to the Soviet Union in the 1970s. I felt his autobiography was too full of stories about American presidents, and important heads of state, while he gave very little glimpse into how he handled tough personal issues and how he made up his mind. The criticisms of Reinhold Niebuhr, made in the 1950s and 1960s, still raise credible theological disagreements with aspects of the Graham emphasis upon personal evangelism without social (and communal) consequence.
But having said all this the man stood as a remarkable witness to the grace of God for well over a half century. I do not know if we shall see anyone like him soon but I thank God for the very positive contribution that he made to my own life. I pray that his home going will be peaceful and that even in his dying he might lead multitudes to saving faith in the Savior whom he loves.
I reflected again this week upon the death of John Paul II earlier this year. If God takes Billy Graham home soon, as he expects, we shall see the passing of the two most important Christian voices in the world in the last half of the twentieth century in a very short period of time. I give thanks to God for both of these amazing men. They had differing gifts and callings but both stood courageously and faithfully for the love of God in Jesus Christ. Both men touched millions of people very positively with a simple, humble, faithful life lived for the glory of God. John Paul II showed us how to live and how to die. Billy Graham is now doing the same thing. Praise God for this simple, faithful, nonpretentious, North Carolinian who "hid himself behind the cross" for a lifetime.