Ecumenical evangelist

The heart of Billy Graham's message was timeless

Mar 12, 2018 by

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Gospel “crusades” have passed into history, but the era of mass evangelism still inspires. The death of Billy Graham on Feb. 21 at the age of 99 caused Christians to look back on the legacy of itinerant preachers, consider the strengths and weaknesses of their methods, and ask: Will there ever be another Billy Graham?

Almost certainly not. The media landscape is too fragmented, the culture too secular. Throngs of spiritual searchers don’t gather at the feet of a famous man on a big stage.

Different generations clothe the gospel in different attire — like Mennonite evangelist Myron Augsburger in the 1970s trading his plain coat for one with lapels, as Graham had advised him to do more than 20 years earlier.

One thing that doesn’t change is the need for excellent preaching. But today’s most convicting sermon and heart-wrenching altar call probably won’t match the soul harvest of a mid-20th-century revival meeting.

Even at the height of Mennonite tent crusades’ popularity in the 1950s, evangelists recognized the tenuous nature of some penitents’ decisions. In a memoir, Dear God, I’m Only a Boy, journalist Menno Duerksen described the pressure he felt to answer an altar call in 1930s Oklahoma — and the anguish of doubting his own public claim of salvation because he didn’t feel saved. Crusade-style conversion wasn’t for everyone. Countless others found assurance of salvation.

The success that Graham and other evangelists achieved reminds us that the journey of faith may begin with a moment of decision, perhaps a public one. The heart of Graham’s message — the promise of salvation and a changed life that begins with repentance — was timeless. In 1954, at a press conference in London, Graham explained how he would proclaim the Good News there: “I am going to preach a gospel not of despair but of hope — hope for the individual, for society and for the world.” We who have found our hope in Christ can draw inspiration from Graham’s boldness to proclaim the source of this hope.

Graham’s life also presents a cautionary example of the risks of casting one’s lot with political power. His friendship with Richard Nixon caused embarrassment; he said things behind closed doors that he regretted. He denounced communism and antiwar demonstrators but was less politically focused and partisan than the combative evangelical leaders who came after him.

Graham reached across the lines that separated Protestant from Catholic, fundamentalist from mainline, white from black. Today, as new versions of political and theological differences divide churches and communities, Graham’s ability to unify Christians around the core of their faith sets a model of inclusion and charity.

Religious bridge-building now extends beyond Christian denominations to other faiths. How does Graham’s ecumenism apply to Christian-Muslim relationships? Can we discover new ways to communicate the gospel without compromising the uniqueness of Christ? This is a question that Myron Augsburger — whose calling as a Mennonite evangelist paralleled Graham’s career — raised as he reflected on Graham’s legacy.

There will never be another Billy Graham. Which makes it all the more important that each of us, on the smaller stages we occupy, should follow his example of sharing the hope of Christ.


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