Cloud of Witnesses: Billy Graham

(Message given at Newberg Friends Church, March 9, 2014)

Today’s person in the Cloud of Witnesses series is Billy Graham.

In this series, we are looking at people who help us to fix our eyes on Jesus; people who encourage and challenge us to, as Hebrews 12 says, “run the race marked out for us.” For so many people, Billy Graham has been the person who first led them to make a decision to follow Jesus Christ. For decades, he has been a person of personal integrity, standing out in a positive way when other famous preachers have trainwrecked into scandal.

Those of you who are younger may not know much about Billy Graham other than the name; others of you have been deeply impacted by his ministry, and some of you have probably volunteered at one of his crusades or met him. Some people estimate that Billy Graham has spoken to 210 million people; there is wide agreement that he has preached to more people than anyone in the history of the world. Several million people have decided to follow Jesus after hearing Billy Graham speak.

What I think Billy Graham has best offered the world is the clear and consistent reminder that new life with God through Jesus Christ is possible, and it is there for us to receive. If we are willing to humble ourselves and ask forgiveness, God can give us a new heart, a power to live differently.

I’d like us to watch and listen to about 2 minutes of Billy preaching in New York in 1957. That’s 11 years before I was born, and the world was a different place then. I want you to listen and pay attention to what you notice. What parts of the message stand the test of time? What stylistic things are different? What is compelling, what is difficult? Let’s listen.

The summer after my freshman year in college, I worked on summer staff at Forest Home, a Christian Camp in Southern California. 

Back in those dark ages we didn’t have cell phones to text or computers to email, so at the beginning of the summer I bought a pad of stationary from the camp bookstore…and I actually used it to write letters, hand written letters to people. Most went to Elaine, but I also wrote back and forth with others, including Katrina McConaughey. As the summer went on, I had sort of forgotten that the stationary had different little drawings on the bottom of each page. So it took me awhile to figure out what she was talking about when Katrina wrote back, “What in the world is Billy Graham rock?”

graham rock

I’d sent her a page of stationary with this on the bottom. So I had to figure out what in the world it was. In 1948, Graham was at Forest Home with Dr. Henrietta Mears, a woman who was tremendously influential in the lives of many who went on to leadership positions in many national Christian organizations. John Woodyard, who was part of our church until he passed away last year, was taught by Dr. Mears and spoke of her great influence on him.

Graham was a young man, just beginning his wider public ministry. Henrietta Mears had invited him to speak at Forest Home, and as he was there, God moved in a pivotal way. In a powerful time of prayer by this rock, he offered God his doubts; he offered God himself. Here’s how he later described what happened:

“I have often said this experience at Forest Home transformed my entire ministry. I went to the Los Angeles Crusade and, instead of having fear, I found the burning fire of the Spirit within my soul. I stopped trying to prove that the Bible was true. I had settled it in my own mind by faith that it was. And this faith conveyed itself to the audience. Over and over again I found myself saying, “The Bible says.” It seemed as though I was not speaking, but I was only a voice through which the Holy Spirit was speaking.” []

Those meetings in Los Angeles were the beginning of Billy Graham becoming nationally known; and the themes that came clear at Forest Home are ones he has held to his whole life. A simple faith. A deep trust in the bible. A confidence that came because the Holy Spirit spoke through him. I remember going to the rock myself after Katrina’s question, and offering myself to God in a similar way.

I’ve read about Billy’s life over the past few weeks, and several things stand out.

People have carefully analyzed the words of his sermons, and the truth is, they mostly follow the same pattern and are not incredibly deep theologically. Yet he has been invited to speak around the world, and God has used him in tremendous ways. While the iron curtain of communism kept religious freedom away, Billy was still invited to speak to huge numbers of people in closed countries, many of whom chose to follow God.

He has been the confidante of Presidents and is consistently found on lists of America’s most admired people. People relate to him as if he is a down home country boy or the man next door, yet he lives a life with the powerful, rich and famous that most can only imagine. For more than five decades he has remained relevant, yet in the public eye without a major scandal of integrity. He himself has always attributed this in similar ways to how he describes the encounter at Forest Home at the beginning of his ministry: he gave his life to God, and God did all the work and gets all the credit.

Without a doubt, though, he brings amazing gifts and wise choices to the table. A charismatic speaker, he was willing to change with the times even as his message remained essentially the same. An able leader, he was influential in starting several major institutions that defined a new movement called “Evangelicalism”, a branch of Christianity which under his influence worked hard to hold on to fundamentals of faith without having the narrow and separatist views of what came to be known as “Fundamentalism.”

Graham was influential in the National Association of Evangelicals, the creation of the Lausanne Covenant, Fuller Seminary, and his own Billy Graham Association. His leadership and administrative skills have superbly equipped many others to make an impact on the world. It’s an amazingly wide influence, especially when you realize how laser-focused his personal mission has remained: to preach the cross of Jesus Christ alone and invite people to make a decision to follow Jesus.

Through all of this, there is another word that many use to describe Graham: integrity.

He was not perfect. His missteps and mistakes have been well documented. The first president he ever met was Harry Truman, and when he was interviewed by the press afterward, he naively told them everything the president had said, and Truman never forgave him. He was blind to his good friend President Nixon’s faults, and was caught in some of Nixon’s infamous recordings making anti-Semetic statements. One of the greatest theologians of the mid 20th century wrote some very scathing and public critiques of what he saw as Graham’s simplistic theology.

But in his personal life, he didn’t let pride corrupt him. He put strong people on his board and was accountable to them, including being completely transparent and out of control of the finances of his organization. Often traveling away from his wife, he would always have other men enter his hotel room first and stay with him, so that there was no opportunity for being unfaithful.

Billy Graham has been the exception to the unfortunate rule, famous Christian leaders who seem to let money or sex or pride lead to catastrophic and public failures.

And I have a personal and family reason to appreciate the ministry of Billy Graham.

During my sabbatical last summer I focused on learning about my own grandfather’s life. He was always a good and moral man, but church and faith were not terribly important to my grandpa. In 1958, when my grandpa was 47 years old, Billy Graham held a crusade in the Bay Area of California near where my grandparents lived.

At the Cow Palace…I am not making that up, the arena was a former livestock pavilion, and they call it the Cow Palace…that’s where my mom and her brother and nana and papa went for several nights. Here’s how my uncle remembers it:

At the meeting, Dad paid close attention to what Billy Graham had to say.  Between that and the music, Dad decided to go forward when they had the alter call.  My Dad asked Mom to walk down with him, to give him support.  Kay Lynne [my mom] and I were told to stay in our seats and wait for them to return.  Many people went forward that night.  The Billy Graham Crusade organization had a lot of people available to talk individually with each person who went forward, which Dad did.  They explained what it was to confess your sins, and to accept Jesus into your heart.  I believe they gave Dad some printed materials to assist him in better understanding what Christianity was all about. Needless to say, Mom, Kay Lynne and I were thrilled that Dad had become a Christian.  He began to attend church regularly.

How many of you, or someone in your immediate family, accepted Jesus at a Billy Graham meeting? [ASK]

I’m grateful for that influence, for his ministry.

One thing that I think we are in danger of losing in our church-world today is that strong emphasis on making a decision to follow Jesus.

There are some reasons for that change in emphasis, and I’ll get to that in a minute. But I want to make sure to hold up this morning the reminder that a life of following Jesus, a life as God intends, requires each one of us to decide we want to pursue it. It’s not the only part of our journey with God. It’s not all there is. But it is an essential part, to make a decision…indeed, to make many decisions to surrender my own will and my own mistakes and my own wrong doing to the forgiveness and the lordship of Jesus.

One night long ago, someone from the religious establishment snuck out to talk to a charismatic teacher who seemed to have everyone all in a buzz. Lives were being changed, people were being healed, and the pharisee Nicodemus wanted to learn from Jesus. “You must be born again,” Jesus told him. This confused Nicodemus, but Jesus was telling him and us that God wants to change us so radically that it’s a starting over, a new beginning, a new promise of growth that is beyond description.

It’s in that same conversation that Jesus spoke the most famous verses in the bible, John 3:16, the verses that Billy Graham claims as his favorite: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

God’s love began it all! God’s giving and living through Christ made our forgiveness and change and transformation possible. God’s loving work has done it, and it is for us to believe it…to accept the gift God offers…to be born again.

My favorite theologian Miroslav Volf wrote about being born again as a key phrase for understanding the church and understanding what God has done.

Just like a baby is born without doing a thing, with the mother doing all the work, the “born” part of “born again” reminds us that Jesus has done the work and others in the body of Christ have taught and shown us all about Jesus. The “born” part reminds us we don’t change ourselves, fix ourselves, or heal ourselves. But the “again” part of “born again” reminds us that that we do have a role in this process.

We’re born without doing a thing, but “again” implies choice on our part. Willingness on our part. Surrender on our part.

We’re at our best when we keep them together! When we recognize that even though we must decide to follow Jesus, there is no fear of doing it wrong or messing up or somehow missing out. God’s done it! And when we recognize that our willingness to surrender and ask forgiveness and repent paves the way for God to enter our lives in a new and profound way, bringing change, bringing the “new heart” we heard in the clip I showed earlier…when we recognize our choice to say yes to God can bring forgiveness and freedom and power…wow! Our lives take on a new shape!

So I will answer the question that more than one person has asked me over the years.

If all that is the case, Gregg…why don’t you talk about the decision more often? I’ll answer that by briefly sharing some of my experiences and then bringing it back to Billy Graham before we finish up.

I have had some amazingly profound experiences of decision with God, ones that have changed me for the better. Before my junior year in high school, at camp, I told God I wanted him to be in charge of my life, and I knew that meant I had to stop some things I was doing. I asked forgiveness, and offered my life to God.

After I graduated high school, at a meeting, I went forward and asked forgiveness for how I’d paid more attention to my own ego and reputation than to Jesus over the last six months. I knew I was heading to college, and I asked God to do whatever it took in the future to bring me back to Jesus if I wandered again. I have a journal from my freshman year at Fox that outlines many of the ways God answered that prayer.

During another sleepless night with a crying baby in 2003, I stood in my kitchen with headphones on, listening to Jars of Clay sing a live version of a song called “Worlds Apart.” And I cried as I sang the words, “I am the only one to blame for this…somehow it all ends up the same…soaring on the wings of selfish pride.” I asked forgiveness again and felt another powerful change in me.

I walked in the woods of Tilikum, praying for my family, telling God I was ready for more and for a deeper experience of God, and was consumed by a different kind of praying than I had ever experienced before.

God has been faithful so many times to do what Billy Graham said, to bring me a new heart.

I believe God can and does do it. Yet it has never been as simple as he sometimes made it sound. Each time I would think, “This is it! I’ll never be the same.” And in one way that was true, but in other ways I found myself making the same mistakes again.

Not only that, but I haven’t taken the time to outline the many times where I cried out to God in desperation and repentance…but didn’t really feel any kind of change or help at all.

I’ve thought a lot about this over the years. I hold a couple of things as true that don’t necessarily fit together perfectly. First, we do need to say yes to God. We have a part in this life of faith. And God does have the ability to profoundly change us, even miraculously, in ways nothing else can. Decisions of repentance and obedience are necessary.

Second, it isn’t magic. It isn’t computer code. I can’t input spiritual activities and get out exactly what I want in the same way every time. I don’t know why, but it just doesn’t work that way, despite how it sometimes sounds when preachers preach. Third, God’s work in my life and in the world is not ultimately dependent on me getting my act together, on me praying or doing the right thing. Like I said, these don’t fit together great. I don’t know how it works that decisions are necessary and that God’s work in the world isn’t dependent on us getting it right…but my experience is that both are true.

Those three things will give you hints about some of the damage I’ve experienced growing up in churches that heavily emphasized decisions.

I felt like a failure a lot. I felt like I was blocking God’s work a lot. I felt guilty a lot. And on the positive side, I’ve also come to appreciate the beauty that comes in long seasons of the ebb and flow of God’s work, the power of slow change rather than an altar rail moment in my life with Jesus.

Those things have led me to not emphasize “decisions” as much as a “lifestyle” of following Jesus. Decisions are important! But so is lifelong wrestling, with fits and starts of spiritual growth.

Finally, back to Billy Graham for one last thought. People estimate that at most 4% of the people who heard him speak at a meeting came forward. The reality is that some 96% of the people who heard the most influential preacher of all time did not have a life-changing experience with God.

How many walked away wondering if something was wrong with them? How many felt more guilt that they had done something wrong or missed something? An overemphasis on decisions can have unintended consequences.

Billy himself knew this.

I’ll close with his own words in 1958, words which show he himself knew decisions weren’t the key. The good news of God and taking up the cross of Christ is:

“I care less and less how many people come forward—whether anybody comes forward or not. The important thing is whether I have made clear the Gospel and the cost of following Christ.” [From “The Evangelical World Prospect,” October 13, 1958]

May we all understand what God has done for us in Christ, and experience the power of healing and transformation when we choose to follow Jesus.

One thought on “Cloud of Witnesses: Billy Graham

  1. Thank you, Gregg. I am so glad you are my pastor. Your vulnerability and nuances nurture our souls and lead us to Jesus. All ow me to add one thought to the wisdom the Holy Soirit has given you, a thought your own words point to. Lifestyle faithfulness actually leads to “decisions” in our own lives and inspires “decisions” in the lives of others.


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