Reflections on working with Billy Graham
The evangelist Billy Graham died aged 99 on 21 February 2018. His funeral was due to take place on 2 March. I worked for a decade with his team and occasionally directly with him.
He was wearing tracksuit bottoms and trainers in a hotel room in Bristol. His wife Ruth was in hospital in America. Billy Graham and I were discussing a forthcoming speech he was to make to a “black tie” British audience. I shared some ideas and tried to probe what he felt his message should be. He was very unsure. He leaned back, and lamented, “If only Ruth was here! She’d know what I ought to say.”
It was near the start of the three-month series of meetings in 1984 in six venues called Mission England. The encounter was my first of several insights into the very human, often diffident and indecisive, shy and sensitive human being who lay behind the public persona of a seemingly confident and assured preacher addressing audiences numbering tens of thousands.
|Proof I was there: in the background as Cliff Barrows|
and Billy Graham made a pre-meeting stadium visit
In person, Billy Graham was always polite, and he always listened. He was a “mid Atlantic” man, like most of his team who I worked with, in manner and accent. There was none of the brash, loud, bombastic, drawling, know-it-all “speak first and think later” character that British people often associate with some Americans. He and his team were culturally sensitive, anxious to work with, not order around, the local people who had invited them in.
Indeed, when the “Life” advertising campaign for 1989 was revealed to a group of us by the agency we had appointed, one of the first questions was whether the Americans would accept it as it was totally unlike anything they had used before. It was entirely in black and white, and included a teaser campaign using the jumbled letters of the word LIFE. (FLE.I, E.LIF, ILE.F) with the question “Can anyone make sense of it?”. The final reveal poster, with a silhouette back view of the evangelist, was “LIFE. Come and hear one man who can make sense of it. Billy Graham.” The Americans graciously accepted the British team’s judgement that it would work here; it actually went on to be widely copied and won an advertising industry award. In Moscow in 1991-2 we used something similar – flyers posing the simple question Why? and the mission title which translated roughly as “the most important”.
The Graham team never went anywhere without a clear invitation from a widely representative body of church leaders. In fact it took almost a decade of repeated invitations from British leaders before Billy Graham considered that both the time, and the nature of our proposal for Mission England (a three-year programme of training and outreach of which his meetings would be the focal point), was right for him to come. The final decision always lay with him.
Indeed, his desire to be inclusive and accommodating sometimes got him into trouble with the very people who theoretically should have been his strongest supporters. There were demonstrations against him by ultra-Protestant groups who objected to him welcoming Roman Catholic Church leaders onto the platform. They handed out anti-Graham leaflets outside some of the UK venues and harangued people going in. While he never compromised his solid Bible-based evangelical beliefs, Billy sat loose to denominational differences. If people were happy to accept and promote his simple message, he was happy to work with them.
Interestingly – and as if proof was ever needed that there’s always another side to the media-projected image of public figures – my only personal encounter with the late Ian Paisley, the fiery Protestant politician and church minister in Northern Ireland, came in a blistering ten-minute phone call from him in 1989. However, he was not complaining about Mr Graham’s sympathetic attitude to Catholics. Paisley was a strong supporter of the mission and of Graham’s ministry.
But he was always the far-seeing, and in that sense wise, politician. I had issued a press release announcing that one of the venues for a Livelink relay was a Roman Catholic Church in Belfast. To us in London, it was a newsworthy contribution to furthering the cause of unity in a deeply divided community, and to promoting Billy Graham’s ecumenical credentials. To Paisley in Belfast, although he had no personal problem with the relay or the venue, the publicity was a potential hindrance to the cause of peace. It could provoke his own even more extreme supporters to turn against him, making the event more, not less, divisive. It might also hinder the cause of the Gospel as remonstrations detracted from the purpose and message of the meetings, he suggested. Sometimes, things need to be done quietly, without fanfare, as small steps in a very long journey. We had failed to be culturally sensitive in our enthusiasm for the immediate story, a common media and PR failing.
What fuelled his success?
We once asked a journalist why there was so much positive interest in and coverage of Billy Graham’s 1984 visit. “Maybe after all these years we’ve begun to think he might have something,” he replied. Simple and undeniable facts had exhausted most of the sceptics’ antagonism.
Top of the list was the simplicity of his message. Billy Graham was not an intellectual but neither was he theologically illiterate. He had a sharp and quick mind, as many of his live broadcast interviews (including with renowned psychologist Anthony Clare) revealed. He did not offer glib answers to deep questions such as why innocent people suffer. He acknowledged he didn’t understand everything, and simply stressed God’s care for people in extreme situations. Nor did he hold out to people of faith the glib promise of wealth and well-being, unlike the “prosperity gospel” TV evangelists in the US. He just stuck to his core message that every human being is a sinner who needs Christ’s forgiveness and new life. It rang bells with ordinary people even if it continued to rankle with some commentators.
He was also patently sincere. People who came to the meetings out of curiosity went away acknowledging that whatever else they thought about the message, Billy Graham clearly believed it himself. He was not putting on an act, or playing to the gallery. He was earnest. (He did get carried away occasionally. He used very full sermon notes typed in very large print, but once, having told one of his regular anecdotes which received a greater than usual laugh, he went on to tell another, and another, off the cuff. There was then what could only be described as a pregnant pause. His secretary on the platform turned to one of the UK mission leaders and whispered, “He’s lost his place and doesn’t know what comes next!”)
His sincerity was borne out by his lifestyle. Very early in his ministry he and Ruth had bought some (then) cheap land on a mountainside and build a wooden house on it. He lived there for the rest of his life, and died there. When his support organisation was formed, also early in his ministry, it was agreed that he would be paid a fixed salary equivalent to that of the minister of a large (not mega) US church. The team offered their services in the UK (and elsewhere) entirely at their own expense and the collections taken at meetings went entirely to the considerable costs of hiring and equipping large venues, producing the literature, and paying local staff. Anything left over might be given partly as a “love gift” to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and also shared with other UK evangelistic projects.
There was never a whiff of scandal attached to him, either. That was thanks partly to his rigid rule (recently redubbed the “Pence rule” after the current US Vice-President) of never meeting a woman in any circumstances on his own.
More controversy did surround his relationships with world leaders and particularly US Presidents. However, after he was badly hurt and let down by the antics of President Nixon, who Graham counted as a personal friend, he never publicly endorsed the policies of others. He became a trusted confidante of most presidents of both parties, however, and nothing that passed between them was ever made public.
And as you
look through the archive of photographs, what strikes you is the ease with
which he sat cross-legged with a group of students, or on occasions engaged with
people in the street. Billy Graham liked people. He would talk to anyone. And
he treated them equally. He was never whisked like a head of state in a convoy
of armoured cars and kept apart from the public: in that regard, he was far
more like today’s young royals than distant politicians. People warmed to that,
and were thus more open to what he had to say.
|Always happy to talk - an impromptu media interview |
at the Liverpool Garden Festival in 1984
Nor did he hide behind TV cameras, although he used TV as much as he could. His primary ministry was to people in person in live meetings, where he felt most at home. In 1984 in Sunderland (previously dubbed the graveyard of evangelists because of its low level of church attendance and response to previous outreach attempts) I went out on the streets asking people why they were coming to hear him in such large numbers. “Well, he’s been good enough to come to see us, so we ought to go and hear what he’s got to say”, said one middle aged Geordie.
But there were two other factors behind his success in the UK and elsewhere. One was the context. The missions in the 1960s were carefully prepared by local people and the lessons learned then were taken up by UK church leaders and the Graham team elsewhere and refined by the 1980s. Far from being “mass evangelism”, the thrust of the missions was personal evangelism on a large scale. Almost 50,000 people attended the preparatory Christian Life and Witness Classes in 1984, 100,000 in 1989. The course taught Christian basics and encouraged Christians to share their faith with others.
|Many volunteers worked late into the night after each meeting |
to follow-up enquirers, sending their details to local church
nurture groups to arrive by post the next day
Alongside that was Operation Andrew in which people pledged to pray for and bring to the meetings half a dozen or so of their friends, relatives or colleagues. And on top of these were the Prayer Triplets: three people getting together regularly to pray for up to three people each. Time and again we heard of people coming to faith as a result of this witness and prayer long before the meetings took place. And the majority of uncommitted people who did get to the meetings were already prepared in some way to hear the message – they were not coming cold to something completely unfamiliar. Billy was reaping the harvest from a carefully-prepared mission field.
At times in the meetings you could almost feel the power of that prayer, and the presence of God, much as one might in the echoing silence of a great cathedral or a country church. Once, when we were especially aware of it, a colleague turned to me and said, without in any sense being irreverent, “He could read the weather forecast now and people would come forward to commit themselves to Christ.”
That atmosphere was not what some critics feared – a hyped up emotionalism. It was something completely different. In fact, most of the meetings felt very flat and ordinary – there was none of the frenzy one might associate with a pop concert or football match in the same stadia. That didn’t always suit our friends in the media. At one venue we watched from the press bench with amusement as a TV crew – cameraman tied to sound man with a long umbilical cable, and a reporter – hared across the pitch to the far side to film about four people near the front of a stand who had their arms raised in praise and worship during a hymn. Almost everyone else in the 30,000 crowd was singing heartily but restrained physically.
The second factor was simply Billy Graham’s gift. The New Testament speaks of the gift of an evangelist – someone who under God is able to bring people to the point of encounter with Christ. Billy Graham had that in spades. Some would call it an anointing. He admitted in private that he remained surprised that people came in such numbers to hear him, and to respond to his message. He had a genuine, almost child-like, amazement that God should use him, a dairy farmer’s son with no great human talent, in such a great way. Perhaps that humility was one of the secrets of his longevity as a preacher.
What is his legacy?
That is impossible to quantify. Think dropping a stone into a still pond, with the ripples going out in all directions. Of course, some people who attended the meetings came away unconvinced. Others were affected, but later drifted away from church. Jesus predicted such an effect in the parable of the sower. But many people did come to faith, or had their faith rekindled, through his ministry. And some of those went on to become church ministers, lay activists in their churches, or quiet witnesses in their families, communities and workplaces. Through them, others have come to faith, or had their interest in Christianity awoken, or just been on the receiving end of some gentle “Kingdom building” of goodness, kindness, and godliness. The legacy is never ending.
The same, of course, can be said of almost everyone: we never know the full extent or effectiveness of what we do. The desire to quantify our achievements, to account for or justify our activities is ever greater in a society seemingly obsessed with fulfilling targets and ticking boxes. While defining clearly our strategies in God’s service is good, spiritual effectiveness can never be measured by numbers or actions. King David was taken to task in the Old Testament for holding a census of his fighting force, in effect to measure his pride of achievement and popularity. It wasn’t how God wanted him to think of himself.
The question also arises as to who (if anyone) is the “next” Billy Graham and will carry the torch for large-scale evangelism. It would be a foolish person who said that there never could be someone like him or that there could never be large scale evangelistic meetings in UK sports stadia or places like the O2 arena (after all, he wasn’t the first in history; think John Wesley, George Whitfield, and D.L. Moody). People do go to large events – pop concerts and festivals, and sports events. And there are large scale Christian events (usually semi-residential) such as New Wine, Spring Harvest, the Keswick Convention and so on.
But against that has to be weighed the fact that the world is now different. When Billy Graham was at the height of his ministry in the 1960s through to the 1990s social media didn’t exist. There were fewer TV channels. The satellite technology utilised in 1989 was pioneering – in fact Mission 89’s 248 Livelink relays used all the available large scale projection equipment that existed in the UK at the time, and some had to be imported from Europe. Furthermore, all large scale events today – take the recent Winter Olympics opening and closing ceremonies, or large concerts, even theatre events – utilise two things that didn’t exist then: fast-paced rapidly changing action and vivid visual effects. There are of course people gifted as evangelists, but they don’t have to exercise that gift on large scales. Today, local is often better, with a few churches joining together for a concerted outreach into their community.
Billy Graham was a man for a specific time. Today, outreach with the Christian message needs to utilise technology in a different way; yet still many churches don’t have the facility for providing even simple visual reinforcement of talks. So, because of the well-documented decline in people’s ability to concentrate on a single speaker for any length of time, many have reduced their teaching slots to a few minutes’ monologue instead of re-imagining them and the worship “package” that sandwiches them. And the success of the Alpha Course suggests that the combination of friendship, food, a lively visual programme (the Alpha Course videos were re-worked a year or two ago) and discussion is currently a winning and culturally appropriate formula for sharing the Christian faith.
Instead of looking for a successor, and instead of trying to repeat a formula which worked in a former period, we need to be asking what we’re doing locally and nationally to draw people to faith in culturally appropriate ways. If God raises up an individual who in effectiveness stands head and shoulders above others, that would be great. But meanwhile we’re called to simply get on with the job of mission where we are. And that imperative, if anything, is the greatest legacy of the Billy Graham missions, because they mobilised people in the pews to do what the first Christians did: gossip the Gospel.
Think and talk
1. What are the most appropriate ways your church might reach out with the Gospel to others without first expecting them to walk into a church service of their own accord?2. And what could you do to help facilitate it?