This week, we celebrated the passing of a man known affectionately as “America’s pastor”.
Billy Graham was one of the most prominent figures of this generation, and I would argue that he bridged the gap between religion, politics and popular culture better than anyone in history. But there are others who would disagree. In fact, a scathing article ran in Rolling Stone calling him a “shameless sycophant” and credited him with “transforming evangelical Christianity into a patriotic corporate entity”.
Opinions aside, the man spent time with every President from Truman to Trump and his library reveals photos with everyone from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Bono and even the Pope. But more important than Presidents and Icons, he shared the good news of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ at “crusades” that reached more than 200 million people worldwide.
The ripple effect of his legacy has touched billions.
Whether you see him as a charlatan or as a champion, Billy Graham was an uncompromising leader whose influence and impact are unparalleled. But now that the “Evangelist to the world” is dead, what does that mean for evangelism itself?
It’s no secret that evangelism in America has a black eye. In fact, the uttering of the word evangelical sends both sides into a tail spin of hateful rhetoric and condemnation. But I believe the death of Billy Graham represents a new season and opens the door for a sort-of New Evangelism.
Yes, Billy Graham is dead. Evangelism isn’t.
The Danger in Evangelism
For many, Billy Graham is the embodiment of evangelism—the spreading of good news. And I would argue that he paved the way for evangelism in the modern world. But Billy Graham was also very aware of the danger in evangelism. The inherent danger of evangelism is the glorification of the messenger.
Whether intentional or unintentional, evangelism has a way of elevating the one delivering the message rather than the message itself. Honestly, this is the cynics’ biggest complaint. But I get the impression that this grieved Billy Graham to the point that he took every precaution to see that it didn’t happen.
In September of 2017, I visited The Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, North Carolina. It is a tribute to the man and his message. As I read, I found it telling that Billy Graham only agreed to the Library if its primary focus would be the message of the gospel rather than the man who delivered it. From my perspective, his wishes were honored.
I’m afraid that isn’t true of others.
The spectrum of evangelism in popular culture today is tarnished. With the onset of televangelism, the megachurch and social media, we now have leaders who look more like celebrities than servants. And, those leaders seem to fight for a bigger platform from which to share a message. Subtly, quietly and with the noblest intentions, evangelicals have become more concerned with building bigger platforms. As a result, our focus has shifted from The Message to the platforms and the men and women standing on them.
People Die. The Gospel Never Will.
Evangelism is under fire because a logical world is held captive by what is sees. And when a logical world sees platforms and personal agendas and the idolization of its leaders, it attacks. When evangelicals perceive an attack, their immediate response is to defend themselves. Rocks fly and the war rages on. But it’s important for us to remember that in the midst of the war, we can’t lose sight of the original message.
During an interview in the 1960s, Billy Graham was asked about the influence of the Beatles on popular culture. He answered, “I find them refreshing, but I think that eventually these things have a way of passing.”
The interviewer quickly responded, “Do you think there’s any danger that your effect might pass?”
Billy Graham replied, “My effect as a person will, definitely. I thought it would have passed long ago. But the gospel that I preach has been going for 2,000 years and it is much stronger now than it ever was.”
I think what Billy Graham was saying is that people die. The gospel never will.
The faithfulness of the masses should never be predicated on those in the pews or pulpit. And those in thew pews and pulpit shouldn’t feel the need to constantly defend themselves. Jesus is the Good News. As a result, our faithfulness finds its home in Him rather than our ability to nobly defend Him.
There’s More Than ‘Jesus Saves’
Billy Graham championed the message “Jesus saves” better than anyone. And there is no greater news in heaven or on earth. However, it is our turn to stand on Reverend Graham’s shoulders and continue the work of the Kingdom by taking it a step further. As professing believers in Jesus’s saving work on the cross, it’s time for us to wrestle with and answer the question, “Why are we still here after we’re saved?”
To most evangelicals, we answer that question by reciting the Great Commission. Our purpose after salvation is to evangelize and make disciples. But I’m not sure we really know what that means. In large part, evangelism means sharing the gospel and making disciples is simply about better behavior.
So, with the best intentions we elevate our teachers, build bigger platforms, gather in large groups, try to act better and throw rocks at anyone who feels threatening. We use words like conversion and obedience to measure our success and we take pride in the size of the rocks we throw.
But there has to be more than that. There is more than that. And it’s time for a change.
So, why are we still here after we’re saved?
The New Evangelism
I’m learning, albeit slowly, that evangelism isn’t something that only happens with words. Evangelism has to be lived. The best way to share the good news is to become it in the lives of others. That is the high honor of righteousness and the call of those who believe—to become God’s expression in the world.
It’s not about building bigger platforms, and it’s not about correctly arguing all of the major cultural hot topics. It’s about humbly using the platforms and gifts we’ve been given to become God’s expression in the world. Instead of taking credit for how good or noble or religious we are, we must give credit to the One who promises all things if we simply seek him first.
I wept when I learned that Billy Graham had passed away. That’s not something I expected. But to be honest I wasn’t sad, I was convicted. What would it look like to become so overwhelmed by your desire to experience the fullness of Christ that you were willing to lay down everything in order to receive it? What if you, like Jacob, refused to let go of God until he gave you all that He had promised?
We don’t need another Billy Graham. We need courageous men and women to leave God’s fingerprints on the world through their own. Those who profess “Jesus saves” actually need to begin living it out.
So to Billy Graham. Thank you for leading the way. Now it’s our turn to cross the river.
(with influence and guidance from Zondervan author, Kevin Adams)