The Rev. Billy Graham passed away earlier this week at the age of 99. I was privileged to attend one of his crusades back in 1997 in San Antonio, TX when I was a college student. There’s no doubt Billy Graham’s preaching had an impact on millions of people. He was known as “America’s Pastor” for the better part of the past century. As the media reflected on Rev. Graham’s life and legacy this week, the focus was mostly on the large crowds of people he attracted and the fact that he was a friend and counselor to many U.S. presidents (both Republican and Democrat). But as a pastor, there are some other things that really stand out to me about his life; things that I want to imitate in my own life and preaching.
The first thing that stands out to me about Billy Graham was his unwavering commitment to the Bible as the Word of God. In his book “Billy Graham,” John Pollock recalls a time in August of 1949 (before Billy was a well-known preacher) when he was speaking at a student conference in California. A man named Charles Templeton had asked some questions about the truthfulness of the Bible that Billy could not answer, so Billy walked outside and began to pray. He knew that intellect alone could not resolve the question of authority. You might say that Billy was having a crisis of faith, so he went back and got his Bible and went outside again. He found a stump in the woods, and he sat his Bible down on the stump and knelt down beside it. He prayed, “Oh God; I cannot prove certain things. I cannot answer some of the questions Chuck is raising and some of the other people are raising, but I accept this book by faith as the Word of God.” The very next month was Billy’s first Crusade in Los Angeles that launched his ministry and helped him become a nationally-known figure. Despite not having all the answers, Billy believed the Bible and preached the Bible as the Word of God.
The second thing that stands out to me about Billy Graham was his understanding that the love of Jesus was for everyone. Part of what made Billy Graham so beloved was that he was adamant that his crusades be for everyone, no matter age, social status, race, background, etc. He required that his crowds be racially integrated before it was popular to do so. In 1972 he was invited to speak to crowds in South Africa; however, Billy would not accept the invitation unless the audiences were racially integrated. The South African government reluctantly agreed. His belief was that Jesus was for ALL people, and race should not be a barrier. It is noted that Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. once told Billy Graham, "Your crusades have done more to help race relations than anything else I know.” During a time in our nation’s history when treating ALL people with dignity and respect was not the politically correct thing to do, Billy Graham did.
The third thing that stands out to me about Billy Graham was the simplicity of his message. I remember sitting in the Alamodome in San Antonio more than 20 years ago as a college ministry student, listening to Rev. Graham preach, thinking to myself, “His message is really simple and yet people love it and are listening intently.” He talked about the cross and the hope found in Jesus; that was really it. Not deep, not complicated, not flashy, not funny—it was simple. That always stayed with me. In a day and age where we can listen to the best preachers from around the world at the click of a button, sometimes I’ll admit, I feel a little pressure to be entertaining when I preach. I feel like people won’t like the sermon or pay much attention if I’m not deep enough, or funny enough, or whatever. Billy Graham’s preaching reminds me that all I really need to do is preach the gospel and point people to Jesus. Keeping it simple may be the best preaching advice of all.
The fourth thing that stands out to me about Billy Graham was the passion of his preaching. Even as an old man, Billy preached his sermons with conviction and passion. I’ve gone back and listened to some of his earlier sermons from his earlier crusades. He would get pretty fired up. You can hear the conviction in his voice as he got louder. I love that. I know some people may not like that as much. They might prefer more of a teacher than a preacher. That’s okay, but I know that sometimes, I need someone to shout at me. You know, tell me something with such passion and conviction that it gets through my thick skull and down into my bones. You can tell that Billy deeply believed what he was saying. It wasn’t hellfire and brimstone. It was the love of Jesus preached with all the conviction and passion possible. He had a way of making you feel what he was saying. That’s the mark of a good preacher to me.
Finally, what stands out to me about Billy Graham was his belief that God had chosen and called him to do his work. In his book “Five Evangelical Leaders,” Christopher Catherwood records the words of Billy Graham when he said, “With all my heart as I look back on my life, [I believe] I was chosen to do this particular work… I believe that God in his sovereignty – I have no other answer for this – sheer sovereignty, chose me to do this work and prepared me in his own way.” Sometimes, when things get really hard, that’s the only thing that keeps you going: knowing that the Lord chose you and called you to do something specific. Maybe you and I won’t ever preach to millions of people or counsel presidents, but we can live out the calling God has placed on our lives. We can remember that we, too, are chosen, called, and prepared by God to do His work.
So, while the media remembers Billy Graham for the crowds and the friendships he had with U.S. presidents, I’ll remember these five things and try to implement them in my own life and preaching.