The world stopped to celebrate the homegoing of evangelist Billy Graham, 99, who was buried in Charlotte on the grounds of the library bearing his name next to Ruth, his marriage and ministry partner of more than 63 years.
Throughout his ministry, Graham constantly leveraged the leading edge of technology, from radio and print journalism to satellite television and the internet in order to speak timeless truths to the mercurial interests of the next generation.
While the message of Jesus’ love and redemptive power for the sinner is eternal and timeless, the modern believer lives in a world of near-instantaneous change. The youngest among us are particularly susceptible to the whims of culture, especially one driven by a 24-hour Twitter news cycle.
Before Billy Graham was known for reinventing the old-fashioned tent revival, he cut his evangelistic teeth as an itinerant youth preacher, speaking to young men and women in the armed forces who were home from World War II, afflicted with a deep sense of uncertainty that combat too often inspires.
In 1944, Youth for Christ International founder Torrey Johnson invited a 26-year-old Graham to lead a series of meetings at the 3,000-seat Chicago Orchestra Hall. Graham’s style was passionate, pithy and – perhaps most importantly for a crowd of youngsters – able to deliver the gospel message quickly. The following year, Johnson recruited Graham and a number of other young evangelists to tour the country speaking at other similarly organized youth meetings.
Great Souls author David Aikman recalls that Graham and his colleagues energized their listeners with “loud and contemporary” music, “flashy” clothes and, similar to the popular “I Am Second” video series of today, well-known athletes who had committed their lives to Christ presenting their faith testimonies.
The lessons gleaned from those early youth rallies influenced Graham’s preaching for the remainder of his worldwide career. When he addressed thousands in Times Square in 1957, he famously invoked the titles of the movie marquees lining 42nd Street as textual evidence for the world’s sin and brokenness for which God’s redemptive love was the antidote.
In June 1972, Graham kicked off Campus Crusade for Christ’s “Explo ’72” at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. The event, later dubbed the “Christian Woodstock,” capped the peak of the ’70s “Jesus Movement,” gathering 100,000 college and high school students – including future minister and Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee – for a week of evangelistic training.
Explo ’72 culminated in a day-long Christian music festival featuring artists such as Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson, an experience so powerful that music critic John Thompson later credited the event with kick-starting the Contemporary Christian Music genre and the rise of the juggernaut Christian music industry.
BP file photo by Kelli Cottrell
In 1994, Graham returned to a Youth Night emphasis out of a self-professed burden to reach his own grandchildren and their peers. This desire soon became one of the hallmarks of his later ministry as local pastors looked to his model of reaching the next generation, which statistics show is outside the grasp of the church.
Longtime crusade director Rick Marshall remembers that Billy Graham never forgot the lessons learned early in his career, that the most effective way to reach young people is through their own mediums.
“Billy agreed to take a risk and a new approach to advertising – including spots on MTV and urban radio – and programming,” Marshall said. “Billed as ‘The First Concert to Benefit Its Own Audience,’ we combined high-energy music – presented with integrity – with straight talk from him as a caring adult, communicated with love and simplicity so that these kids knew he understood their world.”
According to Marshall, as a senior statesman for the faith Graham had the experience of a modern-day Moses, the Old Testament patriarch who, after a long life of blessing and impact gazed upon the Promised Land on which he would never set foot.
“Mr. Graham was standing on a mountain speaking into future generations he would never see,” Marshall said. “After a rousing concert with several contemporary music bands, the stadium record crowd of teens got pin-drop quiet for Billy’s message, with overwhelming response.”
Beginning that night in Cleveland moving forward, 22 youth events were held during Mr. Graham’s remaining crusades, 12 of which broke all-time stadium records with crowds of mostly young people totaling nearly 1.3 million, of which nearly 100,000 responded in making a commitment to Christ.
Billy Graham’s prayer for future influence to the next generation was answered and extended over the last 11 years of his preaching ministry, but only as the evangelist similarly yielded his physical limitations and weakness to the Lord and operated in His strength from above.
If Billy Graham innovated by speaking into his times, preaching with a “Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other,” then perhaps the modern-day youth evangelist might speak with a Bible in one hand and Buzzfeed in the other. However, that same preacher should also remember that, though the methods might have changed, Graham’s core message never did.
Don Wilton, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Spartanburg, S.C., who became Graham’s pastor beginning in 2009, reflects that the evangelist’s “impact on youth was encompassed in his person. He transcended age and station. … We, many times, look at that and say, ‘What can we concoct? What can we do in order to attract more people?’ Mr. Graham believed that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – A. Larry Ross is president of A. Larry Ross Communications, a Dallas-based media/public relations agency providing cross-over media liaison at the intersection of faith and culture. For more than 33 years, Ross served as personal media spokesperson for evangelist Billy Graham and is responsible for the website billygrahamlegacy.info and curator of the video streaming channel bit.ly/BillyGrahamLegacyYouTube.)