Ed Stetzer works amid the aura of Billy Graham each day at Wheaton College.
Stetzer, a longtime Southern Baptist denominational personality who began as a church planter in Buffalo, N.Y., joined Wheaton’s faculty in 2016 as the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission and Evangelism and as executive director of the college’s Billy Graham Center.
Longtime Southern Baptist denominational personality Ed Stetzer plants new roots as director of Wheaton College’s Billy Graham Center.
“Holding the Billy Graham chair” – an academic post, “not a literal chair” – “reminds me each day of the importance of prioritizing a verbal gospel witness,” Stetzer told Baptist Press (BP).
“I feel an even greater burden for the proclamation of the gospel. It’s always been a passion. I’ve been in church planting, I’ve seen a lot of people reached for the gospel, I’ve written on church revitalization.”
Yet there is “a special responsibility with the center being named after Billy Graham that we might carry the flag that churches might see a greater sense of gospel witness.”
When Stetzer was a staff member at the Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC) former Home Mission Board (now North American Mission Board), his vice president made a practice of asking at each staff meeting about their personal witness to someone who wasn’t a Christian.
“We never knew who he was going to ask, and it had to be this week,” Stetzer recounted, saying it’s a practice he’s adopted at the Billy Graham Center.
“I told our staff [in 2016] we can’t work at a place named after Billy Graham and not be able to answer every week who we have shared the gospel with,” Stetzer said.
Particularly at a time when “verbal gospel witness seems to be at an all-time low” among Southern Baptists as well as evangelicals in general, Stetzer underscored, “We want the words, the commission of Jesus to be our priority.”
Before his time
Stetzer never met Billy Graham, who died Feb. 21 at age 99. The evangelist’s breakthrough meetings in Los Angeles in 1949 and at New York’s Madison Square Garden happened long before Stetzer was born in 1966.
“I’m the age of Billy Graham’s grandchildren,” Stetzer said. “Not just his children but his grandchildren.” Among his friends are Will Graham, oldest son of Franklin Graham and vice president and associate evangelist with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA).
Stetzer will co-host the live stream of Graham’s funeral on Friday, March 2, with Jim Kirkland, BGEA executive director for audio media, from the ministry’s radio studio in Charlotte. The broadcast, to air on the Moody Radio Network and other outlets, will begin at 10 a.m. Eastern time, moving into coverage of the funeral which begins at noon.
Stetzer’s first interaction with the Graham organization came in 1988 in Buffalo through one of the evangelist’s 400-plus crusades.
Planting Calvary Christian Church through the Home Mission Board, Stetzer led its members to attend the crusade’s evangelistic training and went door-to-door to invite people to attend the nightly meetings.
“[We] probably had two or three families from the follow-up cards we got from the crusade, in addition to one or two families that we brought [to hear Graham preach] and responded to the gospel there,” Stetzer recalled.
Growing up in Levitttown, N.Y., outside New York City in an unchurched home, Stetzer can’t recall the first time he heard Graham’s name. After his family moved to the Orlando area, he became a Christian at an Episcopal youth camp in Florida around 1977.
“When I went off to college, I wanted to go to a Christian school that had a good connection to a medical school” for pre-med studies, so he enrolled at the Baptist-affiliated Shorter College (now Shorter University) in Rome, Ga.
“While there I became a Southern Baptist convictionally. My views had changed on baptism and the Episcopal Church was rapidly going in a different direction, so I wanted something that was theologically more in line with where I was.”
Stetzer joined a Southern Baptist church, became a youth pastor, was licensed to the ministry at Fifth Avenue Baptist Church and ordained as a 20-year-old at Calvary Baptist Church, both in Rome, before venturing into church planting. While in Buffalo, he studied for five years at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s extension center in Pittsburgh, driving four hours each way, often battling winter snowstorms.
The trek to Chicagoland
At Wheaton, Stetzer isn’t the lone Southern Baptist.
“Wheaton is an evangelical institution. I fit in fine,” said the popular speaker and author who led LifeWay Research and The Gospel Project curriculum during nine years with LifeWay Christian Resources. “Southern Baptists are well-connected here. We have professors who are Southern Baptists and speakers who are Southern Baptists.
“It’s about the same as working in Southern Baptist life,” he added in lighthearted fashion. “There are areas on baptism where people here differ or Pentecostal gifts where people differ and things of that sort.” His cross-denominational ministry since moving to Wheaton includes serving as the Graham-founded Lausanne Movement’s regional director for North America in advancing international missions causes and networking and, on an interim basis, as teaching pastor at Moody Church in Chicago.
At the Billy Graham Center, with a 1979 cornerstone, Stetzer is part of a range of initiatives that include evangelism in denominational outreach and church planting and in major cities, rural communities, college campuses and prisons.
Also at the center is the Museum of American Evangelism, informally known as the Billy Graham Museum, a 20,000-square-foot facility at the Chicago-area college.
While he was living, “Mr. Graham wouldn’t let us put up as much Billy Graham displays as we would have liked. He was concerned that the museum not be about him,” Stetzer said. With his death, “We now think it’s quite appropriate to have more … to let people know this is a Billy Graham story.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Art Toalston is senior editor of Baptist Press, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.)