5 things every pastor can learn from Billy Graham
Billy Graham’s faith was authentic, on and off the crusade stage.
On its face, a call for pastors to imitate Billy Graham is as fitting as a call for congressmen to imitate George Washington or young basketball players to imitate Michael Jordan. However, asking a local pastor to model his ministry according to that of a traveling celebrity televangelist who golfed with presidents isn’t as obvious as you might think.
At the dedication of the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte in 2007, George H.W. Bush called Graham “America’s pastor,” but the title is a bit of a misnomer. Aside from serving a Baptist congregation for eighteen months after his graduation from Wheaton in 1943, Graham never pastored another church in the conventional sense.
In 1959, Graham became a member of the largest church in the country, FBC Dallas. Fifty years later in 2009, he transferred his membership to FBC Spartanburg, South Carolina. Due to Graham’s itinerant ministry and his home in North Carolina, he obviously never attended either regularly. Nevertheless, Graham’s character and his personal principles are those that can be emulated by any pastor in Gospel ministry.
1. Billy Graham preached a simple gospel.
John the Baptist, the locust-eating, camel-wearing hippie-prophet who declared a single message of repentance, was described by Jesus as the greatest “among those born of women.” (Matt. 11:11) In some sense, despite his celebrity status, Billy Graham’s message remained just as simple: place your faith in Jesus. In 1971, Graham once said plainly, “The average American has the intelligence of a 12-year-old, religiously.” Almost a half-century later, his words still ring true. From the atomic bomb to the specter of Communism, Graham boiled down any headline or modern American issue to the reality of judgment, our need for Jesus, and the imperative to believe.
And inevitably, the Gospel was always presented in its simplicity. “You don’t have to straighten out your lives first,” he told an audience in Columbus, Ohio in 1993. “You don’t have to make yourself well before going to a doctor.” The only language Billy Graham knew better than that of the Bible was the language of the common man, and he wielded it powerfully to save souls. As a result, in 1987, one CNN correspondent suggested that “some would call him the 13th disciple.” With no seminary training or advanced theological degrees, Graham was a common man speaking to common men.
2. Billy Graham got the message out.
To simply call Billy Graham a “televangelist” is to diminish his cultural reach and the numerous other ways he found to preach the Gospel to the world. For instance, in 2013, one month before his 91st birthday, Graham released his 32nd book, The Reason for Hope: Salvation. The microphone wasn’t Graham’s only medium for preaching the gospel; he also preached with his pen. The most important books that placed Graham in the mainstream of American culture were Peace with God (1953) and Just As I Am (1997). Peace with God sold more than 2 million copies and was translated into 50 different languages. Graham also helped found Christianity Today in 1956 with Carl F.H. Henry as its founding editor. In addition, Graham was also a master of the airwaves.
After World War II, when the Federal Communication Commission changed their regulations on air time, evangelical broadcasters were able to buy more slots instead of waiting for free public-service airtime which usually went to mainline Protestant groups. Graham seized the opportunity, and his voice was consequently heard on dozens of AM and FM stations across America. Graham engineered the modern evangelical movement not simply with his preaching, but through an entrepreneurial mind that seized at opportunities to disseminate that simple gospel. “I intend to go anywhere, sponsored by anybody, to preach the gospel of Christ, if there are no strings attached to my message,” Graham told the annual convention of the National Association of Evangelicals in 1957.
3. Billy Graham went after the youth.
Billy Graham’s very first book was Calling Youth to Christ, published in 1947, two years before the famous Los Angeles crusade that launched his public career. From the very beginning, Graham’s focus was always on the next generation. After graduating from Wheaton, Graham threw his efforts into reaching the youth in the Chicago area. His first major speaking event was in front of 3000 people at Orchestra Hall in 1944 for Youth for Christ, a para-church movement that pioneered a new evangelical outreach to young people. For the next two years, Graham would be the headliner for YFC.
In his first year, Graham crisscrossed 47 states in order to preach to the youth of America. Amazingly, Billy Graham was actually named United Airlines’ top civilian passenger in 1945. In a very real sense, Graham’s labors for youth provided the foundation for his career and the broader evangelical movement he engineered.
4. Billy Graham was a faithful husband.
Billy Graham entered Wheaton College in the Fall of 1940 where he met Ruth Bell Graham, a junior, almost immediately. Billy later remembered “a slender, hazel-eyed movie starlet!” Three years later, they were married. Ruth, the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries in prerevolutionary China, was a sharp, confident woman who could easily outstrip Billy in conversation.
Initially, Ruth returned Billy’s engagement ring due to her intentions to serve as a missionary in Tibet. However, eventually she would capitulate and become the mother to five Graham children. With her husband, she received the Congressional Gold Medal in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda in 1996. Oddly enough, Billy never eclipsed Ruth; he simply empowered her. Herself a prolific author who surpassed Billy in literary quality, Ruth once quipped, “If two people agree on everything, one of them is unnecessary.” With such a capable, versatile, even sometimes outspoken companion, Graham never once shied away from lavishing praises upon his wife. Despite his countless preaching engagements, it seemed that Graham was never long gone from their home in Montreat, North Carolina.
5. Billy Graham apologized.
When thinking about Billy Graham, the word “apology” doesn’t typically come to mind. Graham was not only a public figure; he was also extremely articulate and careful with his words. However, one cannot enjoy the length and degree of limelight that Graham did without a few blunders along the way. True to his seemingly incorruptible, moral character, the man once called “America’s Pope” was not above acknowledging his few public mistakes. Unfortunately, they almost always involved partisan politics.
“There is no American I admire more than Richard Nixon,” Graham once said while introducing the candidate’s two daughters to a crusade audience in Portland, Oregon. Graham’s well-publicized relationship with Nixon forced him to eventually admit his overly rose-colored view of the corrupt figure years later. After defending Nixon’s character relentlessly and even dismissing the Watergate findings, Graham eventually demonstrated a profound change of heart about his involvement with American political life.
He later repented, “in my earlier days. . . I tended to identify the Kingdom of God with the American way of life. I don’t think like that now.” Just a few weeks before Nixon’s resignation, Graham warned a group of evangelists “not to identify the Gospel with any one political program of culture.” He admitted, “this has been my own danger.” Billy Graham’s faith was authentic, on and off the crusade stage.