Gratitude for Billy Graham

“The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” …  if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and
believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
  – Romans 10:8-9

When I heard that the venerable evangelist had died, I paused in silent gratitude for a job well done and a life faithfully lived. I did not grow up in a church that talked about Billy Graham or went to his evangelism crusades. As my faith has matured and my theological framework has expanded to embrace some key aspects of evangelicalism, I have grown to appreciate this man. I have never read one of his books. I have only attended one crusade. I still have questions about the effectiveness of mega-event evangelism. Yet I am immensely grateful for Billy Graham’s ministry.

He kept the center on Jesus Christ. He refused to engage with only a certain group of pastors and churches. When his crusades came into a city they reached across boundaries-denominational, theological, and racial. He helped evangelicalism emerge with vibrancy out of a restricting fundamentalism. Although he was a pastor to many Presidents, he could never equate evangelicalism with one political party. The center for Graham was Jesus.

He kept the focus on the church, with every crusade networked to local church follow up and discipleship. He could change his mind. I still remember when he was growing weary of the cold war nuclear arms race. He thought both the US and USSR could do better and he said so.

Graham was all about transparency and accountability. The longer I’m a pastor, the more I admire his recognition of original sin. He didn’t just preach it, but knew it lurked at his own door and would devour him if he let it master him (Genesis 4:7). He put in place key practices and structures to keep him straight. There was never a hint of sexual or financial scandal. His crusades were well known for financial credibility. How many pastors, evangelists and church leaders could learn from him in just this one area?

But what I’m most thankful for, is the best gift of evangelicalism to me and Graham was its champion: the focus on a personal ownership of your faith in Jesus. He invited a decision for Christ. Now, I know some of you have memories of being pressed too hard to “decide for Jesus.” I have my own story of evangelical malpractice when I was the victim of a spiritual assault at the age of thirteen. I’m not celebrating pressure.

Nor do I celebrate the kind of theology that declares you must know the exact date and hour when you became a Christian. Some of us have experienced just such a moment, but some of us would be hard pressed to name that event of decision.

What I think is so important, and I think Graham brought this, is the focus on not just relying on your parents’ faith or some cultural Christianity. No. At some point you need to put your name on the dotted line: “Yes, I’m committed to Jesus as Savior and Lord.” It was the evangelical wing of the PCUSA that invited me to decide in this way, to bring all my questions, to really wrestle intellectually with what is at stake. I had already been formed as a Christian in my non-evangelical church of origin. I just needed to own up to it, explicitly name it. Billy Graham helped shape a movement in the church; he was the champion of deciding for Jesus. And I’m grateful.