The phrase ‘a living legend’ is often over-used, but in the case of Billy Graham, the title is not misplaced. I’m spending two days in Chicago on my back to the UK, and visited the Billy Graham Centre at Wheaton College, Illinois today. Billy and Ruth Graham were students here in their youth and this magnificent centre is a superb tribute to arguably the most influential Christian preacher of the 20th Century.
The Centre details the history of evangelism in the US, from the arrival of the early settlers, but it's Billy Graham’s ministry that is the clear focus. It’s brilliantly presented, with words and images, audio and video, and I found it very moving. I found as I watched clips of some of his campaigns from the 1930s through to the late 1990s the simplicity of his message is compelling. Our alienation from God, God’s redemptive work in and through Christ, and the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit is clear and unequivocal and when presented well, demands a response.
There are many people quoted, from a number of well known personalities, as well as anonymous comments from ordinary men and women who attended his rallies.
An unnamed doctor from Canada says - “My medical practice had been intensely satisfying and I had received many honours. But Dr Graham seemed to be speaking right to me. That night I confessed to God I was a hypocrite, and asked Jesus to come into my life and change me. That was 28 years ago and that encounter with Jesus Christ has made me a better physician and person.”
Muhammad Ali is pictured sitting on the porch with Billy and Ruth Graham and is quoted later as saying “When I arrived at the airport Mr Graham himself was waiting for me...we drove up to this house made of logs – no mansion with crystal chandeliers and gold carpets. It was the kind of house a man of God would live in. I look up to him”.
A woman from England: “Our divorce was almost through and I went to the meeting in anger, thinking my husband was stupid. But Jesus ‘cracked’ me that night. I gave my life to him and was born again – and so was my marriage.”
And finally Billy Graham speaking at Richard Nixon’s funeral, with Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George Bush Snr and Bill Clinton sitting on the front row. He spoke with his customary clarity, whether to ordinary men and women or King and Queens.: “There comes a moment when we must all realise that life is short, and in the end the only thing that counts is not how others see us, but how God sees us. For the believer there is hope beyond the grave, because Jesus Christ has opened the door you heaven for us by his death and resurrection.”
I am an incurable optimist, and wondered as I walked round whether there is still a place for this kind of evangelistic ministry these days. J John and others would say yes, but they are the exception. I sense the gospel message would be as effective as ever, even if some of the 'packaging' seems understandably dated - the photo above carries the headline "6th Great Sin-Smashing Week!"
The real challenge would be to get people there in the first place. Would they come? Would we invite them?