I cannot think of a stronger candidate for the most influential Christian of the 20th century than Billy Graham. Even in our little Gloucestershire church, stories are emerging of how Billy Graham’s preaching changed lives and families. How could one farmer’s son from North Carolina possibly impact so many lives?
Part of the answer has to be his harnessing of the technology of the age. His insistence on quality P.A. systems and the use of public spaces and sports stadia meant that he could address crowds of up to 1 million at a time. Satellite TV feeds for live-link audiences extended his lifetime audience to 210 million people in 185 countries.
He was also a man of unquestioned integrity in an age of cynicism and scrutiny. Mike Pence has been squarely mocked for his avoidance of travel, meetings or meals alone with any woman other than his wife. No one is mocking Billy Graham now (please see my comments on Pence’s boss below before you count me as a fan). Combined with his insistence on external scrutiny of his financial affairs, this policy led to 58 years of public life and ministry without major scandal.
Billy Graham was an American patriot, but that was not his message. He met with and prayed for politburo members and Chinese premiers and even gave Kim Il Sung a bible. Billy Graham was a white middle class man, but white middle class values were not his message. He preached with MLK Jnr and hung out with death row prisoners. Billy Graham was a Baptist, but that was not at the heart of his public preaching. He met with popes and archbishops and encouraged his converts to connect with the local churches his campaigns partnered with. Billy Graham was a theistic evolutionist – but that was not the heart of his message, so he retained his popularity across the spectrum of US Christianity.
Billy Graham preached Christ crucified. Look at the footage in the obituaries, watch a film of one of his rallies. View the recent (and brilliant) myhopeuk you-tube remixes http://myhopewithbillygraham.org.uk/programs/the-cross/ …. Billy Graham only ever preached one message – that God loves you; that you’re a sinner; that Jesus died on the cross to deal with your sin; that your response to Jesus death and resurrection is what determines your earthly direction and your eternal destiny. Clear, simple, powerful. The kind of message the most influential preacher of the first century was talking about when he wrote in a letter to the church in Corinth:
‘but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.’
Why was Billy Graham so influential? Technology and integrity played a part, but the real key to Billy Graham’s influence was that he exercised very little influence of his own. He stuck like glue to his core message, seeking to expose people to the influence of his crucified and risen Lord, Jesus Christ.