Acts 1:8 “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, and in Judea, and in Samaria, and in the uttermost parts of the earth.”
Are you familiar with the phrase: “six degrees of Kevin Bacon?”
It’s the concept that says two people on Earth are six or fewer acquaintance links apart. The Kevin Bacon deal is a way of PROVING that by showing that most people can be linked to the famous actor in that way. For example, your sister works at MacDonalds. She has a co-worker who once lived in LA. The co-worker cleaned house for a friend who did the hair of a friend whose cousin once fixed a car that a man bought from Kevin Bacon.
Well, I think when it comes to Billy Graham the degrees of separation will be far less than six.
In fact, I want to try and prove that hypothesis this morning. I’m going to ask you to stand if a statement applies to you—and REMAIN standing.
- How many of you became a Christian at a Billy Graham Crusade?
- How many of you have been to a Billy Graham Crusade?
- How many of you went to hear Billy Graham speak at some other event?
- How many have seen a movie put out by the Billy Graham evangelistic association?
- How many of you have ever read Christianity Today Magazine?
- How many of you have ever read Decision Magazine?
- How many of you have heard Billy Graham speak on TV?
- How many of you have ever read one of his newspaper columns or books?
Anyone not standing? Well—-if you’re still in your seat—and you KNOW someone who is standing—it’s only two degrees of separation.
Speaking of “two degrees”—how many of you KNOW someone who became a Christian through the ministry of Billy Graham? Raise your hands. WOW. Okay hands can go down and you can be seated.
Here’s a little REDLAND “degrees of separation from Billy Graham data.”
- Our own Adell Mayer became a Christian at a Billy Graham Crusade. So did Mike Smith. So did Cathie Burke’s sister. So did Sue’s mom—my mother-in-law.
- Dorlene Harper accepted Christ at a crusade in 1952. She and Jim were at the Crusade that was in D.C in 1986 at RFK. Sue and I were there as well.
- Annette Keith heard Dr. Graham when he spoke at her alma mater, Florida State University, in 1961. Annette shares: My parents were active in the Methodist church and when I was born I started going to church as a baby and was always a regular attender. I knew the Bible stories and accepted Christ when I was 9, but the night I heard Billy Graham preach in 1961 was the first time I really ‘heard’—and understood what having a ‘personal’ relationship with Jesus Christ meant. At the end of his sermon I went forward and recommitted my life to Christ.”
- Our own Judy Davis told me her first job was as a secretary at Christianity Today Judy writes: “Dr. Graham was President of the Board of Directors. I was privileged to have many conversations with him as well as his father-in-law, Dr. L. Nelson Bell and Dr. Carl F.H. Henry.”
- In June of 1994 Carrie Lagas went as a teen to the first Youth Night put on as part of a crusade. It was held in Cleveland. But she was also trained as a counselor. This involved six to eight weekly meetings. Carrie said, “They were so much more interested in making disciples than in having a great event. They wanted to point people to local churches. I was already a Christian but it really did help with my discipleship—learned it was much more than coming to Christ. It was the beginning of a journey.”
- And—as many of you “old-time Redlanders” know—our organist for 27 years, was an amazing Godly woman named Naomi Linn. Naomi and her husband Lloyd worked with Dr. Graham way back in the early days of the Youth for Christ ministry. In fact, her nephew played the organ at Billy Graham crusades for decades.
I could go on—but the point I want to make is that God has used this man in an amazing way. I mean, we could do our little “degrees of separation” anywhere and have similar results. This proves that Billy Graham did as our text says. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, He has taken the Gospel to the uttermost parts of the earth.
The question I want us to seek an answer to this morning is “WHY? Why Billy Graham? What about this normal human being made him so very useable by God?”
I want to begin our search for answers with Dr. Graham’s conversion. In 1934 the men’s club in Charlotte, N.C. — Dr. Graham’s home town, invited a popular evangelist, named Dr. Mordecai Ham to come to host a series of services. At the urging of a family friend Billy reluctantly went. In his autobiography Graham writes, “As soon as the evangelist started his sermon, he opened his Bible and talked straight from his text. He talked loudly, even though there was an amplifying system. I have no recollection of what he preached about, but I was spellbound. In some indefinable way, he was getting through to me. From then on I was a faithful attendant, night after night, week after week. I became deeply convicted about my sinfulness and rebellion—and confused. How could this evangelist be talking to me, of all people? I had been baptized as a baby, had learned the Shorter Catechism word perfect, and had been confirmed in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church with the full approval of the pastor and elders. I had gotten into mischief once in a while, but I could hardly be called wicked. I resisted temptations to break the moral code my parents had so strictly instilled in me. I was a good milker in the dairy barn and never complained about any of the nasty work, such as shoveling manure. I was even vice president of my youth group in our church. So why would the evangelist be pointing his bony finger at me? What was slowly dawning on me during those weeks was the miserable realization that I did not KNOW Jesus Christ personally. Nor could I depend on my parents’ faith. I realized that faith could not be passed on as an inheritance—like the family silver. No—it had to be exercised by each individual. I could not depend on church membership either or reciting the Apostles’ Creed or taking communion. Nor could I depend on my resolution to try and do better. No—as a sinner I needed to be made right with God.”
Well one night, near his 16th birthday, Billy Graham acted on this conclusion and made life’s most important decision. When the choir sang the last verse of “Just As I Am” Billy Graham gave his heart and life to Jesus Christ. As his personal relationship with Jesus grew—he began to feel that God had called him to preach. As I told you a few months ago, unbeknownst to Billy, his father had invited the local Christian men’s club to hold all-day prayer meetings on his farm.
At one of those meetings the men had prayed that out of Charlotte the Lord would raise up someone to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth. In hindsight we can see that Dr. Billy Graham was the answer to that prayer. I don’t know about you, but that makes me want to pray more boldly!
After Billy graduated from High School he and his friend Grady Wilson sold fuller brushes together to make money for college. Their supervisor was Albert McMakin, the man who had brought Billy to hear Dr. Ham preach. Billy was very good as a salesman. In fact, he sold more brushes than anyone else in his region. In hindsight he would say that this was reflective of God gifting him to CONVINCE people of their need for Jesus. That fall Billy enrolled in Bob Jones College but left a few months later after being told by Bob Jones that he would be a failure. This rejection didn’t stop Billy and in 1937 he enrolled in the Florida Bible Institute where he thrived—growing both spiritually—and also developing his God-given skills as a preacher in local churches and at trailer parks where he was invited to speak. Once his parents drove down to hear him preach and afterwards his mother told him, “Son, you can preach so loud!” Graham was eventually ordained as a Southern Baptist minister and upon graduation from the Florida Bible Institute he enrolled in Wheaton College outside of Chicago. There he met and fell in love with Ruth Bell.
By this time he knew God had called him to be an evangelist. Ruth was the daughter of medical missionaries who served in China and her passion had been to become a missionary. Ironically, through their marriage Ruth would be a part of the greatest missionary movement since the Apostle Paul walked this earth. Now, at this point I must say that Ruth Bell Graham’s life would itself more than fill a sermon—but we don’t have time for that so just let me say that, like me,
—God blessed Billy Graham with the perfect helpmate. Ruth was someone who understood his call and supported it even though that meant they would be separated—sometimes many months at a time—while Billy was preaching literally all over the world. But, to make a long story short—they were married on August 13, 1953 in Montreat, North Carolina, near where they would eventually build the home and raise their five children.
After their honeymoon, Billy began his only pastorate, serving as pastor of the Village Baptist Church in a suburb of Chicago. He also accepted an offer to host a Christian radio show that was broadcast from the church basement entitled, Songs in the Night. Through that job Graham was able to enlist the help of one of the nation’s most popular soloists at the time, a man named George Beverly Shea. This was the beginning of their life-long partnership—and the radio show was also the start of Graham’s appeal to a mass audience. To show you their friendship—and that of Cliff Barrows, who led the music for Graham I want to show you a little clip.
Dr. Graham, Cliff Barrows, George Beverly Shea and the rest of the BGEA team reaped the benefits of the kinds of Christian friendships we’ve been talking about the past couple months.
Anyway, these Songs in the Night broadcasts led to hundreds of invitations for Graham to preach—and soon he resigned his pastorate—and began to work full-time as an evangelist for the burgeoning Youth for Christ movement. In 1949 Graham and his team were invited to conduct a crusade in Los Angeles. A huge tent was erected and crowds began to grow larger and larger at each service. Then one night an unusually large number of reporters showed up. Later Graham learned that this was because the newspaper mogul, William Randolf Hearst, had told his papers to, “puff Graham.” But concerning all that Graham wrote, “Something was happening in the crusade that all the media coverage in the world could not explain. And neither could I. God may have used Mr. Hearst to promote the meetings but the credit belongs solely to God. All I knew was that before it was over, we were on a journey from which there would be no looking back.”
Soon stories about Graham appeared in Time and Newsweek. Almost overnight he became nationally known and the revival in Los Angeles went on for several more weeks. This is the crusade where Olympian Louis Zamperini became a Christian. Zamperini’s story was made popular in the book Unbroken and the movie of the same title. But I digress—the fact is God did AMAZING things in L.A. that year. Well, eventually the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association was born—and through it Graham went on to lead crusades like the one in L.A. literally all over the world.
Of course, we can’t talk about every crusade. There were 415 of them! But to give you an idea of the amazing way that God worked in and through each of these meetings I want to tell you about just one—a crusade Graham conducted in London in 1954. It was held in Harringay Arena, a 12,000 seat indoor stadium. If you are a fan of the popular mini-series: THE CROWN, then you know one episode told about this crusade and its impact on the queen. Now—there were dire predictions about this crusade. The British were suspicious of Americans coming over to save them. The editor of one London newspaper wrote, “Billy Graham will fall on his face in London.” Another wrote, “Billy Graham will return to the United States with his tail between his legs.” On top of this, while in route to London on board the ocean liner, SS United States—Graham learned that a member of Parliament was planning to challenge his admission to England in the House of Commons. It all stemmed from a misprint in a publication that said “socialism” would ruin England. It was supposed to have said, “secularism” and this misprint was considered a direct attack on England’s labor party. Graham accepted full responsibility for the blunder and wired apologies to members of Parliament, but the damage was done. Headlines continued to appear criticizing the crusade.
Well, the night of the opening service the weather was horrible. Rain and sleet pelted the city. At first the arena was fairly empty. In fact, most of the people who came were members of the press. But eventually the entire arena was jammed. And miraculously the crowds grew night after night—in spite of worsening weather. This is because something that men meant for evil, God meant for good. You see, Billy’s negative publicity gave him immediate prominence. It made people curious. They wanted to see what all the fuss was about so they came and when they came they heard the Gospel, and when they heard the Gospel they kept coming. Night after night attendance records were broken. The arena got so packed that an ABC network engineer hooked up land lines to other auditoriums to meet the needs of their overflowing crowds. 430 such listening sites were set up around the city of London. Before that crusade was over, Graham would share the gospel with more than two million people in the UK. During those three months of services 40,000 individuals responded by putting their faith in Christ.
After the crusade in London ended Graham was invited to #10 Downing street to meet with Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Churchill congratulated him on the large crowds he had been drawing and when Graham said it was all God, Churchill replied, “That may be, but I daresay that if I brought Marilyn Monroe over here, and she and I together went to Wembley we couldn’t fill it.” Then he asked Graham what he thought it was that had filled the stadium night after night and Graham told him it was the Gospel of Christ and that people were hungry to hear from the Bible. Then Churchill, no doubt hardened by the horrors of WWII, confessed that he had no hope for the world. He asked if Graham did and Graham told him about the hope we have through faith in Jesus Christ. He shared the plan of salvation with Winston Churchill and they prayed together.
Well, God would use Graham to share the hope of Jesus in conversations like this with kings and presidents and even dictators all over the world. His impact on the growth of the Kingdom of God would be amazing. Our Heavenly Father would use Graham’s crusades to reach hundreds of millions. In fact, here are a few testimonies of the people who came to Jesus at these services.
One night at the crusade in NYC in 1957 a plainly dressed woman came forward with tears running down her cheeks as she asked Jesus to come into her life. She was escorted to a room where counselors would talk with her about her commitment and when asked if there was anything else she wanted to share—she replied that she was very afraid of her son. “He drinks a lot,” she said, “and I’m afraid he may beat me when he finds out I’ve become a Christian.”
Before the counselor could speak, a voice nearby called out, “It’s okay Mom. I’m here too.” In 1959 at the crusade in Australia one night a divorced man came with the girlfriend, who had been the cause of the breakup of his marriage.
The gospel message penetrated his heart, and as he looked up during the invitation, he saw his former wife going forward to give her live to Christ. With tears of remorse he went and stood beside her becoming reconciled not only to God but to the wife he had rejected. Another man who came forward had embezzled a large sum from the bank where he worked. Even though it hadn’t been detected, he confessed to the bank manager the next morning, and offered to make restitution, knowing that he faced almost certain dismissal and prosecution. The manager was so impressed with the man’s change of heart that he not only kept him on staff but went to the Crusade that night and gave his own life to Jesus.
One night in London two men came and sat near the back. They didn’t know each other but as they talked they realized that they did agree that they did not like Americans and especially American evangelists. They had both come intending to make fun of things. But God got a hold of them both. When the invitation was given one of them turned to the other and said, “I’m going forward to give my life to Jesus.” The other said, “I am to. And here’s your wallet back. I’m a pickpocket.”
I could go on and on with stories like this but we don’t have enough time. I will tell you that God used Graham as the first evangelist to share the Gospel behind the iron curtain and he did it long before Reagan said, “Mr Gorbachov tear down that wall.” As part of the crusade in this communist nation he preached in Hungary and when he finished he heard what sounded like thousands of crickets. Turns out it was thousands of tape recorders being turned off. You see people living behind the iron curtain were hungry to hear of God’s love and they had brought these early versions of the “boom box” to record Graham’s sermons—so as to share them with others who were hungry to hear from God in that atheistic nation.
I know most of you are too young to remember this but Dr. Graham’s crusades were broadcast on ABC during prime time. When he preached in Korea, the services drew 3.2 million people.
Services were so crowded people could not come forward, so they were asked to stand as a public way of confessing their faith. Over 32,000 did so. In fact, some say all these conversions gave birth to the first mega-church.
As I inferred earlier Graham has been the counselor to every president from Harry Truman to Barack Obama—and political party didn’t matter to Graham. He was very close with LBJ—but also with Ronald Reagan. I don’t know this for sure—but I wouldn’t be surprised if he holds the record for number of nights spent in the Lincoln bedroom of the White House. I say that because, during times of crisis presidents would call on him for prayerful guidance. For example, the Gulf War the first President Bush asked him to come to the White House the day the bombing began.
Dr. Graham shared his faith in private conversations with people like Kim Il Sung, Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher, and Chinese premier Li Ping. I mean, God has used him to take the Gospel in places no one else has been able to. To sum it all up, since 1947 two hundred fifteen million people in 185 countries have attended crusades in which Billy Graham preached—and there have been 3.2 million recorded responses for Christ—and this statistic doesn’t reflect the numbers of people who have come to faith through radio or television broadcasts or through the movies the BGEA produced.
Now—as I said—the question I want us to deal with this morning is “Why?” And this is a question that Billy Graham has often asked himself. Quoting from his autobiography Graham says, “I have often said that the first thing I am going to do when I get to Heaven is to ask,
‘Why me, Lord? Why did you choose a farm boy from North Carolina to preach to so many people, to have such a wonderful team of associates, and to have a part in what You were doing in the latter half of the twentieth century?’ I have thought about that question a great deal, but I know also that only God knows the answer.”
His HUMILITY is one reason I love and admire him. I mean, Dr. Graham was not some hot dog pastor out to make a name for himself. No—he was a humble man. His entire life was spent in the pursuit of him DECREASING and Christ INCREASING. Dr. Graham’s pastor, Dr. Don Wilton, who visited with him weekly after his retirement said, “Every time I was with Dr. Graham I was made to feel like the most important person in the room.”
But back to Dr. Graham’s question, “Why me?” Why indeed? How would God answer that question? What is it about Billy Graham that made him such a powerful tool in our Heavenly Father’s hands? This is a good question for us to strive to answer because with that information we can be more powerful tools for God. So let’s get to it. WHY BILLY GRAHAM?
(1) One reason is because Graham believed in the power of PRAYER.
Prior to every crusade—every preaching event—Graham always set up special prayer meetings because he knew they would lay a foundation necessary for what was to happen. He realized that everything he did—every word he spoke—was absolutely dependent on the power of God.
So, long before the crusades began these prayer meetings were organized in the crusade city and all over the world. For example, prior to the London crusade there were 35,000 prayer groups in India alone. Prior to the 1968 crusade in Sydney, there were 5,000 prayer groups meeting. In 1959 Graham and his team visited Russia for the sole purpose of PRAYING that God would open the doors for them to share the Gospel there. He prayed in Red Square and he also knelt in the Olympic Stadium praying that one day those same stands would be filled with people who had come to hear the Gospel. Think of it this way. While others were looking for a way OUT of Russia in 1959, Graham was praying for a way in. That prayer was answered in 1984. I remember watching it televised on ABC—seeing people literally run to the front to profess their faith in Jesus—many of them soldiers in uniform. Graham and his team experienced results like this—because they believed in the power of prayer. In his autobiography he writes,
“All of our preparation, promotion, and programming, and even my preaching itself—necessary as those things were—were nothing compared with the prayer power around the world. After all, we were engaged in a spiritual battle…and we needed intercession for divine intervention. Periodically during our Crusade, we scheduled all-night prayer meetings that lasted from 10:30PM to 6::00AM in venues all over the cities.”
We would do well to follow Graham’s example because effectiveness in furthering God’s kingdom is never about us! Anything good done for the kingdom is because of God’s power in us…and that power is released through prayer! Are you accomplishing little or nothing for God?
If so, could it be due to the fact that you are trying to do it on your own strength instead of humbly calling on God?
(2) A second reason God has used Graham so powerfully is because he had a deep respect for the authority of SCRIPTURE.
If you’ve heard him preach then you’ve heard him say this phrase over and over and over again: “THE BIBLE SAYS!” You see, Billy Graham believed this book is not just another book—but rather the infallible, authoritative Word of God. You may remember that this faith-filled conviction was attacked early in his ministry by of all people—a friend and fellow evangelist named Chuck Templeton. And, if you wonder who made the right choice in this dispute over the authority of the Bible—you need only look at their lives. Templeton became virtually unknown. He died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease in Canada a few years back. His funeral was held in a country club. But, as we have seen, Billy Graham has touched the entire world in amazing ways—and not just through his preaching but also through his humanitarian efforts. I believe the reason for all this is because he has accepted by faith that this is God’s inspired Word. He’s based his life and work on this conviction.
Graham’s experience is proof that we are wise indeed when we build our lives on the solid rock of this kind of faith. In fact, I would say that if your life is crumbling—you should ask yourself if your problems have anything to do with the foundation of your life. This book IS God’s Word. It tells us how to live this life but best of all, it tells us how to come to know Jesus—and in that relationship experience the power to be all God wants us to be.
(3) Here’s a third answer to our question—He was committed to INTEGRITY.
Shortly after conducting a crusade in Modesto, California, Graham and his team came up with what they referred to as the Modesto Agreement which included the following rules:
A. There had to be absolute financial accountability. In fact, Graham took a salary commensurate with that of a local pastor.
All offerings were given to the association. Their board controlled all the funds. He had nothing to do with the money.
B. Billy and his team also committed to never being alone with another woman other than their wives.
This is why, when Hillary Clinton asked to meet with Dr. Graham he told her it would have to be in a public place. It’s not that he didn’t trust the first lady. It’s just that he had made this covenant to be absolutely above reproach. I also read somewhere that whenever they stayed in a motel room they would remove the cable from the television so as to avoid temptation to watch things they shouldn’t watch.
c. They also covenanted to never be critical of local pastors and churches and to work with them both before and after the crusades.
In fact, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has been known for the way they follow up on their decisions by referring new Christians to local churches. Plus—crusades always begin at the invitation of local pastors who also help with the planning.
D. Fourth, Billy and his team decided to never falsify or exaggerate their publicity or success. Instead they let the local media handle all the reporting.
My point is that because of things like the Modesto Agreement Graham has always been known for his integrity and this gave him a unique platform. It made people believe his message. When he met with C. S. Lewis following the London Crusade, Lewis said, “You know Billy, you have many critics, but I have never met one of your critics who knows you personally.” Billy strove to be above reproach. He did his best to walk the Christian talk.
A great example of his integrity was Graham’s stand against racism. He always insisted on integrated seating at his crusades in spite of the criticism he received. In 1953—two years BEFORE “Brown vs. Board of Education”— during the crusade in Chattanooga—he personally tore down the ropes separating the seating sections for whites from those for blacks. He had asked the head usher to do that. He refused and so Dr. Graham went out into the stadium and did it himself. His action that night caused the head usher to quit on the spot but Graham did not back down. Our own Wilda Knox was a student at Samford University in the late 50’s with Billy Graham came to Birmingham. She said he came with the stipulation that all races were welcome. She said “That was a big deal back then.”
Graham asked his close friend, Dr. Martin Luther King to pray at a crusade. He also spoke to him often about how to end the sin of racism. Dr. King urged Graham to keep doing what he was doing—preaching the Gospel to integrated audiences and not to join him in the streets. He said, “You stay in the stadiums Billy, because you will have far more impact on the white establishment there than you would if you marched in the streets. Besides that you have a constituency that will listen to you, especially among white people who may not listen so much to me.” Graham took his advice. In fact, he told people who attended his crusade in South Africa in 1973. You heard him say this in the clip earlier: “Christianity is not a white man’s religion. Don’t let anyone aver tell you that it’s white or black. Christ belongs to all people.” I’m convinced that integrity like this opened doors that would have been closed otherwise.
And we should learn from Graham’s example. If our walk doesn’t match our talk, people aren’t going to listen to our talk!
So—Why Billy Graham? He believed in the power of prayer. He respected the authority of the Bible. He was a man of great integrity.
(4) But perhaps the greatest reason God has used Billy Graham so powerfully is the fact that he believed in the power of the basic Gospel message.
Concerning this, John Ortberg writes: “Churches and other organizations regularly spend months, if not years, standing around white boards trying to craft purpose statements—then go through the same process all over again every time top leadership changes. It is almost humorous that the Billy Graham Evangelism Association’s purpose statement was written by business manager George Wilson in a single sitting. Here it is: ‘To spread and propagate the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ by any and all means.’ Billy Graham had a commitment to this purpose that made a compass needle look fickle.”
Graham believed—as I do—that the key to changing this world is not politics but rather to change hearts and the only way to change a heart is for a person to put their faith in Jesus Christ.
This is one reason he chose as his life verse Romans 15:20 where Paul writes, “It has always been my ambition to preach the Gospel where Christ was not known.” Graham has always avoided political discussions. As I said earlier, he made himself available to all presidents regardless of their political party. He avoided politics like this because he felt it could become something that would prevent his sharing the Gospel message. Even when he went behind the iron curtain he refused to speak against communism and focused totally on sharing the Gospel message. I believe this focused commitment to tell people about Jesus enabled him to go where other Christians could not—to China—to the USSR—even to North Korea. You see, for Graham it was all about the Gospel—all about Jesus.
In 1956 when he went to India he told the people, “I am not here to tell you about an American or a Britisher or a European. I am here to tell you about a Man Who was born right here in your part of the world, in Asia. He was born at the place where Asia and Africa and Europe meet. He had skin that was darker than mine and He came to show us that God loves all people. He loves the people of India and He loves you.”
Now—as I inferred earlier—I don’t think these four things ONLY work for Billy Graham. I believe if we rely on the power of prayer—if we believe in the infallible authority of the Bible—if we embrace Christian integrity in our daily lives—if we focus on sharing the Gospel. I believe if we do all these things, then God can use each of us just as powerfully as He has Billy Graham.
In fact, I believe that as someone once put it, “The world STILL has not seen what God can do in and through an individual who is completely devoted to Him.”