Billy Graham: Some Lessons for Preachers

Billy Graham has changed address. He is now more alive than ever. Upon hearing news of his death I thought it appropriate to reflect on what preachers might want to learn from his life and ministry.

I remember hearing Billy Graham preaching during Mission England in 1984/85. As a boy I sat on the terraces of the stadium and heard his voice ring out with clarity, urgency and sincerity. A few years later technology allowed LiveLink – I remember sitting in a large tent and watching him preach on the screen, and then several friends going forward to trust in Christ for salvation. His book on Angels was the first Christian book to ignite a love for reading in me. A few years later as a student I listened to a cassette of him preaching as I drove into university each day. I lived at the tail end of Billy Graham’s ministry, but I am a grateful recipient of it nevertheless

As preachers in a new century, what can we learn from Billy Graham as we reflect on his life and ministry? Here are a few lessons, please do add more:

1. Preach Christ. Billy Graham gradually developed a very significant platform in society. He had access to Presidents, and yet that never swayed him into preaching politics. He was known across the globe, and yet that never stirred him into promoting himself. He preached Christ.

2. Personal Integrity. Billy Graham would have been a colossal scalp for the enemy to take. It would have been a huge media frenzy. It never happened. He is a lesson to us all on the power of personal integrity in ministry. He made choices regarding money, and especially personal purity, that many would scoff at today. But we should thank God for men who make it to the finish line.

3. Profound Conviction. Billy Graham believed what he preached, and so listeners felt the force of his message. The direct manner of his communication left listeners without any doubt that he wanted them to hear him and act on what he said. This conviction was not a performance, it was forged in the crucible of prayer and a personal walk with Christ.

4. Pioneering Innovation. Billy Graham was willing to embrace transport and technological developments to preach Christ. When others felt constrained by tradition, he was willing to travel further and press into the use of newspaper columns, network radio, television, satellite broadcast and so on. What he did may look antiquated now, but he was radical then.

5. Proclamation Ministry. Billy Graham proclaimed a message. He was a herald. There is certainly a need for those who can debate or engage in high level apologetics. There is a place for various approaches to evangelism and ministry. Billy Graham heralded the gospel. “The Bible says…” may sound quaint to some, but it rang crystal clear in many hearts. He knew that God would use the proclaimed Word.

6. Preach Simply. Billy Graham preached so that ordinary people could understand what he was saying and relate to it. He avoided complicated terminology. He didn’t show off his learning. He kept the vocabulary and the sermonic structure simple. He would build rapport, show that something is not right (sin), and then announce the hope to be found in Jesus, inviting response.

7. Pathos Targeted. Billy Graham knew that the Gospel had to be proclaimed to the heart. He knew people feel empty, they feel lonely, they feel guilty and they feel afraid of death. He did not harangue his listeners with duty, but proclaimed the message with deep compassion.

8. Prayer Integral. Billy Graham knew that for lives to be transformed it would need to be the work of the Holy Spirit. Thus, he was a man of prayer. His ministry was bathed in prayer. We might say his impact can only be explained by prayer. Copying Billy Graham’s intonation or gestures, using his illustrations, replicating his urgency, and even plagiarizing his sermons will not bring significant fruit. Copying his prayer life might.

He preached in person to over 210 million people through his ministry. I suspect none of us will come close to that. But we would do well to seek to emulate a life lived with utmost integrity, gracious humility, profound simplicity – and may we also proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ to an ever-needy world.

Praise God for Influential Preachers

I just read an article from Preaching magazine –25 Most Influential Pastors of the Past 25 Years. The title should be “preachers” rather than “pastors” in any strict sense of the term’s current usage. Anyway, it is worth reading.  I’m sure some would be quick to criticise how American the list is, but that is always a cheap and easy critique.  What struck me was how many of these preachers have blessed me in recent years (and I don’t spend much time listing to famous preachers).

I would encourage you to read the article and give thanks for these and other well-known preachers who have faithfully sought to serve God through their ministries.  It is easy to critique the famous, but actually it must be hard to be in their positions, perhaps facing some unique stresses that most of us don’t face.

Perhaps the list might suggest some names that you haven’t heard before, leading you to trawl the web for a sermon by E.K.Bailey, or W.A.Criswell, or Fred Craddock.  Or someone who doesn’t fit in your theological or ecclesiological comfort zone . . . anyone from Adrian Rogers, to Bill Hybels, to William Willimon, to Stephen Olford, to Warren Wiersbe, to Rick Warren, to Jack Hayford, to Tim Keller, etc.  Have you observed Andy Stanley preach?  Have you

Maybe this kind of list has a handful of preachers that you have really been blessed by over the years – stop and give thanks for them.  I’m delighted to see Haddon Robinson on there, I know many who would give thanks for the influence of John Piper in their lives, I have friends who have been so blessed by John Stott, and other friends who have faithfully tuned in to Chuck Swindoll, and of course, there are numerous people I know who would count Billy Graham as the preacher God used to reach them with the gospel.

As with all lists, we could add others who would be on our personal list. Famous, or not, we do well to pause and give thanks for preachers God has used in our lives over the years.  I fondly remember the hours I spent listening to George Verwer messages while going through university – how making a quick meal of pasta could stretch into the afternoon as God dealt with and encouraged me through George’s preaching.  Or the Calvary Chapel preacher whose tapes I would rewind incessantly as I took copious notes in my black chair with my feet on the bed.  Or the seminary prof who preached in class every morning at 8am . . . Bruce Fong it was a pleasure to study God’s Word with you, man O man, what a privilege!

Is It Wrong to Desire Influence?

Most chapters in Explosive Preaching prompt me to think of several posts.  Hopefully Boyd-MacMillan will forgive my leaning on his book for ideas so often in recent weeks in exchange for my encouragement to others to buy it for themselves.  Chapter 28 in the book is a chapter that stands out as unlike anything I’ve come across in other preaching books (I appreciate that, as I also get feedback that this blog contains things not found in preaching books too!)

Success.

Is it wrong to desire it?  This chapter focuses on three very diverse preachers – Billy Graham, Martin Luther-King Jr and Robert Schuller.  The author writes, “They all became influential preachers.  But they all wanted to become influential preachers.  They were not modest in their desire for influence, nor bashful in the way that they sought to extend their influence.” (p237)

He goes on to write under several headings: the sermon, the person, the wave, the moment, the movement, the network, the event.  His conclusion, the lesson he learns from these men is “if you want to be an influential preacher, then don’t just preach a great sermon!” He sees their concern with reception and reverberation.  Reception refers to their making sure that their words were heard optimally.  Reverberation meant ensuring that their words would be heard long after delivery.

I suppose this is a matter of prayerful balance.  We desire to influence others as good stewards of the ministry that God gives us.  Yet we feel very uncomfortable at the suggestion that we should pursue influence (or “success” in any human measurement).  I know this post could prompt a strong reaction.  I suspect it may get a reaction that is unfair to the book that prompted the post.  I would encourage you to read the book.  I would encourage you to prayerfully wrestle with the issues raised in this post.  Fleshly or spiritual, a desire for influence is very real in most of us – let’s not ignore that, but rather prayerfully wrestle with the issue.

Happy Birthday Billy Graham

Today is a great day in America.  I’m not referring to the election (every other blog on earth is writing about that, but I’ll keep my views in my prayers).  I’m referring to the 90th birthday of Billy Graham.  What a man of God he is!

I heard him live on two occasions in England when I was just eight.  Five years later they had the follow-up “crusade” with live satellite links around the country.  I remember sitting there as a whole family in our church party responded to the call and went forward.  In my short life I’ve seen leaders fall into disrepute, but not Billy Graham.  I have heard the criticisms coming from some quarters, but I have also enjoyed the benefit of being influenced by people saved under Billy Graham’s preaching.

His eyesight is failing, his hearing too, his body is growing weak, but he claims that although the body grows weaker, the spirit doesn’t have to as well.  He is writing another book.  He is still a man of prayer.  Perhaps in Billy Graham we see a great example of a man of God who has lived out an Acts 6:4 life – prioritizing prayer and the Word.  As his spokesman Larry Ross said, “The lion still has a roar!”

Let’s praise God for the privilege we have of seeing Billy Graham press on to the finish line.  Let’s pray that we will each be as faithful, as humble, and as prayerful as Billy Graham.  We may not preach the gospel live to 215million people, but let us give everything we can in the ministry God gives to us and try to finish as well as Billy Graham.