I have never met Billy Graham, but I have felt his influence. I was a student at a seminary which he helped establish and at which he was the chair of the board of trustees. As a college student I recommitted my life to Jesus at a Billy Graham crusade at Municipal Stadium in Cleveland. Twenty years later my dad committed his life to Christ at a Graham crusade in the same stadium. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association supplied guidance and literature to share the gospel to congregations that I have served. I was a trained follow-up counselor for a Cleveland crusade. I called on those who had answered the call to “come forward” at a Graham crusade. I saw firsthand how effective the crusades could be to emphasize the life-changing message of Jesus Christ.
As the years passed we all saw Graham grow in his enormous influence for the good news of Jesus. Although he was a counselor to presidents and celebrities, he was especially gifted in connecting with ordinary people. He knew how to talk about Jesus. Although there will always be a part of Mr. Graham that we will never completely know, he knew how to share his humanity with others. He knew his Bible but he also knew his own pride and shortcomings. His humor and transparency were contagious. He also knew how to organize people and churches to convey how significant Jesus is.
Graham grew up in a Presbyterian family. His wife, Ruth Graham Bell, was the daughter of a well-known Presbyterian missionary surgeon and a Presbyterian elder. Ruth’s brother pastored one of the largest congregations in our denomination. Billy helped Presbyterians reach beyond our typical formality and share Jesus in a very down-to-earth way. Thousands of Presbyterian pastors have been influenced by Graham’s winsome approach to sharing the gospel.
When I think of a Jesus-centered ministry, I think of Billy Graham. A genius at promotion and organization for mass audiences and a lover of celebrity (a blessing and a curse for him and his family!), he could identify with the person on the street and the person in the pew. He had close friends. He would apologize for missteps and misstatements. He was a mensch who loved Jesus with an articulate passion. My family has felt that very personally.
Back in 1997 Graham completed his autobiography Just As I Am. Here are some of his concluding words: “I know that soon my life will be over. . .I look forward to Heaven. . .And most of all, I look forward to seeing Christ and bowing before Him in praise and gratitude for all He has done for us. . .”
Graham’s prediction of the time of his death was 20 years too soon, but his sentiment was true.
Christ is the Center of our church and life. Jesus is God’s hope for our personal lives and for the world. He is the center of reality. Our Presbyterian Book of Order echoes Scripture when it proclaims that God has raised Jesus from the dead and has set him above all rule and authority, giving him all power in heaven and on earth.
Billy Graham helped us all to realize how central Jesus is to us always. May we here at First Presbyterian Babylon carry on his legacy of the thoughtful sharing of Jesus.
Have a blessed Lenten season!