Billy Graham died yesterday, aged 99. Perhaps the most influential church figure of the twentieth century, many still suggest today that their pursuit of Christian ministry was due to his impact. Graham still holds the record for the highest attendance at the Melbourne Cricket Ground which put his March 1959 crowd at 143,750. It is estimated that he preached to more than 200 million people worldwide. Some fascinating aspects of his Australian legacy offer enduring keys to ministry success.
1. The Power of Momentum
In the lead-up to Graham’s visit to Australia, many hundreds of prayer meetings were held in homes across the nation, gathering Christians from many denominations to pray for the fruit of lives committed to Christ. The main Melbourne event was preceded by several weeks of further build-up.
A series of services began at the soon-to-be-demolished Festival Hall at which thousands stood outside in the rain to hear Graham preach for just seven minutes after being unable to find a seat. The growing crowd moved after five days to the then-week-old Myer Music Bowl until its unavailability due to the Moomba festival which forced a relocation to the city’s showgrounds, where twenty thousand braved more rain. The final MCG event was held on a sunny Sunday as people streamed in from morning church services, bringing friends and family in droves.
Some 28,000 people committed their lives to Christ across the two dozen Melbourne meetings alone, each one inspired by the natural excitement and media interest stimulated by those before it.
The many months of coordinated prayer and planning undoubtedly proved exhausting, but was a labour of love for the furtherance of faith. The coordinated strategy of key leaders seized a divine moment that simply could not have been as fruitful without their considerable investment.
2. The Possibility of Unity
A minister reflecting on Graham’s 1959 visit to Australia said that its value lay not in the number of converts alone but in the “new life and inspiration” that came to the churches working and praying together. This impact was similarly felt by many churches but was not made possible because of the work of just one of them.
Another minister described local churches’ newfound mutual interest and their ability to help and encourage each other because of facing similar ministry concerns. A high ranking Salvation Army officer also found it “easier and more natural to speak of spiritual matters within the community, [the church] now turning outward after a long period of looking inward.” Some claimed it was never easier to preach for people’s response to Christ as in the months following Graham’s visit, during which Bible College enrolments were also at record highs.
Ecumenism was shown to be more than mere invitation to events run by ‘other’ churches. Graham’s success was partly found in mobilising the collective efforts of leaders and congregations across movements and cities.
Perhaps few today could inspire the trust and confidence to galvanise such unique effectiveness, but the eventuality began with leaders first believing it to be a possibility.
3. The Presence of Humility
As a boy, Graham had dreamed of becoming a professional baseball player. He eventually filled the greatest stadiums, but with his preaching. Graham’s impact was not the fruit of self-aggrandisement. Shunning the flamboyance and showmanship often alleged against later televangelists, Graham’s focus remained on helping people find “a new vigour, a new determination to live for Jesus Christ as never before.”
His dependence upon God and the centrality of the Cross were hallmarks of a life characterised by the grace that James 4:6 says comes only to the humble. Graham’s ministry enabled personal evangelism to the masses, rather than mass evangelism. He made significant use of the media, but for promotion of the Gospel, from his long-running ‘Hour of Decision’ radio program from 1949 and a ‘TV Telephone Ministry’ in 1981 using 2000 trained volunteers.
Graham famously insisted upon never meeting or spending any time alone with any woman other than his wife, so as to avoid even the remotest suspicion of infidelity. And despite accolades such as honorary doctorates and being listed dozens of times in the Gallup Polls ‘10 Most Admired Men in the World,’ Graham maintained that his first question in Heaven would be, “Why me, Lord?”
Finally, it has been famously stated that Graham’s own salvation was part of a chain of impact. He was led to faith by travelling evangelist, Mordecai Ham, at 16. Ham was brought there by the Charlotte Businessmen’s Club which grew from a series of meetings held by the well-known evangelist, Billy Sunday. Sunday had worked for J. Wilbur Chapman, organising his evangelistic services, and Chapman’s faith was secured by personal counsel from one of the nineteenth century’s greatest evangelists, D.L. Moody, who was, in turn, led to Christ by his Sunday School teacher, Ed Kimball.
Given my own father-in-law’s influence on me and his conversion under Billy Graham on that famous 1959 Melbourne weekend, I perhaps owe my own ministry commitment to the efforts of Kimball who plucked up the courage to challenge Moody to commit his life to faith when it would have been easy to walk away from the opportunity.
We will never know just how much fruit can come from responding to one prompting, one nudge from God to act in what may be a life-defining way for us or for others.
We’ll never know, either, just how much good might come from emulating the wholehearted dedication to the service of God that Billy Graham displayed, whatever our own vocation.
The Church owes a debt of gratitude that may best be demonstrated by honouring his legacy with a display of that same fervour.
Our nation needs it more than ever.