With the glory and preeminence of Easter, I was forced last month to almost skip over one of the most significant events of our lifetimes — the passing of Dr. Billy Graham (Nov. 7, 1918 – Feb. 21, 2018, age 99). Has any single person had a greater impact on Christianity and the Christian church over the past century than this faithful servant of God? Has the Lord ever used anyone else in history to reach more people with the gospel of His Son?
I won’t go into the details of the life of this evangelist — those can be found in so many places these days, especially on the Internet, and you should definitely take time to review several of them. It may be my imagination (or simply indicate who I have befriended and who I follow), but it seems to me that there have been so many more tributes to Dr. Graham on social media in recent weeks, at least on Facebook, than we have ever seen before. And deservedly so.
Apart from the obvious anointing of God’s Spirit on him, what made Billy Graham so effective was the simplicity and consistency of his message. Throughout his entire ministry, he preached the same basic Christian gospel: God loves you; He sent His Son to die on a cross to pay for your sin; He rose again to give you eternal life; He is Lord. Just believe.
One of Graham’s most common catchphrases was “The Bible says …” (He almost made “Bible” a three-syllable word: “Bi-a-ble.”) He knew that the foundation of his proclamations, the authority by which he spoke, was God’s Word.
That simple gospel message is needed more than ever today. A 2013 Harris Poll found that, while a strong majority (74%) of U.S. adults did believe in God, this belief was in decline when compared to previous years, as just over four in five (82%) expressed a belief in God in 2005, 2007, and 2009. In another decline, only 54% of Americans were “absolutely certain” in God’s existence, a 12% decrease over the last decade.
A 2017 Gallup Poll found that 87 percent of those surveyed said they believed in God (64% that God definitely exists; 16% that God probably exists, but have a little doubt; 5% that God probably exists, but have lots of doubt). Yet, while 54 percent claimed to be a member of a church or synagogue, only 35 percent had attended in the last seven days. Attendance frequency was reported at every week (23%), almost every week (11%), once a month (12%), seldom (25%), and never (27%). Only 42 percent considered themselves to be “born-again” Christians.
The increasing number of “those who wonder” creates a fertile opportunity for evangelism. But I question if the church as a whole is really responding passionately to those who may be searching for the answer.
It is the undecided and unconvinced that Satan entices. In 1 Peter 5:8, we read, “Be … alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” Are we awake to the reality that our nation increasingly (44%) feels that “God observes, but does not control what happens on earth”?
We had better wake up — we had better face reality. And, by the way, could the alarm get any louder? A revived church is not so much trendy as it is obedient. There are alarms going off everywhere you look. Are we alarmed by the alarms? Can you hear them? I pray so.
The Bible instructs us, “Be merciful to those who doubt; snatch others from the fire and save them” (Jude 1:22-23).
To be honest, I have great concern about the church in America today. In my travel and contact with pastors, denominational leaders, and concerned laypeople, I have observed a spiritual drought in our land. We pray, but we do not change. We “fight the fight” and go through the prescribed motions. But we don’t actually initiate the deep change within ourselves necessary for spiritual renewal.
Praying is only one part of the equation for spiritual renewal and a re-birth of vitality in the church. According to 2 Chronicles 7:14, humility and repentance must also be present.
“If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned” (Jeremiah 18:7-8).
I believe God hears our fervent cries for revival in the land, but I also believe that answered prayer comes as a result of obedience to the will of God. Disobedience brings judgment — obedience brings great blessing. As leaders, are we setting the proper example of personal obedience?
I realize it is impossible to deal with a subject as complicated as the re-birth of the church in a few words. But I am certain of one thing: The ingredients of rebirth are found in three words from Scripture — humility, prayer, and repentance.
I pray that spiritual renewal might begin in me.
In October 1959, Rev. Billy Graham visited Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. A report said he spent time with the students and faculty and shared the following. As pastors, we should be listening.
- Be sure you maintain a personal encounter with Christ. (The blind can’t lead the blind.)
- Be sure you’ve had a call from God.
- Have systematic daily devotions. (You need at least a half hour alone with God daily, said Rev. Graham. At the time of the report, he was reading five psalms a day to learn how to get along with God and one proverb on how to get along with people.)
- Have a consuming love for others. Show compassion by entering into their emotions.
- Be sure you have a message to preach. With authority, simplicity, and urgency, preach to a decision.
- Be an example. Back up your spoken witness with your life.
There are some principles of ministry and pastoral discipline that never change, nor should they. The call to full-time Christian service is not a sprint; it is a marathon. We just cannot allow ourselves the luxury of complacency. We must endure to the end. Don’t ever give up!
“But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry” (2 Timothy 4:5).
What impressed me most about a discussion I once had with Franklin Graham was his great passion for the lost and his sincere belief that we are not giving our people enough opportunity to seek and meet the Savior. What he said made good sense to me.
If my math is correct, approximately 7,200 people die each day in the United States. How many of them are spiritually ready to die? How many have been given the opportunity to accept Christ and prepare for eternity?
Nearly 50 percent of those who sit in your church service do not have a personal relationship with Jesus. Do you see this fact as an opportunity to give them that chance? Is there something you could do at the conclusion of your message this week that would challenge your attendees to seek the Lord? Would you consider an altar call? I urge you to give some kind of invitation to attendees to embrace Jesus. Give them a chance!
I still believe that the bottom line for every individual fellowship and church organization should be, “Is anybody being saved here?” Every 12 seconds, another person enters into eternity. That is sobering! Romans 10:13 says, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord [Jesus Christ] will be saved.”
One final thought. The Bible continues, “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent?” (Rom. 10:14-15).
Evidently, there is a shortage of new clergypersons to take the positions being vacated by an aging ministry force. In my years as a pastor to pastors, I have witnessed this deficiency. Fewer seminary students are seeking a career as senior or associate pastors. Many of those who graduate with advanced degrees do not plan to work in the local church. Bottom line: There is a shortage in many fellowships of newly assigned and prepared spiritual leaders.
I am sure you can see the faces of those you influenced who are now walking in your footsteps. Can there be a greater thrill than to see the hand of God directing the paths of those you have shepherded?
I recall the many times when, as a teenager or college student, I heard men of God preach messages imploring those present to “surrender” to God’s call. They often quoted from Acts 16:9, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” Or from Matthew 4:19, “‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will make you fishers of men.’”
I think that we would see more of our congregants entering into ministry if, one, we were more positive about the experience; two, we challenged them; and three, we recognized the value of God’s unique call. When was the last time you presented a message like that?
“So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him” (Luke 5: 1 1).
Rev. Billy Graham was never doing our jobs. He did his own well. But each of us has a calling of his or her own. Preach the gospel. Model the gospel. Make disciples. And prepare others to follow in your footsteps.