Reflections From a Historical Theologian on the Passing of Billy Graham
As many of you have heard Evangelical Seminary will be starting a doctorate of theology program. One of the tracts, Roots and Rhythms, will focus on historical theology. The goal of this track is to train scholars who are also ministry practitioners to learn from the past as a means of developing methods for guiding the church into the future. With this concept in mind I have been thinking about the passing of Billy Graham and how his ministry has influenced the church and my own faith journey and about who might be the next Billy Graham.
The first thought I had when hearing of Billy Graham’s death was, it’s the end of an era. As a church historian I appreciate what Graham has done for the body of Christ over the last six decades. But also, his passing forces me to realize that the church can not live in the past and that his ministry and approach was tailor made for a specific time, culture and context. Scholars have poured oceans of ink trying to understand how Billy Graham was able to make such a significant impact on evangelical Christianity. But another way of looking at that question is to evaluate religion in America to better understand what enabled people to be receptive to Graham. It should come as no surprise that Graham’s ministry began during a period of unprecedented church growth in American history. Graham emerged during a time when people were hungry for religion. A great deal has changed since Graham’s first crusade in Los Angeles in 1949. Today Christians face rapidly declining church attendance. Therefore, we cannot just find another Billy Graham to repeat his methods.
Personally, Graham’s passing is the end of another era. Billy Graham was the same age as my grandparents and with his death I cannot help but think that their era is now over and this makes me nostalgic and sad. My grandparents who catechized my parents and me in the faith were products of the Graham era. My first introduction to Graham was through my grandparents. I can still remember sitting next to my Pop Draper in his row home in Northeast Philly on summer evenings with the hunter fan osculating in the background as we watched Billy Graham crusades on his console television. I can still hear my grandmother complaining that Billy’s hair was too long and how it made him look like a hippie. My Pop Draper was not a loquacious man. But when he spoke it meant something. He would sit with me and tell me how much Graham’s ministry did for his walk with Christ. He would tell about the crusades he attended and the people he knew who came to faith through Graham’s ministry.
My Pop Draper was not a voracious reader, but he regularly read his Bible, Billy Graham books, and Decision Magazine. I remember our family sitting together and Pop telling us about something he read that made an impact on him while we consumed ice cream and Franks soda. My Pop catechized me in the faith through these conversations.
My other grandfather, Pop Shyer was a more of a reader and at any given time we could walk into his apartment and find a new Billy Graham book or Decision Magazine. Pop Shyer had a way of telling me stories from the past, where it was clear that he wanted me to remember this long after he was gone. He told me about when he was younger and would listen to Graham on the radio back when Graham was part of Youth for Christ. I can still remember how he would often compare Billy Graham with Billy Sunday and then tell me why he appreciated Graham and about how God used Graham to spread the Christianity around the globe.
I can become melancholy reminiscing about these times. But Graham’s passing has also been a reminder that senior saints pass the faith on so younger generations can continue the mission of the church. With the end of my grandparent’s era it is a reminder that it is time for those of us who have been reared in the faith by that generation to carry on proclaiming the gospel and training the next generations. It is also a reminder that we cannot live in the past. God used Billy Graham’s ministry at a time when the world was receptive to his style of ministry. But today the church faces new challenges that would have been unthinkable to my grandparent’s generation.
It seems that for the last twenty years people have been asking who the next Billy Graham will be? Of course, no one could ever be another Billy Graham, God provided him with a unique gifting. It is also possible that we do not need another Billy Graham. But it is interesting to ponder who God might raise up to be an evangelist who could have the impact of Graham, especially in light of how much the world has changed since 1949.
Over the course of my life, the church in the west has been getting smaller while churches in the two-thirds world have been growing. In light of this reality, I would not be surprised at all if God raised up a person or persons from these regions of the world to be the next Billy Graham. We are already seeing churches from these nations sending missionaries to the west. Therefore, it would not be a stretch for God to use an evangelist from a region that had been colonized by the west and evangelized by the west to spread the gospel in the west and around the globe.
As a historic theologian I always attempt to learn from the past in order to teach the people of God lessons they can use in the present and in the future. I hope that our past sins in the west with race relations, our current sins with race relations, and political tensions between the two thirds world and the west would not prevent the west from being able to embrace a Billy Graham from Africa, Latin America, or China. Then again it would be just like God to use a person from Africa to help the west heal its racial tensions with the gospel.