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Billy Graham keeps the focus on Jesus

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–The man who gave crusade evangelism credibility during the 20th century is now limited by the effects of Parkinson’s disease. But the mind and the heart of Southern Baptist evangelist Billy Graham remains focused on Jesus.

“Jesus is knocking at your heart’s door tonight,” Graham often remarks. “He wants to come into your heart.”

Organizers of his most recent crusade in Dallas are well aware that the many of the 255,000 people who attended the services were there to see the 83-year old Graham. And yet, even since Graham’s earliest days as a little known evangelist for Youth for Christ, he has kept the focus on Jesus.

While Graham told the closing night’s audience that future public engagements are in God’s hand, the likelihood that Dallas was his last meeting prompted many to make it a priority, drawing devoted admirers from long distances to see him preach. He has preached the gospel to more people in live audiences than anyone else in history — more than 210 million people in more than 185 countries and territories.

Despite his age, Graham’s appearances continue to break stadium records in many of the cities where missions are held. Ironically, it is the Saturday night youth emphasis that draws the biggest crowd and results in the greatest number of professions of faith as teenagers respond to the octogenarian’s simple evangelistic invitation.

“I would go again to hear him,” said 17-year-old Southern Baptist Dana Martin of Cresson, Texas, who traveled with her church’s youth group to the meeting. For her, Graham’s age added to his appeal. “It’s kind of like listening to my grandpa talking. It was not at all a barrier, but actually a pro. I really respect someone with that much age.”

Praising the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association for adapting to the times, local Metroplex Mission committee member Susie Hawkins of Plano said, “It remains to be seen how the crusade format will fit into the future.” She spoke of other effective evangelists like Luis Palau, Franklin Graham and Greg Laurie, who hold areawide meetings. “While they are not attended on the scale of a Billy Graham mission, they are successful,” she said.

“There is always a sense of this having been a historic event, especially now that Dr. Graham is older and having health problems,” Hawkins said, reflecting on the record-breaking crowds at the Dallas mission. “He long ago transcended denominational barriers, and I believe most evangelicals would claim him as one of them.”

A stronger factor in convincing area Christians to help in mission preparation is “a sense of being involved in something bigger than yourself or your church,” Hawkins said. “This type of event happens in a community about every 20 years, so it’s not an annual event which can get old and lose momentum,” she said in contrasting a regional crusade with a local church outreach.

Retired Southern Baptist Missionary Don Jones witnessed the Graham crusade that drew the largest attendance ever. An estimated 3.2 million people showed up for the five-day event in 1973 in Seoul, Korea, lining a road left over from a Korean War airstrip. A newly installed citywide loudspeaker system projected Graham’s message through an interpreter as he stood atop a 50-foot platform from which officials typically viewed military parades.

“Throughout history, God has given us some special evangelists who have been able to draw big crowds — John Wesley, George Whitefield, Charles Finney, Dwight L. Moody, Billy Sunday and Mordecai Ham,” Jones observed. “I think it’s more than just an organization. It’s God’s gift,” he said, trying to identify the source of Graham’s success. “Evangelists function a little like the prophets of the Old Testament. I think God’s going to keep on providing them.”

Jones believes God protected Billy Graham through the wisdom he exercised regarding financial records and moral integrity. In 1948 Graham, along with soloist George Beverly Shea, song leader Cliff Barrows, and the late Grady Wilson, outlined a plan labeled the Modesto Manifesto, implementing high standards for financial accountability.

Dan Busby, vice president for member and donor services for Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability credits the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association with pioneering such standards. “Their track record across the decades speaks for itself. They continue to this day to be a leader in accountability,” he told the Dallas Morning News.

The director of the American Institute of Philanthropy said Graham’s approach is regarded as “the gold standard.” The salaries for Graham and all of his staff come from contributions to BGEA, not the local meetings. An audit of the local mission’s finances is published, and any funds received over the amount needed can be passed on for use at the next meeting or directed to meet local ministry needs.

The best known preacher in America is just as scrupulous about personal morality, refusing to ride alone in a car with any woman other than his wife and avoiding other compromising situations.

Jones and his wife, Nita, heard Graham speak in New York City’s Madison Square Garden in 1957 as they took a break from language studies they would need on the mission field. The 16-week New York City evangelistic meeting in open-air settings included Martin Luther King Jr. offering a prayer one night.

When Graham accepted the invitation to preach in Korea, Jones was thrilled, aware of the potential for the spread of the gospel. “In those days, if you wanted to find the Baptists, they were in the littlest church in the poorest location in any town,” Jones recalled, adding that the longer-established Presbyterians regarded them as a cult. “Graham gave Baptists some face,” Jones said, appreciating the positive image that carried over in the work of planting churches.

As in the case of crusades held in America, Graham’s organization sent an advance team to Korea, working with locally selected leadership to prepare for the spiritual emphasis. Associate evangelists traveled to other cities throughout the country to plant seeds of revival.

The veteran of 37 years of missionary service explained, “Some people come in and sound like they’re trying to boss you and tell you what to do. But Graham’s advance people stay with the principles, then are willing to adapt to the local situation. They’re sweet, kind and behave as Christian friends,” Jones said, adding, “That goes over well.”

Adequate preparation and local ownership are the key aspects that have remained the same throughout Graham’s ministry, explained Cliff Barrows, music director for the BGEA team since 1945 and program director for radio and television ministry. He told Baptist Press that the elements of preparation include an emphasis on prayer, utilization of Christian Life and Witness Training classes, a plan known as Operation Andrew that emphasizes personal outreach to an individual’s own mission field, and recruitment of volunteers for the choir, ushers, counselors and other assignments.

Barrows said the local community, churches and pastors work with the mission team to get their members involved. The mission program and participants under Barrows’ direction are joined each night with Graham’s message and invitation to provide the final key element of a local mission effort.

Public relations director Larry Ross said the Dallas mission featured “unprecedented unity and cooperation of churches representing 37 different denominations” with at least 25,000 volunteers involved. He praised local media for “seizing the opportunity to make this a significant news story.” Ross insisted, “This is a process, not an event,” noting that 80 percent of those attending were invited to the meeting by a friend or relative.

Hawkins appreciated the organization’s desire to involve women in the mission meetings. Through a network of women from all denominations, through Bibles studies of all sizes and formats, Hawkins saw women enlisted to help with local planning and provide prayer power.

Graham’s reach extends far beyond local mission meetings. Millions of copies of his books have been sold in 38 languages around the world. More than 70 million copies of various sermons have been distributed and his column, “My Answer,” is carried by newspapers across the United States, with a combined circulation of five million readers.

Through a training center called The Cove, Graham provides fellowship for believers in a North Carolina retreat setting. The Christian Guidance Department in the Minneapolis office handles letters, telecast follow-up forms, phone calls and e-mail from more than 144,000 people annually.

Other resources include DECISION magazine circulated to 1.4 million people, an Internet ministry that registered more than 30 commitments to Christ each day, “Hour of Decision” and “Decision Today” radio broadcasts, telecasts of Graham’s missions meetings, evangelistic films and local Billy Graham Schools of Evangelism.

Participation in the local witness training helped 13-year-old Robbie Freeman of Grand Prairie learn how to lead her friends to Christ. Having recently professed her own faith, Freeman said she had once thought being baptized was all she had to do. “When I went to the sessions, I learned how to help people my age as well as those younger or older.”

She’s a firm believer in the value of large-scale evangelistic meetings like the one she just attended, whether Graham is leading them or not. “It was amazing. People were flowing out of the stands, and there were very long lines to get down to the mosh pit where everybody was being counseled,” she said, referring to the 11,097 responding to the invitation over the course of four days.

“I don’t think it has to be somebody with a big name,” Freeman said, adding, “I’d never heard of Billy Graham.”

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  • Tammi Reed Ledbetter