Billy Graham is recognized around the world for the monumental success and impact of his citywide crusades. These crusades have been so popular over the past fifty years that one in six Americans has heard Graham speak in person.
According to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, one out of every one hundred people who made a commitment to Christ at a Graham crusade is now in full-time ministry, and 70-80 percent of those saved at a crusade have remained steadfast in their decision to follow Christ.1 But what will become of crusade evangelism as Billy Graham's career draws to an end? Some have suggested that this model of evangelism is no longer effective or valid. Will the crusades Graham made so famous become passé?
According to James Merritt, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, several major spiritual challenges have created obstacles for groups attempting this type of outreach. "We've seen a radical shift in our culture over the past thirty years," said Merritt, "and a move toward a far more secular, less sympathetic view of Christianity in general. There's been a hardening to the message and methodology that's tough to overcome, and we're seeing a disturbing spiritual apathy in the church, with a move away from biblical, expository preaching. People want a 'feel good' message and a 'tickling of men's ears,' which flies in the face of the direct, intentional work of a crusade evangelist."
But Bobby Welch, also a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, said, "It is ridiculous to believe we can win the world by getting people to come into the church. Many just won't. The action is outside the church walls. I believe that evangelistic crusades are not obsolete, but rather 'Back to the Future' and the very thing the church needs in this century."
According to Evangelist Rick Gage, that is exactly why he is doing what he is doing. Once dubbed by the Associated Press as the "small town Billy Graham," Gage and his Atlanta-based Go Tell Ministries team has been filling high school football stadiums across the nation with evangelistic crusades in small county-seat towns — places like Mount Pleasant, Texas; Gaffney, South Carolina; London, Kentucky; and Lincolnton, North Carolina — for nearly two decades. As with Billy Graham Crusades, local churches work together to help make the crusades a success by inviting the lost and then nurturing new believers as they follow Christ — but in Gage's crusades there may only be dozens of churches involved instead of hundreds.
Go Tell's crusade ministry unites churches in a community who pool their resources to prepare the way for evangelistic crusades to be held in football stadiums, civic centers, and coliseums. The nightly event features video, popular Christian artists, testimonies of hope and inspiration, and a clear Gospel message. Each crusade has a youth night, which is preceded by local school assemblies where Gage and other crusade associates speak to young people about the dangers of alcohol and drugs.
In Gage's recent crusade in Laurens County, Georgia (population fifty thousand), thousands flocked to West Laurens High School Football Stadium for the four-night event, despite predictions of rain each evening. By the conclusion of the crusade, 465 spiritual decisions had been recorded, including 211 first-time professions of faith.
"Everywhere I go people are still talking about what the Lord did, and our hearts are filled with gratitude," said Skip Evans, chairman of that crusade. "I truly believe the impact of this crusade will have far-reaching results and will be felt for years to come."
Such results are common in communities that host one of Gage's crusades.
But how does Gage make what some consider to be an outdated evangelistic outreach method work so well in our increasingly hardened, apathetic culture? It's through relationships. In Gage's annual Go Tell Summer Camps, he forms relationships with more than two hundred churches — mostly from small towns, and here he introduces the crusade ministry (via video) to these church leaders. "These leaders instantly see that this is my passion," said Gage. "I'm not interested in going to the big cities. I grew up in a small town and have always had a heart for rural America. When people see your heart and passion for their people, they open their doors — to you and to the Gospel."
Football Coach Turned Stadium Evangelist
Actually, it used to be the gridiron, rather than the lost, that captured Gage's heart. "I wanted to be the next Tom Landry, Bear Bryant, or Mark Richt," admitted Gage, smiling. "Not an evangelist like my dad."
Although Gage's father, Freddie, was an evangelist, Rick never expected to follow in his footsteps. A natural-born athlete, he instead chose a football coaching career after graduating from Cameron University in Lawton, Oklahoma. He began to drift away from God and was, as he puts it, "on the road to self destruction."
One Sunday night in January of 1984, Gage attended a crusade where evangelist James Robison was preaching and was never the same again. "I surrendered my life to Christ totally and completely," he said. "For the first time in my life, the Bible became real to me. I stayed up until three in the morning, reading my dust-covered Bible, where the words were jumping off the pages into my heart. I fell in love with the Author of the Bible, and His words became life to my soul."
Gage launched his own ministry in 1990, which today includes his youth camp ministry that has trained more than seventy-five thousand teens and leaders in evangelism. Camp speakers have included Ergun Caner, Johnny Hunt, James Merritt, and Josh McDowell, to name a few, and professional football players Shaun Alexander and Danny Wuerffel.
Because of his evangelist father's influence, as well as his own experience finding salvation at a crusade, Gage realized his divine calling in the arena of evangelistic crusades. "The reason I can do this with such confidence is that it's what God has called me to do — and because I've been around it all my life. Plus, God used an evangelistic event to change my own life, and if He can do it for me, He can do it for others."
Serving the Local Church
Not only have tens of thousands committed their lives to Christ in Gage's evangelistic outreaches, many have also heard God's call to ministry during these events. Go Tell records and passes along to local pastors every spiritual decision made at the crusades and also strives to connect each new believer with a participating church so they can be scripturally baptized.
"I've come to understand the church," said Gage, "and the challenges it faces in evangelism. My number one desire is to impact communities for Christ and make a difference by supporting the evangelistic and discipleship ministries of the local church." Others have also seen the benefit to partnering with these churches and serving them in reaching their goals in the community. "Rick is easy to work with," said Merritt, "and his love for people, pastors, and souls really comes across. He's a non-threatening, non-competing, genuine help to church leaders in the communities where he serves."
The Church Has Left the Building
According to Welch, "the church is a place people go out from, not come in to. As soon as people understand that concept, the world will explode with evangelism."
"Evangelistic crusades are just as relevant as ever," said Gage. "It's the Word — the Truth in love and passion — presented in the most non-threatening environment possible. That is the proven method for hooking the hearts of the lost, and I believe it will always work — especially in rural America — if we're not afraid to get out there and 'just do it.'"
For more information about Rick Gage go to www.gotellministries.com.