When I heard of the death of Billy Graham on 21 February, a host of memories came flooding back.
As a young boy I remember going for several nights to Billy Graham’s Greater London Crusade held in the Harringay arena in March 1954. The Billy Graham Organization claims it was the biggest venture in evangelism in the whole of the twentieth century – over 1,750,000 people are said to have attended the meetings. What an amazing impact that ‘crusade’ had to Christian ministry in Britain – I don’t think I exaggerate if I say that hundreds of men (and they were men then) were ordained as a result either of having been converted at Harringay or having received a call to ministry through their experience of listening to Billy Graham at Harringay. I confess that those meetings made little impact on my own life – apart from puzzlement over one very trivial incident. On one of those evenings I heard George Beverley Shea sing. I turned to my father and said: “Why does Bev Shea’s want ‘cheese’ rather than ‘silver or gold’?” Although Bev Shea was Canadian born and bred, his ‘American’ accent was such that his long-drawn out ‘Jesus sounded to me like cheese!
I remember another occasion hearing Billy Graham preach at Wembley football stadium. I think it was an afternoon rally linked with the Baptist World Alliance centennial meetings in 1955. At the end of his sermon, Billy Graham invited people to get up out of their seats as a declaration of their intention to follow Jesus. To my great embarrassment my father began to weep. I was shocked – I had never seen my father cry (or did I ever see him subsequently cry). My father was just overwhelmed to see God at work in the lives of so many – as he went on to tell me, he felt that by comparison all his evangelistic efforts had been as nothing. It was indeed amazing that Billy Graham should have such an effect on people’s lives. Apart from my father’s tears, that cold afternoon at Wembley was a most unemotional experience – there was no sense of mass hysteria or manipulation.
I remember Billy Graham coming to Liverpool’s Anfield football stadium as part of Mission England in July 1984. At the time I was minister of Altrincham Baptist Church, and we organised coach parties to go over and hear him. Although people on our coaches came to Christ, they all seemed to be associated with other churches! We did have one man referred to us – at the end of the sermon he had gone out to find a toilet, but in the process was swept up into a counselling tent. Sadly he never found faith.
In 1989 I heard Billy Graham twice; first in the June at the Crystal Palace Athletics Stadium in South London, and then the following month at the People’s Stadium in Budapest, as part of a European Baptist Federation Congress. Of the two events, the latter was most memorable – to see a stadium packed with people in what had been a communist country was amazing; so too to hear (but not understand) a Hungarian interpreter who seemed far more dynamic than the preacher!
Billy Graham was a man of his time – and inevitably so. In multicultural Britain we could never now describe a series of evangelistic meetings as a ‘crusade’. As we have come to realise the term ‘crusade’ is rightly offensive to many people. Nor in an increasingly non-churched Britain does it make much sense to adopt Billy Graham’s approach to evangelism – for whereas when Billy Graham first came to Britain there were many lapsed Christians and many people on the fringes of the church, today there is a widespread ignorance about the Christian faith. There is no longer a harvest which evangelists can reap on a ‘one-night stand’. It is reckoned that the last major successful Billy Graham visit to Britain was his ‘Mission England’ crusade held in 1984. Now process evangelism is the name of the game. So we have Alpha courses lasting ten weeks or so, but even then these courses are often too short for people to make a commitment. But then if the ordinary physical birth process takes nine months, we should not be surprised if the spiritual birth process takes a number of months too.
But Billy Graham was more than a man of his time. He was also a man used amazingly by God – and for that I honour him.