As Duke Divinity School’s Grant Wacker told the Wheaton College gathering dominated by graying heads, during a recent lecture at Trinity College just one student knew the name Billy Graham. And that student thought Billy Graham was a professional wrestler.
“His story,” Wacker said, speaking of modern Christendom’s most famous figure, “is rapidly receding into the mists of history.”
Graham, who turns 95 on Nov. 7, is under round-the-clock care at home, with limited vision, hearing and mobility. The Charlotte, N.C.-based ministry that’s now run by his son, Franklin, does its best to keep the aging evangelist in the forefront: His picture is on the home page of the website, and Thomas Nelson is due to release Graham’s 32nd book, “The Reason for My Hope: Salvation,” on Oct. 15.
But it’s been eight years since Graham’s last formal crusade. Those close to him say he is in good spirits but fragile health, and requires help in whatever ministry work he tackles. He no longer makes public appearances. As Wacker told the conference, his public ministry — the one that drew 210 million people to stadiums and arenas around the world — is effectively over.
It’s left, then, to gatherings like this one to gauge the impact and meaning of Graham’s command of the Christian stage for a half-century, and to mine the lessons for whatever form evangelism takes going forward.
The Sept. 26-28 conference was sponsored by Wheaton’s Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals, and featured a dozen scholars from around the country. Among the topics: Graham’s mastery of the media, his sermon style, and why he succeeded in commanding the world’s stage for five decades or more.
I spent a decade covering Graham for The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer, and so the scholars drafted me early in the process to offer a layman’s response to their analyses, and to write the last chapter in a book, tentatively called “Worlds of Billy Graham,” which will examine the future of his ministry under his more politically outspoken (and conservative) son.
Michael Hamilton of Seattle Pacific University spoke of the power of Graham’s crusade sermons arising from a blend of pageantry, as well as his credibility and a simple message that never changed: Accept Jesus and know a new life, now and forever. “Graham,” he said, “aimed for the heart and not the head.”
Estimates are that 4 percent of his crusade audiences over the years answered the famed altar call and committed (or recommitted) their lives to Christ.
Elesha Coffman of the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary analyzed Graham’s mastery of mass media. Graham, she said, toed that fine line between slick and savvy in winning positive press. He also learned how to take advantage of movies, radio, magazines, even appearances on “The Tonight Show.” His TV interview with Woody Allen can still be found on YouTube, evidence of Graham’s ability to evangelize on pretty much any platform.