A giant left us last week. Billy Graham, age ninety-nine, passed from death to life at his home in North Carolina on February 21, 2018. As he famously said, he is more alive today than he has ever been as he enjoys the presence of his Savior face to face. For those of us left on this side of that great divide, his passing provides an opportunity to reflect on his amazing legacy. Few people in history have had the kind of global impact that God granted to Billy Graham.
“He loved lost people. He loved his Savior. His greatest passion was introducing the one to the other.”
His Political and Institutional Influence
Even from a worldly perspective, Billy Graham lived an incredible life that left a significant imprint. Politically, he transcended party lines and was prayer partner and confidante to every president from Eisenhower to Obama. Institutionally, his fingerprints are seen on publications like Christianity Today and schools like the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism, and Ministry at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
His Social Impact
Socially, his friendship with Martin Luther King Jr. and his insistence on racial integration in his evangelistic meetings were radical and far ahead of his time. These things alone would have marked him as one of the most significant figures of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. All these accomplishments combined, however, pale in comparison to his impact as an evangelist.
His Passion to Reach the World with the Gospel
Simply put, it is doubtful that any ordinary mortal has been used by God to preach the gospel to so many people around the world as Billy Graham. It seems likely that more people will be in heaven through the agency of his preaching than anyone else since the Great Commission was given.
“The best way to honor Billy Graham is by sharing the gospel with people—both locally and to the ends of the earth.”
The numbers are astonishing. At least 215 million people heard him preach the gospel. In the providence of God, Billy Graham’s lifetime coincided with the emergence of first the radio, then the television, then an explosion of electronic media that made it possible for him to get his message to an audience far beyond those who could physically gather to hear him.
His impact on the spiritual landscape of his native land was huge. However, his spiritual harvest was not limited to North America. Billy Graham preached in person in 185 countries. Very few people in history have been in 185 countries, much less preached in that many.
His Unprecedented Cross-Cultural Access
Such was his stature, and such was the favor that God gave him around the world, that he was able to preach openly where Christians faced persecution, even in places like the Soviet Union and North Korea. It is true that his preaching was in English, and when he spoke to non-English speaking audiences, he did so through a translator.
Still, there are people around the world, from over 185 countries, who heard the good news of Jesus Christ for the first time from Billy Graham. He obeyed the Great Commission by preaching the gospel to hundreds of peoples and not just to those who were like him.
Billy Graham also gave leadership to efforts to mobilize and train missionaries and evangelists for global mission. He was instrumental in organizing and leading major missionary conferences in Berlin in 1966 and in Lausanne in 1974. The latter, in particular, had a long-lasting impact on evangelical missions around the globe. He also reached out to fellow evangelists from all parts of the world through a series of conferences on itinerant evangelism held in the city of Amsterdam. He was a regular speaker at the Urbana missions conference, and he challenged tens of thousands of students to take the gospel to the ends of the earth.
Why “Who Will Be the Next Billy Graham?” Isn’t the Question
Even before he died, people asked the question, “Who will be the next Billy Graham?” It is unlikely that there will be another Billy Graham, nor does there need to be one. He did not occupy an institutionalized office that always needs to be filled. In his wise providence, God raised up a unique individual for a unique moment in history. We can trust God to provide whomever or whatever his work needs next. God is under no obligation to fulfill his unchanging purposes in exactly the same way twice.
We will honor Billy Graham’s legacy better if we focus on the passion that drove his life. He loved lost people. He loved his Savior. His greatest passion was introducing the one to the other. The best way for Christians to remember and honor Billy Graham is by sharing the gospel with people who do not yet know him, both locally and to the ends of the earth.
Zane Pratt serves as the vice president of training for the International Mission Board.