Evangelistic crusades were not invented by Billy Graham, but he certainly perfected them, preaching more than 400 of them worldwide. He preached the gospel in 185 countries, to 215 million people in person, and millions more via media.
“Billy Graham had a long view of evangelism and missions. He sought not merely to share the gospel but to equip other believers to share the gospel.”
Few realize, however, that very early in his ministry Graham acknowledged the limits of preaching to the masses. Consider this insightful perspective from his 1978 book, The Holy Spirit.
One of the first verses of Scripture that Dawson Trotman, founder of the Navigators, made me memorize was, “The things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2 KJV). This is a little like a mathematical formula for spreading the gospel and enlarging the church. Paul taught Timothy; Timothy shared what he knew with faithful men; these faithful men would then teach others also. And so the process goes on and on. If every believer followed this pattern, the church could reach the entire world with the gospel in one generation! Mass crusades, in which I believe and to which I have committed my life, will never finish the Great Commission; but a one-by-one ministry will.[i]
Billy Graham had a long view of evangelism and missions. He sought not merely to share the gospel but to equip other believers to share the gospel. Here are three enduring ways he set out to do that.
Preparing a Solid Biblical and Theological Foundation
Billy Graham believed in the authority of Scripture. After struggling with a season of doubt in 1949, prompted by his friend Charles Templeton’s skepticism, Graham made a bedrock commitment to affirm the Bible as God’s certain and trustworthy Word. The signature phrase in his preaching became “the Bible says.”
Graham founded Christianity Today to provide ongoing biblical and theological instruction for evangelicals. His article in the inaugural issue (October 15, 1956) was titled “Biblical Authority in Evangelism.” He made this appeal to his readers: “I am . . . fervently urging a return to Bible-centered preaching, a gospel presentation that says without apology and without ambiguity, “Thus saith the Lord.”
He brought evangelical scholars and missiologists together at meetings like the World Congress on Evangelism (Berlin, 1966) and the International Congress on World Evangelization (Lausanne, 1974). These meetings solidified a biblical understanding of evangelism and strategized how believers could take the gospel to the ends of the earth. The Lausanne Covenant first introduced the term “unreached people groups” to the broader evangelical world.
Sponsoring Training Opportunities to Equip Workers in Evangelism
The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) held crusades all over the world but also sought to encourage and equip other Christians to testify of Christ. “The Christian Life and Witness Course,” a foundational part of his crusade preparation, equipped tens of thousands of believers in how to share the gospel.
Graham was passionate about training the current and future generations of evangelists and evangelistic pastors. BGEA sponsored three-day Schools of Evangelism events held throughout the United States and Canada to train pastors and laypersons in personal evangelism. International Schools of Evangelism were held throughout the world with that same purpose of training kingdom workers.
Graham’s most significant training of workers took place at the various Amsterdam Conferences (1983, 1986, 2000). Privileged to be a workshop leader at Amsterdam in 2000, I witnessed ten thousand evangelists from two hundred countries gather to receive inspiration and instruction in evangelism and evangelistic preaching.
Lending His Name to a New School at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
The Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism, and Ministry at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is the only school Graham ever allowed to carry his name. How did that happen?
I was in a meeting with some key BGEA personnel in the fall of 1990 when the subject came up about Billy Graham allowing his name to be attached to a school of higher learning. Graham’s name was already tied to his alma mater Wheaton College, through the Billy Graham Center there). However, he had refused to allow another school to carry his name despite founding Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in the greater Boston area and approving the formation of a Billy Graham Chair of Evangelism at Southern Seminary in 1963.
One of the BGEA leaders explained why. Billy saw what had happened at Harvard University, a school founded to train ministers for the gospel and named after the Rev. John Harvard. Rev. Harvard gave half his family fortune and his entire library to the school, but centuries later it wasn’t staying true to the purpose for which it was founded. John Harvard would not want his name associated with some of what takes place there now. Billy Graham did not want to give his name to a school and have it end up opposing the gospel message instead of promoting it.
When a friend told me in 1993 about the announcement of the newly formed Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism, and Church Growth at Southern Seminary, I told him he had to be mistaken. Mr. Graham had said he would not allow a school to use his name. When I discovered that Graham had indeed given his name to this new school, I called T. W. Wilson, one of Billy’s childhood friends and a long-time associate, to ask how this had happened.
Wilson explained to me that Billy had complete confidence in the new president at the seminary—Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr.—and that he trusted Mohler’s ongoing stewardship of the new school. Furthermore, Wilson stated, Graham trusted Southern Baptists, and if the Billy Graham School ever moved in a liberal direction, Southern Baptists would help bring it back to biblical authority.
Billy Graham lived in the present but prepared for the future. He knew that should the Lord’s return not happen in his lifetime, the need for ongoing gospel ministry would continue after he was no longer preaching. With his recent home-going, Graham’s days of preaching to live audiences have ended, though with technology his sermons will continue to reach people for Christ. Yet, Graham’s work of evangelism continues through the biblical and theological foundation for evangelism that he laid, through the myriad laborers he helped equip for the harvest fields of the world, and through the ongoing teaching ministry of the Billy Graham School.
“Mass crusades, in which I believe and to which I have committed my life, will never finish the Great Commission.”
The day of his funeral I had the privilege of teaching personal evangelism to fifty-four modular students in the Billy Graham School on the campus of Southern Seminary. As my wife said, “That is exactly what Dr. Graham would have wanted you doing today.”
Although Billy Graham has now gone on to his reward, the task of taking the gospel to people of “every tongue and tribe and nation” continues (Rev. 7:9). In the immortal words of Charles Wesley, “God buries his workmen but carries on his work.”[ii]
Timothy K. Beougher, PhD, serves as Billy Graham Chair of Evangelism at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. You can follow him @TBeougher.