Three Lessons From the Extraordinary Life of Billy Graham

As we learned yesterday about the loss of Billy Graham, it is with a great deal of sadness that we say farewell to this extraordinary figure. Perhaps never again—certainly not within our life time—will we witness an evangelist with such a global outreach. He became a figure larger than life, and he did so by only preaching the simple message of the saving gospel of Jesus Christ.

Early in my ministry it was my privilege to work alongside the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and that experience left a positive and profound impact upon my life. Here was a man who preached the gospel and attempted to reach large numbers of people for Christ. For this example, I will always be grateful.

Allow me to reflect upon my time with his ministry, and to share a few lessons I learned from my partnership with his efforts to win the lost to Christ.  

In 1989 I was pastoring The Bible Church of Little Rock when our city hosted a week-long Billy Graham crusade. The call went out for local pastors to participate as volunteers, and I was asked to be the chairman of counseling and follow-up. In this role I oversaw the training of 3,000 counselors, and then was responsible for the follow-up after the crusade for those who committed their lives to Jesus Christ.

My mission was to ensure that everyone who responded to the sermon by Mr. Graham and came forward was personally contacted by a local pastor the very next day. Over the course of seven nights, Dr. Graham delivered impassioned gospel sermons before a crowd of 50,000 souls, so there was an incredible amount of work to be done each night.  But I noticed something unexpected—the crusade not only impacted those who came forward, but it impacted the church I was pastoring. It revolutionized us.

Preparing for the crusade gave our church a much needed evangelistic mindset. Entrenched habits were rooted out and changes were implemented—changes that were necessary, but difficult in an historic church. The crusade renewed our evangelistic focus as the congregation became more acutely aware of our urgent calling as evangelists in this world.

So began my partnership with the Billy Graham organization. At their next American crusade in New York, they asked if I would do there what I did in Little Rock. They flew me there to speak to 800 pastors and church leaders, and help them understand the critical components of evangelism in the local church. I trained them on how to earnestly share the gospel, how to answer objections, and how to urge a person to follow Christ.

I remember when I flew back to Little Rock, one of my elders picked me up at the airport and asked me how the trip went. “I think this is the happiest day of my life,” I told him. God was using me to help prepare and motivate many hundreds of people to share the gospel. When I was doing that, I felt like I was a round peg in a round hole.

For the next ten years I did this at every Billy Graham crusade in North America.

Generally, I would arrive three months before the crusade and preach to pastors and church leaders about evangelism. Then I would return for the crusade itself, and I was often privileged to sit on the platform behind Dr. Graham as he would preach. When he would step out of the pulpit after the invitation, I would step into the pulpit and oversee the response to the altar call. I’d help pair special counselors specifically trained for child evangelism with children. I’d make sure that people were met, and most importantly that they were followed up with the next day.

Eventually, I did my doctoral dissertation at Reformed Theological Seminary on the evangelistic counseling and follow-up models of the Billy Graham crusades. What many people don’t realize is that the efforts start a year before the crusade itself as local pastors and volunteers go through twelve months of training and preparation. This preparation is tested during the flurry of action in the week of the crusade as the stadiums and arenas would transform into beehives of activity and volunteers darted down aisles to ensure that each commitment to Christ was met with follow-up. It takes a full year of work after the crusade for that activity to wind down and be completed.

I eventually left my work with the Graham organization—partially as a response to the interview he gave with Robert Schuler, where he seemed to indicate it was possible for someone to be saved apart from hearing about Christ. But let me be clear—the Billy Graham I knew did not believe that. For all his years of ministry, a banner hung behind the pulpit that said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6).” He preached the gospel, and he called others to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s possible that interview can be blamed on his declining health, or that he was beginning a mental decline. Either way, his entire life and body of work should not be measured (or negated) by those five minutes.

With that in mind, here are three indelible lessons that I observed from Billy Graham’s powerful life:

The centrality of prayer: As an evangelist, Mr. Graham was a dedicated man of prayer. He was on his knees long before he ever reached the pulpit. Every time I was ever around him, he was praying. He continually asked others to pray for him or with him. If a person asked how they could best help the crusades, Billy always said the same thing: “Pray.”

His personal devotion to prayer left a huge impression on me. Even in small things, his commitment to prayer shined brightly. I recall that the posters advertising the crusades did not have a picture of him preaching, but rather of him praying. It’s not coincidental that the life of the most impactful evangelist of our generation was first and foremost a life of prayer.

The power of humility: It’s impossible to overstate how humble and soft spoken Billy was. He didn’t talk about himself or his accomplishments. This, more than anything else, gave him a noticeable dignity. Remember, Billy grew up on a dairy farm with a humble upbringing. He lived in the same house for sixty years. He always remembered his roots and where he came from. He was a country boy God raised up to preach the word of God, and he never let his globe-trotting change his self-image.

Though he had access to the most powerful people in the world, he remained a humble person. Anything the Lord accomplished through him, he knew it was the Lord’s work and not him. By devoting himself to prayer, by refusing to speak about the growth of his ministry, and by remembering who he was, his humility kept him grounded in his identity as a Christian. He never viewed himself as famous, and this is owing to his humility before the Lord.

The authority of the Bible: If you have ever heard Billy preach, then you have heard him say again and again, “The Bible says.” It is the most familiar phrase that he used. He seldom stood behind the pulpit and offered opinions. He refrained from opining on politics. He joked about sports, but preached about Jesus Christ, the Savior of sinners. He was grounded in the gospel because he was rooted in the Bible. “The Bible says” was the relentless mantra in his preaching. If you wanted to argue with Billy’s preaching, then you knew you’d be arguing with the Bible’s teaching.

What impact did Billy Graham have upon me? I learned from him the centrality of prayer, the power of humility, and to always be saying “The Bible says.” I carry those three lessons with me to this very day.

Dr. Graham’s tireless engine was fueled by a fervent passion to reach souls for Christ. May God grant that such a fire would burn in each of our hearts. A love for evangelism coursed through his life—and we all need a double-dose IV hook up of that! May the example of his life and ministry leave a long standing influence upon our labor for the Lord Jesus Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria!

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Dr. Steven J. Lawson

Dr. Steven J. Lawson is President and founder of OnePassion Ministries, a ministry designed to equip biblical expositors to bring about a new reformation in the church. Dr. Lawson hosts The Institute for Expository Preaching in cities around the world. Dr. Lawson is also a Teaching Fellow for Ligonier Ministries, where he serves on its board. Moreover, he is Professor of Preaching and oversees the Doctor of Ministry program at The Master’s Seminary, where he also serves on its board. Dr. Lawson is also Professor in Residence for Truth Remains, a work designed to promote and proclaim God’s written Word. Further, Dr. Lawson serves as the Executive Editor for Expositor Magazine published by OnePassion Ministries.