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Billy Graham

Keys to His Success

Billy Graham

by Dennis Pollock


I have to confess that it is difficult for me to be objective when it comes to Billy Graham. Since my earliest days in Christ I have always greatly admired this man, and looking now at his lifetime of fruitful ministry, I am in awe of all he has accomplished.

In writing this devotional about the keys to Billy’s success, I imagine some might suppose I am being a bit presumptuous. Would it not be better for Billy himself to tell us those keys? I would agree, and if you read enough of his books and listen to enough of his sermons, you will find that he has shared those keys, in a roundabout fashion. But in this devotional study I wanted to give you the condensed version. As for my competence to write on this subject, I can only say that I have probably studied his life and ministry more than most. I have also given extensive thought and study to the business of evangelism, and I wanted to pass along a few of my conclusions to you.

A Gifted Man

In the business world, many books have been written which share the seven secrets of successful entrepreneurs, the twelve habits of millionaires, the ten most common practices of successful CEO’s and so forth. I have no doubt that these kinds of books can be helpful, but there is something a bit deceiving about them as well. Some folks get the impression that if they can just memorize and feed on these seven secrets or twelve habits that they can be just as successful as the men or women who served as models for these books. The problem is, we can imitate their habits and practices, but we cannot infuse ourselves with the personalities and the drive that motivate these mega-successful businessmen and entrepreneurs. Most of these men and women burn with unique gifts and a drive that ordinary people simply do not have – and no book or list of principles will ever impart those gifts and that incredible drive into the lives and spirits of the readers. They can definitely improve and benefit by reading these books but in most cases they will never attain the phenomenal success of the men and women about whom they read.

It is not so different in the field of ministry. There were definite reasons why Billy Graham was as successful as he was, but not all of them can be duplicated and replicated by everyone. Part of the reason for his success was that Billy was highly gifted in all the right areas from birth. First, he was a tall and handsome man. He made a striking figure as he stood before the pulpits of America and proclaimed the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is true that God does not look on the outward appearance, but it is also true that men and women definitely do. And like it or not, attractive people are attractive – people tend to want to be with them, and in an evangelist’s case, they are more likely to listen a little more closely to what he has to say.

In addition to his looks was his magnificent voice. Billy Graham had a voice like no one else. It was both powerful and magnetic. Some preachers come across as whiny, others as harsh, some as wimpy, and some as nauseatingly sweet. Billy’s voice was pure gold, and in those large stadiums, especially in the days before there were enormous video screens to show the face of the evangelist, Billy’s amazing voice bo  omed out across the loudspeakers, drawing his listeners to himself and his message of redemption through Jesus.

But Billy’s gifts went beyond the realm of natural assets. He was clearly spiritually gifted as well. He didn’t speak a lot about his own experience with the Holy Spirit, no doubt due to the controversy during his lifetime between charismatics and non-charismatics. But Billy had some powerful experiences with the Holy Spirit and was undoubtedly an anointed man of God. He had a deep filling with the Holy Spirit as a young evangelist when he was preaching in Wales, after several days of praying and sharing with another evangelist, Stephen Olford.

Before this filling his meetings in Wales had been unremarkable. Wales had seen many great preachers and the tall, colorfully dressed young Billy didn’t seem to make a big impression on many of his hearers. But the night after he was filled with the Spirit was different. Billy preached with a power that gripped all his hearers. As he gave the invitation, the stoic Welsh people jammed the aisles until it seemed as though practically the entire audience had responded. Olford's own heart was so moved by Billy's authority and power in preaching that he could hardly drive home. When Stephen saw his dad that night, the older Welshman took one look at his face and asked, "What on earth has happened?" Sitting down at the kitchen table, he stated, "Dad, something has happened to Billy Graham. The world is going to hear from this man. He is going to make his mark in history."

When you went to a Billy Graham crusade, you were not just hearing Billy Graham. You were hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit as He spoke through His servant. Although he was not a harsh preacher by any means, his words carried a divine “punch” which broke down the defenses of those who had long rejected or neglected Jesus Christ. Billy loved to encourage his sponsoring churches to pray for the meetings beforehand, and confessed that within the first five minutes he preached he could tell if there had been very much prayer that had been offered up to God on his behalf. He said that where there had been prayer, he could feel a power and a liberty to preach that was not present otherwise. He would often take out whole pages in Christian magazines urging believers to pray for a particular meeting.

Interestingly, Billy once said that he didn’t consider his ability to preach his greatest gift. He felt that God had given him a special anointing to invite people to come to Jesus. He declared that often as he urged people to say yes to Jesus at the conclusion of his sermons, he felt physically weak, as though an anointing from God was draining him of his physical strength. He once remarked that he had never in his life given a gospel invitation which was not followed by people responding to that invitation. There was something we might call “divine magnetism” about both the man and his preaching, and people responded in droves when he made his anointed appeals for Christ.

Preaching the Word

In his earliest days in Christ, Billy Graham faced a dilemma. There was quite a bit of the so-called “higher criticism” written about and discussed in those days which suggested that the Bible was not inspired, and in fact contained many errors. Billy Graham read some of these articles and struggled in his faith. Was the Bible completely inspired? Could it be relied upon? Was it authoritative or merely inspirational?

After a short while of wrestling with the controversy, Billy made a decision. Just as he had received Jesus by faith, he decided that he must receive the Bible by faith as God’s inspired and inerrant Word. He decided to base his ministry on the word of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ, and preach God’s word as true and entirely reliable. It was the right decision. As he began to preach, he based nearly every point he made on Biblical truth. Over and over he would declare, “The Bible says,” or “The apostle Paul wrote,” or “The prophet Isaiah declares.” He stood at the pulpit not as a diplomatic, politically correct, highly nuanced suggester of truth, but more like an Old Testament prophet, thundering out, “Thus says the Lord…” People in his audience who had rarely read the Bible would get a thorough Bible study by the time the night was through.

But Billy would never stop at a mere Bible study. Every point, every theme, every sermon subject must somehow be employed to bring his audience to the cross of Jesus, where they must either accept or reject His gospel. In his early days as a preacher he once preached a sermon in which he neglected to mention the cross of Jesus. The evening did not go especially well, and after it was over, a friend asked him, “Billy, do you know what was wrong with that sermon?” He replied that he did not know, but he knew something was wrong. The man told him, “You never mentioned the cross of Jesus.” Billy later recounted that he vowed, then and there, he would never again preach a sermon without somehow, some way proclaiming the cross.

He made that same vow concerning Jesus’ resurrection. And so, whether the topic was marriage or the degeneration of society, or fear, or faith, or discouragement or joy, Billy would find a way by the end to declare the death and resurrection of Jesus. I once taught a class about evangelism and played a Billy Graham video for my students. Before watching the video, I asked them to note precisely when he began to speak about the death of Jesus, and what link he used to go from his main topic to the cross of Jesus. After the video was over the students were hard pressed to give me the link between his topic and Jesus’ cross. One said one thing and another said something else. At last I told them that I had tricked them. In truth, in this particular sermon there was no link. Billy simply finished preaching on his topic, turned on a dime, and started preaching about Jesus’ death and resurrection. The point I wanted to make was that one way or another, Billy was determined that his audience should hear about Jesus’ sacrificial death. Even if he couldn’t figure out a way or didn’t have time to make a way to logically progress from his main subject to the cross, he would still get there!

Unapologetically Evangelistic

Another reason for Billy’s success was that in his preaching he was unapologetically evangelistic. Regardless of the subject of his sermon, his goal for every meeting was always the same: he wanted men, women, and youth to put their faith in Jesus and receive Him as their Lord and Savior. With many pastors and preachers, the idea of evangelism is a kind of afterthought. The first thirty-nine minutes of their sermon is concerned with their topic and often has nothing to do with Jesus Christ at all. In many sermons across America, pastors can get through the bulk of their messages without ever mentioning Jesus. And then in the final minute they tack on a little postscript: “If you want to accept Jesus, pray this little prayer with me.” The sermon often has been entirely unrelated to Jesus and our need for Him, but they suppose that by mentioning Him briefly at the end, they have done their duty and preached the gospel.

But with Billy Graham the idea of our need for Jesus was never far from sight. If you listened at all you would quickly figure out: “This man wants me to become a Christian.” The urgency with which he preached, the tone of his voice, the Scriptures he used, and the points and sub-points he made were servants to one overriding goal, and that was that men and women might come to Jesus and be saved. What he was doing, of course, was intentional evangelism. He was not hinting that people should receive Jesus, or hoping that they might accidentally get saved, or suggesting that just possibly it might be a good idea to become a Christian – he was virtually insisting that his audience must give their lives to Jesus, if they were to have any hope of heaven, and the peace of God in their hearts. He spoke with authority and urgency, and people responded. They always responded, and usually in large numbers.

Calling for a Decision

In America’s early days many of the churches were so thoroughly steeped in hyper-Calvinism that few pastors or even evangelists ever challenged sinners to give their lives to Christ immediately. It was thought that God would convert His elect in His own time and manner, and that it was almost blasphemous for someone to think they could simply receive Jesus as an act of their will. The controversial evangelist Charles Finney almost single-handedly destroyed this notion when he began challenging the non-converted to come forward at the conclusion of his meetings and sit in the “anxious seat” where Christians could counsel them and help them give their lives to Jesus.

By the time Billy Graham began preaching, the idea of “making a decision for Christ” had become fairly common. His immediate predecessor, Billy Sunday, had made a career of calling sinners to walk “the sawdust trail” (in other words, to come to the front of the church or tent, or auditorium and give their lives to Jesus). In the early days of his ministry, Billy Graham fell into a particular mode of giving an invitation. It involved a brief description of what one had to do to become a Christian, with an emphasis upon repentance and receiving Jesus by faith. Then he would call people to leave their seats and walk to the area in front of the platform, where he would share a few words with them, have a prayer with them, and give them some Christian literature, especially written to help new believers in their faith.

Billy enlisted large numbers of counselors to mingle with those wanting to receive Jesus. These men and women would give out the literature and get the names and addresses of those accepting Jesus. The cards with this information on the potential converts would later be given to pastors who could follow up on the new believers by calling them and visiting them in their homes. When you watched a Billy Graham crusade on television, and they showed the hundreds of people walking toward the platform at the end, you could clearly see that many of these people were wearing badges on their shirts. These were the counselors who had been instructed to come forward as soon as Billy gave the invitation. These folks were scattered all over the stadium, and their instant movement forward after Billy’s invitation gave sinners the courage to come forward themselves. If you didn’t know better, you might have supposed that the crowds at the front were all sinners wanting to be saved, but in truth a significant percentage of these people were counselors.

This process worked beautifully. And once Billy found something that worked, he held on to it tenaciously. His method of calling sinners to Jesus was nearly unchanged, from his early meetings in the 1950’s to his final ones in the 1990’s. The words and phrases he used were virtually identical, and the song, “Just as I Am,” was never changed. He saw no point in changing something that worked as well as it did. Graham was far more interested in being effective than being creative or spontaneous.

Billy was not so naïve as to suppose that everyone who came forward in response to his preaching was automatically regenerated. He would never say, as some evangelists do, that they had so many people saved on a particular night. He insisted that God alone knew the heart, and knew who was truly born again. He called the people who came forward “inquirers” but never “converts.” Of course, huge numbers of people were genuinely born again, and even to this day you can find men and women everywhere who trace their beginnings in Christ to a Billy Graham evangelistic meeting.

Direct Address

To effectively persuade people to change, it is critical that one’s listeners take the message personally. In the case of evangelism, the hearers must at some point cease listening to the sermon as entertaining or an abstract theological treatise, and see it as pertaining directly to themselves. In short, they must be made to feel: “He’s talking to me!” Nathan could have talked to David about sin in the abstract all day long, and there would have been no repentance from his sin with Bathsheba. As long as David felt like Nathan was speaking in general terms about sin and sinners, it didn’t affect him. But when Nathan forcefully announced David’s particular sins, David immediately got the point, and humbly confessed, “I have sinned against the Lord.”

In evangelistic preaching (and this is also true with sharing Christ one on one), there is a single word which is incredibly effective in making the subject both personal and pointed. That word is “you.” To say that people need Jesus is fine, but is doesn’t really pierce the heart. To the man or woman sitting in a stadium seat, the point was not that people need Jesus, but that they, themselves needed Jesus. The same is true in pointing out sins and the need for repentance, or declaring how empty life is without Jesus. Rather than saying, “people are lonely and without purpose,” Billy Graham might say, “Some of you are lonely and without any purpose in your life.” Using the pronoun “you” rather than making a general declaration made his sermons feel far more personal and “up-close.” Even though he was typically preaching to tens of thousands of people, most of whom he had never met, the technique of personalizing his preaching this way made people feel he was speaking directly to them.

There is a clear Biblical basis for this kind of preaching. On the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit first came upon the church, Peter rose and preached to the thousands of people who had assembled, wondering what was happening. After declaring the Scriptural basis for Jesus being the Messiah of the Jews, Peter told his audience bluntly, “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36). The result of this personalized preaching was that, “when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Men and brethren, what shall we do?’ ” (Acts 2:37). Peter told them to repent and be baptized in Jesus’ name, and that day three thousand people were added to the church.

Preaching Christ’s Return

Unlike so many pastors, evangelists, and Bible teachers, Billy Graham was not shy about proclaiming the return of Jesus Christ. His preaching on this subject was simple and basic. He never went too deep with it, or delved into theological controversies and disputes. But he boldly declared that Jesus Christ was coming back, and we need to be prepared for His return. His sermons on the return of Jesus can be found sprinkled liberally throughout all the years of his ministry.

Calling for a lifestyle change

For Billy Graham, merely assenting intellectually to the death and resurrection of Jesus was never enough. He wanted his listeners to not only believe on the sacrifice of Christ, but to believe so strongly their lives could never be the same. He insisted that with believing faith there would be repentance, and that this repentance will always lead to a lifestyle change. He wanted no one suffering under the delusion that having walked a few steps to the crusade platform and repeated a sinner’s prayer, they could now go on in their selfish lives and expect to go to heaven when they died.

Organization

Some Christians seem to have an almost instinctual aversion to organization. They often justify their “fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants” approach to life and ministry with the thought that they just want to be led by the Spirit in all things. And they assume that to be led by the Spirit means having no particular plans, no methods to anything, and following any impulse that arises in their hearts without regard to organization, planning, or careful preparation.

Such an attitude reflects a lack of knowledge of the Scriptures, as well as a dismal absence of common sense. Jesus Himself, surely a Spirit-led man, was also quite organized. He methodically made His way through the cities and synagogues of Israel, preaching the kingdom of God. When He fed the multitudes, He insisted upon order and organization. He would not allow the feeding to become a riot, but before performing the miracle of multiplying the loaves and fish, He first had His disciples seat the crowds in groups of fifties and hundreds. Everything must be orderly. And when He launched His church, He established deacons, elders, pastors, and bishops to make sure that things ran smoothly.

In setting up his evangelistic campaigns Billy Graham developed specific ways and means of preparation. Being the pragmatic man he was, what did not work was quickly discarded. What brought results was embraced and used decade after decade. The training of pastors, counselors, and ushers, the establishing of mass choirs, the use of mailings, flyers, posters, and billboards, and ads on television and radio were all honed to perfection. Church members were instructed to pray for and invite their friends and neighbors, using a method they called “Operation Andrew.” Meeting after meeting, campaign after campaign, city after city, and year after year, these tried and true methods and protocols were followed conscientiously, and the results proved their wisdom.

I registered to attend a special Billy Graham meeting for evangelists in 1994, and quickly came to see just how incredibly organized a Billy Graham event was. I received so many letters I could hardly keep up with them. Some were from people who had been enlisted to pray for me. Other letters seemed to be for the purpose of increasing my excitement about the meetings. Some encouraged me to pray. Never in my life have I been barraged with so much communication about a ministry meeting. It was obvious that Billy and his leaders did not believe in leaving anything to chance.

Overthrowing False Hope

Billy and Franklin Graham

Many people who are not genuine Christians still maintain a hope that all is well between them and God. Inwardly they realize that they are not nearly so committed to Christ as some of the evangelicals they have known, but still they are not prepared to denounce Christ as nothing more than a deluded fanatic, and embrace a totally secular view of life. Nor are they willing to acknowledge that they are truly lost and without any real hope of living with God in eternity. Such people will always attempt to find some basis for thinking of themselves as good people, who have every right to go to heaven when they die. They usually “hide” behind some works-based aspect of their lives, in an attempt to cover up and make up for their lack of passion for and devotion to Jesus Christ.

Often their hiding place has to do with church attendance and church activities. Sometimes it is their own niceness. Or it may be the thought that the church is full of hypocrites, and so although they completely shun church and avoid Christian events like the plague, they still worship God in “their own way.”

Every effective evangelist learns to expose these flimsy and lame pretenses for what they are, and make it plain that apart from the new birth which results in a transformed life and a passion for Jesus Christ, no man or woman has any right to expect to go to heaven. Jesus, Himself demonstrated this in declaring:

Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’ (Matthew 7:21-23)

Like his Master, Billy Graham, in nearly every evangelistic sermon, would warn people not to trust in church attendance, or praying at meals, or their own good works, and insist that apart from receiving Jesus as Lord and Savior, no one would be saved. Even some members of the church will find themselves cast out of God’s presence, having never truly experienced the new birth.

Billy also determined to annihilate one of Satan’s greatest deceptions: that you could always delay making a decision to come to Christ now, and perhaps get around to it sometime later. In nearly every sermon Billy warned his listeners that this was a dangerous position to take. In this, too he was uprooting the sinner’s defenses which kept them from surrendering their lives to Jesus. The Bible tells us: “A wise man scales the city of the mighty and brings down the stronghold in which they trust” (Proverbs 21:22). Billy Graham specialized in demolishing the strongholds in which men and women hid in their determination to ignore or reject the claims of Jesus Christ.

Faithful

Billy was not merely consistent with his methods and means of evangelism. He was consistent and faithful in his own life and ministry. Throughout the many years of his long and fruitful ministry, he never seemed to tire of preaching Christ and setting up campaign after campaign after campaign. As the years passed Billy made a few modifications to his meetings, in terms of the singers and special music he used. Musically, the meetings continually evolved and changed with the times. By the 1990’s the contrast between some of youthful musicians and the elderly Graham was almost humorous. Billy would often get up and say something nice about the singers and their songs, but you suspected that he would be no more likely to purchase their albums for himself than he would to bungee jump from the top of a cliff.

Although the music changed, Billy’s approach to ministry seemed set in granite. He preached many of his old favorite sermons year after year, and to hear a Billy Graham evangelistic sermon in 1961 was not much different from one you might hear in 1986, twenty-five years later. More importantly, he stayed with it. Many times, we tire of doing the same thing. We long for something new and different. Some people leave highly successful careers, not because of difficulty or pressure, but simply because they have become weary of getting up every morning and doing the same thing they did yesterday, and last year, and ten years before that. Billy never seemed to feel that way. He no doubt felt he was exactly where he needed to be and was doing precisely what God had called him to do. And he stayed with it, year after year, throughout nearly all his adult life, until at last old age and infirmity forced him to stop.

His family paid a price for Billy’s constant travel and ministry. Billy was probably gone more than he was home. Most of the responsibility for the raising, training, discipline, and admonition of his children was left to his wife, Ruth. Once, when she was asked whether she resented Billy’s frequent absences, she famously replied, “I would rather share half of Billy Graham than to have all of any other man.” Ruth was terrific with the children. It seems clear that God joined Billy with this godly and wise woman to make it possible for Billy to carry on his worldwide ministry without the distraction and burden of a dysfunctional family left behind. In Ruth’s capable hands, their offspring received the love and order which children so desperately need. Once Ruth was asked whether she had ever considered divorcing Billy, and replied, tongue-in-cheek, “No, I never even considered divorce. Murder, yes, but not divorce.”

Conclusion

Time and space do not permit me to go further, but my simple conclusion is that Billy Graham was a carefully crafted instrument in the hands of God, the Master Craftsman. He was about as perfect an instrument for turning men and women to Christ in his generation as it was possible to be. He was, of course, a man and certainly had his flaws. But he was a good man, a decent man whose long and fruitful life contained no hint of scandal. When he was younger he pastored a church for a short time. But he soon came to realize that this was not God’s calling for him. He relinquished the church and gave himself fully to the work of evangelism. As confused and carnal as our nation is today, how much worse would we be had God not put his hand on this farm boy from North Carolina!

At the time of the writing of this devotional study, Billy Graham is still alive, but his magnificent voice has been stilled due to age and infirmity. Still, he speaks to us all about the importance of evangelism, and the means by which evangelism becomes effective and fruitful. We can learn much from him. Most of us will never operate in the full array of his many and splendid gifts. We may lack his incredible voice and powerful charisma, but we can employ the time-honored principles of evangelism which Billy mastered so well. And in our own small way, we too can perform that greatest, most difficult, and most rewarding of all tasks that human beings will ever engage in on planet earth – we can help sinful, jaded, secular, hopeless, selfish people find new life in Jesus Christ.


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