The Genuine Preacher

What All Clergy Can Learn from Billy Graham

Many "televangelists" have a bad name, and many of them have well deserved it. Some are brought down by scandals, while others have no scandals attached to them but come across as clowns, entertainers, or hustlers for money (seeming only to rob churches of the rightful pledges of their members). Still others are trendy, or just plain weird.

In contrast to all these types stands Billy Graham, a figure with a kind of authority that confounds the world's values, even those values that are so often merely the entertainment "performance values" of so many other "celebrity" ministers. Dr. Graham's televised "crusades" were old-fashioned Baptist revival services, and they came across with a simple and profound dignity that others lacked.

They looked honest because they were straightforward. There were no gimmicks, no special offers, no salesmanship, nothing phony, and no evidence whatsoever of the preacher's ego—indeed, Graham was a man who spoke of himself in down-to-earth, humble terms. He was on the air as a clergyman, not as a star; and that made him a star, someone whom millions of people tuned in to watch and to hear. Apart from certain popes, no other Christian clergyman has ever commanded so large an audience.

Graham was an educated man, and it showed. He never made exaggerated claims about his own knowledge, yet he clearly knew what he was talking about on almost any given topic (not just the Bible). It was that same education, which served him so well in public life, that almost prevented his ministry. Early on, he did not want to be known as an evangelist because that designation did not suit the appearance, he thought, of a learned and sophisticated modern man. Only after an inner struggle did he learn to say simply, "the Bible says," and only then did his preaching begin to come across with power.

Graham's Integrity

From 1949 into the 1990s, under the scrutiny of the public eye, Graham stood not only as a man who could preach to large crowds with great effect, but also as a man whose own life, family, and marriage gave validity to his words. We could say many things about his accomplishments: that the largest gathering in human history was one of his crusades in Korea (over one million in attendance), that he preached to more people than any other individual, that he wrote many books, that he started a large organization for evangelism with Christian humanitarian efforts included, and so forth. But if these accomplishments have stood the test of time, it is because Graham himself has been a man of known integrity.

In setting up the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, he insisted on receiving only a basic salary and remuneration for his expenses. The taint of economic scandal that brought down other men in similar ministries was never even possible under the conditions he had laid out ahead of time. His financial openness and accountability were learned from Reinhold Niebuhr.

He also required that his organization secure his hotel rooms in such a manner that no one could get to him without several witnesses being present, and he stipulated that only open conversations were allowed. Through this policy, he ruled out the possibility of having secret encounters.

Graham was both sincere and humble. He prevented the occasion of sin by creating an organization that bound everyone, including himself, to the rules. He was humble enough to see himself as inherently no better than other men, as a sinner who needed, for his own sake, to remain focused on Jesus Christ.

The result was that his organization held together for several decades, and his life and ministry remained above reproach and effective all that time. The closest he came to anything even resembling a scandal was his mistake in 1972 of endorsing a political candidate (Richard Nixon), a mistake he never repeated. While other men in the world of TV evangelism were falling into pecuniary or sexual sin, and dropping like flies as a result, Graham stood tall as a man known for his integrity. His method for achieving this seems simple: he did not trust in his own holiness, but instead stuck to a set of rules to avoid temptation.

A friend of mine and fellow priest in the Anglican Catholic Church, Fr. Laurence Wells, once said this about Graham:

Unlike so many celebrities, he was a humble, unassuming preacher. When I was waiting tables at Assembly Inn, I once had the honor of serving him. Being physically close to him gave me a certain sensation which I have felt only one other time in my life. That was only last year when I had the awesome privilege of almost 10 minutes' conversation with Fr. Benedict Groeschel. Anglicanism had given me the name of this sensation: I knew I was in the presence of great sanctity.

Bearing Witness to Christ

Billy Graham is a Baptist, and very clearly of the best in the Baptist tradition. But he has had ecumenical appeal and been admired by Christians from all denominations. A friend of Pope John Paul II in later years, and of many well-known figures in Anglicanism and various other Protestant denominations, he really did preach "mere Christianity." When he spoke of various practices in established churches, he spoke with respect and concentrated on the gospel in terms that everyone, from Baptists to Roman Catholics, had to acknowledge as part of the faith. That simple phrase, "the Bible says," appealed always to the Highest Authority, and everyone knew it.

As many readers know, I am an Anglican priest, with a ministry from the east side of the rail, that is, the sacraments; we do not wear the suit-and-tie characteristic of Baptist pastors, but elaborate vestments. There are many other differences between my Anglican ways and the Baptist ways of Billy Graham as well. But when I have watched old videos of Graham's Christ-centered preaching (many such videos, ranging from the 1950s through the 1990s, can be found on cable channels and YouTube), I have recognized the almost visible presence of Someone who brings us together despite the obvious differences between our respective traditions. That is the Holy Spirit, who himself bears witness to Jesus Christ in power, animating any preacher who is not afraid to call "all men everywhere to repent."

It seems funny to Anglicans that Baptists and other revivalists have an "altar call," inasmuch as they have no altar. But this practice shows that they have an element in their services with roots to the colonial English churches. In every traditional Anglican Holy Communion service we issue an "Altar Call," the Invitation:

Ye who do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways; Draw near with faith, and take this holy Sacrament to your comfort; and make your humble confession to Almighty God, devoutly kneeling.

As priests, we believe that we are able to follow up with the Absolution for those who confess with "hearty repentance and true faith." But have we actually taken care in our sermons to speak directly and seriously, so as to give genuine weight to the words of the Invitation before the General Confession? Our preaching should always be part of "the ministry of reconciliation" (2 Cor. 5:18).

His Lessons for Preachers

To that end, I suggest that my fellow Anglican clergy could learn a few things about effective preaching from a world larger than merely our own ethos. Assuming we have the maturity to learn, even from those who are not of our fold, I would like to point out some things that can be learned from Billy Graham. These lessons are worth learning by all men whose duties include preaching, in every Christian church everywhere:

Stick to the main point. Even when Graham referred to the current events of the day in a sermon, he always brought them into the context of calling his listeners to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. Do not get sidetracked in your own sermons with anything that distracts people's attention from their greatest need; that is, to be reconciled to God, to know God, and to serve God.

The pulpit is not the place for side issues. There is no sermon time to waste on the things of this world, which pass away. So do not distract from the central message of Jesus Christ. This is the only way, moreover, for sermons to be in true harmony with any traditional liturgy.

Speak directly. Do not use flowery language, and make no attempt to impress people with sophisticated and fashionable trends. Also eschew inspirational messages and sentimental rambling from personal anecdotes. Speak directly to the real needs of the people, in terms they can appreciate and understand.

Speak with authority. Constantly, Billy Graham would say, "The Bible says. . . ." Certainly, any Christian preacher can say that, too, and we should say it often. In the pulpit we are supposed to present God's word, not our own ideas, not even our best ideas. This is true for everyone, and it reminds me of sound advice given by the Roman Catholic bishop Fulton J. Sheen (writing in The Priest Is Not His Own): "How much more our words would burn as we preach . . . if, before preaching, we prayed for five minutes to the Holy Spirit for Pentecostal fire; if we kept the Scriptures ever near us, that we might gird ourselves with their truth when mounting the pulpit."

Speak with passion. Do not speak with feigned or false passion, but certainly with a fire that comes from within by the Holy Spirit. This gets to the heart of the issue of sincerity.

Speak with urgency. We should have as much urgency in our sermons as Graham exhibited in his evangelistic preaching. "For he saith, I have heard thee in a time accepted, and in the day of salvation have I succored thee: behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation" (2 Cor. 6:2). The message must be, as was always the case in Graham's sermons: Be reconciled to God through his Son right now—there is no later.

We must take care that no one, especially those who hear us week after week, departs this life without real preparation. Have we presented both a sober warning and the mercy of God in Christ? If we preach to someone every Sunday for years as he sits in a pew, and he dies unprepared, how will we answer for what we did with all that pulpit time, all those opportunities?

Call sin, sin. Do not hesitate to go against the grain, against the Zeitgeist. Do not fear, at times, to mention actual sins by name if need be, and to denounce their destructive and dangerous end. Graham, who in his youth wanted to be admired as a learned and sophisticated intellectual, thundered with the authority and power of a prophet. He spoke against sin with that special authority that cuts across cultural and class barriers, that reaches the conscience directly.

To unbelievers he spoke as an evangelist, and to believers as a prophet. His words made you aware that you were in God's presence, "unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid." Like C. S. Lewis, he did not waste time on "denominational sins" (smoking, drinking, rock 'n roll), but on real moral issues that stand between individuals and God, to whom all will give account.

Call death, death. Do not fail to remind your hearers that we are all mortal. This was not only characteristic of Billy Graham's preaching—strange as it has sounded in modern times—but of all Christian preaching through the ages until now. It is really the universal Christian tradition to preach sermons with a reminder of the inevitable placed before all.

Today, however, we are afraid to spoil the fun. We do not want to ruin the "warm fuzzies" by mentioning death and dying—as if church were about a nice, cozy feeling—even though death is certain, and even though we know the remedy for it. None of us is guaranteed to live through the day. What better venue than the pulpit in which to remind people of that inescapable fact?

Speak of God's love, grace, and mercy often, but only in the context of Christ crucified. Graham denounced sin in no uncertain terms, but only to make the hearers aware of their need for mercy. Then he spoke of the Cross. His Jesus was not only the great compassionate Healer, but also the Man of Sorrows, acquainted with grief, who could save each person from sin and death.

Graham simply preached Christ and him crucified. Only in the context of the love of God demonstrated by Christ's crucifixion and death did he speak of divine love, for only in that context does any real evangelist have the message of God's love. When Graham spoke of the risen Christ, he spoke of the One who was now ready to receive your repentance, and to restore you to favor with his Father.

These are things to learn from one of the finest preachers in modern history, a master orator, and a Christian man who, at age 96, has earned the respect of all and still has an impact on many. These lessons cross denominational boundaries, for they truly are mere Christianity in word and power. The above list is not exhaustive, and others well acquainted with Billy Graham's preaching may think of additional points I could have listed. His active public ministry lasted for sixty years, and that is because it was genuine, because he has always been genuine. • 

Robert Hart is rector of St. Benedict's Anglican Catholic Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina (Anglican Catholic Church Original Province). He also contributes regularly to the blog The Continuum. He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.

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