America’s Pastor: Billy Graham (1918-2018)


The Rev. Billy Graham passed away this morning at his home in Montreat, North Carolina. For decades, Billy Graham was the face of evangelical Christianity, not merely in the United States, but around the world. His death is an occasion for mourning, but his life is an instructive example to Christian ministers today. In August 2015, I wrote the following book review of Grant Wacker’s excellent book, America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation. Rereading it more than two years later, it strikes me as a good summary of the lessons we can learn from the life and ministry of this great man.

*****

America’s Pastor is not a conventional biography of Billy Graham. It does not narrate Graham’s life in chronological order, in other words. If you’re looking for such a book, read Graham’s memoir, Just As I Am, or William Martin’s magisterial biography, A Prophet with Honor.

Instead, America’s Pastor is a biographical study that centers around three questions:

  • How did Billy Graham become the voice of American evangelicalism?
  • Why did evangelicalism become so pervasive in the second half of the twentieth century?
  • And what does it say about the relation between religion and America itself?

To each of these questions, Grant Wacker, a noted evangelical church historian at Duke University Divinity School, offers a single answer: “From first to last, Graham displayed an uncanny ability to adopt trends in the wider culture and then use them for his evangelistic and moral-reform purposes.”

Wacker goes on to say that Graham “possessed an uncanny ability to speak both for and to the times.”

Graham’s “uncanny ability” explains why ministers would do well to read this book. We, too, need to speak for and to our times. And Graham’s life and ministry presents us with both an inspiring example … and a cautionary tale.

The inspiring example is what Christian pastors know best. In his personal life and public ministry, Graham and his evangelistic team set the gold standard of integrity. Much of this arose from a commitment to the so-called “Modesto Manifesto” of 1948, in which the Graham team set out rules of personal and organizational integrity.

Building on this integrity, Graham traveled the globe, using every available media to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. He preached large evangelistic crusades, wrote a spiritual advice column, spoke on radio, appeared on television, produced evangelistic films, and stayed in the public eye. In addition, he helped found institutions that continue to shape evangelicalism: Christianity Today, Fuller Theological Seminary, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and the Lausanne Movement, among others. Graham was so involved with, and so central to, the postwar American evangelical revival that it is difficult to imagine it without him. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine postwar American history without him.

This doesn’t mean Graham’s ministry — or the mainstream evangelicalism he represented — was without flaws. The most glaring was his penchant for partisan politics. Perhaps nothing discredited his ministry more in the eyes of many than his too-close relationship with, and post-Watergate defense of, President Richard Nixon. And we might also ask how America would have been better off had he cooperated more closely with Martin Luther King Jr. and led white evangelicals in a greater support for African-American civil rights.

Historical counterfactuals such as this are interesting to ponder, but we cannot change the past. We can only learn from the past in order to do better in the future.

Grant Wacker has penned an interesting, informative, and, in many ways, authoritative interpretation of Billy Graham’s influence on American Christianity and the American nation. Those of us who, like Graham, are called to minister the gospel would do well to use the book as a mirror of self-reflection, asking questions such as these:

  • Do we conduct our lives and ministries with integrity, and is this integrity obvious to all?
  • Do we lament the baleful effects of contemporary media — television, film, social media, etc. — or do we leverage them to produce better effects?
  • Do we exercise a prophetic ministry within our society, or have partisan interests captured us?
  • In an increasingly secular society, do we cooperate with as wide a circle of fellow Christians as possible, or do we retreat into small circles of like-mindedness?
  • Most importantly, do we preach through our words and demonstrate with our lives the good news of Jesus Christ, calling nonbelievers to faith in Him, and believers toward a closer following of Him?

America may never see another Billy Graham — an evangelist who has influenced both church and society. It will see us, however. Are we, like him, speaking both for and to it in our own, much smaller circles of influence?

 

Book Reviewed
Grant Wacker, America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2015).

P.S. Republished with permission from InfluenceMagazine.com.

P.P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

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The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (6.1–8) 


There are many believers enduring tribulation all around the world right now. Enduring tribulation raises the question, how shall we then live?

The answer to this question depends on “then.” It depends, in other words, on the environment we are called by God to inhabit. As we read Revelation 6.1–8, it becomes clear that God calls some of us to live in an environment of conquest, war, scarcity, famine, pestilence, and death—or at least to be prepared to do so.

Consider three facts: First, conquest, war, scarcity, and the like describe the actual conditions of many Christians around the world at the present time. Surely, they are justified in reading Revelation in such a way that helps them live godly lives in their environment. Second, many futurists teach that some Christians will endure the great tribulation, namely, those who convert after the rapture. Third, other futurists and all preterists, idealists, and historicists teach that Christians will go through the great tribulation. All Christians should take Jesus at His word that His coming will be like a thief in the night, that it will be so sudden some will be taken and others left. Our best response is to live in such a way as to be watch and be ready at any moment. We all should live knowing that Christ’s return is imminent. Additionally, while waiting for that return, Christians must learn how to live in a time of conquest, war, scarcity, and the like.

Now I know that the mention of these evils—which John portrays as four horsemen—is not the kind of thing that will brighten your day. It is not supposed to. John reports his vision of the four horsemen in order to stiffen our spines, not bring a smile to our faces. His is a realistic counsel: Whatever good we might expect in the future, we must prepare for the worst in the present.

How? By cultivating the virtues of submission, peacemaking, generosity, and hospitality, among others. The rider on the white horse, we are told, “came out conquering and to conquer.” His sole purpose was domination. We might meet this rider with resistance, but Scripture tacks the opposite way. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” Jesus taught us, “and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12.17). Christians can be good citizens even when their state is corrupt.

The rider on the red horse “was permitted to take peace from the earth,” and war ensued. In such an environment, the Christian who makes peace is blessed (Matt. 5.9). Peace, in the Bible, is never merely the absence of conflict. It is also always the presence of the harmony that results from justice. To make peace, then, we must act justly at all times.

The rider on the black horse brings economic scarcity and inflated prices. In the great tribulation, a day’s ration of wheat costs a day’s wage. One can hardly get ahead with prices so high. While the natural tendency under such circumstances is to hoard and save, the truly Christian response is to share. In the early days of the Jerusalem church, believers pooled their resources so that none would be left behind economically (Acts 2.44–45, 4.32–37).

Death, which rides a pale horse, is followed by Hades and brings famine, pestilence, and cruelty in its train. Confronted by the horrors of disease, we often retreat into safe enclaves, excluding from our midst those who might be infected. The proper Christian response is hospitality, the welcoming of strangers into our midst. Such is a distinguishing mark of the disciple (Matt. 25.31–46).

In an environment of conquest, war, scarcity, and death, Christians are called to exhibit the virtues of submission, peacemaking, generosity, and hospitality. That, then, is how we should live.

Review of ‘The Radical Disciple’ by John Stott


The-Radical-Disciple John Stott, The Radical Disciple: Some Neglected Aspects of Our Calling (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2010). Hardcover / Kindle

John Stott died in 2011, but his legacy lives on through his writings. The Radical Disciple is his final book, which he self-consciously wrote as a “valedictory message.” In eight short chapters, simply written but spiritually deep, Stott addresses “some neglected aspects of our [Christian] calling.” They are nonconformity, Christlikeness, maturity, creation care, simplicity, balance, dependence, and death.

Stott’s concern throughout the book is the discrepancy between Christians’ stated beliefs and their actual behavior. “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’” Stott quotes Jesus saying in Luke 6:46, “and not do what I say?” Radical discipleship, then, is “wholehearted discipleship,” a form of following Jesus that is not “selective” about “which commitment suits us” and avoids those areas which are “costly.”

The “neglected aspects of our calling” relate to Western Christians’ practice of the faith. Were Stott writing at a different time or for different readers, no doubt his list would’ve looked different. As it is, the eight aspects he identifies have a prophetic edge to them.

Two chapters in particular struck me with particular force. The first is chapter 5 on simplicity. This is the book’s longest chapter and includes excerpts from “An Evangelical Commitment to Simple Life-Style,” published by the Lausanne Committee in 1980. Americans—Westerners more generally—are among the world’s wealthiest persons by any imaginable metric. We are used to high levels of consumption. Unfortunately, American Christian giving habits have been declining for decades. The solution is a simple lifestyle that minimizes consumption and maximizes generosity.

The second is chapter 7 on dependence. In this chapter, the book’s most personal and intimate, Stott shares the personal indignities he experienced when he fell and broke his hip. Using his personal experience as a window onto Scripture, Stott writes, “I sometimes hear old people, including Christian people who should know better, say, ‘I don’t want to be a burden to anyone else…’ But this is wrong. We are all designed to be a burden to others… ‘Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ’ (Galatians 6:2).” This is an apt reminded that none of us can live in isolation from others. We need, and are needed by, family, friends, fellow citizens, and even strangers.

The Radical Disciple is a short book, simply written, and filled with the unique grace that is characteristic of a long-time disciple of Jesus Christ. It is worth reading and will repay re-reading, especially if its wisdom is taken to heart and put into practice.

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

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