Billy Graham's life, ministry and reputation are recognized as a towering example of character and integrity through the half-century of his exercising the office of an evangelist. Let's start here, with him, in the recognition that every ministry should embrace these values:
I recently mused over the question, "Why is Billy Graham held in such consistently high esteem by virtually everyone in both the church and the secular community?"
It's more than an academic question. In fact, I would plead with every Christian leader to weigh the values that are involved in the answer. It would be wonderful if every leader of any reputation answered well to the criteria that have framed Graham's code of personal values and ethics in ministry.
In light of the phenomenal trust and respect given Graham by the general public, even through the season of cynicism we've navigated in the last 15 years, I thought it worth closer examination. How did this leader establish patterns of conduct and ministry, both public and private, that have produced a track record of fidelity in every arena of life and service?
A rather unfruitful crusade in Modesto, California, in November 1948 turned out to be the catalyst that prompted the Graham team to set specific policies to help guard the ministry's integrity. The absence of community response to the crusade caused them to seek God for reasons why. They asked themselves a probing question: "Why do people tend not to trust Christian ministries, especially evangelists?"
The result of their open-hearted self-examination brought six major areas of concern into focus: money, sexual morality, sensationalism, hyperemotionalism, digressions into temporary emphases or issues, and insensitivity toward the entire body of Christ--particularly to its local pastors and churches. Without taking time to sermonize or theorize on any of these points, let me simply amplify each by noting what is seen in Graham's ministry.
Since the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association was formed in 1950, Graham has never accepted a love offering or an honorarium for work in his crusades. He would later accept pay for his newspaper column and royalties from some of his books, but his salary for his evangelistic ministry was set.
He began with a salary of $15,000 per year, a wage comparable to prominent urban pastors in this country. That same standard has continued to guide any upward adjustment.
Candidly acknowledging their vulnerabilities to their own humanness and to the possibility of false appearances of wrongdoing, Graham and the team set strict, basic rules to protect themselves.
These rules include: (1) Keep in close proximity to one another on the road--recognizing the mutual strength of both partnership and accountability. (2) Never, for any reason, be alone with a woman, however pure the intent (as in counseling) or innocent the setting (as in a ride to an auditorium or airport). Together the team would pray, "Lord, guard us, keep us true and help us be sensitive in this area--even to keep from the appearance of evil."
Any study of the preaching, writing and evangelistic style of Graham reveals a remarkable absence of the superficial, of hype, of pandering to the crowd or playing to the grandstands. Even in the early years, when his own youthfulness and his beginnings as a youth evangelist showed up in a more dramatic delivery, his communication consistently avoided exaggeration or "slick" remarks.
There's never been anything cutesy or clever about his style. There are no grandiose claims or stunts employed to attract attention. Simply put, Paul's words in 2 Corinthians 4:5 seem to say it: "For we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord, and ourselves your bondservants for Jesus' sake" (NKJV).
It is interesting to observe Graham's balance in this respect. As both an evangelical and a Pentecostal, I have been encouraged by his steadfast maintenance of a middle road between the extremes of intellectual sophistry and emotional folderol.
He is not afraid to confront people with the eternal issues of heaven's promise and hell's judgment, yet I've never heard him become either syrupy on the one hand or mean on the other.
His recognition that the Holy Spirit does move upon human emotions is balanced by his commitment to let the Spirit draw people to Christ. Graham merely bows in prayer while seekers come forward--moved by God, not a manipulative appeal.
Graham has written on prophecy, yet he has never been caught in the trap of sign-seeking, date-setting or charting the future and putting it up for sale.
He has been at the center of our nation's moral and civic consciousness, having counseled presidents and called the country to obey God's laws. Yet he's never been snagged by a single political party, and he hasn't allowed himself to digress into any special focus on one political, moral or doctrinal issue. "The Bible says ..." has been his badge of authority and the bedrock of his ministry.
He has always maintained his identity as a "Baptist evangelist," but there is not a sector of the church that hasn't been touched by his breadth of ministry. And here's the reason: He hasn't allowed himself to be crowded into narrow corners of "emphasis" that would preclude him from being a blessing to all--which brings us to the concluding point.
COMMITMENT TO THE WHOLE CHURCH
In the 1940s, when the evangelical movement was in danger of becoming ultra-fundamentalistic, it was considered congratulatory to blast modernists. Yet, Graham set a style that rescued the possibility of gaining some semblance of unity in the American church.
He insisted that all churches and church leaders would be welcome--solicited and encouraged--to be involved in his crusades. All denominations were received as partners for the sake of evangelism.
This largess toward the whole body of Christ is also seen in Graham's commitment to the local church, and in his love for pastors and church leaders. His ministry partner, Cliff Barrows, sums up Graham's attitude toward local church leaders. "He genuinely loves them and has sought to learn all he can from them. Instead of criticizing their ministry, he tries to be sympathetic to the problems they face."
I was in my early teen years when Graham's name became nationally renowned. I've met him, conversed with him in the circle of small groups of pastors and have been privileged to be invited to minister in the schools of evangelism he sponsors.
Although I've never been a close friend or confidant, I, like a multitude of other pastors and church leaders, have been profoundly influenced by his model of manliness, morality and clarity of message.
Psalm 37:37 says, "Mark the blameless man, and observe the upright; for the future of that man is peace." Being instructed by that exhortation from God's Word, it's helpful to have so ready a point of reference for follow-through. Thank You, Lord, for a man named Billy Graham.
There you have it. Ministry isn't about "office" or "gifts." Essentially, and, ultimately, it's about character. With that as a start, let's pursue Jesus' way in seeing not only the definition of the office gifts, but also the pathway to their release in fullest power and purity.