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When news broke early on Feb. 21, 2018, that Billy Graham had died, I was working at a landscaping company about eight miles from Montreat, North Carolina, the tiny mountain town where Billy lived.
I remember the day well. Minutes after I learned of his passing, I watched a swarm of police cars hurtling down Interstate 40 at high speed toward Montreat. The press with all of their paraphernalia descended shortly afterward. Loud helicopters hovered over the typically quiet area all day. It was an unforgettable disturbance in the otherwise ordinary community, which is small enough for me to have repeatedly interacted with several members of Graham’s family.
For such reasons, Billy Graham will always be memorable to me. However, according to a Lifeway Research poll conducted months before his death, more than half of my fellow 18- to 34-year-old Protestant churchgoers said they had never interacted with Graham’s ministry. A staggering 16% of that same demographic did not even know who Graham was, despite his distinction of having preached in person to nearly 215 million people, which is more than anyone in history.
“Called By God To Change The World”
Pastor Greg Laurie of Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, California, recently explained to The Daily Wire how he hopes his new book, “Billy Graham: The Man I Knew,” will reinvigorate Graham’s legacy for young people who have never heard of him and desperately seek spiritual answers.
— Greg Laurie (@greglaurie) April 9, 2021
“I think there’s a whole generation of people who have heard the name Billy Graham, and they don’t know who he is,” Laurie said. “He’s sort of like a one-dimensional figure, like Abraham Lincoln on a $5 bill. They know he was an important historical figure, but they really don’t know why, because they didn’t grow up watching him on television or going to his crusade events.”
Laurie, who in 1990 founded the large-scale revival events called Harvest Crusades, said he wanted to introduce the rising generation to Graham because he believes “there’s so much we can learn from him.” As an evangelist himself, Laurie sketches from his unique perspective an intimate portrait of the larger-than-life figure he came to know as a friend. Offering pastoral insights along the way, he chronicles across 34 chapters what he described as “the story of a humble dairyman’s son who was called by God to change the world.”
“I think it’s good to hear a story of a man who made it almost to 100 with his integrity intact and became the most effective evangelist in human history, second only to the apostles,” said Laurie. “He reached more people and led more people to Christ than any other man who ever lived. And he did it with integrity and with the love of his family.”
“This is a man who started and ended his spiritual race very well,” he added.
“Just A Country Preacher”
“Billy’s life almost reads like a Bible story,” Laurie observed. “You read of Gideon hiding from his enemies, the Midianites, but an angel of the Lord calls him. You read of David keeping watch over his flock of sheep when the prophet anoints him. The Lord called Billy when he was the son of a dairy farmer.”
Laurie notes he doesn’t think Graham “in his wildest dreams ever thought he would end up doing what he ended up doing.” He was slated to become a dairy farmer like his father and brother in Charlotte, North Carolina. His dream was to be a professional baseball player, but God had other plans. After he made a serious conversion to Christianity during a revival conducted by evangelist Mordecai Ham, the teenage Graham began to feel pulled to the pulpit.
Years would pass before Graham was ready for the world stage. Laurie traces Graham’s years of preparation with detail, which were fraught with failure and frustration. He went to three different colleges and took seven years to graduate. His tenure as the president of a Bible school showed that his gifts were not administrative ones. A short stint as a pastor taught him, among other things, that the pastorate was not what God had called him to do.
Throughout his setbacks, however, he met people and learned lessons that would prove invaluable when he became the world’s most famous evangelist. When, in 1949 at age 30, he was catapulted to international prominence almost overnight after media tycoon William Randolph Hearst ordered his newspapers to “Puff Graham” during his Los Angeles Crusade, he already had a decade of preaching under his belt. He would learn quickly how to navigate the dicey, cutthroat world of diplomacy and public relations, such as when a botched meeting in the Oval Office left President Harry Truman angered and put off.
Being close to powerful people came with its particular sources of pain. “Certainly he got stung by his relationship with President Nixon, whom he had a close friendship with,” Laurie recounted, noting how Nixon had even come to one of his crusades to share a few words with the audience when he was vice president. “And so when he heard the Watergate tapes and saw another side of the president, that was really shocking to him and hurtful.”
“But I would add this: He also continued to care for the president; reached out to him privately without any fanfare after he was out of the Oval Office, because he just had compassion on people. It wasn’t about people in power. He would reach out to them and he would speak to them, but he also reached out to people who were unknown because he just had a genuine concern for others.”
Even as his ministry took him into the halls of power, Graham remained humble. “Billy would often say, ‘I’m just a country preacher,'” Laurie remembered. “And that might sound to some like false humility, but in the case of Billy, he was just telling the truth. He was just a country preacher.”
“God chose him,” Laurie maintained. “Billy was asked the question, ‘What do you want to ask God when you get to heaven,’ and his response was, ‘I want to ask Him, ‘Why did you choose me?’” Graham used the image of “a turtle on a fence post” to describe his ministry, a Southern colloquialism for something that obviously could not have happened by itself.
“I think Billy understood that God placed him where he was. And he had a natural humility in private as well as in public that I saw many times,” Laurie said.
“Our Nation Is Ripe For Another Spiritual Awakening”
As a millennial reading his book, one of the things that struck me most about Laurie’s overview of Graham’s life was how little I could relate to the world in which Graham grew up. His generation had its profound trials, to be sure, but the spiritual pitfalls facing young people then might seem quaint to a generation that is coming of age when virtually every institution is coming apart. Religious institutions are no exception. According to a recent Gallup poll, U.S. membership in houses of worship has declined below 50% for the first time ever.
In response to such statistics, Laurie said, “One of the signs of the End Times, which I believe we’re living in—in fact, I’m teaching on the Book of Revelation right now—is some people would fall away from the faith.”
He clarified his belief that rates of church membership are not necessarily an indication of how many people have genuine Christian faith, and that most of the media are not particularly inclined to highlight when large numbers of young people believe in Jesus Christ and go on to impact their communities.
“But having said all that, I do believe our nation is ripe for another spiritual awakening,” he added.
Regarding how Graham viewed the spiritual trajectory of the nation during his later years, Laurie said, “I think Billy was very concerned with how things seem to be; people seem to be less interested in spiritual things than they were before.”
“But, you know, that’s been true of every generation. I mean, Billy started in the 1940s and he made it to the 2000s. And I think every generation thinks this is the worst generation, that it’s never been so bad. In some ways there’s truth to that, and in other ways, every generation has its unique challenges and the gospel is the answer to every generation and to every culture,” he continued.
“I don’t think Billy spent a lot of time lamenting the problem as much as he spent on focusing on the solution. And he knew the solution was people coming into a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. That was his message.”
Remembering the impact that the Jesus movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s had on him and his generation, Laurie said, “I think we’re due for another one of those, for sure, because young people need to see the message of Jesus Christ. Not a politicized message, not a message wrapped in any other agenda, but just: You can have a relationship with God through Jesus Christ.”
“And, you know, Billy was so effective in reaching our generation. And I think we’re also ripe for another Billy Graham—actually, 100 Billy Grahams, maybe even 1,000 young people called to bring the gospel to their generation.”
The reason Graham was so effective, Laurie believes, is that “he was open to do what God wanted him to do.” To that end, he hopes his book will “inspire another generation of younger people to make themselves available to God.”