Great music, good friends, and a Biblically solid message. Three of the main things in life that I never want to miss out on. It is for this reason that yesterday night, after I got back from a spiritually charged retreat, several of my seminary friends and I decided to head to downtown Toronto to take part in Franklin Graham’s Festival of Hope.
Over the years, I have developed both a deep respect for Billy and Franklin’s ministry, as well as a generally distrust of the type of crowd mentality that we see at these events. To me, it just seemed almost staged that after hearing a short salvation message for the first time, thousands would throng to the front of the room readily giving their lives over to a God they hardly know anything about. Some of these individuals having to make radically life altering decisions about dramatic changes in lifestyle and others having to face being forsaken by friends and family.
Yet, being at the event itself really challenged a lot of the preconceived ideas that I once held so dear. To be clear, this was not the first Billy Graham Crusade that I’ve been a part of (though I cringe at the word “Crusade” because of the negative images of persecution and terror it evokes in my mind). I’m glad Franklin decided to change it to something a little less threatening and a whole lot more positive.
I attended a Billy Graham Crusade for the first time when I was a pre-teen. It was a weekend packed with fun, great music (I remember seeing Toby Mac live for the first time), and testimonies. I also remember being caught up in the curiosity and emotionalism of it all. I followed the throng down the aisles and to the front where I did not give my life over to Christ (I was already a Christian at this point), but rather rededicated my life to Him. About a year following that event I sought out baptism in my local church.
Since I have never attended one of Graham’s crusades as a non-believer I have no idea what it must feel like to take part with no notion of Salvation in Christ. Nevertheless, I know that God is using the Graham family to accomplish great things for His Kingdom purpose.
You see, a large part of the problem I face with modern day big name evangelists and TV personalities is that I think the fame gets to their head. When Rob Bell, Joyce Myers, and Robert Schuller started off, they all had amazing things to say. To pick on Rob Bell, for example, when he first started writing and preaching he was not afraid to call people out for sins, he was not ashamed of the Gospel, and he said things which did not necessarily align him with the popular crowd. God used him to reach out to many in incredible ways. Then one day that all changed. Overtime, he became popular and with his popularity he became increasingly liberal to the point of saying that all religions essentially lead to the same path and that morality trumps Christianity.
I’m not saying that God doesn’t use these televangelists and big name writers today. In fact, in many ways, God is still using them to reach many of His Kingdom, however, something gets dramatically altered, lost, or just diluted once popularity gets in the way. That’s because the Christian message was never meant to be a popular one! If it was, why would countless thousands of individuals have had to lose their lives for it? Why would millions of Christians be persecuted each year around the world? Why would Jesus Himself have warned that if we are persecuted we need to take heart and remember that anything we go through in this life He has already been through twice over? [https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+15%3A20&version=NIV] You see, Jesus, Peter, and the Apostle Paul, all knew that the Christian life wasn’t easy. They all knew that by signing into it they were abandoning their comforts and losing their friends for the sake of a higher calling. And yet, for some reason, we feel that we can be popular AND Christian. We feel that we can half-heartedly follow Christ and believe in SOME of what He said (the good parts that earn us favour) while at the same time preaching motivational speeches that people want to hear. We have become so accustomed to “tickling the ears” of our hearers that we forget the true power behind the awesome theology that Christ has given to us! [https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=2+Timothy+4%3A3&version=NIV]
This is one reason why Franklin Graham stands out as a man whom God has used. Franklin is one of the most popular preachers of our day – reaching millions globally each year, but yet, he stands firm in his faith, unwilling to compromise for the sake of looking good. And somehow God is using him. When I listen Franklin, he takes a stand against abortion, homosexuality, and pre-marital sex. His theology is not necessarily on par with some of what my Mennonite colleagues would agree with. However, the point is that He DOES take a stand regardless of how ill-favoured that stance might be in our materialistic and sex-saturated world. Standing before thousands of people at the Air Canada Center he preaches that dishonouring one’s parents is the same as murder – all sins are equal in the eyes of God.
His message is a simple one: forgiveness, hope, and healing found only in and through Christ. He does not preach to impress. He’s a good speaker, but probably not the most remarkable one I have ever heard. He preaches from a manuscript – not memorized, despite the fact that He’s given the Gospel message a thousand times over. His sermon is short, sweet, and to the point. He explains our predicament as sinners, our need for a Saviour, and the love of Christ. He closes with a prayer and with his father’s signature theme song “Just as I Am” and thousands come to the front without any hesitation.
Perhaps there is a temptation to think that Franklin is only popular because of his father’s name. His Dad did all the work as the fiery evangelist and now Franklin is just basking in the remaining rays of glory. Somehow, I don’t think that’s the whole side of the story. As Christians, we’re all called to evangelize – to live missionally, however you want to say it. We’re all called to proclaim Shalom. Yet, not everyone has the gift of evangelism in the same way that Graham does. You or I could preach the exact same message, just like we’re called to, but somehow I think that if I was to get up in front of the crowd at ACC they wouldn’t flock to the front like they did with Franklin. The reason I think that people’s lives are radically changed by God during these crusades is because Franklin fervently believes what he preaches. He is not just saying it to be popular and then living a different lifestyle throughout the rest of the week. Instead, the congregation is met by authenticity and faithfulness to the Biblical texts.
Before I left, the Seminary Student Council President asked my friends and I, “so really what is this all about? You’re all Christian and yet you’re going. What if everyone at this event is a Christian?” These words are important ones to think about. I’m in my last year of my MDiv. I’ve studied theology for 5 years and I am comfortable in exegesis, interpretation, and analyzing the Biblical texts. I even have started learning Koine Greek. So, why am I, a seminary student, attending an event meant for baby Christians and those who haven’t even started their walk with Christ yet rather than a deeply rooted hard-core theological lecture on the nature of the religious affections?
The answer is simple and is found in what the president told me next, “Even Christians need to hear the Gospel.” I’ve been a Christian for almost 20 years and I can tell you that what this young man said is completely bang on. For those of us who have grown up in the church and spent more time in the church than out of it, I think it is so easy for us to forget the simple and yet profound message of the cross. The more I spend time in seminary, the more I am drawn to religious debates, intense arguments over trivial theological differences which have split churches, and deconstructing worship styles or liturgy. And yet, how easy it is for me to forget the real reason I am in seminary in the first place.
Growing up in the church, we can enter into a calm indifference about out walk with the Lord. We become so desensitized to how sin actually destroys humanity and to the gruesome punishment Christ underwent for us. We become so accustomed and entitled to His love and mercy that we forget what a genuine gift it really is and how none of us are deserving of His grace.
Yes, even Christians need to hear the Gospel message preached again and again. Even Christians need to be reminded that Christianity is not the popular choice – that foxes have holes and birds have nests but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head. Even Christians need to go to Billy Graham Crusades to be awakened, challenged, and forced to make a difference!