The life of evangelical churches and their spiritual leaders has been portrayed in some recent films and series. Can they help us start conversations?
“I was with Graham in press conferences in places such as Buenos Aires and Philadelphia, and I was really impressed by his capacity to respond with clarity and integrity to the questions of reporters”, writes Samuel Escobar.
I had the privilege of knowing more or less closely the evangelist Billy Graham who went to be with the Lord a few days ago.
While I was studying at university in Peru I read a lot about him and his evangelistic campaigns. There were some aspects of his organisation and his style of preaching that I was not too sure about but I had much respect for him and recognised that without a doubt God was using him.
In 1962 he visited Argentina, where I was living at the time, and preached in the stadium Luna Park in Buenos Aires. In preparation for the event, pastor and author Arnoldo Canclini of the Baptist Publishing Board in Argentina, asked me to write a book about Jim Vaus, one of the famous converts of Billy Graham’s campaign in Los Angeles in 1949.
Vaus, son of a Presbyterian pastor, had completely gone off course and ended up involved with Mike Cohen’s group of gangsters. Upon listening to Graham, he had a remarkable transformation which led him to work as an evangelist among juvenile offenders. In order to write about this, I had to read several books about Graham and Vaus and my book was finally called From the underworld to the pulpit (Del hampa al púlpito). Out of all of my books, this is the one that has been republished the most. It was released along with a biography of Graham by Canclini.
I was then living in the city of Córdoba where College Professor and journalist Alec Clifford, a friend of Billy, also lived. Alec eventually became the Editor of Graham’s periodical Decision in Spanish.
Billy came to visit him in Córdoba right before his visit preaching in Buenos Aires and I could meet him personally. What impressed me about Graham was his simplicity and friendliness. I also realised that he was a typical American citizen.
While I was studying in Madrid, in 1966, I was invited to participate in a World Congress for Evangelism, held in Berlin and headed up by Graham. It was an invaluable and excellent learning experience for me. At the congress they celebrated the 10th year anniversary of the magazine Christianity Today, founded by Graham and which is characterised by its news on his activities and those of his Association, as well as a good number of theological articles.
A new generation of theologians and Bible evangelists was emerging then: Jim Packer, John Stott, F.F. Bruce, Leon Morris, Carl Henry, and Michael Green, and they wrote for Christianity Today. This collaboration led me to appreciate that, despite the fact that Graham insisted that he was not a theologian, he did respect the theologians He also understood that his evangelistic movement needed the backing of good sound evangelical and biblical theology. In the program of the Congress there was Bible teaching by John Stott and theological workshops by people like the various authors I have just mentioned, as well as reports about what was happening in evangelism throughout the world.
In April 1972 I received a personal letter from Graham inviting me to form part of the Steering Committee of a new Evangelism Congress that would be held in 1974. I accepted the privilege and this immersed me into the world of evangelical leadership in North America and Europe. The Committee met twice a year and the meetings were an opportunity to get to know leaders of organisations dedicated to the promotion of evangelism and mission: theologians, preachers, mission administrators and veteran missionaries.
After the initial beginnings which were chaired by Graham, the Committee was then chaired by the Anglican Bishop Jack Dain from Australia. Through the meals together, conversations in the corridors, discussions in the formal sessions I had a chance of getting to know better the evangelist. I came to admire his simplicity, his openness, his disposition to listen to criticism and to change his opinion if necessary. Evangelisation of the world was his passion and he saw the Congress as an opportunity to awaken and encourage people, and the church, in that direction. I think that the campaigns in different countries and his relationships in the organisation process of these congresses was what made Graham an international leader with great cultural sensitivity.
For the next Congress I was asked to collaborate in the Program Commission. In my opinion, three people close to Graham were key to allow the Congress to have the theological breath, cultural sensitivity and the evangelistic focus that it did. These men were the aforementioned bishop Dain, who was an excellent diplomat, the evangelist Paul Little, known for his gift of communicating the Gospel in the university world, and the Canadian evangelist Leighton Ford (married to Graham’s sister) who was a noteworthy preacher and very knowledgeable about the world of evangelical leadership.
I think Graham’s enthusiasm, his humility and wisdom to allow capable people to lead, and his respect of people that went further than geographical, cultural, theological and ecclesiastical borders, all contributed to the success that was the famous International Congress on World Evangelisation, held in Lausanne in 1974. The contribution of Latin American evangelicals to the Congress is evident in the Lausanne Covenant, a renewed awareness that in a biblical and holistic missionary action evangelism cannot leave aside the social reality nor the cultural diversity.
There are those who do not forgive Graham for, more than once, appearing in public with the presidents of his country. However, he did the same with conservative republicans as with liberal democrats. Graham only accepted an invitation to minister in South Africa when the churches overcame racial segregation and accepted having choirs, ushers and counsellors made up of both black and white Christians. Graham also understood and accepted the fight for civil rights in America, represented by persons such as pastor Martin Luther King.
I was with Graham in various press conferences in different places, such as Buenos Aires and Philadelphia, and I was really impressed by his capacity to respond with clarity and integrity to all the questions, although sometimes hostile and scornful, of the secular news reporters.
After Lausanne my meetings with Graham became more infrequent but there was always warmth and friendliness on his part. A few times we met at the Missionary Conferences in Urbana, organised by Inter Varsity every three years and which were attended by thousands of university students. Graham and his team supported in an effective and caring way some of the various programs linked to the Lausanne Movement that came out of the Congress in 1974.
It is important to remember that, in order to avoid the scandals so often linked to figures spotlighted in the world of popular evangelists, from the beginning of his career Graham adopted a policy of efficiency and transparency. The Evangelistic Association that has his name and that was entrusted to take forward his evangelistic campaigns always does so in collaboration with local representative committees. It was also entrusted to sponsor Congresses, publications and similar activities that are linked to evangelism. In his Association Graham had an appropriately fixed salary and specific responsibilities.
Billy Graham’s ministry helped the evangelical section of Protestantism worldwide to have a presence and to proclaim the Gospel message in a way that was relevant towards the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first.
In North America he overcame the narrowness of the fundamentalist mentality of his critics and he also made an effort for the leaders of the ecumenical movement to understand why there is such urgency in evangelism.
No one can deny the fact that thousands of people across five continents came to understand and accept the Gospel of Jesus Christ through an evangelistic message by Billy Graham. To know him personally for me was a special privilege for which I am very grateful to God.
Samuel Escobar, missiologist, theologian and international speaker.