What a legacy. So many people over decades owe it to this man that they found Christ and began their journey of faith. Scandal free over the length of his ministry he is an example for all, and an example of someone who lived out his convictions faithfully. To receive a ‘well done good and faithful servant’ surely is the highest accolade that any of us will ever receive. He stood as a symbol and a sign of the power of the Cross of Jesus to transform lives. His passing probably marks the close of an era… will he be replaced?
Thank God for the many faithful evangelists who in different ways seek to present clearly the path to the heart of the Father through the cross. However, could there be a new era breaking forth for us in these years… an era that might look a little different to the one that is passing?
I sat and watched as an evangelist asked some younger people ‘why God should let them into his heaven?’ (of course that is an interesting question, to say the least!!). One put up his hand and said – my hope is that I have sought to follow Christ. The answer was not good enough! The correct answer was that he was not worthy to enter, that his only plea was the blood of Christ. His answer was not only wrong but would mean that he would not be given permission to enter heaven. The evangelist then called for him and all others to come to the cross.
I have dialogued with another who explained very clearly that he had discovered that a certain person they had befriended was not ‘good soil’ and that he had wasted time with that person, the evidence being the person was not prepared to attend an Alpha course.
I lived near a town where an evangelist had come to it and in one weekend some 200 had responded to salvation. This in a town where the evangelical population was minimal. Had 200 responded – maybe at some level. Probably after the dust had settled 2 or 3 had come to a place of faith. That is wonderful, but to suggest 200?
The early church did not seem to have staggering growth. Of course growth is not linear, there are growth spurts for sure, but if we level it out then over the first 300 years we can pretty much see a growth rate that computes to 40% per decade. Start a church with a house group (say 10 people) and over the next 10 years another 4 come to faith. Not staggering but consistent, and in a way that deeply affected the deep structure of empire.
Paul planted a church in Corinth, among many other places. This was a wild place, the term ‘to act as a Corinthian’ being a way to insult someone and to suggest that they had no reasonable constraints on them. The city was around 250,000 so not a small place. The body of believers? Well apparently some 6 or so years after he left and was now writing his letters they could all fit in one house. He writes to the Roman church from Corinth sending greetings from:
Gaius, who is host to me and to the whole church, greets you (Rom. 16: 23).
If we allow for a large house and we streeeeetch things a whole lot it seems the church in that city would not have been any larger than 200 people, and was probably smaller than that. In a hostile, temple infested, sexually lax city. This was not a city with a whole raft of mega churches within it. The city had one ekklesia in Christ, and at times not a great representation of that as we pick up from the two letters to the church in Corinth. In writing his second letter to them I think we get quite an insight into Paul’s perspective:
But our hope is that as your faith increases, our area of influence among you may be greatly enlarged, 16 so that we may preach the gospel in lands beyond you, without boasting of work already done in another’s area of influence. (2 Cor. 10: 15, 16).
He did not have a great passion to continue to input there in person. He clearly had concerns for them but wanted to get the message of the gospel out within the Imperial lands. His hope for them was that their faith might increase – not that they would befriend those who were good soil so that x-numbers could respond! I am not for one minute suggesting that he did not desire others to come to (what we might term) personal saving faith, but I suspect he was thinking in ways that maybe did not deny that concept but centred elsewhere. The gospel claim he was making was in direct confrontation to the Imperial claims.
I know numerous people who came to faith through Billy Graham, I helped organise coaches to a ‘crusade’ in London. For his life, work and passion he has a unique place in the history of evangelical Christianity. And the ‘but’ that follows is not in any way a put down on the past, it is simply a looking forward. A new Billy Graham does not wait in the wings. Maybe many new evangelists will come through in these next years. But… my conviction is that God is not looking for the next Billy Graham, nor the next ‘big’ thing. The multiplicity of the small and the diversity of conviction is where we are headed.
Forty percent per decade, all fitting in a house in a hostile environment. Do we really want to recover the NT gospel?
I am not suggesting all aspects have to be replicated, but I do suggest that we have to have a re-examination of what the gospel entails, what the message focuses on, and as a result what the purpose of the body of Christ in any location is.
Paul seemed to have a conviction that small was enough, provided their faith increased. It was among those people that he claimed the signs and wonders had been performed with ‘great patience’. He could wait a generation, even a century or more, and I suggest even within the old geographic framework of the Gospel to the nations (Gentiles / ta ethne) and to the inhabited world (oikonomia) there are aspects where there still is a wait for the fulfilment. He longed to get to Spain… prayers, hopes in the soil still waiting. But waiting for what? For a new Billy Graham. I don’t think so. Certainly waiting for all counter claims to the Christ path to yield, and on that front we have some work to do!!
Good and faithful servant. Surely the affirmation that has been spoken over Billy Graham. Now that accolade needs to be spoken over the many small people who in their incredible diversity will discover that their life lived out faithfully might make a small contribution to the ‘forty percent per decade’ but that together the Imperial lie will be confronted. The Imperial lie that to all who comply great benefits will flow, while hiding the truth that a few are at the centre and the benefits are flowing to the centre. The gospel confronts that. ‘All of you, eat and drink’ was the invitation at the Last Supper. A few days later Jesus ascended, and at the same time a dispersal movement began. Whoever ate and drank carried the Spirit of the One who gave the invitation.
Billy Graham and many others have given the invitation to come to the front and surrender their lives to Jesus. I think there is now a call to those who are surrendering to him to go, to be, and in their disappearance to make their contribution alongside the multiplicity of other unknown people. A new era is beckoning, marked by the multiplicity of the small and the diversity of conviction.