I spent my career fighting Billy Graham

A few weeks ago Billy Graham died aged 99.  My sympathy and prayers go to his family and friends who mourn a real person that was close to them.   In many ways, BG was more than just that real person the friends and family knew.  He was known to so many of a certain generation and had such influence on them and their ideas and faith formation that he had become an institution, perhaps even an idol, and I have spent my career fighting the institutionalisation and idolisation of his methods.

Like most people my age, Billy Graham didn’t have an impact on my life, I didn’t grow up on stories of how he influenced my parents or grandparents.  He hasn’t been to NZ in my lifetime and I was probably in my late teens when I first heard of him, and by then he was pretty much an irrelevant historical figure that had made some great quotes that were good for encouragement, but the world was already moving on.  Please remember that I am not young – both my dermatologist and my optometrist assured me of this fact last week – so there are many people for whom he is even more irrelevant.  Yet his way of doing things seems to have been institutionalised by many who hold power and influence in the church. They idolise BG in a way that locks them away from being able to contextualise well and to follow the new wind of the Holy Spirit.   It wasn’t until I went into full-time ministry  that I saw the need to fight BG and the institutionalisation and idolisation of his methods, and it has been a constant battle, that is still ongoing.   My ministry career has involved fighting the BG methodology and mindset in a number of areas.

1)  The BG mindset promotes a focus on numbers as a measure of ministry success.

I have fought this as it places an unhealthy pressure on ministry leaders.  Due to the nature of BG’s ministry attendees and ‘conversions’ were easy to count, this has lead to a mindset that equates numbers with success.  I can still feel the deflation in my body when faced with an exchange, usually with an older supporter that would go something like this: “so how many did you get to your last event” “about 20” “oh. In my day we used to get 100 every Friday”.   There is a mindset where numbers = success, I am even seeing this in the church I attend at the moment (partly because it is easy to measure).  We can fight this mindset by thinking of other things that might be indications of success: How deep is the faith of your members? How good are they are caring? How many conversations with un-churched people have they had this week?  How have the stood up for justice and fought oppression this week?

2)  The BG mindset promotes an attractional model of mission/evangelism.

I have fought this as no longer relevant for the context in which the church operates today.  The BG mindset operates on a model that says the unchurched will come to us.  All we need is the right event, with the right speaker and people who are curious about our faith will just walk through our doors.  We can fight this mindset by promoting a ‘going to them’ mindset.  We can talk about being out and about forming relationships with people and inviting them to meet our friends (who happen to be followers of God).  We can accept that they most likely won’t just come to faith-based or church events without a prior relationship with at least 2 church members.  We can free our church members up from some of the church-based programs they support and give them time and energy and advice about building relationships with those around them.

3) The BG mindset promotes a sage on the stage model.

I have fought this as an unhealthy model of authority that creates at best disappointment (when they prove to be human or wrong) and at worst spiritual abuse.  The BG mindset looks up to authority figures, even those who fly in from another country and have no idea or understanding of the context in which they are speaking.  We can fight this model by promoting connection between speakers and the church or group members. Invite speakers who are willing to stay on for a cup of coffee or shared lunch or who at a conference don’t expect to hang out in a ‘speakers lounge’.  These speakers that engage with your church member that sit with them and their questions these are the ones who will be respected, who have earned the right to be heard.  We can fight this mindset as speakers by being authentic and vulnerable as we speak remembering to present ourselves as real people, remembering that we earn the right to speak, by holding the tissues as people cry through their struggles, by being there alongside people on their journey.  I fight the sage on a stage model by attending a church service where we get to discuss and talk about the ideas raised by the sermon.  This model of learning by chewing through what is presented is important to me as we learn much more through our active engagement with the talk.

4) The BG mindset assumes that a one-off message, altar call and the “sinners prayer” is enough to bring someone to God.

I have fought this as it ignores the contextual differences between our time and BG’s time.  In BG’s time and country a large percentage of people already had some church experience and background. They had the background knowledge they needed to respond to a one-off altar call, they just needed the prompting that it involved a decision.  In today’s environment, people no longer have any knowledge of what Christian’s believe and what our faith is about.  We can fight this mindset by remembering that people need to take a long walk towards God and need to start at the very beginning (and Jesus is not the beginning!).  We also must consider the multicultural nature of our society, that introduce new challenges to our introduction of people to Christianity.  We can talk about a journey towards God with multiple way points and decisions to continue rather than focusing on one decision point, as the main focus of our mission efforts.

5) The BG mindset assumes that there is such a thing as our “gospel message”. 

I have fought the constriction and reduction of our faith that this mindset contains.  The BG mindset believes that there is only one gospel message that is always relevant and applicable no matter the context.  We can fight this mindset by celebrating all the different ways that the Bible points to Jesus, all the different paths through history and the bible that we can show people about our faith.  We can acknowledge that helping people on their faith journey involves listening to where people are at and what their questions are.  Our faith is big enough to be an answer to the questions of today (which involve hope, shame and identity)  rather being stuck in a message that answers questions about guilt and striving that are no longer asked.

6) The BG mindset takes models, programs and resources from US evangelicalism and accepts and applies them as is. 

I have fought the lack of contextualisation in this mindset by taking the time to observe and understand the cultural differences between NZ and the US.  I have tried to promote NZ birthed programmes and models, and it is one of the reasons that I have moved to only reviewing NZ books on this blog.  At the very least we can make the effort to adapt and contextualise what we read and hear from other countries.  We can no longer accept that things that work in the US will work in NZ without comprehensive adaptation and contextualisation.

7) The BG mindset promotes a model of white western male authority.

I have fought this by promoting women in leadership in Christian contexts, and by trying to learn from other cultural perspectives and interpretations, by trying to stay humble and open.   I have written previously about the BG rule (link here) and about how it creates barriers between men and women and limits the ability to create the diverse leadership teams that we need to lead our churches today.  We can continue to fight this model by working to acknowledge our own perspectives, standpoints and presuppositions to understand that they prevent us from seeing the full picture.

8) The BG mindset promotes memories from older people that are easily translated into expectations of today’s ministry leaders. 

I have fought these memories and expectations as they create pressure on today’s ministry leaders.  The expectations are unrealistic because they do not reflect a good observation of the context in which we operate today.   We need to continue to find new ways forward and for the health of our youth and young adult leaders particularly we need to make clear that these expectations are unattainable and that they should find new ways of being mission focussed that are suited to today.

Now I suspect that BG never expected his way of doing things to be locked in and for people to take hold of it as a model and to idolise him in a way that stops them contextualising well.  Yet so many people have idolised his methods and it has created a battle for those of us who can see their irrelevance and that their time has passed.  Hopefully, we are now entering an era where we can embrace change as fun and exciting and let the Holy Spirit blow us toward better observation and engagement with our current context. Hopefully, we can keep moving in a responsive stance that highlights all the different ways that God is at work in New Zealand and among our church members.

How have you fought the BG mindset?

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14 thoughts on “I spent my career fighting Billy Graham

  1. Thanks. Really appreciate the clarity with which you communicate. Agree with the huge expectations on church leaders to form into a way of doing things that will ‘work’.

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    1. Thanks, Ben, it seems that the struggle with expectations, for those in ministry, is very real and very overwhelming at the moment.

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  2. A very thought provoking writing…..As you have alluded to , the gospel is much more dynamic and life-changing than we at times want it to be.

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    1. Yes, we need to be careful that we are expressing it in all the full exciting dynamism that it contains.

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  3. I faught the BG mindset and lost. For a time. I’m fighting again but I didn’t know the package that my battles were all a part of until reading this blog. It makes sense now.

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  4. I agree with much that you are saying however I can give the man his dues as he did bring many to Christ and lived a Christian live himself unlike many ‘Evangelists’ of yesteryear.

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    1. Yes, of course, there are many things to admire and respect about him and his ministry – I just felt that these were well pointed out elsewhere for those for whom that it is relevant. What I wasn’t seeing anywhere was any critical engagement with the way that peoples thinking has become stuck in that space without any consideration of the contextual differences between then and now.

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  5. When all is said and done history will confirm that BG was raised up by God and for over 50 years he has proclaimed the life changing gospel in changing times. He was a master at it and his life-his walk matched his talk.
    “Anchored to the rock but geared to the times” Billy Graham

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    1. I don’t dispute that fact. I merely point out that that was for a previous generation and it is now time to move on from those methods and ideas.

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  6. Who among the Church of Aoteoroa IS still proclaiming the gospel both from the pulpit and/or on a personal level with the conviction that ‘the gospel is the power of God unto salvation. Even more so how much discipleship is being taught and practised? In my humble opinion I see very little evidence of either as I have travelled across New Zealand visiting churches in 2017. It’s almost as though many churches have ‘given up’. Very sad….

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    1. Hi Norman, I agree discipleship needs a bit of a shakeup, is not something that we seem to be doing well. However, I do wonder what you would have found on your travels if you had gone about thinking in how many different ways are people being pointed to God, rather than sticking to a preset idea of what the gospel is and how it should be proclaimed.

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  7. Wow Christina, you’ve been fighting so many issues. You must be quite exhausted. I hope you’ll be able to move on to something more positive, more constructive, given the passing now of that Dr Billy Graham. Many to whom I’ve spoken have mentioned their new burden of prayer: that the Lord of the harvest will raise up new harvesters for a new generation. With all this fighting, have you had time to give thought to the kind of harvester who, and the kind of communication which, might be effective today, eg. in New Zealand and the western world generally? I’m not asking for a theoretical response; I’m genuinely interested to know what you personally are finding fruitful, that is, in your own ministry? How is the Lord guiding and using you to lead people of the new generation to a personal and life-changing long-term relationship with Jesus Christ?

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    1. Hi Bruce, I love your question and the challenge contained in it. Actually, I feel more hopeful now than I did 10 years ago, and I sense the Spirit is at work moving the Church into something new. Of course, moving into the new often involves letting go and that along with moving past the disappointments and hurts that Church has so often caused people is I believe the first steps to take into moving into that new space. To be completely honest with you I am struggling to answer your challenge – although I am passionate about encouraging people towards God I am a socially awkward, introverted, intellectual that spends too much time online! But of course I need to talk about my work and I have been fascinated by the interest that young non-churched people have when I talk about the need for a new approach in the church because they have such stereotypes of what churches are and aren’t aware that they contain people that think differently and want change. I wrote this post last year which sums up the core message of our faith, that I think resonate well with the issues of today. https://www.breadandpomegranates.com/breadandpomegranates-1/2017/3/1/renewing-theology

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