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?