My Hope with Billy Graham: A Theological Affirmation
By Drs. Lon Allison, Timothy K. Beougher, Alan Myatt, and Michael A. Milton
“Daddy thinks the Lord will allow him to live to 95.”
It was not a prophecy but a hope. And the hope was, Franklin Graham explained, not merely about his father’s desire to live to see a milestone of four score and fifteen years of age, but to live to see the beginning of a Christian renewal and, if God would so allow, a genuine heaven-sent revival in America. Franklin Graham’s introduction and then Billy Graham’s passionate plea that followed removed any suppressed, cynical thoughts in the room that this was a “send off” campaign for Billy Graham before he went home to heaven. The old Gospel warrior’s words — pauses, inflections, and yes, even his aged faintness of voice — carried urgency and an unmistakably genuine, impassioned concern that North America needed a powerful movement of God if we were to survive as a people. No one who was there at that meeting would deny this heartfelt passion.
We have been to several “Christian campaign kick-offs.” This one was different; not just because those of us who were blessed to attend got to have our photo made with Billy Graham and got to hear his burdened plea for revival in an intimate setting at the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, North Carolina, but because here was a man of God who was as committed to the Great Commission of Jesus Christ in 2012 as he was in 1949. He acknowledged that revival was God’s business. Yet he also focused on the mandates of the Great Commission and the very response of love — and hope — what many see as the twin themes of his entire preaching — to intentionally proclaim the Cross of Jesus Christ to this generation. He told us that the increasingly complex problems we were facing called for a powerful movement of Christ. Then he began to warn that unless revival comes — beginning with the Church mobilizing to intentionally pray for the lost, share Christ and seek God — there is no way out.
In that moment, as this elderly grey haired man in the wheelchair spoke, I (Michael Milton) was no longer a minister and a seminary leader in a prestigious gathering with a veritable living chapter in the pages of Church history; I was a orphan boy from Louisiana on the edge of my seat at a football stadium and my heart was gripped by the simple, unforgettable, spiritually charged moment when I knew I was a sinner, that Hell was real, and that repentance and faith in the resurrected and soon-coming Jesus Christ was the only hope.
It wasn’t supposed to be personal, but that meeting, and, indeed, this article, and almost any interaction with the great evangelist of our age always turns personal. Some of us believe that all theology is personal, so I will not apologize. Yet my role, with colleagues and co-authors from other academic institutions associated with Billy Graham, is to introduce what we believe is a significant opportunity for the renewal and mobilization of the Church in our day.
My Hope is described as an “effort to reach people across the United States and Canada with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Following a simple Biblical model, My Hope with Billy Graham combines the reach and excitement of a nationwide media event with the power of personal relationships.” This BGEA ministry seeks to work through local churches, seminaries, and other ministries, to equip their constituents to intentionally join in this continent-wide effort to “invite, share, watch, and share.” BGEA has produced a series of materials that can be used in training believers to invite others to an informal, hospitable setting — a home, a coffee shop, or another meeting place — to see/hear conversion testimonies and a Gospel presentation by Dr. Graham. The believers will be asked to follow through with discipleship in their own churches.
As we have considered this ministry and sought to reflect Biblically and theologically about its meaning and potential for the North American Church, we have sought to be careful to think through what it is not. We have not found My Hope to be associated with revivalism or techniques, Finney-like approaches, to “creating” revival. In fact, Billy Graham, and the other leaders of this movement, have been clear that this emphasis is about the Great Commission; not presuming upon God for what “only He can do.”
Nor do we believe, as suggested earlier, that My Hope is a celebration of the life and ministry of Billy Graham, however deserving such a program might be. My Hope has demonstrated, from Dr. Graham’s own charge to his staff and his assurance to those of us who were at the unveiling of the ministry, that this is about the local church, not the aggrandizement of a particular ministry (though supporting The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association for such a magnanimous Kingdom-focused effort seems Biblically appropriate). Promotion of one man or his ministry is not the aim of this outreach opportunity. What we hope to do, in the following paragraphs, is to highlight the basic Biblical values that we have found in My Hope and commend them as those essential elements of the Great Commission that transcend denominations and historical theological positions along the evangelical spectrum.
Throughout his ministry, Billy Graham has proclaimed God’s Word with conviction and passion. The phrase, “the Bible says,” resounds throughout his sermons. He focuses on the Lord Jesus Christ in his messages: Christ’s sinless life and His sacrificial death. Graham proclaims the reality that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb. 9:22). He preaches the necessity of the cross, that “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross” (I Pet. 2:24). He has exemplified what it is to “preach Christ crucified” (I Cor. 1:23). Graham believes that “the gospel is the power of God unto salvation, to everyone who believes . . .” (Rom. 1:16).
My Hope connects the powerful message of the Gospel (delivered through one of God’s anointed messengers), with unsaved persons who need to hear the saving message of redemption through faith in Jesus Christ (invited to a gathering by a family member, friend, relative, neighbor, co-worker, or acquaintance). How did the early church grow? Real estate agents maintain that the three most important things in looking for a house are location, location, location. Likewise, history tells us that among the key elements for evangelism are relationships, relationships, relationships. Redemption happens and love and life are communicated in and through relationships. Sociologist Rodney Stark has shown how the amazing expansion of the early church can be accounted for in large part by the networks of social relationships that believers maintained with unbelievers in the Greco-Roman world. Stark notes that most religious conversions take place along the lines of social networks, i.e. friendships, and that Christianity is no exception.
But regretfully, after becoming Christians it is not unusual for most of us to comfortably settle in to the “Christian ghetto,” where our significant relationships are focused entirely around our church and our Christian friends. We naturally gravitate to what is most comfortable to us. With the natural change in our priorities and preferences after coming to Christ we drift into social settings that make us feel most at home. In doing so, we lose touch with those around us who do not know Him.
My Hope is about developing intentionality in relationships with those who need Jesus. Jesus models this principle through his constant engagement with lost persons. Indeed, as the Good Shepherd he tells us that, “the Son of Man has come to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). He declares to His followers, “As the Father has sent Me, so send I you” (John 20:21). Without an intentional focus to befriend the lost can we say that we really are patterning our lives after that of our Lord in this respect? How many of us can say that among our close friends are those who have yet to give their lives to Christ?
My Hope provides a means of bringing focus back to our social lives such that we invite into our inner circle those around us who are not yet in Christ. In doing so, we develop bonds of friendship and love with people who will become important parts of our lives, beyond our simple desire to share our faith with them. My Hope values people as individuals made in the image of God, not simply as potential targets of an evangelistic encounter who will be forgotten if they fail to respond correctly. We care about people because God cares about them, knowing that our lives will be enriched by them even as we seek to point them to the Savior. My Hope encourages daily prayer for those in our circle of influence who do know Jesus Christ.
My Hope is about building deep and sincere relationships, yet it goes beyond the notion of a deficient form of friendship evangelism that may facilitate the developing of friendships without quite getting to the part about evangelism. My Hope is also intentional about setting a specific goal and means for sharing the gospel. In both of these senses it is deeply biblical.
Jesus is our example in ministering the gospel to lost people. He “went to every town and village, proclaiming the good news and healing every disease and sickness” (Matt. 9:35). In today’s world we might call this the right balance between the verbal gospel and social action, between word and deed. Jesus practiced both. So should we. Often it is easier to minister to people’s physical needs than it is to tell them about their deeper need for reconciliation with God. Yet, if we are not willing to tell our neighbors, families and friends about Jesus Christ and his gift of forgiveness of sins and life now and forever, we are being less than loving. As John Piper emphasized at the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in Cape Town October 2010, we as Christians should care about all human suffering, and especially eternal suffering.
My Hope expresses the truth that we live in the world but are not of the world, as Jesus prayed in John 17. Even as we are to be separated from sin, we live in the world with sinners, as Jesus did. Recognizing that we ourselves are sinners redeemed by grace alone, we follow Him by purposefully extending grace and truth to others in our daily relationships. My Hope provides us with a reminder and a means for getting us out of the “Christian ghetto” and back into the world of needy people where God has called us be His hands and feet in bringing our hope to be their hope as well.
One of the real values of My Hope is that it is not geographically centered in local church buildings or arenas. My Hope encourages the Church to take the gospel to neighborhoods, apartment complexes, and coffee shops in our cities and towns, to where people are living. Imagine what would occur if every small group or house church in our nation used My Hope to invite pre-Christian friends for an evening meal or dessert and promoted it as a chance to do two wonderful things:
1) Help the poor of our world as Christmas approaches by utilizing the Samaritan’s Purse Shoe Box Project or something similar.
2) Hear what may be the final public message of Billy Graham.
Friends, food, compassion and the gospel, presented clearly with the chance to respond. My Hope is a missionally focused outreach vehicle combining social action with the gospel clearly presented. And, the follow-up for inquirers is built in to the process. Who better to follow up with those who make or consider decisions for Christ than those who invited them to the event?
Thus we commend My Hope to the Church as a ministry that holds the great potential to mobilize the Church of Jesus Christ in North America to refocus on the essentials of our faith and to be purposeful about sharing that faith with others in obedience to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Our prayer, with Billy Graham, Franklin Graham, and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, is that God will consecrate this work, for the sake of our fellow Americans, and for the generations who could, by God’s grace, be impacted by this event and who would one day be gathered “safe in the arms of Jesus;” and that glorious end, with St. Paul, will be “our hope” and our “joy or crown of rejoicing” (1 Thessalonians 2:19-20).
We are proud to support this outreach effort, not only with our theological affirmation and heartfelt prayers, but also with our active participation in our own communities. And if anyone were to sing “Just As I Am” as you gather at Starbucks, we all think that would be just fine too.