After watching a video of an old Billy Graham rally from 1971 I wondered why he was such a powerful evangelist, and why Catholics would find it difficult to evangelize in that way.

First, I should add that before Billy Graham there was Fulton Sheen. Sheen had a similar charisma, a similar mass appeal and a similar ability to preach the gospel in a simple way to a wide cross section of society.

But what did Billy Graham have that Catholics haven’t got? We can learn both from the strengths of his witness and from the weaknesses.

  1. He preached the basic, tried and true, time tested gospel message: The human race are cut off from God and from one another by sin, and God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son so that whoever believes in him will have eternal life. Its not that we don’t have this message at the core of our Catholic faith, but we have allowed it to become  cluttered up and enshrouded with many other concerns and priorities. We put other stuff before this message and end up arguing about liturgy or theology or social justice or the fine points of moral theology. I’m not saying these things are unimportant–just saying that they are not the meat and potatoes of evangelization
  2. He made a simple appeal for individuals to repent of their sins and make a decision for Christ. That decision called for a public profession of faith. They had to “come forward”. We have this, but it is called “baptism and confirmation” . Our problem is that too often the individual’s decision of faith is clouded by infant baptism–at which the sponsors and parents make the choice for the child, or sometimes an over sacramentalization–in which we actually tell the person being confirmed or baptized that their step of faith is secondary to the grace received in the sacrament. Yes, perhaps, maybe, but this distances the individual from a life changing faith commitment.
  3. Billy Graham’s simple message relied on the doctrine of eternal security. “If you died tonight do you know that you would go to heaven? If the answer is ‘no’ then you need to make sure. You need to come forward and receive Jesus and know that you are going to heaven when you die.” This is a very powerful and attractive appeal. Who would say ‘No’? Very few would refuse the gift of knowing they are going to heaven for sure. However, this doctrine is faulty, and a little common sense shows it to be a potentially disastrous teaching. If a person believes they have a ticket to heaven which they cannot lose they might do most anything and still believe they are headed to heaven. Catholics can’t offer that neat and attractive package of eternal security, but maybe we go too far in the other direction and are so concerned about not judging or the sin of presumption that we tell people just the opposite. Instead we should be able to assure people that if they have faith in Christ and are baptized and are doing the best they can to co operate with God’s grace and remain in a state of grace, then they can be sure they are on the road to heaven–they are on the right path.
  4. Billy Graham wanted to be all things to all men, but he ended up teaching the kind of indifferentism you find in C.S.Lewis’ Mere Christianity and which is the default setting of Protestant Evangelicals–that is an ecclesiology that is not ecclesiology. For them the church–any church–is a man made institution, open to the vagaries of history and culture–endlessly adaptable and values free. In other words, “It doesn’t matter what church you go to as long as you love Jesus.” While it enabled Billy Graham to throw the net wide, it is not a message that Catholics can promote. We believe it does matter what church you belong to, and that not all denominations or religions are equal. Some are clearly more true than others, have a fuller theology and history than others and have a broader and deeper truth than others. Catholic evangelists may encourage people to encounter Christ, but they will follow that up to say that the fullest encounter of Christ is in the full communion of the Catholic Church.
  5. Billy Graham taught a simple gospel message which, on its own, is inadequate. He would have agreed that the convert needed to go deeper into the life of the Spirit, deeper in the Sacred Scriptures and deeper into the life of the church. Unfortunately, in the present, shallow American culture one worries that many of the converts never did go any deeper, and assured of their salvation, may have gone off into the night with no more than an emotional memory of a religious experience they once had.

So what’s to learn from it about Catholic preaching and evangelization? The good things I take away are these: that we need to remember the core message and as we heard in today’s second reading at Mass, we need to “preach Christ crucified–a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles.” The second thing is that we need to keep it simple and straightforward and not allow ourselves to get cluttered up with inessentials.

From the downside we can learn that Catholic evangelization needs to be always linked strongly with catechesis and strong preaching with good content. In the early church the catechumens were instructed for years and had sponsors who walked with them as they learned how to follow Christ. If this is true, then just tossing people out to any old church won’t do. It especially won’t do in this day and age when so many of the churches that call themselves Christian simply do not hold to the historic Christian faith.

Therefore what we need is not just Mere Christianity, but More Christianity.