What We Can Learn From Billy Graham

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.

2018-03-04T16:28:11+00:00March 4th, 2018|Categories: Blog|6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. John March 6, 2018 at 3:38 pm

    I do not like this concept of eternal salvation. I know a Protestant who long ago accepted Jesus as her “Lord and Personal Savior”. She endured many years of an awful marriage with an abusive husband, raised two girls, and then committed suicide – assured of going to heaven. We Catholics are taught that suicide is a mortal sin thereby assuring an eternity in hell. Would she have committed suicide if she were taught this instead of having the “eternal salvation” nonsense drummed into her head? Probably not. Worse, the family did not pray for her soul. I was the only one praying for her – every day for months. Then one day I stopped. Don’t know why, but she no longer came into my mind. It was a few weeks before I even noticed that this had happened.

    So, Rev Graham was a sincere fellow, but he was off the rails and undoubtedly led many others off the rails as well.

    • Dwight Longenecker March 6, 2018 at 3:49 pm

      I mentioned that deficit in my post. Eternal security is a false teaching.

      • John March 7, 2018 at 1:02 pm

        Yes, I know. I’m struggling with this and maybe I’m being too academic. But, how much should we admire a man who has preached a false doctrine and led so many astray? We Christians are supposed to be about saving souls. Sola fide, sola scriptura, eternal salvation, and ditching the sacraments all make saving souls more difficult. And, these are the things our Protestant brothers embrace. Sure, it’s better to have followed Rev. Graham than to be a secular atheist or pagan, but it’s still falling short – maybe too short for some people. Having said all of this, I’d rather be a good Protestant then a bad Catholic (or atheist/pagan).

        • Dwight Longenecker March 7, 2018 at 1:54 pm

          Well its not quite as “all or nuthin'” as you suggest. We can applaud what is good about Billy Graham and his ministry while still critiquing what is not good, and we should remember that despite his espousal of wrong doctrines, he actually introduced many people to a new relationship with the Lord that they never heard of in the Catholic Church. While it is true that there has been a terrible hemorrhage of Catholics to Protestant churches it is also true that many Catholics heard Billy Graham’s message and returned to the Catholic church with a fresh commitment and a new awareness of Christ in the sacraments. I think it is best therefore, not to worry too much about it and thank God for what was good about his ministry. To be honest, echoing your statement, I would rather have Billy Graham’s direct gospel message than the watered down, heterodox, left wing do gooder message pumped out by many of our Catholic priests and prelates!

  2. […] Fr. Dwight Longenecker, a convert to Roman Catholicism from the Anglican congregation, posted a nicely written article  regarding Billy Graham and what we Catholics should be able to learn from […]

  3. David Williams March 9, 2018 at 1:00 pm

    Well Written! Whether any of us agree with everything Billy Graham taught or not, you make some great points.

    From the standpoint of a lifelong Protestant who is about to enter the Catholic Church in 3 weeks, there are definitely some things to learn from Billy Graham. I’m 51 and glad that I discovered the truth of Catholicism. I NEVER even thought about Catholicism much at all prior to about 18 months ago.

    I NEVER had a Catholic share their faith “or” invite me to Mass. -NEVER -EVER -NEVER …. What does that say for Catholic evangelism? I’m proud to be entering the Catholic Church. I get Catholicism. I’ve invested over 400 hours of time in this journey, so trust me, I get it.

    I was not and never have been a ONCE SAVED ALWAYS SAVED protestant. I’m fully on board with Catholic teachings. It’s all or nothing. I’m not on the cafeteria Catholic plan. I can see why some would point to the side of Billy Graham that doesn’t line up with Catholicism. But………….

    A few things every Christian can learn from Billy Graham is his LOVE for Jesus, his LOVE for the Bible, his LOVE for sharing his faith, his LOVE for people and his straightforward message of Jesus. Imagine if every Catholic got on fire about their faith like Billy Graham did about his faith.

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