A Look at the Billy Graham Crusades

EVANGELISM in America has had a curiously sporadic history. There have not been more than four or five concerted periods of revivalism in America in the past 200 years; and even when those periods emerged they were relatively short, typically about a decade. . .

-Chairman, Speech Department, Walla Waita College, at the time this article was written

EVANGELISM in America has had a curiously sporadic history. There have not been more than four or five concerted periods of revivalism in America in the past 200 years; and even when those periods emerged they were relatively short, typically about a decade.

But we are in a period of revivalism now. The chief revivalist is Billy Graham. His avowed aim is to gain commitments to Christ. His major means to that end are his preaching, widespread Protestant support, carefully devised crusade methods, and invitation to the Holy Spirit to work through it all.

I propose to take a look at an important dimension of Graham's crusade—organizational procedures. The point is to examine the scope and role of crusade organization and go on to assess his procedures as possible useful implements for Seventh-day Adventist participation and public evangelism.

A Personal Note

First, a personal note. My own interest in Dr. Graham was piqued when I began a serious search for a dissertation topic—the final step toward completing a graduate degree from a Midwestern university. My adviser was aware of my religious persuasion. And in addition, he knew, that no one to that date (1967) had bothered to look carefully at the organization of the Graham crusades. He reasoned, I think correctly, that anyone who might research the topic should be acquainted with and sympathetic to Protestant evangelism. I was interested, and began immediately.

The first days of research confirmed my adviser's conclusion: Nobody had studied Graham's organizational strategies to any definitive degree. With that knowledge I stepped up the pace of my research. I visited team headquarters near Atlanta, Georgia, for the first of three data-gathering trips. Before completing the study I made two additional trips in order to interview crusade officials, observe certain pre-crusade functions, and attend services. I found crusade personnel, including Dr. Graham, cordial and cooperative. There was little data withheld; most officials spoke candidly about their assessments of crusade functions.

At the team offices I began to learn how a large-scale crusade is put together. When a sizable city desires a Graham crusade it first marshals the united support of a broad Protestant front. Once that support is pledged largely from mainstream Protestant bodies, local churchmen go to team officials with the request. The request cites the need for the crusade and gives assurance of Protestant backing and availability of a suitable site.

Very few of the invitations Graham gets can he accept. For major crusades he is currently accepting three invitations a year. In 1971, for example, he held meetings in the San Francisco, Chicago, and Dallas-Fort Worth areas. Cleveland was the location of the first major 1972 crusade.

When a city or an area is selected to host a Graham crusade, that decision is made by a group. Selections are made at team meetings usually held annually. Dr. Graham presides. To arrive at a decision the team acts as a committee, and yet it is clear from the research that Dr. Graham himself makes the final decision.

Long-range Planning

Once the team is committed to holding a crusade, it may wait two or three years before the crusade is staged. (Requests on file at Atlanta would take 20 years to fulfill, according to a team spokesman.) Usually a year is needed for pre-crusade preparation alone. During that time numerous committees form and multiple functions get under way. Participation at this point is carried out almost exclusively by cooperating pastors and laymen. Funds are raised, volunteer workers are recruited, and plans are made and carried out for the training of counselors and Bible-discussion leaders.

Youth groups, women's groups, and other interested bodies begin creating a climate of anticipation several months in advance of the meetings. They do so largely by forming prayer circles, promoting the meetings, and showing Billy Graham films to interested groups.

In the weeks prior to the crusade the pace of activity picks up significantly. For example, daily radio programs stressing prayer and devotion begin. Publicity appears chiefly in the print media. News papers are used extensively because "people still believe what they read," according to one member of Graham's advertising agency.

Free reserved-seating tickets are mailed to churches and other groups that request them. This measure removes much of the anxiety as to where delegations will sit once they arrive. This feature is particularly appealing, too, the Graham people believe, to the religiously uncommitted who ask for reserved seating or who ac company church delegations as invited guests. Travel by caravans or buses further eases the anxiety of such persons, and it may even enhance a guest's chance of making a commitment to Christ as a natural progression of movement toward the goals of the crusade.

Christian Life and Witness Classes

Some weeks prior to the crusade another significant event takes place: Christian Life and Witness classes begin. The name describes a series of devotional classes open to the public. They have another major purpose, and that is to train people who wish to serve as counselors at crusade services.

When the classes conclude, counselors are selected. Not all who attend qualify. Those who qualify do so as the result of a very careful selection process. Using personal interviews with each prospective counselor, Graham's official chooses them on the following basis: appearance, agreement with the spiritual concepts of the crusade, ability to communicate (absence of heavy accent, speech impediment, or nonfluency), cooperative attitude (absence of abruptness, argumentativeness), and absence of any other handicaps such as inability to understand and follow instructions.

There is another basis for selection. Should the prospective counselor indicate that he is a member of a faith that is not considered to be in the Protestant main stream nor one that is actively participating in the crusade, his chances of being selected are greatly reduced. In most crusades that excludes Adventist laymen from being counselors, and it usually excludes Adventist pastors from being advisers.

The Meetings Begin

With the completion of counselor selection and recruitment of ushers, typists, singers, and other coworkers, the crusade is staged. Customarily it begins on a Thurs day evening and continues for ten days. Two or three services are billed as youth nights. As much as 80 to 90 per cent of the audience will be 25 or under on those nights, says one crusade official.

The nature and order of the crusade service are now well known, particularly so since Graham has begun buying prime TV time once or twice yearly on American stations and telecasting portions of typical services. The sixty-minute program in most respects is identical to the order of a Protestant service. It includes songs by the choir, prayers, offerings, soloists, and the speaker.

Near the close of his sermon Graham makes a very direct and straightforward call for the audience to make commitments to Christ. Many begin moving forward be fore he gets to the heart of the invitation. Some have asked whether those persons are planted by Graham to serve as starters. I cannot be sure, but I found no evidence to suggest that they are. My observation is that such persons clearly know that Graham is certain to make a call, and they come precisely for the purpose of responding to it. They need no cajoling nor, for that matter, invitation at all.

The Call to Decision

As an audience member (inquirer) comes forward, he probably is accompanied by a counselor. A careful pairing process begins at the moment Dr. Graham invites inquirers to come forward. Advisers (Protestant pastors) stand facing their sections of the audience. As inquirers come forward from their section, the adviser nods to one of a number of counselors seated directly in front of him. The counselor selected for the approaching inquirer is identical in sex and similar in age to the inquirer. The counselor follows the inquirer to the front and remains there .until Dr. Graham indicates that counseling is to begin. Up to this moment most inquirers are unaware that a counselor is beside them. When Dr. Graham closes his remarks the two begin conversing. They discuss the decision the inquirer has just made. And they discuss, too, important spiritual matters, such as a need for a Saviour and forgiveness from sin. The inquirer is then introduced to an adviser who ratines the decision and records the name of a Protestant pastor to whom the inquirer asks to be referred for further discussion and eventual church membership.

Research indicates that only rarely does an Adventist pastor receive referrals from a Graham crusade. That is not because inquirers don't request it; rather, it is be cause Adventist pastors in many cities are not considered in the Protestant main stream and/or are not viewed by crusade officials as open, friendly, cooperative, or consonant with the goals of a Graham crusade. When an inquirer, then, indicates an interest in the Seventh-day Adventist Church (or for that matter in one of a number of other churches, such as Catholic or Mormon) his name will go to a staff pastor or to a participating Protestant pastor living near him.

The number of respondents to Graham's calls is not high. Only about 3 percent of the audience makes commitments. In the Greater Southwest Billy Graham Crusade last fall, for example, 13,000 inquirers registered decisions from a combined attendance of 456,000. The percentage figure is 2.9. Earlier last year, in Chicago, 3.6 per cent made commitments. The reasons for the difference are not entirely clear. One explanation might be that many decisions come from those who are not members of a formal church. If such a hypothesis is accurate, one could expect that there might be fewer decisions in areas where church membership is high.

What Implications for Us?

Based on the above discussion, what implications do the Graham crusades hold for Adventists? Several, it seems to me. One is that we might well capitalize on the timing of his crusades with the timing of ours. It seems reasonable that once Dr. Graham has stirred up a favorable climate for Christ, one could logically follow up by holding his own series. Such an evangelistic thrust might be on radio, TV, and in newspapers but more likely in public meetings.

The, second implication: Adventist churches in cities where Graham is scheduled to speak might choose to cooperate overtly. In those cities where Adventists have been invited to participate, the invitation has been a result of what Protestant leaders perceive as openness and friendliness of the Adventist pastors. In addition, Adventist pastors in areas where they are invited to participate often have been active members of local ministerial associations. In such instances it is possible that Adventist pastors may serve as advisers (part of the counseling function), provided they do not proselytize inquirers toward Adventism in the process. Once inquirers have been referred to local Protestant churches, Graham no longer concerns himself with what Christian persuasion they follow.

The Graham Team and Adventists

Historically, Graham and his team have appeared to avoid extensive involvement with Adventists. There have been exceptions, however. Yet the research indicates that some Adventist churches and pastors have cooperated with Graham up through the point at which he stops, and they have done so successfully without com promise.

Finally, many Adventists would find satisfying experiences in participating in a crusade not necessarily as church members but as concerned Christians. They can serve as ushers, choir members, and possibly counselors. Adventist pastors may occasionally serve as advisers, and receive the names of inquirers who ask to be contacted by an Adventist pastor. However, an Adventist pastor will most certainly not be sent such names, my re search indicates repeatedly, unless the local Protestant leaders have confidence in and respect for him as a representative of a viable Christian body.

We can say, I believe, that Graham's organizational methods must be credited with a. substantial role in effecting decisions for Christ. One can say what he wishes about the charismatic Graham, but it remains that his speaking, his organization, and the Holy Spirit working through each of them effects decisions for Christ that might not have taken place otherwise. And Adventists can reach similar outcomes, use similar methods, and lead people into a far more complete knowledge of what God is like.

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

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-Chairman, Speech Department, Walla Waita College, at the time this article was written

June 1972

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