Friday, July 01, 2005

Billy Graham's Last Stand

June 25th, 2005 was a gorgeous, typically hot and humid Saturday night in NYC, as the people made their way into Flushing Meadows-Corona Park to hear Billy Graham. It is the same historic park that, in 1964, hosted "The World's Fair", which sought to bring together the international community in a goodwill convention. The early 60's was an era marked by a certain kind of hopeful optimism. Many believed that new technologies and scientific progress, coupled with a spirit of cooperation, were the answers to the problems of humanity. This view was reflected at the '64 fair, whose theme was "Peace Through Understanding," and was dedicated to "Man's Achievement on a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe". There were numerous internationally-sponsored exhibits at the Fair, and at the center of them all was a 12-story high, stainless-steel model of the earth called "Unisphere". By the time the Fair had completed its two six-month seasons on October 21st, 1965, millions had passed through its many attractions.

This same World's Fair also had a strong religious presence-- Mormons, Roman Catholics and the Billy Graham Evangelical Organization (BGEA) all had well-attended pavilions there. Graham's message was also one of hope, but his message of hope was not based in the solutions offered by man's ingenuity; his message of hope was rooted in the person of Jesus Christ, whom he preached as the only One who could solve man's root problem: sin in the heart. At the Fair, a million people watched the free film that the BGEA showed them about commitment to Christ. Thousands of these visitors also sought further counseling.

By 1964, Billy Graham, though only 46 years old, was already a veteran of ministry, with 27 years of public ministry service behind him. He had become an internationally known figure beginning in 1949, when, through the publicity and media attention given his evangelistic crusades, his name and face became well-known. Graham's 1957 crusade to NYC was a peak moment. Televised nationally, it was held in none other than Madison Square Garden, in the heart of New York City. The turnout was so huge that the crusade continued nightly for 16 weeks, 10 weeks beyond its original schedule. The vital Mr. Graham would have many more years and crusades ahead of him.

Coming to see/hear "the Man"
All these years later, with the famous Unisphere as a backdrop, people were gathering to hear Graham, though he now 86 years old and ailing in health. It is fitting that he would return here to New York, the site of one of his most famous crusades, for what might turn out to be his final crusade appearance. So we decided we ought to mark this historic event, and planned on trying to meet up with a friend there (who would be armed with that special homing device known as a cell phone).

As we arrived, my wife wasn't feeling very well; we ambled forward with the crowd, slowly migrating in the direction of the main stage, which in turn was following after the sounds of music emanating towards us in the night air. At our dignified pace, the half-mile walk to the crusade area seemed never-ending. We were met many times along the way by people handling out literature. At first, I thought it might be evangelistic tracts from the Billy Graham people, but much of the literature turned out to be from a group called Twelve Tribes (a commune-like group) that is not supportive of Graham. Some others were openly hostile-- one person carried a sign saying "Billy Graham Sends to Hell", or something like that.

We had made a bit of progress in our journey when we unexpectedly happened upon my pastor brother Daniel, his wife Sheila and their three kids, sitting on a little blanket in a grassy section of one of the "overflow" areas. From the little haven they'd set up, they, along with many others, were watching a big screen that projected the events happening from the main stage.

We decided to join them (rather than continue on towards the main stage for the unsure possibility of a closer seat). It turned out a wise choice, as the music-- by musicians 363, Nicole C. Mullen and Jars of Clay-- was quite loud, amplified after the fashion of rock concerts these days. 363 sounded to me like a CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) version of U2 ,while Nicole C. Mullen seemed a CCM version of hip-hop, complete with trendy dancers. The popular Jars of Clay rounded out the evening, playing their biggest hit to date, "Flood"; they also played songs from their latest album.

Strange disconnect
There was a strange disconnect between performers and crowd. The musicians were doing their best to engage the audience, shouting out questions like "how ya doin' out there?", but seemed to get only a tepid response. The program for the evening included some "MTV" style interview videos projected on the big screens in which teens of different races gave testimonies about how being in a relationship with Jesus makes a difference in their lives. Judging from these videos and also from certain remarks Graham was to make during his brief talk later, it seems the evening was being targeted towards youth. I noticed that there were quite a few young people, but the crowd also included many families and older folk. Perhaps the incongruity between the "rock concert" atmosphere and the "family-friendly" kind of crowd had something to do with the subdued response to the music. This-- thankfully-- was not your typical boisterous, lets-get-rowdy-at-the-concert kind of crowd. It was a mild-mannered bunch, many coming together en mass from their churches, and it really seemed that for them, Billy was the main attraction, rather than the music. Everyone it seemed was there to hear the legendary evangelist make his last stand.

Unsettling questions
As with my other recent excursion to see/hear another big name, Pastor David Cho, (An Evening With Pastor David Cho), I went with some unsettling questions about Billy Graham and his ministry running through my mind. Personally, I've always liked him-- he strikes me as a charming and humble man. He has always seemed most genuine, and he is certainly a gifted communicator of the gospel, direct and simple in his presentation. Yet it had troubled me greatly to read certain web-based reports regarding his ministry. For example, it is reported that as a matter of policy, Graham crusades direct people who have made "decisions for Christ" to their local church of whatever denomination, or even, to their local synagogue! As far back as 1957, Graham has been quoted in the newspapers as affirming that this indeed is the official policy of the Crusades. Now if this is true, it doesn't make sense at all and is quite disturbing. Why would you direct someone who has just responded to a message that Jesus Christ is "the Way, the Truth and the Life" and that no man can come to the Father except through Him, to a Jewish synagogue, where of course they neither believe nor support this belief?!

As I have researched this subject on the Internet, it is well-documented that Mr. Graham consciously decided, at a very early stage in his ministry, that, being that his objective was to reach the most people possible, he would major on the central truths of the gospel message while avoiding "controversial", potentially divisive issues, which to him were of secondary importance. Though initially identifying himself as fundamentalist in his beliefs, he apparently also pragmatically decided that he would not be overly concerned with the theological convictions of those who participated in, or sponsored, the various crusades. Accordingly, despite some early preaching in which he stood against Catholic and modernistic teaching, over the years he became more and more friendly with Catholics and played down any doctrinal differences between Protestantism and Catholicism. In his ministry and interviews he has essentially said that there is no difference between the gospel that he preaches and the gospel of Roman Catholicism, or he has downplayed the differences, saying that they are inconsequential. This goes hand-in-hand with his longstanding policy of sending converts to the religious institution of their own choice, which apparently, usually ends up being the Catholic church. For Catholics, Billy Graham has been a very good friend indeed, since he has helped bring thousands back to their churches and has had great praise for the Pope and Catholicism over the years.

This is troubling. I believe that although many Catholics know Jesus personally, and are my brothers and sisters in Christ, yet there is much unsound doctrine within the Catholic Church, doctrine that is not biblical (my desire here is not to vilify Catholicism but to hold to the truths of the Bible as best I know how). So why is it that Graham's ministry, which points to the Bible as authority for its teaching and actions, does not make any strong distinctions between the doctrines of churches? Mr. Graham surely must know that there are churches that teach all kinds of things that are not biblically sound. Yet, by allowing all sorts of churches (liberal, Catholic, modernistic) over the years to participate in his evangelistic campaigns, and by sending converts to whatever church they might choose, Graham's ministry seemingly makes no distinctions between true and false churches/church teaching. The impression is thus conveyed that "any church will do" for the newly converted Christian, no matter what it teaches.

Certainly the gentleness and affability of Mr. Graham are admirable qualities that have served him well as a minister. Over the years he has managed to have many friends in high places, including all of the American Presidents, and has transcended partisan politics by relating to Democrats and Republicans equally well. But the question is: have Graham's friendships and associations compromised him as the symbol of Christianity and its truths that he is to many? Among those Graham has claimed as friends, and whom he is quoted as greatly admiring, are Pope John Paul II, Robert Schuller, Norman Vincent Peale and Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. All of these men have preached and taught (in my view) serious errors, and a seemingly different gospel message than Mr. Graham preached at his crusades over the years. Why did he not see this? Or did he? Had Graham so limited the scope of his message that no other doctrinal issues were important to him so long as Christ crucified, buried and risen again was preached? But although these men do talk of Jesus Christ, they also add unbiblical elements to the message of the gospel.

Friends Bill and Hillary, the Christians?
Ex-President Bill Clinton and his wife, NY Senator Hillary Clinton, were prominent guests this night, sitting on the platform behind Graham. Graham warmly introduced them as his personal friends and later jokingly, yet earnestly, remarked that Bill Clinton, with his gifts of communication, would make a "great evangelist" and that Bill should leave his wife Hillary "to run the country". It was evident that this was meant to be a light-hearted remark and not a serious endorsement, but it is another example of how unimportant it seems to Mr. Graham with whom/what he is associated. Mr. Clinton warmly reciprocated, calling Graham "a man I love and whom I have followed".

It's not that there's anything wrong in being personal friends with Bill and Hillary Clinton, of course. The Clintons seem to be decent folk with good intentions in their public service. They identify themselves as Christian and attend church. Nevertheless, the couple is well-known for pro-abortion and liberal views on most issues, which are very much at odds with the views and beliefs of most Christians. The impression given therefore by their appearance at the Crusade, and Billy Graham's remarks about them, is that it's ok to be a Christian, just like Bill and Hillary Clinton. The very next day would find Hillary marching down the street in the Gay Pride parade. Many articles have come out this past week saying that the Clintons turned Graham into their political pawn by trading on their friendship to obtain Graham's quasi-endorsement, all to promote Hillary's possible future bid for the White House. Whether or not this was a motivation for the Clintons, Mr. Graham, it seems to me, should have more discernment about what the perceptions might be.

Compromised by Popularity and Fame?
But, as stated earlier, Graham decided long ago that his major focus and goal was to preach the gospel to as many people as possible, and the means that he has chosen to do this over the years have been extremely inclusive and seemingly non-confrontational over sin. Thus his basic message has stayed on point; he generally touches upon social or political issues briefly, only to quickly return to his plea that his listeners turn their lives over to Jesus Christ and receive salvation. Being primarily an evangelist, this might seem a good, focused strategy. Yet Jesus calls us not only to make converts, but also disciples, and a crucial part of making disciples is to help people become mature in thinking and practice, and to do so within sound, Bible-teaching churches/communities. Both Jesus and Paul fearlessly contended for correct doctrine, making this an integral part of their ministry, because they saw that the eternal destinies of those they were trying to reach were hanging in the balance. Ultimately they paid for such teaching with their lives. Yet these vital aspects of ministry (disciple-making and contending for right doctrine) seem neglected by Graham's organization to a point that is possibly irresponsible, in light of the universal call to make disciples. Did Billy Graham succumb to the lure of fame and popularity with men, so that he has rationalized not standing up for correct doctrine, or helping people select sound churches?

Love Hopeth All Things
Mr. Graham must be commended for his tireless and pioneering efforts in the work of evangelism, and his faithfulness in reaching so many with the message of the gospel. The message tonight, though brief, once again sounded his familiar theme-- that only in a relationship with Jesus Christ do we find meaning and satisfaction in life. His voice rang out strong and true, and his delivery was sure, despite age and illness. As the old hymn "Just As I Am" played, hundreds walked forward to the altar at the invitation, just as they had so many times before at other crusades. Billy sat down and prayed. These were for me the most moving moments of the evening.

As we slowly made our way out, we again passed by some from "Twelve Tribes", joyfully dancing together in a circle. They seemed genuinely happy. Their literature questions whether or not Graham's "decision-makers" actually become disciples who bear fruit and thus show that they have indeed received salvation. It is an important question, and tonight my heart is sad because the answer is not entirely clear.

But I thank God for any/all who made sincere decisions for Christ tonight, and for Billy Graham's part in this. I pray that they will become true disciples. And I am challenged again about my own responsibility both to be a disciple and to "go, and make disciples".

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