I still tear up when I hear the iconic hymn “Just as I Am.” Forever etched in my mind are the hundreds, even thousands, of people streaming down the aisles at a Billy Graham Crusade to give their lives to Christ as the choir sings that song.
As a kid, I watched practically every Billy Graham Crusade that was ever televised in my small Pennsylvania town. And I can remember watching spellbound as people would go forward to repent of their sins and pray to receive Christ. “What must the rejoicing be like in heaven?” I would wonder. “How many people – at this very moment – are passing from death to life?”
I couldn’t hold back tears then. And even now, I get misty-eyed writing about it.
Billy Graham, who died today at the age of 99, was one of the most anointed and effective communicators of the gospel the world has ever known. In his more than 400 crusades, Billy preached the gospel to 215 million people in more than 185 countries and territories. He reached millions more through TV, books, and videos.
I gave my life to Christ when I was just six years old, but every time I listened to Billy Graham, I wanted to do it all over again. Billy had this remarkable way of making that old story new again. His message was incredibly simple, but also incredibly powerful.
“I have one message: that Jesus Christ came, he died on a cross, he rose again, and he asked us to repent of our sins and receive him by faith as Lord and Savior . . .“
Over the years, I have met numerous people who came to faith through the witness of this one man. Though I’m sure some of his converts never followed through on their commitment to Christ, every one I have ever met was a solid believer, active in the church. Perhaps the most prominent of these was George Verwer, founder of Operation Mobilization, a 50-year-old missions organization with more than 6,800 volunteers and staff serving in 118 nations.
As a teenage boy, George recalls that he was more interested in girlie magazines than religion. But then he attended a Billy Graham Crusade. And that night, he prayed to receive Christ and his life changed forever. And as a result of George’s changed life, thousands of other lives were changed as well.
I once had the privilege of serving as a counselor at a Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) sponsored event. I remember the BGEA team visited our area weeks before the event so they could train volunteers. They wanted to ensure that we not only knew how to pray with people to receive Christ, but also knew how to connect them with a local church for follow up.
It was clear that Billy Graham and his organization cared more about making true disciples than mere converts. I have always appreciated that about Billy Graham.
“Unlike so many other popular evangelists, Billy avoided the snares of immorality and greed. He lived his message, and because of that, the world today is listening.”
Unlike so many other popular evangelists, Billy avoided the snares of immorality and greed. He lived his message, and because of that, the world today is listening.
I would not be surprised if thousands come to Christ in the next few days as clips of Billy’s sermons are played, and the media cover his funeral. How many living in despair will hear the gospel for the first time and take note on the impact it had on Billy’s life?
Before coming to Christ, Billy said he was more interested in baseball than religion. But God grabbed Billy’s heart when he was just 15 and attended revival meetings held by traveling evangelist Mordecai Fowler Ham. “The Spirit of God began to speak to me as I went back night after night,” Graham wrote. “One night, when the invitation was given to accept Jesus, I just said, ‘Lord, I’m going.’ I knew I was headed in a new direction.’”
Billy stayed on that direction for the remainder of his 84 years on earth. As I think of his life today, I’m reminded of the popular poem written by Robertson McQuilken, former president of Columbia International University.
“I fear not death,” McQuilken wrote, “for that grim foe betrays himself at last, thrusting me forever into life.” But McQuilken expressed another fear – “That I should end before I finish or finish, but not well. That I should stain Your honor, shame Your name, grieve Your loving heart. Few, they tell me, finish well.”
“Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.”
As so today, Billy Graham is receiving his heavenly reward. As he famously said in his autobiography, God’s Ambassador: “Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.”
Today, I imagine Billy Graham is hearing from God, “Well done, good and faithful servant! . . . Come and share your master’s happiness!” I also imagine he’s hearing thank you from tens of thousands, or even millions, who once walked the aisles at one of his crusades – or bowed their heads while watching the broadcast – and now are enjoying eternity with God.
Someday, I hope to express my thanks to Billy too. His message and example made a profound impact on my life, and he’s one of my heroes. Till then, I’m praying God helps me to follow his example – to speak and live the truth, and then to finish well.