Grahams confront end of golden era

Jeremy Halcrow

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In Indepth Dr Stuart Piggin argues that there are real lessons for evangelism in 2009 from Billy Graham's Southern Cross Crusade of 1959.

It's a nostalgic six months for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA), as well as the thousands of Australian Christians whose lives where changed thanks to Graham's ministry.
Last month, Billy Graham turned 90.

Next May marks the 50th anniversary of Graham's 1959 Australian crusades.

But for today's younger generation of Christians growing up into leadership, what do the Crusades represent? Some may feel they are nothing more than a vague inspiration, their significance an echo of glory days long since passed.

The truth is that the 1959 Crusades remain a watershed event " undoubtedly the only bona fide religious revival in Sydney's history. During the Australian Crusades 130,000 people "went forward' in response to Graham's altar call " 1.24 percent of the total population. In Sydney, conversions were double that ratio, with nearly 57,000 enquirers out of a population just over 2 million.

This did translate into increased church attendance, with Anglican, Presbyterian and Methodist numbers increasing. The tiny Baptists received a massive boost. Some churches in Sydney saw dramatic increases in attendance " one with more than 500 Billy Graham converts still continuing in their faith three years later.

The Crusades shaped the generation now in their 60s and 70s. It is no secret that Archbishop Jensen's vision for Connect09 was initially inspired to mark the anniversary of the Crusade that brought him as a teen to Christ.

Taking a global perspective BGEA Crusades still pull massive crowds. Last month alone, Billy's son Franklin Graham spoke to more than 150,000 people in the outdoor plaza of Taipei's Liberty Square making it the largest religious gathering in the history of the venue. Media reported that 10,000 Taiwanese gave their lives to Christ. This followed a similar number drawn to a festival in Tabasco, Mexico in June, while nearly 80,000 attended a weekend event in Romania in July. It was the largest Christian gathering since the rise and fall of communism.

Sydney seems cynical

In the Western world " outside the US " BGEA's activities barely create a ripple on public consciousness.

Indeed, SC understands that BGEA's hopes for an anniversary crusade in Sydney for 2009 were canned due to lack of local interest. 

Leigh Brown, head of BGEA Australia, told SC there was some Australian support for a Crusade to mark the 50th anniversary, but virtually none in Sydney.

"In Sydney it has been different," he said, explaining that the change since the Crusade era of the 1960s and 70s is the advent of the "big successful churches' which make it harder to bring the denominations together for the cause of evangelism. SC understood this as a reference to the Pentecostal mega-churches, especially Hillsong. BGEA Australia is now looking at a three-year-plan to build relationships with Sydney churches.

In light of the scrapping of a major 2009 event, it is significant that Franklin Graham's eldest son and BGEA heir apparent, Will Graham, visited Sydney in late October, in his words "just to learn' about the Australian missionfield.

"I want to work out more about the spiritual climate in Australia, as well as understand the religious landscape," the 33-year-old Gen-Xer told SC during a few harried moments in a packed schedule.

And given Leigh Brown's comments about the problems finding common ground amongst Protestant denominations in Sydney it is also intriguing that Will Graham's Australian education included a visit to Hillsong.

Mr Graham admitted he was "impressed' by what he saw there, explaining that the preaching on the day of his visit [by Robert Ferguson] was theologically deeper than he expected.

"Most Americans know the music but don't know about Hillsong as a church," he said.

Overall, Mr Graham said it was the similarities between Americans and Australians during his visit that has "come as a shock'.

"People here, on a whole, have conservative values. They are very individualistic, self-reliant" Australia is more like America than Canada is like America."

Just before flying to Australia, Will had wrapped up a youth-oriented speaking tour of Canada. In effect Mr Graham was the supporting act for the main event, Christian rock band Starfield. Together they ran successful evangelistic events in 12 smaller Canadian cities in Ontario and Alberta, perhaps pointing towards a new model for BGEA as they seek to reinvent their ministry in the post-Christian West.

In recent years Sydney Anglican bloggers, amongst others, have accused Billy Graham of "going soft' and playing down the uniqueness of Christ and the punishment sinners face in hell. Leigh Brown admitted to SC that these allegations have made it more difficult for BGEA to stage a Crusade in Sydney.

Will Graham is adamant that if anything BGEA today stands for a more doctrinally robust version of evangelicalism than ever. 

"If my granddaddy did say those things they should be critical" But I know he doesn't believe these things."

The root of the problem according to Mr Graham was a Time Magazine article.

"Web rumours are easily started," Will told SC. "In his old age, my granddaddy has found it harder to be understood" As a family we know what he meant."

The fact is that BGEA affirms a sound statement of faith, including the evangelical doctrine that "hell " separation from God - is the eternal destiny of all who reject Christ in this life'. The main points of difference with most Sydney Anglicans would be the same as in the 50s when former Archbishops of Sydney, Howard Mowll and Sir Marcus Loane, actively campaigned for the Crusades. 

What can't be doubted is that the heirs to the Graham legacy retain Billy's passion for the lost.

"If I'm at my dad's Crusade, I'm usually bawling and praying a lot," says Will. "I fill up with tears even now as I'm thinking about it… I can't help but be touched. Seeing the brokenness of people, seeing them come to Christ by faith " I get so excited for them. It's overwhelming."

Mass crusades " a crazy idea then as now

Perhaps the most surprising fact for younger Christians to realise is just how crazy the idea of a massive evangelistic rally in Sydney or Melbourne looked in 1958. 

American evangelist Oral Roberts had just finished a disastrous visit to Australia. His meetings had become a target of violence, inflamed by press who alleged he was here just to make money.

"They thought he was here to fleece gullible Australians," Canon Stuart Barton Babbage, then Dean of Melbourne, told SC in a 1999 interview. "Oral Roberts had come to Melbourne with the largest tent in the world only to have it pulled down around his ears. The larrikinism was so excessive and violent that he had to abort his crusade after only three days."

The failure of Oral Roberts' visit caused much apprehension amongst the Billy Graham organisers. 

"They were apprehensive there would be violence and the Crusade would be wrecked," said Dr Babbage. "It was reasonable that they felt that way. Billy Graham was a friend of Oral Roberts. They did not know what the press might say and they didn't want the gospel impugned."

As it turned out organisers had dramatically underestimated the crowds. The first venue they booked only held 4,000 people.

"In the four weeks [leading up to the Crusade] we had to change the site four times, finishing up with the Melbourne Cricket Ground," said Dr Babbage.

In Sydney expectations were also modest. Research suggested that Australians were resistant to evangelists. They did not expect to match the hundreds of thousands of people who attended the Crusade in London and New York. They projected "an upper limit of 7,500 decisions over the nine-day Crusade'.

photo Daniel La
photo Tree Hensdill

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