As soon as word broke about the death of Billy Graham, the most influential Christian evangelist of the twentieth century, scholars and admirers began asking: “Will there ever be another Billy Graham?” The consensus seems to be “no.”
Scholars note that evangelical Christianity and our dominant media culture are both too diverse for anyone to take on a singular role like Graham’s again. Admirers contend that Graham’s relentless devotion to Christ and to the gospel also made him a unique figure.
Were Billy Graham around to hear this discussion, I am confident he would remind us that God made Graham into the titanic figure he was. Thus, if God chooses to raise up “another Billy Graham,” then there will indeed be another.
But commentators on Graham’s uniqueness are missing another, more mundane point. Some scholars say that our media environment is too diffuse for someone like Graham to capture its attention. But we could turn that argument on its head. Perhaps all we need is another evangelist with Graham’s hard work and savvy for tomorrow’s media, and he or she could become a sensation like Graham, too. Such savvy presumes a forward-looking, entrepreneurial aptitude. We don’t know what a future Billy Graham would look like. Great entrepreneurs are hard to anticipate.
Graham’s success was built in part upon his remarkable endurance and his shrewd use of the latest communication techniques, most notably broadcast television. He also caught the attention of titans such as William Randolph Hearst, who catapulted Graham to fame through secular media outlets, including the top magazines and newspapers of the day.
In his adept use of media, Graham followed in the footsteps of George Whitefield, the Billy Graham of the eighteenth century. Whitefield would surely have reached Graham’s hundreds of millions of people if he had had television, airplanes, and sports arenas at his disposal. As it was, Whitefield became the best-known person in eighteenth-century Britain and America before the American Revolution.
In the 1750s, Whitefield’s primary non-royal competitor for that fame was his longtime friend and printer Ben Franklin. Franklin and Whitefield were not on the same page in terms of personal faith, but they enjoyed a warm friendship and lucrative (for Franklin) business partnership. Franklin had become wealthy in Philadelphia in the 1740s partly through publishing Whitefield’s sermons and journals. Franklin even sold mezzotint imprints of Whitefield’s portrait! When Whitefield died in 1770, devotees assumed there would never be another evangelist like him. But the church goes on, and God provides evangelists as he sees fit.
A future Billy Graham would face more challenges than just a fractured media. He or she would face an English-speaking world that no longer necessarily believes that Christianity is a salutary force. Graham and Whitefield were both products of a culture that assumed Christianity’s established status, either by fact or by law (or both, in Whitefield’s England). Whitefield was a Church of England minister seeking to awaken the culture of Anglo-American Christianity. He could take for granted that his audiences were familiar with the Bible. Even the skeptic Franklin knew the Bible intimately, because of his upbringing in a Puritan household in Boston.
Whitefield could further assume that the people who attended his outdoor assemblies thought religion a good and necessary thing, even if many individuals were not personally devout. Whitefield ministered in a Christian culture, but he rejected the spirit of nominal Christianity that such a culture bred. He told people that it was not enough for them to respect the church. They could not depend on their parents’ faith or their baptism to save them. They needed the “new birth” of salvation, as described in the Gospel of John, chapter 3, and other parts of the New Testament.
This message of the new birth through Christ has been the hallmark of the evangelical movement since at least the time of Whitefield. The term “evangelical” has become confused and diluted in popular usage today. Listening to the media, one could easily get the impression that “evangelical” just means a religious white Republican. Although both Whitefield and Graham had political opinions, no listener would have left their sermons confused about what the “gospel” was. The Son of God offered forgiveness to all who received him as Lord and Savior.
Evangelical-style faith was the de facto established religion of Graham’s native South of the early- and mid-twentieth century. Graham’s travels took him to places such as the Soviet Union, where faith was hardly assumed. And he did reach many people who had little background in faith. But Graham’s greatest impact was naturally on his home turf, in areas of the South and Midwest that already had a pervasive Christian culture.
Graham helped untold millions of Americans who already respected Christianity to come across the threshold of personal faith, and to be born again. President George W. Bush is perhaps the best-known example. Bush, who had struggled for years with alcohol abuse, said that a mid-1980s conversation with Graham about God’s grace led him to “recommit my heart to Jesus Christ.”
A future Billy Graham will not be able to assume as much as Graham or Whitefield could about Americans’ familiarity with the Bible or theology, or about their sympathy for religion. Until recent years, factors such as higher fertility and immigration have kept America from following the starkly secular path of much of Europe. (For debated reasons, high fertility correlates with stronger religious commitment, and recent immigrants in America are among the most likely people to be devout.) But America is setting national records for lowest general fertility and shows a growing inclination to restrict legal and illegal immigration. Should those trends persist, in the long term America’s religious culture may become more like Denmark’s than like that of the Bible Belt of Billy Graham’s youth.
A future Billy Graham will take cues, then, from the Apostle Paul and his outreach to ancient pagan culture. Christian evangelists and apologists will increasingly find themselves, like Paul in Athens, accused of being “a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection” (Acts 17:18).
In post-Christian Western culture, the gospel will be odd. It will need to be framed in terms that outsiders can understand, without compromising theological integrity or the sharper edges of Christian doctrine. Christians will also need to manifest loving community and family wholeness, which our broken culture desperately needs in the wake of the sexual revolution. Ordering your life around the Lordship of Christ will increasingly seem an exotic (if salvific) alternative for a select few, rather than a natural step for responsible Americans entering adulthood.
C. S. Lewis offers a modern example of effective apologetics in an unchurched world. To be sure, Lewis spoke to a nation with a legally established church in World War II–era Britain. And he did find a platform on government-run BBC radio for the series of talks that became Mere Christianity. But Lewis did not begin from an assumption that Britons intuitively saw that Christianity was desirable, or that it even mattered. Instead, he persuasively and intelligently argued that Christianity was true, and that it demanded a response. He also used science fiction and children’s stories as literary bridges to explore age-old questions about sin, forgiveness, and reconciliation with God. Those books surely reached many for whom straightforward Christian apologetics seemed irrelevant.
Of course, historic evangelicals believe that we’ll always need evangelism for both the churched and the unchurched. Billy Graham illustrated how you can do both, and he knew how to modulate his presentation depending on whether he was in Dallas or in Moscow. But one suspects that the days are coming to an end when an evangelist can announce a crusade in an American city and draw tens of thousands of people.
In other parts of the world, such as sub-Saharan Africa, Brazil, and India, healing and prosperity evangelists like Reinhard Bonnke and Benny Hinn do still draw such crowds. Most evangelical leaders are skeptical of such preachers’ theological soundness. When a future Billy Graham does speak before unconverted people, he or she will likely not lead with the exhortation, “You must be born again,” but rather with the question, “Why does Christianity matter?”
So maybe there will be another Billy Graham, but he or she will undoubtedly speak in a different cultural mode, and use different media than Graham did. As Graham would remind us, however, God also has a long track record of using people who rely on Him, who work hard and use entrepreneurial ministry methods, and who stay faithful to the traditional teachings of the church. We need not worry about who will fill his shoes, then. If the Kingdom requires one, God will raise up another Billy Graham.
Thomas S. Kidd is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University and author of Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father.
Photo by Paul M. Walsh via Creative Commons. Image cropped.