Graham Still Touching Lives
Although I wrote a story earlier this year about evangelist Billy Graham, I had forgotten he turned 97 on Nov. 7. That is, until I saw his grandson that evening. Will Graham was in Huntington, West Virginia, for a three-day celebration.
After coming on stage, the younger Graham mentioned he wanted to film the audience singing “Happy Birthday” to his grandfather. In true 21st century fashion, he videoed the scene on his smart phone to take home to North Carolina.
The event marked a personally historic occasion. Over the past 28 years I have seen Billy Graham (twice, in Denver and Cincinnati), his son Franklin (in Lexington, Kentucky,) and now his grandson.
One thing that struck me was how much times have changed over the past three decades. When Billy Graham came to Denver in 1987, he spoke for six consecutive days. A week before the event started, The Sunday Denver Post ran an extended feature story on him. When we went with a group for the Sunday finale, there were about 50,000 in the crowd at Mile High Stadium.
Thirteen years later, Franklin spoke at Rupp Arena in Lexington, to a crowd that on the second night of a three-day event was less than half the Denver finale.
The total attendance at Will’s celebration in Huntington was less than 6,000.
Billy Graham speaking used to be a huge event for churches and others who wanted to see the famous evangelist. Though no less effective a speaker than his grandfather or his father, Will Graham made a far less marked impression on the public’s consciousness. And yet, it very much changed lives.
A Notable Contrast
It wasn’t just the smaller turnouts that made this celebration as so different from the preceding events I had attended. Unlike his grandfather and father, the younger Graham never wore a tie. He spoke in a more laid-back banner, with his sense of humor and easy-going banter an interesting contrast to Billy’s more serious demeanor.
But the real difference came in the music. The upbeat, vibrant, praise-filled tones echoing across the civic arena auditorium were a far cry from the traditional hymns Billy Graham favored.
Indeed, when featured performer Lacey Sturm took the stage it took on the feel of a rock concert. I couldn’t understand a word of her first three songs, although I noticed the young people who had gathered in front of the stage enjoyed them.
I didn’t grasp too many of the lyrics to the fourth one, either. What caught my attention, though, was Lacey’s remark beforehand—that the song expressed how she sensed God all around her the day she planned to commit suicide. The experience was so powerful that she knew there had to be a God.
Afterwards, when her band left the stage and she did an acoustic number, she shared the full story of how God had touched her so dramatically. Although at first I didn’t care much for her music, by the time she finished my opinion completely shifted.
Making a Difference
I had another surprise. The second night of the celebration, the crowd looked pretty small—filling less than half the arena (although full for the final evening). I wondered what kind of response Graham would receive.
Yet, when he concluded his remarks about having a purpose in life, dozens of people came to the front to pray with Graham and talk with counselors. The floor was full a third of the way back from the stage.
We can get so hung up on numbers that we think because the crowds for a Graham evangelistic event are smaller than they used to be, they aren’t as significant. More than 340 people who responded to Will’s invitations that weekend would argue that point.