A few years ago I was in Dallas, Texas, and we had a crowd of 30,000 to 40,000 people. I preached and gave an invitation and practically no one came forward. I left the platform a little bit perplexed and wondering what had happened. A saint from Germany put his arm around me and said, “Billy, could I say a word to you?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Son, you didn’t preach the Cross tonight. Your message was good, but you didn’t preach the Cross.” I went to my room and wept. I said, “Oh, God, so help me, there will never be a sermon that I preach unless the Cross is central.” Now, there are many mysteries to the Atonement, and I don’t understand all the light that comes from that Cross. But to lift it up is the secret of evangelistic preaching.
Response To The Cross
Evangelism must seek the response of the individual. A lady said to me sometime ago, “You know, Mr. Graham, our minister is a wonderful person, but for the life of me, I don’t know what he wants us to do.” There are many people like that. Are we failing to explain those things that to us are elementary? What is repentance? How long has it been since you preached a sermon on repentance just as you would explain it to a group of children? Dr. Louis Evans, one of our great Presbyterian ministers, said that in his preaching he found that the religious intelligence of the average American congregation is that of a 12-year-old. “I always talk to the people now as if they were children,” he added. Dr. James Denney once said, “If you shoot over the head of your congregation, you don’t prove anything except that you don’t know how to shoot.”
I’ve found that there is something powerful about using the language God used. And I go back to words like repentance and faith and the blood. Somehow the Holy Spirit makes it plain in simple terminology. That is what Christ did. When Christ preached, William Barclay says, he took his illustrations on the spur of the moment. He did not sit in a study and think them out. One day he saw a fig tree and used it as an illustration. We make it so complicated. Jesus explained things so simply that the common people heard him gladly. Of course, the Pharisees missed it. The intellectuals failed to grasp what he was talking about. Many times the condition of our hearts governs the receiving of the message, as much as does the explanation.
I think that the evangelist must recognize that many factors lead to a person’s commitment to Christ. I would go so far as to say I do not think I have ever led a soul to Christ. A pastor’s sermon, a mother’s prayer, an incident in battle—all these contribute to a process toward conversion. And those who will be converted in these meetings will be people who were not converted by the preaching of Billy Graham. I never claim that I lead anybody to Christ. I am just one in a series of many factors that bring people to this giving of themselves to the Saviour.
People come in different ways. Lydia was led by her emotions, the Philippian jailer by his will, Paul by his conscience, and Cornelius by his intellect. I certainly do not say that all come the same way.
It seems to me that evangelism must avoid over-emotion. Years ago I found that I could work on the emotions of the congregation and get people to respond, but without tears of repentance. They were tears of a superficial emotion. People come to Christ by hearing the Word of God. However, emotion does have its place. You cannot imagine two young people in love kissing each other out of a cold sense of duty. And the evangelist cannot offer free pardon for sinners and forbid any reaction of joy. The dread of emotion in religious experience has gone to extreme lengths. Dr. Sangster says: “Some critics appear to suspect any conversion which does not take place in a refrigerator.” In his little book Let Me Commend he goes on to say that “the man who screams at a football or baseball game, but is distressed when he hears of a sinner weeping at the Cross and murmurs something about the dangers of emotionalism hardly merits intelligent respect.” Folks can sit in front of a television set and watch “Gunsmoke,” or “I Love Lucy,” and laugh and bite their fingernails off. But if there is any joy or tear or smile over religion—then we are to watch out for emotion. That is one of the devil’s biggest laughs.
Extending The Invitation
Many people ask, why give a public invitation? This was a stumbling block to me for awhile, I must confess. And I would like to acknowledge in passing that so-called “mass evangelism” has deficits and assets. One deficit is this: People go to the meetings, they hear the beautiful singing, they are wonderfully lifted up in spirit, the preacher stands up and shouts and pounds the pulpit—and then they go back to church and wonder why church service is not the same.
I explain carefully in my preaching that the worship service is more important than the evangelistic service. The holiest moment is when we come to the Communion Table, for that is worship of God; it is his Church at worship. Ours is an evangelistic service to reach those outside the Church as well as those on the fringe of the Church. These are two different things, and the worship service is most important.
Nonetheless, it might do the people good if ministers started pounding the pulpit a bit. A lady said to me in San Francisco: “Mr. Graham, you know my preacher is preaching new sermons since you came. You really helped him.” I said, “Madam, did you come forward?” She said, “Oh, yes.” I said, “Could it be that you are listening with different ears, and that he’s preaching the same sermons?” She said, “I hadn’t thought about that. That may be.”
Moses gave an invitation in Exodus 32:26 when he said, “Who is on the Lord’s side? let him come unto me.” That was public invitation. Joshua gave an invitation: “Choose you this day whom ye will serve.” King Josiah gave a public invitation when he called on the assembly of the people, after the Book of the Law had been found and read to them, to stand in assent to the keeping of the Law. Ezra called upon the people to swear publicly to carry out his reformation.
Jesus gave many public invitations. He said to Peter and Andrew, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” He said to Matthew, “Follow me,” and the latter rose and followed him. Jesus invited Zaccheus publicly to come down out of the tree. “Zaccheus make haste, come down for today I will abide in your house.” Jesus told the parable of the slighted dinner invitation where the lord said to his servant: “Go out into the highways and hedges and compel them to come in, that my house may be full.” The Apostles gave invitations.
The Inquiry Room
The method of invitation we use is of comparatively recent origin, but the spirit and principle of the evangelistic invitation is, in my opinion, as old as the Bible itself. George Whitefield and John Wesley used to give public invitations, as did most of the evangelists.
However, the modern inquiry room that we use with personal counseling (we coined the term ‘counseling’ instead of personal workers) was not used so far as I can discover until 1817 when Ashland Middleton began using it. D. L. Moody made it popular and used it continually in his meetings; and when he would give an invitation, he would ask people to make their way not to the front but straight to a room. There he would go and speak to them all.
Now we found that the weakest aspect of mass evangelism was at this point. How to overcome it was the problem. How could we get people to make a profession or indicate their spiritual need and do it properly so that each one would be dealt with personally? In other words, mass evangelism was only a stage for personal evangelism.
And so we began to teach and train counselors to talk to each individual. These people who come forward are not all finders. Most of them are still seekers. They are inquiring; they are seeking help. They need someone to guide them, lead them, and direct them. You say that only the minister can do that. The early Church was made up of laymen, and I believe that too long we have had a gap between the laity and the clergy. Laymen ought to be in the work of evangelism. That makes for the most successful church.
Dean Barton Babbage told me that in the cathedral in Melbourne he has started what he calls “desk” night once a month. Members of the congregation go out and bring in unchurched people. On the first “desk” night, Sunday a week ago, he gave a public invitation and over 300 people in the cathedral came forward! These people who were trained in the counseling classes cannot stop, he said. They are bringing evangelism back into the churches. Ministers ought to be prepared for this, for it will be one of the results.
I remember the first time I went to Lambeth Palace to see the Archbishop of Canterbury, he told me a little story. He said, “You know, we have a little chapel here at Lambeth, and two cards came (from the Harringay meetings) and somehow they were sent to me (and this was about half-way through the Crusade). I took them immediately, because if you don’t, the Graham Organization is going to send those cards to a Baptist church!”
The Loss Of Babes
Suppose we treated newborn babies as carelessly as we treat new Christians. The infant mortality rate would be appalling. Here is a little baby coming into my home, and I would say: “Son, we’re so glad to have you in our home. Now, we hope you come around next Sunday, we’re going to give you a good dinner. It won’t last but an hour—but do come. See you next Sunday.” He would die! And yet here are persons who come to Christ as spiritual babes, and we expect them to come to church all by themselves on Sunday mornings and get enough food to last them until the next Sunday when they can come back for more. That is not God’s way at all! These people need help, guidance, leadership, and training in the study of the Word of God. I cannot possibly instruct all of them. I have them for one evening, and somehow the minister feels that the evangelist is to work miracles—that a new convert comes into the church a mature Christian, and if he should make one false move—in ignorance or in weakness—the church points the finger and says, “Uh, huh, a convert that didn’t last!” How pharisaical can we get? A beachhead has been established in their lives. Now it is up to us to follow through with an infantry attack. The Crusades can establish beachheads in thousands of lives. But it is up to the laymen of the church to follow through with the people. They need our help. They are spiritual babies. The obstetrician must be followed by the pediatrician.
Some have asked me how to approach these meetings? I might ask that you approach them with a concern for New South Wales. Secondly, may I ask that you intensify your prayers? We have one Achilles heel, one great danger, and that is overconfidence, complacency, and a feeling that the crusade is off to such a good start we can relax. Satan is going to attack from some direction, I don’t know where. Let’s build a wall of prayer. Thirdly, I hope you will come with humility and an open mind. I know that a lot of the methods used are foreign to many of you, and I feel for some of you ministers.
Fourthly, I trust that as you preach, you will make your sermons heart-warming and evangelistic. Take some of the old subjects like the new birth, repentance, faith, and justification, and see what happens. You say—but my people are already far beyond that! I do not believe that your Christian people are going to bring the unconverted into the church unless they think a simple gospel will be presented.
Fifthly, a word must be said about tolerance to theology and methods. Just after the Evanston Assembly of the World Council of Churches, I was invited by a Bishop and 18 of his clergymen to a city in Europe. The Dean of the Cathedral there opposed me until he had split the town, the Bishop being on one side with 18 clergymen, the Dean on the other with sixteen. And I wrote the Bishop and said it might be better if I don’t come because of the press headlines. He answered me, “No, you can’t let us down now. You must come.” So I went. I said, “Isn’t this particular man the man at Evanston that made such a wonderful statement in the committee about the need of unity when he expressed himself on the ecumenial movement?” He said, “Yes.” I replied, “then why isn’t he tolerant enough to go along with you now?” I shall never forget the Bishop’s smile when he said, “You see, Evanston is nearly six thousand miles from here.” In other words, in the top echelons we talk about an ecumenical attitude, but on the parish level when it comes down to something personal, when the chips are down, we’re not quite as ecumenical as we thought.
Perhaps when we get through, it will be like it was in Scotland when a Presbyterian came to me and said: “You know, I never had any use for those P.B.’s, but I met some of them who would make wonderful Presbyterians.” A Plymouth Brother has already told me that he has to change his whole attitude about the Church. He commented, “I have found men of God in the Anglican Church.” And he looked surprised! That happened down in Melbourne.
May I emphasize this important fact, however: a church’s spiritual life will never rise any higher than the personal life of its people. I am praying that to all of us will come a new spirit for Christ, a new consecration and dedication. One of the great Anglican leaders in Australia called me to his home, closed the door and locked it. He said to me, “I’ve been an Anglican priest for many years,” and then he started weeping: “I need a new experience of God.” We got on our knees and we prayed together.
Do you need a new experience with God, a new encounter with the living Christ? I pray that you will not be like Samson when he got up and wist not the Lord had departed from him. Have you done it the same old way until you are almost a perfectionist, but have lost the compassion, love, burden, and vision of the living Christ? Pray that it might return, and with a double portion of His Spirit.
We are the pottery
of Him who once
inscribed His signature
in circling suns,
who blew His breath
and left eternally
in dust the stuff
We are His work,
and though the vessel be
defiled and marred
by evil elements
still through the ruin
Comments on the care of converts by Evangelist Billy Graham to the ministers of Sydney, Australia, April 16, 1959.
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