“Yes, but will they last?” The question, concerning converts won in mass evangelism, is disturbingly familiar to any active supporter of Graham crusades.
As throngs moved down the aisles at Griffith Stadium in response to the evangelist’s invitation, the question forced itself upon observers and pushed its way into newspapers, as it has so often in the past.
Eternity was impinging upon time; decisions of infinite moment were being made. But still the question came. Sometimes it was asked sympathetically, exposing sincere anxiety or honest doubt. At times it was put in cold terms of abstract fact or intellectual curiosity. Then again it was aired cynically, as a mocking echo to claims made for the crusade. “Do they really last?”
For some, the historic waves of mass evangelism constitute emotional movements which trouble society—inflicting guilt complexes upon the unwary—burning themselves out and later rising phoenix-like from their ashes to loose another cycle of attrition. Ask such a one the meaning of personal decisions for Christ made in evangelistic campaigns, and he may reply with further questions: “Are these not psychic phenomena whose explanation is obscured in a twilight zone of irrational fantasy? Are they not as dancing chimeras in a shadowland of the aberrant? Is not religious experience, after all, an ineffable matter. And therefore is not the evangelistic effort to press it into a mold—is this not more futile than a search for the Holy Grail? Of course, a vast rally may kindle a flash of light, but it will surely vanish in the morning mists … or later.”
Granted is the impossibility of fully explaining or totally comprehending a man’s meeting with his God in a restored fellowship through Jesus Christ. But that this renders evangelism impossible is quite another thesis, as is the implication that the results of the crusade would be as ephemeral as they were elusive.
These issues had been faced by those who served as counselors in the Washington crusade, along with others who sang in the choir, ushered, and opened homes for prayer meetings. Their number alone—several thousands—constituted a patent answer. Like most Americans, they were busy folk, and they had not sacrificed the many hours for a search after a will-o’-the-wisp. For the great majority of them had already met the Master, and this experience was now basic to all others in their lives.
For the sincere questioner, some food for thought was supplied by a Th.M. thesis examining results of Billy Graham’s four-week Greater Louisville (Kentucky) Crusade, held in the fall of 1956. Submitted to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary by the Rev. George P. Bowers, now a military chaplain in Washington, the dissertation provides an account of the crusade counseling and follow-up program. In evaluating the program. Bowers had recourse to official crusade records. To supplement these, he conducted, with the aid of three interviewers, a survey of 100 “inquirers” (those responding to Graham’s public invitation) chosen at random.
Crusade records revealed that 78 per cent of the inquirers were said to be attending church. Sixty-six per cent were called professing Christians, and figures indicated a net average increase in church membership of from two to six members for each participating church.
Bowers’ own survey showed the Christology of the great majority of inquirers to be orthodox, as reflected in their belief in Christ’s Deity, Virgin Birth, Resurrection, and Second Coming.
But he points more than once to disappointing statistics on follow-up. Crusade records showed that of 7,909 inquirers referred to pastors, only 52 per cent of them were actually contacted. Of the 100 persons sampled by Bowers. 47 were contacted after making decisions, though only 22 by pastors and 16 by counselors who had spoken with them in the inquiry room. The crusade program had called for each inquirer to be contacted twice, once by pastor and once by counselor.
Bowers suggests the Graham organization aid ministers by setting up workshops to give guidance in pastoral care and counseling of inquirers. He also advises establishment of a follow-up office staffed by full-time Graham personnel for at least two or three months after a crusade, to encourage and supplement pastoral follow-up.
Inclined to agree with a plan of this sort, in light of past ministerial failures, is Dr. Robert O. Ferm, visiting professor and lecturer of Houghton (New York) College. But as one who has personally interviewed some 10,000 Graham converts in the United States, Europe, and Asia, and thus would seem to be the premier authority on crusade results. Ferm is unimpressed with many of Bowers’ findings based on a survey of but 100 persons. Bowers himself was careful to stress that his Louisville findings do not necessarily reflect results of Graham crusades held in other cities, noting such variables as extent of ministerial support and follow-up participation.
Ferm points out that Louisville is the home of two evangelical theological seminaries, Southern Baptist seminary being the world’s second largest. Thus Louisville with extensive exposure to evangelism stands in stark contrast to a city such as London.
Or take New York. Executive Director Dan Potter of the city’s Protestant Council reported that a check among 59 churches of the council revealed that 44 per cent of the inquirers referred were not church members. In contrast to Louisville’s 22 per cent, Dr. Ferm states that the figure usually hovers around 50 per cent.
Moreover, says Ferm, converts among church members are not to be discounted. “Church leaders are reminding us that there are hosts of unconverted church members on the rolls.” Billy Graham has enjoyed marked success in bringing many of these to a decision for Christ.
On the other hand, some churches in the New York area reported attendance gains of 40 per cent and more. In Nashville, two churches reported that more than 90 per cent of the inquirers assigned to them had become baptized members.
Billy Graham had warned New Yorkers that the crusade there would not be felt for at least three years. Dr. Ferm cautions against checking; results too soon after a crusade. He delayed his trip through Asia in Graham’s wake until more than two years had elapsed. Interviewing those who had come out of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism, he was able to report that comparatively few had returned to their old way of life. Another survey in New York City indicated that 95 per cent of those who signed cards adhered to their original decision. Bowers’ study indicates that the response of the vast majority of inquirers seemed to represent an unusual, sincere action. He discounts curiosity and emotional pressure.
But there remains the problem of follow-up. While the San Francisco crusade reported 90 per cent of its inquirers contacted, New York could claim only 33 per cent. Efforts are continually being made to tighten up the program at this point. Heading the crusade counselor training program in Washington was dedicated Baptist layman Dan Piatt, a Graham team member. Soberly acknowledging the awesome responsibilities of caring for those newly born into the kingdom, Piatt spoke of the constant development and evolution of the program. Indeed, certain of Bowers’ criticisms and suggestions no longer apply. Qualifications for crusade counselors had been raised. A new series of Bible study materials, considered by team members of strategic importance for future crusades, was being released and Washington counselors were the first to be assigned a home study course along with Piatt’s classes. His lectures were augmented by a new illustrative film strip.
Some 2000 persons took the counseling course, followed by a personal interview of each trainee who actually applied to become a counselor. Personal testimony of Christian experience and previous soul winning was requested. More than 900 made the grade. Each was required to give post-crusade reports on the spiritual progress of inquirers assigned them. New forms were provided both counselors and inquirers to take notes on their ministers’ sermons. Piatt urged the ministers to contact inquirers assigned them within 72 hours and when impossible, to have an able substitute do it.
Bowers had spoken highly of Graham’s pioneering attempt to personalize mass evangelism and the remarkable degree of self-criticism and examination manifest in the Graham team. He also spoke of the lack of specific criticism by ministers of Graham’s counseling and follow-up program and drew from this an indication that the local churches share the weaknesses of the team, but to a greater extent. Graham told the Washington ministers that the counseling program was the most important of all crusade activities. But among some ministers was a feeling that the city’s pressure of events decreed little time for lingering over a bygone crusade. Such an attitude suggested that some local churches were pioneering in a field in which they should have been expert—training of personal witnesses for year-round service. If lasting results will seem meager to certain churches, it will not do simply to carp at the Graham team—in very large measure the results were squarely up to the ministers and their laymen.
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