A scientifically conducted survey evaluates the lasting effects of the 1976 Billy Graham crusade in Seattle.

The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has record of 18,136 inquirers from the greater Seattle crusade. There are about 1,200 churches in the area. Because the cost of surveying everyone connected with the crusade was prohibitive, 1,010 people were scientifically selected in random fashion to eliminate bias. Of these, about 500 were inquirers, 250 were ministers, and 250 were lay leaders from the local churches. While every reasonable effort was made to contact all 1,010, some had relocated without leaving a forwarding address, and some had died.

The mailing began in the fall of 1979. A seven-page questionnaire was sent to ministers and lay leaders, which asked questions on the respondent’s theological beliefs and participation in the crusade, and on the effectiveness of the crusade as that individual perceived it in various areas. Of 190 ministers located and surveyed, 104 returned completed questionnaires (55 percent). Of 169 lay leaders, 128 responded (76 percent).

The questionnaire sent inquirers was three-and-a-half pages long. It asked questions on the nature of the follow-up activity by a local church or BGEA, on the lasting effect of the commitment, and on the respondent’s education, marital status, and so on. Of the 314 located and surveyed, 189 returned completed forms (60 percent).

In a mail survey, the percentage of responses is more important than the actual number of responses. The lower the percentage, the greater the possible degree of bias in the results. Dr. Firebaugh’s goal was a 70 percent response; this was reached only for the lay leaders, and means that while general conclusions drawn from the survey are accurate, each number cannot be considered exact.

When BGEA decided to do this study, it contacted Dr. Firebaugh for advice. His part in the process was, first, to guide in selection of the sample. He then directed the writing of the questionnaire, and worked out the procedure for coding answers to the questions for computer analysis. He did the statistical analysis, drew the conclusions, and wrote the article.

How effective is the city-wide crusade approach to evangelism? Some say it is critically important. Others say it is not worth the effort.

A partial answer comes from assessing the lasting effect of Billy Graham’s Seattle crusade in May 1976 (called by Decision magazine in 1976 the “most exciting and successful U.S. Billy Graham crusade in years”). This assessment was done through surveying a scientifically selected sample of the principals involved: area ministers (both participating and nonparticipating), church lay leaders, and inquirers. (Months before the crusade, the pastor of each church appointed one “lay leader” to lead crusade activities within his congregation. An “inquirer” is a person who makes a public decision at the crusade.)

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This summary report focuses mainly on survey results from ministers and lay leaders.

Attitudes About The Seattle Crusade

Table 1 summarizes the responses of the ministers and lay leaders to the following question: “How would you rate the effectiveness of the Pacific Northwest Crusade (very positive, somewhat positive, no effect, somewhat negative, very negative): As a revival effort of the local church? As an evangelistic thrust?” and so on. (For the other options, see Table 1). Certain patterns are notable.

First, a majority of both ministers and lay leaders rated the crusade effective. In response to the summary question, “Everything considered, the effect of the crusade was …” about seven out of eight lay leaders, and two out of three pastors, said the crusade had a positive effect—even though the survey included those who had not finally participated in the crusade.

Second, the ministers and lay leaders felt the crusade was more effective in some areas than in others. In particular, note the difference between the percentages rating the crusade positive overall (64 percent of ministers, 88 percent of lay leaders) and the percentages reporting direct church growth from the crusade (12 percent and 21 percent). Local church leaders apparently do not evaluate crusades solely on the basis of growth in membership in their churches (more on this later). Furthermore, the percentage of churches reporting growth should not be confused with the number of people joining churches. The latter could be substantial, but concentrated in a few churches. This seems especially likely where, as was the case in the Seattle/Tacoma crusade (see below), relatively few churches took the lead in follow-up.

Even more important, most of the people helped were already members of churches. In all such cases church growth and membership gains would be zero, but for many of these people the crusade made the difference between life and death. For others, also church members before the crusade, it was a time of spiritual growth and commitment.

Third, there are some who believe that the overall effect of the crusade was negative (not shown in Table 1). However, such assessments are relatively rare and, to the extent that they are present, are most prevalent among nonparticipating ministers (20 percent). Among participating ministers, only 7 percent believed the crusade had a negative effect. Among lay leaders, this negative sentiment is almost nonexistent (2 percent).

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Finally, lay leaders tend to be more positive in their evaluations than ministers (see Table 1). Remember, these lay leaders represented their congregations in the crusade; thus, typically, lay leaders were actually involved in the crusade while ministers may or may not have been. This suggests that those with firsthand experience in the crusade are more likely to see it as effective. We can examine this hypothesis more directly.

Effect Of Participation On Attitudes

Are participants more likely than nonparticipants to evaluate the crusade positively? Table 2 presents the evaluations (the “everything considered” question of Table 1) of ministers and lay leaders, classified by both their personal involvement and their church’s involvement. Ministers who participated personally were more likely to give the crusade a positive rating (71 percent versus 55 percent for nonparticipants). Among ministers whose churches were involved, 80 percent rated the crusade positively; in slightly involved churches, 64 percent did so; in uninvolved churches, 37 percent.

Similarly, for lay leaders, there is a direct relation between participation and evaluation of the crusade, with even higher percentages of approval than for ministers. Among lay leaders in involved churches, 95 percent approved; in slightly involved churches, 82 percent approved; in uninvolved churches, 50 percent approved. The more one was involved, of course, the more information he had for judging the crusade. And it is the more involved group that rate the crusade the most positively—so we might conclude that the crusade was, in fact, effective.

But there is another possible interpretation. Perhaps only the people who believed in the effectiveness of crusades became involved in the first place, while those who were critical stayed away. In that case, we might expect one group to be positive and the other negative, quite apart from the real effect of the crusade.

Fortunately, other survey results help here. The survey included a question about how the experience affected attitudes (“Did the crusade make you more positive or more negative about the Graham crusades?”). Considering ministers and lay leaders together, and without regard to participation, 40 percent are in fact more positive; only 12 percent are more negative; 48 percent kept their previous attitude. But is changed attitude related to participation?

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The responses to the question support the view that the crusade produced a significant switch toward being positive among many of the participants. Table 3 shows this. Among participating ministers, 37 percent are more positive than before. By contrast, among ministers who did not participate, 10 percent are now more positive. Among ministers in involved churches, 33 percent are now more positive; in slightly involved churches, 24 percent; in uninvolved churches, 17 percent. This again shows that the more one immediately observed the crusade, the more likely he was to change to a more favorable attitude toward it.

A similar pattern appears for lay leaders. Among those participating, 57 percent are now more positive. But among lay leaders who did not participate (they were appointed by their pastors long before the crusade, but did not function), 29 percent are now more positive. Among lay leaders in involved churches, 56 percent are now more positive; in slightly involved churches, 47 percent; in uninvolved churches, 22 percent.

In short, for both lay leaders and ministers there is a direct relation between participation and change of attitude: compared to nonparticipants, participants are more likely to become more positive after the crusade than before. Apparently knowledge of the crusade increased approval of it.

Church Growth And The Effectiveness Of Crusades

The research reported here indicates that in an area which has experienced a Graham crusade a majority of ministers and lay leaders believe the crusade was effective. But it also shows that about half of them changed their attitudes toward the crusade because of what they observed. Interestingly, an earlier, widely circulated study of the same crusade concludes that it was not very effective (Win Arn, “Mass Evangelism: The Bottom Line,” Church Growth: America, vol. 4, no. 1, 1978. The study itself was conducted in 1977). How are we to reconcile these different assessments?

The basic reason for the difference concerns the differing criteria used to judge effectiveness. The 1977 Arn study defines effectiveness in terms of direct numerical church growth. As Dr. Arn puts it, church growth (which he measures solely in terms of growth in church membership) is the “bottom line.”

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By contrast, local church leaders take a broader view in assessing effectiveness. This is graphically illustrated in Table 1:12 percent of the ministers and 21 percent of the lay leaders said the crusade was effective with respect to the numerical growth of their churches, yet 64 percent of the ministers and 88 percent of the lay leaders rated the crusade effective overall (in fact, the 1977 study itself found that one in two ministers would favor another crusade within three years!).

It seems safe to assume that local church leaders considered more than the numerical growth of their churches in evaluating the crusade. Table 1 suggests some of these other factors: revival, evangelism and training for evangelism, raising the spiritual consciousness of the area, uniting denominations for a single cause, training for counseling. All these were given fairly positive ratings by ministers and lay leaders.

It is hard to find fault with the broader view taken by ministers and lay leaders. A church-growth specialist might emphasize numerical membership growth, but it hardly seems proper to assume that the only task of the church is to add to its membership rolls. Actually, most evangelicals are concerned about increasing their local congregation’s membership, and the church-growth movement has done stellar service to sharpen our focus and help us achieve this goal. The widely circulated Arn report of the 1977 study concludes with six steps for increasing the effectiveness of crusades (e.g., provide adequate church-growth training for ministers and key lay leaders). All six steps give solid help to churches to enable them to increase their membership. In the process of arriving at these steps, however, the report strongly implies that the effect of the Seattle/Tacoma crusade was minuscule. It is this implication, not the six steps, which the present research calls into serious question.

Numerical Growth

But suppose we do accept numerical growth in membership as the sole criterion for a crusade’s effectiveness. Did the Graham crusade in the Seattle/Tacoma area fail on this score? The evidence from the 1977 study does not support such a conclusion. A number of that study’s shortcomings reduce its value. I will note two.

First, the 1977 study assumes that none of those converted in the crusade were church members. Based on this assumption, Dr. Arn estimates that only 15 percent of the converts were added to the church rolls. He comments (p. 6): “But certainly 85 out of every 100 professing conversions now not incorporated in a church does leave room for concern.” Before we search too long and too hard for these “missing 85,” however, we ought to note that many cannot be “incorporated” because they are already church members.

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This is not to say, of course, that crusades are completely successful in incorporating nonmembers into churches. Two aspects in particular need improvement: local church involvement in follow-up, and the matching of an individual with a church.

All observers—from members of BGEA to local church leaders to church growth specialists—agree that local church involvement is crucial to a crusade’s success. Involvement in follow-up is especially critical for successful placement of inquirers in churches. An overwhelming majority (90 percent) of the local church leaders feel that the local church, not BGEA or the crusade committee, has primary responsibility for follow-up. Yet only one minister in three said his church was “involved” or “very involved” in follow-up (one in four said “slightly involved”; 42 percent said “uninvolved”). Local church involvement in follow-up, then, appears to be one aspect with much room for improvement. The potential for even greater effectiveness through crusades is there, but cannot be fully realized without involvement of the local church in follow-up.

Further, the method of matching individual inquirers with a church could affect the degree of incorporation. For example, some people feel uncomfortable in formal churches; others feel uncomfortable in informal ones. Church-growth specialists could be very helpful here, advising BGEA and others on the best criteria to use.

Second, membership growth depends on two things: not only adding, but also retaining members; we should not minimize this. In 1976 (the year of the crusade) most major denominations experienced severe net losses in membership. A church that is to grow needs not only to bring in new members: it also needs to retain current ones. Unfortunately, the 1977 survey ignores the possible role of the crusade in preventing dropouts.

How many people are now church members as a result of the 1976 Seattle/Tacoma crusade? The 1977 study was based on responses of ministers who, one year after the event, estimated the whole figure at 1,285. To examine the situation further, we asked the inquirers themselves. A majority said they were church members before the crusade; nevertheless, 16 percent said that they are now church members because of the crusade. With a total of 18,136 inquirers, this indicates that roughly 2,900 people are now new church members because of the crusade. Furthermore, this estimate does not include numerical church growth that results indirectly from the crusade. For example, many local church leaders feel the crusade was effective in training for evangelism (see Table 1); if that is so, such training also contributes to church growth.

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Total membership gains, therefore, are difficult, if not impossible, to ascertain with any exactness. They can be easily underestimated. But if we discount all indirect gains and assume that, among those who failed to respond to the survey, none became members of any church (a most improbably assumption), the Arn estimate of 1,285 still understates the number of new members by at least 450, even on this very unreasonable interpretation of the data.

Finally, I should underscore that the 1977 study judges church growth solely in terms of increases in church membership. This focus could be questioned (note that to facilitate comparisons with the 1977 study, the above revised estimate of church growth likewise considers only new members). The problem with this focus, of course, is that the term “church growth” usually connotes more than longer church rolls. Could not increase in attendance, for example, qualify as church growth? Increasing church membership is not the only way to increase church attendance: current members could attend more frequently, or nonmembers could begin attending. The survey of inquirers, therefore, asks about church attendance both before and after the crusade. The responses indicate that, on the average, inquirers are more frequent church attenders now. With 18,000-plus inquirers and roughly 1,200 churches in the area, the effect of the crusade on average church attendance should not be overlooked

Lasting Impact On Individuals

We should consider not only numerical church growth, but personal spiritual development as well: Did the crusade have a lasting positive effect on the spiritual development of inquirers? We asked the inquirers questions about their frequency of prayer, Bible study, and so on, before the crusade and now. Respondents consistently reported greater frequency now. However, such questions—which depend on the respondent’s memory of activities three or more years earlier—are subject to error, so these results should be viewed with caution.

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One result, however, is particularly interesting. We asked: “What effect has this commitment had in your life? (very positive effect, positive effect, no effect, negative effect, very negative effect).” Eighty-three percent said the effect was positive or very positive; 15 percent said no effect; only 3 percent said negative or very negative. Similarly, when asked, “If you had it to do all over again, would you still make this commitment?” eighty-six percent said yes (2 percent said no: 12 percent said they didn’t know).

Do the ministers agree with the inquirers’ assessments? To find out, we sent a supplementary survey to ministers of the 50 churches that received the most referrals, asking about specific inquirers referred to them. We asked: “In your judgment what sort of lasting spiritual impact did the crusade have on this person? (very positive effect, somewhat positive effect, no effect, somewhat negative effect, very negative effect).” The ministers judged that for 67 percent of the individuals the crusade has had a lasting positive impact.

One final observation: results of the survey of inquirers suggest that mass evangelism is individual evangelism in a mass setting. We asked inquirers why they attended the crusade. The responses indicated that personal invitations are more important than general invitations, announcements, or advertisements. The implication is that crusades are effective to the extent that they mobilize individuals in an area. For this the role of the local church is paramount. The 1977 study comes to the same conclusion.


Local church leaders give the 1976 Seattle/Tacoma Billy Graham crusade relatively high marks in most areas. Lay leaders are even more positive than ministers. Among both ministers and lay leaders, participants are much more positive than nonparticipants.

The positive evaluation given by local church leaders is at variance with the conclusion of the earlier study of the crusade, which has a number of shortcomings. It overlooks the fact that many of the converts were already church members. Of those who were not, some joined a church. While others did not, the earlier study exaggerates the number in this category. The fact is, many converts who did not join a church are not to be reckoned as insincere or as having experienced a superficial conversion. Rather, they did not join a church after their conversion experience because they were unconverted church members—already church members before the crusade.

Membership growth, therefore, tells only a small part of the story. Many ministers and most lay leaders report that the crusade was effective in reviving the local church, in training church members in evangelism and counseling, in raising the spiritual consciousness of the area, and in uniting denominations for a single cause. Most of those who made public commitments at the crusade say that the effect of the commitment has been positive, and that they now attend church, study the Bible, and pray more often. Asking local ministers about the lasting impact of crusade commitments confirms these positive results.

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