- (Photo: BGEA)
Editor's Note: In a season where every day seems to bring a new assault on traditional Biblical views, there are nonetheless a whole new generation of young pastors preaching orthodox biblical Christianity and seeing their churches grow exponentially because of it. The Christian Post has picked but a few of scores of pastors enjoying the favor of God in this way, in an effort to find out what about the Gospel resonates in today's generation.
Pastors interviewed are under 40, most, but not all, in urban settings and are attracting Christians over a wide age spectrum, including Millenials and Generation X. These pastors uphold traditional biblical views of family and morality, yet attract young people and are gaining national reputations.
Today we spotlight Will Graham, 38, who is unique among the other church leaders featured in this series because he does not currently pastor a church. He is the grandson of Billy Graham, a third generation evangelist, vice president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and executive director of the Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove.
Following in the footsteps of his grandfather and father, Will Graham is a third-generation evangelist who has seen thousands of people put their faith in Jesus Christ during his evangelistic Celebration events.
All three generations of Grahams are still actively trying to reach nonbelievers with the Gospel. Will has evangelistic events planned for both Japan and Thailand later this year, he told The Christian Post. His father, Franklin, has events planned for Iceland and Thailand. His grandfather, Billy, will be shown delivering what will likely be his last sermon during the "My Hope with Billy Graham" event in November.
Will says he misses being the pastor of a local church, but "when God calls you to do something you've got to do it, and I'm grateful for that as well."
An edited transcript of Will Graham's interview with The Christian Post is below:
CP: Through your Celebrations and other evangelistic outreaches you've experienced success gathering people to orthodox Christianity in a generation that has grown increasingly opposed to it. How can you explain that?
Graham: Well, I think a lot of the things that I get to see benefits from today in my lifetime is really a direct result of my grandfather. And it's really related to the name that God has given my grandfather, and that's a good name. Billy Graham, my grandfather, has represented Christ well. He's not a perfect man, but he has been above reproach. He's a man of integrity, and God has used him in a mighty way all around the world.
And therefore God has given him a good name, and that good name is transferred to me just because I physically have it. It doesn't mean I'm a good person, it just means that because of my last name it opens up doors for me. And when people hear the name Billy Graham, like the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, they know what it represents: It represents Jesus Christ, and how to make him known to other people…
My grandfather worked with all different types of denominations, some that people wouldn't agree with. What people realize is we would all come together for one purpose, and that's to share how people can put their faith into Jesus Christ, how their sins can be forgiven through Christ, and every denomination believes that. And that was the central, core thing of my grandfather's teaching. And he realized there was different denominations, different theological bents, but when it came to Jesus, everybody needs Jesus, and that without Jesus, there's no hope for this world. There's no forgiveness of sins.
And so that's what people realize, that my granddaddy was central on that theme. He wasn't going to get into other theologies, other doctrines. He didn't focus on those things. He focuses on Jesus and the cross...Because my grandfather focused on that, our organization's still able to draw multiple different types of denominations together that usually don't work together, and they come together for the sake of sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. And so what's nice about the Billy Graham name, whether it's an organization or a person, it brings people together for the sake of sharing their faith, the simple message of Jesus Christ.
There's a lot more to Christianity than just Jesus on the cross. There's a lot more. And we have to grow in that relationship…but we leave that part to the local church and their particular beliefs and their ways of doing it. And so we're not trying to instruct churches on that stuff. We leave that to them, but we want to bring churches together to share the good news of Jesus Christ. And that's what I appreciate about my grandfather and what he's represented, because I get to benefit from that today.
CP: What kind of preacher are you? Whenever you're doing Celebrations or some kind of outreach, are you an expository preacher? An exegetical preacher? A little bit of both?
Graham: Predominantly expository. Now, you've got to understand a lot of people claim to be expository and they're not, because that's a cool word. I'm the guy that kind of goes through a passage like verse by verse, and it's usually a narrative, like a story, and I'll use the biblical story to tell about biblical truth, and then how to then apply it to our world today.
And, in the middle of that, I'll give a very, very clear Gospel presentation in the middle of it. So, we may be talking about the Old Testament, but I will get to Jesus on the cross somehow. The Old Testament story paints the framework of what I'm trying to tell you. Or, whether it's New Testament as well, I always get to the cross. Even though the cross may not be mentioned in the passage I'll bring it back to the cross and how Jesus can save. So almost every one of my messages will, at one time, will sound just like the other ones, because I always get back to the cross and what Jesus did on the cross in order to save us.
But, I always considered myself an expository preacher. I would say probably at least 90 percent, 95 percent of my sermons would be along those lines. I don't preach it every time. In fact, I just preached one on "time" the other day that was based on the theme of time, so I took different passages from different parts of the Bible and talked about time. But it's usually an exception for me.
CP: I know that your organization is focused on bringing people to Jesus, like you said, and you've kind of allowed the local churches to deal with some of the other theological issues from then on. But what about some of the hard places, some of the ones where society has really come against Christian beliefs, how do you maintain orthodoxy there?
Graham: There's some places, like India, where they're just very critical, in the sense that probably more Christians have been killed in India in the last few years than any other place in the world. For the most part it goes unreported, and it's Hindus killing Christians, not Muslims. It's Hindus killing Christians, radical Hindus. And so when I preach in India, near around these radical Hindus, what I try not to do is bash their religion. So I'm not here to talk about Hinduism; I'm talking about Jesus. And when I talk about Jesus and what he does, these people, automatically, they start to see the difference of what Christ can do compared to what their beliefs can do or not do.
And so I focus on Jesus. I don't focus on their religion. I don't go in and bash their religion. And therefore, they usually don't get too upset. There's always some that are going to be upset, especially these radicals…And, to be honest, they've always been very respectful to me. They don't like what I do, but they've always been nice, they've been hospitable, but…the Christians that stay there, they'll make their life miserable. But we've seen a lot of them come to know Christ, and God's doing some amazing work. But one of the key things I've tried not to do is to bash other religions. I will make distinctions, at times, but I never try to make them feel bad for what they believe. I want to present Jesus. Jesus will convict them…
CP: How do you keep the Bible in one hand, preaching orthodox theology, but balance that with being relevant to the young generation and engaging the culture, whatever culture it is that you're focused on at the time?
Graham: It's easy. Christianity's always relative no matter where you live, what culture, what time you live in. It's always been relative. It's all the things that we go through in life. Every person goes through the same things in life. We may not all experience the same things but there's not just one person that's experienced cancer, there's millions of people that experienced cancer. There's millions of people that experienced loneliness. There's millions of people that experienced adultery. Many people have tried drugs. I mean there's all these things that it doesn't matter what culture, what time, what century-we've all dealt with things like this. We've all dealt with children. We've all had troubles in marriages, and struggles, personal struggles, doubts. And so, Christianity speaks to everything. That's what I love about the Bible – it's never out of date.
And so for us, we just kind of take a thing that we see in life and apply it to what the scripture says. For example, I heard this yesterday, I loved it, and so I'm going to steal it from one of my coworkers. He's talking about joy and happiness. He said happiness, or joy, is the sign that you're saved. And then he compared it to when we go to England, and you're at Buckingham Palace. If the queen is in, the flag is up. It represents that she's there, that royalty is now present in this particular building. If she goes to another castle, they raise the flag there, and then they take it down at Buckingham. If she leaves, they take it down. And so the flag represents where she is. And so joy is kind of like our flag being raised, that we have Christ in our hearts… And right now, especially with a lot of talk about the royal family due to the birth of a baby, you know that's an easy thing for people to identify with…And it's just a symbol of what's present. And joy is the symbol that we have Christ in our life. So I thought that's a great illustration of teaching biblical truth with a practical illustration that people can somewhat relate to…
CP: I know that you have worship music at your evangelistic outreach, and one of the things that changes over time is the preferred style of worship music, or it varies for different cultures in the world. But even as styles of music change, what are some things you look for in a good worship song? Is there a specific message, or theological view, or something else?
Graham: No, I look for the person. For me, I look for the person's heart. Does this person who I'm working with, this group, group of people, this artist I'm working with, do they have a heart to reach people for Jesus Christ. Now, almost all of them will say that. I've yet to meet one that said, "No, that's not what we do. We just entertain people." I've never heard someone say that, but there's some I would never want to work with because they're in it for the wrong reasons. It's all about them. It's not about serving others…It's a business, and I won't work with them.
So I look for people that I want to have a heart for what I do. They'll go out of their way, whether it's an inconvenience of time to come and help me...They need to make a living too, but I can't pay their normal fees sometimes. I wish I could, but the locals pay for everything and they just don't have the money to spend…So my budget's real small. And so we can afford $5,000. Well this artist requires $8,000, but [they'll say], "Well, we'll do this in a heartbeat. We love what you're doing. We want to be a part of it. We love seeing people come to know Christ. We want to be a part."
Those are the people I'm looking for. I'm not trying to lowball them. I'm trying to give them everything I can, but the local budget's what the local budget is. It's kind of what the locals have raised and I can't give them any more. These are the people I want to work with, and there's a lot of them too. Please don't misunderstand me. There's a lot of good ones out there that have the same heart…But I tell you, these guys have been a huge blessing to me, many of these artists have been. The music changes, and I'm not interested in the style of music. I just want the style that people want to listen to and that attracts people and that tells about Jesus.
But we also use bands that are not Christian. Like, they're not Christian artists. For example, Johnny Cash. Now, Johnny Cash is gone, but Johnny Cash would have been the perfect example. Ricky Skaggs. These are believers, but they don't have Christian bands. I mean, they're not under Christian labels or something like that…But these are great, godly men who love the Lord and they'll just sing some of their country songs, some of their well-known songs, but they tie it into Christ somehow through a story that they're going to share or something like that. So we just don't use Christian artists. We've used artists that are Christian though. Just a small distinction there, but we've used a whole different group of people.
…A lot of people don't realize this: In different cultures music's different. For example, you go to Japan right now, you know what the hottest music is? It's like a black, gospel music. That is huge, and it's secular. Even the secular people, this is big music for them. So secular people will come to church to hear the black, gospel music, and so that blows me out of the water…
CP: Whenever you're going to those different regions of the world, do you try to find worship artists that can perform styles of music that are popular in the moment?
Graham: Yeah. I normally don't take American groups overseas with me at all. Sometimes it's a financial reason, especially if there's twelve band members and you've got to fly them to Africa, it gets real expensive. So we might take one or two artists or something like that, but sometimes that American music just doesn't translate into their culture. That's not how they worship. And so we try to find local talent that people like and identify with and enjoy and stuff like that.
Sometimes we'll take them overseas, because that person's very well known in that country. I remember we took Ricky Skaggs to Scotland. And we're like, we got Ricky Skaggs – I didn't think that would fit…We're telling people: "Hey, come on out, these people are going to be playing, and we got Ricky Skaggs." "Wait a minute, you got Ricky Skaggs?" And bluegrass music was real big in Scotland, and a lot of people came just to hear Ricky Skaggs, that style of music, and that was kind of a surprise to me.
So sometimes God kind of opens up things you weren't expecting. These artists have been a huge blessing to me. They do a part that I cannot do. Trust me, there's not a Graham that can carry a note or sing a note. We are tone deaf; we are the worst singers in the world. So that part we can't do, but we're grateful that artists will come alongside. And we have some artists – they pay their own way, they waive their fees. They do anything to help the BGEA, and we're so grateful for artists like that, very thankful for them.
CP: You're evangelistic events obviously target those who do not have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, but is there an element of edification or discipleship to them too? And, how do you balance evangelism and edification in your messages?
Graham: My granddaddy and I, my dad, we all believe that one of the greatest mission fields are the church people…They grew up going to church, they do it because it's what's expected, and they like it. But to them, they don't realize it, but to them they've made it into a social club or something. And so we've seen a lot of people that go to church that make decisions for Christ.
As a matter of fact, most of the decisions will come into our training that we do before the Crusades, or, in my case, the Celebrations. We have training, where we train people to share their faith. We train people to be counselors, and when they go through that training, many of them realize, "You know what, I'm not a Christian." And they've been going to church. As a matter of fact, they signed up to volunteer to be a counselor. And so we'll see a lot of our church conversion inside our training classes when they start going through our material. And they don't realize it but we actually present the gospel to them, and we give them a chance to respond. And many of them respond for the very first time, and they were there to share their faith with a non-Christian when they weren't Christians themselves…
During the event, we see a lot of believers are rededicating their life. Maybe they've been in a relationship they shouldn't be in, they've been struggling with sin in their life, they've wandered away from God and they want to come back. We've seen a whole bunch of things. So we see a lot of rededications for Christ of Christians there.
And…we've got some Christian music, so maybe these are the real good Christians. When I talk about good Christians in the sense that they're strong in their walk, they're following Christ, they're obedient, their Christian life is very much evident in their life, and they're the kind of leaders of the event. They've been inviting their non-Christian friends to come. I think it's a source of encouragement and excitement, because they're seeing the people they brought, their friends, whether it's their kids, their family, their coworkers, their neighbors, whatever they brought, they've seen them come to know Christ. And they're encouraged, they're excited, and it makes them want to go share their faith again with somebody else, to help lead them to Christ, because they've been praying for that individual. Now they get to see that person come to know Christ. It gets them really excited.
CP: Another goal of your events is to make sure that those who commit their lives to Christ also get established in a local church. Now, as someone who upholds orthodox Christian teachings, do you also try to make sure they get plugged into churches that teach along orthodox lines?
Graham: There's some difference between what we say corporately and…privately. Now, I'm not saying two different messages. I'm saying I have my own private beliefs. But as an organization, I put my private beliefs kind of to the side, and I would say it gets a little bit more open. Like, my arms are a little bit wider open because, as an organization, we work with a whole bunch of different denominations.
So what we do is when we talk to a person that came forward, they decided to become a Christian, we ask them a few questions that kind of help us know how to help them. One of those question is did you ever grow up going to church? And so they'll say, "Yes I did. My parents, we were kind of Methodist growing up but we weren't very strong in our faith. We weren't very religious." Okay. And so when this person comes to know Christ, what we'll do is we'll find, because he has a Methodist background, then what we do is we find one of those Methodist churches that's near where he lives that's been helping us. And so it may be like a half a mile or five miles down the road, and say, "Hey, this Methodist church over here, this is a good one to go to. We encourage you to go to it"…
So we try to keep people in the denomination that they're used to and that are physically close to their house. I admit, some churches are stronger than others. Some follow up very well and teach the Bible well. Some churches don't. Every church is different. But that's the part that we just have to kind of trust God and say, "God, help this person to grow." We as an organization will follow up with every church to make sure that the names that we've given them – whether it's 10 names, 20 names, 100 names – to make sure that they've followed up with each and every one, that they've made contact and they've got them coming into church. And so we just don't hand the names over and say, "All right, good luck. We'll see you guys in 20 years when we come back." No. We'll come back and we stay there and make sure everybody's followed up. But we try to put them into a denomination that they at least have a background in. Some don't, and we just try to find a strong church – when I say a strong church, a church that already partnered with us. They've been working with us the whole time…
We're not trying to make everyone into Baptists. We're not trying to make everyone into Presbyterians. We're just trying to get them into church. Now the person that leads that person to Christ should be in contact with that person as well…This counselor is supposed to follow up with this person. Maybe after a month or something, the guy says, "Man, my church does nothing but – they don't do anything. They don't teach us the Bible." Then the counselor may say, "Hey, why don't you come to my church and just try it out and see if you enjoy the teaching here at this church." So it's not that we're trying to change people, but I'm not going to say that just because this person we assigned them to a Methodist church they're going to stay in a Methodist church forever, but what we're trying to do is get them to start growing that relationship and to start studying the Bible…And we want to always do it through the local church, and it's going to be across all different types of denominations.