What Can Preachers Learn from Billy Graham?
By Dennis Phelps | J.D. Grey Professor of Preaching at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary
It began with my grandmother. At the simple kitchen table she would keep the prayer reminders for upcoming crusades. When the broadcasts aired locally, she would call and remind my mother to watch. We would gather and watch the hour-long production. This was long before Christian networks.
In 1988, I moved to the Twin Cities. My family often took guests to the non-descript Billy Graham Evangelistic Association headquarters in Minneapolis. There, a staff member or volunteer escorted us throughout the simple buildings. At his final Minneapolis crusade, our young daughter responded to the invitation to receive Christ as her personal Lord and Savior.
Four generations—all touched by the faithful preaching of a simple son of a North Carolina farmer: Billy Graham.
Many volumes are devoted to Graham’s life, organization, travels, crusades and life-long team. What about his preaching? He does not consider himself a great or model preacher, yet he has communicated the gospel effectively and internationally through pamphlets, crusades, radio, TV, magazines, interviews, movies, conferences and the Internet. What lessons about preaching can we learn?
Flatten the Structure
Graham uses a modified form of Monroe’s motivational sequence. He establishes rapport (identification), provides evidence that something is wrong (sin), announces there is hope (Jesus), assures that you can know Him, warns you to accept the consequences of your choice, then invites you to respond now. In classical rhetoric, this is logos.
Simplify the Message
Graham first believed he needed to cover the Bible in every message. Later, in response to his request for advice from Dr. Marcus Sloan (former Anglican archbishop of Sydney, Australia), he realized he could choose a single text, include the cross and resurrection, and call people to faith and repentance.
Though not an expositor, Graham focuses on the kerygma of 1 Corinthians 15:3-8. “There is a built-in power to the cross and the resurrection. It has its own communicative power. The Holy Spirit takes this simple message of the cross with its redemptive love and grace and infuses it into lives with authority and power.”
Graham’s preaching is directed to common people. His vocabulary is non-technical. His sentences are simple—and run-on at times. His model is Jesus, who used parables. “That is the only way I know how to do it. We must learn to take the profoundest things of the gospel and proclaim them in simplicity…We must communicate so people will understand. So preach it with simplicity…People want simplicity, and I am sure that was one of the secrets of our Lord because the common people heard Him gladly; He spoke their language.”
Trust the Infallible Scriptures
Graham often quotes John 3:16. Behind him in stadiums is displayed “John 10:10” or “John 14:6.” He seldom seeks to argue logic. He believes, “The natural man cannot receive the gospel on his own devices because there is a veil over his mind and heart. This veil can only be penetrated by the Holy Spirit, not my argument or my logic.”
However, Graham struggled early with the authority of the Bible. He settled his doubts one night on a tree stump in the mountains and decided to accept it by faith as God’s Word. Drawing on Romans 10:17, he trusted God to honor the faithful proclamation of His Word. His sermons are filled with, “The Bible says…”
“First of all, I would say communicate the gospel with authority. Preach it with conviction and assurance, knowing that faith cometh by hearing the message and the message is heard through the Word of Christ…When you quote God’s Word, He will use it. He never will allow it to return void…When I quote Scripture, I know I am quoting the Word of God. It is God’s authoritative message to us. It is an infallible book. Let’s never depart from that.”
Include Fresh Illustrations
Graham often uses recent, personal experiences, but without making himself the center or the hero figure. When using non-personal material, he is conscientious to give general attribution of the sources of quotes, statistics and published material; He avoids death-bed stories because he believes “it hurts the reputation and effectiveness of the evangelist, especially in America.”
Speak to the Heart
Graham speaks with unending compassion. His motivation not only is obedience to God’s call, but also love for people. It is demonstrated in deeds (often behind the scenes), as well as the emotion of the sermon. In classical rhetoric, this is pathos.
When discussing 1 Corinthians 2:2 Graham says, “When I stand before an audience—I don’t care whether it is in England or in Kenya or Ecuador or wherever it may be—there are certain things I assume are in the audience already. To every group—whether it is at a university or on a street corner, whether it is in Korea or whether it is in a tribal situation in Zaire or in New York City or here in the Netherlands—I know certain psychological and spiritual factors exist…These include:
1. Life’s needs are not totally met by social improvement and material affluence;
2. There is an essential emptiness in every life without Christ and only God can fill it;
3. There is a cosmic loneliness in people;
4. People have a universal sense of guilt;
5. There is a universal fear of death.”
Offer an Early Appeal
Graham begins his appeal to respond very early in his messages. He does not wait until the conclusion. He often tells the listeners during the introduction what he is going to ask them to do.
Apply the Gospel Ethic
Bigotry. Economic disparity. Violence. Environmental abuse. Social injustice. Devaluing human life. Mass destruction. Graham addresses these social issues and more. “We also communicate the gospel by compassionate social concern. This is implied in the love we show others. I believe there is a social involvement incumbent and commanded in the Scriptures. Look at our Lord—We have a responsibility to the oppressed, the sick, and the poor…but the church goes into the world with an extra dimension in its social concern. We go in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ…This is not just humanitarianism. It is compassion and love. We give because God gave.”
Live with Consistent Integrity
“All of these assumptions [of effective preaching] can be realized if we preach Christ, backed by a holy life and filled with the Holy Spirit…Our world today is looking primarily for men and women of integrity, communicators who back up their ministries with their lives. Your preaching emerges out of what you are; we must be holy people…The three common areas of Satanic attack against preachers are money, morals and pride; and we will battle them all of our lives.” In classical rhetoric this is ethos.
Graham reacted against Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry image of American evangelists who are manipulative, emotional, anti-local church, anti-intellectual and crave money. While in Modesto, Calif., (1948) he and Cliff Barrows discussed all the things wrong with American itinerant evangelism and decided to do something to change it.
Professionally, they incorporated (accountability and publication of all finances) and receive public salaries set and raised by an external board of directors (rather than love offerings, gifts and honorariums). Personally, they hold one another accountable in their private lives. This includes developing humble attitudes, always learning, involving others, receiving counsel, accepting responsibility and admitting wrongs. Graham has walked away from Hollywood offers for fame, business offers for financial prosperity and the prestige of a college presidency.
Exercise the Promise of Prayer
Since the 1949 Los Angeles tent crusade and all-night prayer sessions, Graham has understood the role of prayer in effective preaching. “Saturate yourself in the Word of God and prayer…The Holy Spirit responds to the prayer offered to bless the simple, clear message of Jesus—His death, burial and resurrection—when it is proclaimed with confident faith.”
With Professor Ellis of Princeton Seminary, Graham affirms, “You are never preaching until the audience hears Another Voice…We must hear the voice of the Spirit of God…The filling and anointing of the Spirit of God and preaching with authority is essential to preaching the gospel…The glorious fact is the Holy Spirit takes the message, no matter how weak, how primitively it is delivered, and communicates it to the heart and mind with power and breaks down the barriers. It is the supernatural act of the Spirit of God…In the final analysis, it is the Holy Spirit who is the Communicator.”
Graham admits preparing a message is hard work. When asked how long it takes to prepare a message, he says, “A lifetime.” This fall, we will hear his final message as a part of “My Hope America.” Pray for Billy Graham as he once more shares the good news of Jesus with a lost world.
Quotations are from “The Evangelist and His Preaching”; a presentation by Billy Graham at the Lausanne International Congress on World Evangelization (July 14, 1986, Amsterdam)