Editor’s Note: Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College and is the executive director of the Billy Graham Center. Previously, he served as executive director of LifeWay Research, an evangelical research group. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Billy Graham left a mark, evident in the remembrances offered by so many around the world. From political and religious leaders to everyday people on the street, few in recent memory have provoked such an outpouring. Each comment is a reminder not only of Graham’s role in transforming individual Christians through his revivals, but that he stands as a giant in modern history.
Consider that he met Katharine Hepburn in 1949 and prayed with President Barack Obama in 2010. Graham’s presence and ministry has been a singular thread in American life through generations of change and conflict. As such, despite the rush by some on social media to label Graham by our modern polarized culture, he remains a figure who defies easy classification. Those who try to put him in a box invariably reveal their own bias by either reducing Graham or distorting him.
Reflecting on the legacy of Billy Graham in the afterword to the book “Billy Graham: American Pilgrim,” historian Margaret Bendroth observed, “Evangelicals do not choose their leaders lightly.” She is right. While there are flashes in the pan of charismatic leaders who briefly catch our attention, few have sustained success in unifying such a broad, diverse and unruly movement.
Graham did what few had even thought possible in providing a unifying vision for evangelicals and other Christians. Reviewing the countless articles and memorials that have poured out Wednesday, I’m left with these questions: What made Billy Graham so different? What made his ministry so successful?
While most articles and memorials portray Graham as a famous Christian or as “America’s pastor,” this is not how Graham wanted us to remember him. Graham’s true legacy — why so many people are celebrating him — is not that he was famous. Graham’s place in American history is due to his singular devotion to making someone else famous.
Winsome, intentional and gracious, Graham distinguished himself in American culture with his singular devotion to making Jesus famous. In fact, when someone commented to Graham that he had done some great things, his response was, “God has done some good things through me.” At the heart of his vision was the simple belief that the gospel of Jesus Christ was the needed answer for a struggling world.
It’s really an odd thing: Graham was world famous for talking about someone else.
As executive director of the center at Wheaton College named after Graham, I am cognizant of carrying on his legacy, of pointing people to Jesus. I often ask myself, “What do we need to do here at the center that would honor Billy Graham?” My mission in life, as well as my staff’s and that of so many millions around the world, is the same that burned bright in Graham – I’m sure until his last breath. We want to show and share the love of Jesus with as many as possible. There’s no greater calling we can have.
What drew evangelicals to Graham’s leadership and what continues to draw so many from various Christian traditions and denominations to his message was his recognition of the truth in Paul’s words to the first century church in Corinth: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.”
If you are not a Christian, or if you don’t know or feel included in Billy Graham’s legacy, please understand that his humanitarian and bridge-building work around the globe was inseparable from his belief that salvation was offered to all through Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection. Graham would want you to know he was always striving to show and share the love of Jesus to a broken and hurting world.
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If you are a Christian, Graham’s legacy of evangelism and cultural engagement is yours to maintain. Graham understood what it meant to be a good and faithful servant. Today, that baton has been passed. It is up to us to join the race now that his run is completed.