By Carrie Boren Headington
As I woke to the news of Billy Graham’s passing on Feb. 21, I was filled with mixed emotions. On the one hand, I rejoiced knowing Graham was finally in the arms of his Savior, seeing fully the one he served and loved throughout his earthly life. On the other hand, I felt a sense of loss. Even though I met him only once in graduate school, he was a powerful mentor and teacher to me (and countless other budding evangelists). No matter the ecclesial family in which we dwell — or whether we agreed with him on matters of doctrine and practice — we must celebrate the way Billy Graham served as a beacon for the public proclamation of the gospel in our world for just short of a century. In his lifetime, he reached more people with the good news of Jesus Christ than anyone else in human history. Graham’s life has much to say to Episcopalians as we embark on a renewed focus on evangelism and revivals throughout the Episcopal Church.
Under the leadership of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, evangelism has been moved to the front of the Episcopal Church’s agenda. Bishop Curry refers to himself as the Chief Evangelism Officer of the Episcopal Church. He has embraced this role in significant ways. He has appointed a canon for evangelism, reconciliation, and stewardship of creation, the Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers. Spellers and a team of six practitioners (I am one) have created an Evangelism 101 curriculum and begun teaching it. Curry has hired a digital evangelist, Jeremy Tackett, to take the gospel into the digital mission field.
We are having our second gathering for evangelism training this month at the Evangelism Matters Conference, and we have created a network of evangelism catalysts in each diocese. On top of all of this, Curry has embarked on a series of Episcopal revivals that have entailed pubic gospel proclamation. In one sense, this is nothing new to the Anglican tradition. Some of the greatest revivalists of Christian history have been Anglicans: John Wesley, George Whitfield, Charles Simeon, and in recent years Michael Green, J. John, and the many figures involved in the East African Revival. Just this past year in London’s Emirates Stadium, J. John launched the first of a series of mass evangelism events. I have had the opportunity to serve with both Michael Green and J. John, watching the Church come alive as it participates in public gospel presentations.
For the past two years, I have had the great joy of serving as consulting evangelist for revivals for Presiding Bishop Curry. This has entailed evangelism training, along with the Spellers team, for laity and clergy, as well as accompanying each diocese in preparation and follow-up. Each revival has been as different as each diocese. We have posed this question to each diocese:
If Jesus walked into your diocese, your community, your state, your region, what would he do first, what needs would he address, and how would he express the gospel in your context? What does good news look like in your diocese?
As a lifelong Episcopalian and evangelist, I find what is happening throughout our church thrilling, as we provide a public space for the Holy Spirit to move. The first revival was held in the Diocese of Pittsburgh (Feb. 3-5, 2017), then others have followed in the Diocese of West Missouri (May 5-7, 2017), the Diocese of San Joaquin (Nov. 17-19, 2017), and the Diocese of Georgia (Jan. 20, 2018). Next are the Diocese of Honduras (April 6-8) and the Diocese of Western Massachusetts (Oct. 20-21).
The Episcopal Church uses Fuller Seminary President Mark Labberton’s definition of revival: “[I]t almost always shows itself in two interconnected ways: spiritual renewal marked by lament and hope and social transformation marked by justice and righteousness.” These revivals are not meant to be one-time events but catalytic springboards to train all Episcopalians in the work of personal witness and evangelism. We encourage everyone to invite at least one person to the public proclamation of the gospel, to raise up evangelists in every diocese, to increase prayer and intercession for those who don’t know Jesus, and to encourage our dioceses to reach beyond church walls into the community with the good news of Jesus.
In some respects, the Episcopal revivals express a more holistic aim than Graham’s crusades. Graham centered his crusades on public proclamation with him as the main speaker. Every diocesan revival we have done so far does include a public proclamation of the gospel with some form of an altar call (invitation to respond); Bishop Curry has been the preacher.
But every Episcopal revival has also included some form of public action. In this way, we not only tell the gospel, we show the gospel. The good news of Jesus Christ is best expressed when we show and tell. Jesus joined his teaching and preaching with healing, feeding, and caring for the felt needs of the people.
In every diocese the revivals have involved a blend of prayer, vibrant worship, emphases on social action and justice, evangelism equipping, invitation, and public proclamation. In Pittsburgh, the good news was expressed by an ecumenical gathering to address issues of addiction and poverty. In West Missouri we took our public proclamation to the center of the marketplace in Kansas City. In Georgia, the good news looked like a big-tent revival in which people invited friends to a meal and message. In California, gospel action meant embracing and creating safe haven for immigrants and refugees, hearing their stories, and sharing the gospel at the University of the Pacific. In Honduras we will take the good news out onto the streets, offering prayer, Bibles, and public proclamation.
Bishop Curry hopes to have at least three revivals per year in the next six years. I believe we would do well to learn the following lessons from Billy Graham in the years ahead:
At least a year before all Graham crusades, intercessors across the body of Christ gathered together to pray for their own churches (to participate and be renewed) and for those who did not know Jesus. These prayer gatherings served as the fuel for the crusades and made room for the Holy Spirit. As one of the lead intercessors told me, “We are creating space for God to move.” Jesus drew away to a quiet place to pray and so must we (Luke 5:16). We have begun this in our Episcopal revivals and have created resources for prayer. Billy Graham said, “No matter how logical our arguments or how fervent our appeals, our words will accomplish nothing unless God prepares the way. … [P]rayer is key to our effort to communicate the Gospel and win men and women to Christ.” God is the great evangelist, and prayer connects us to him and centers us on his work.
Evangelistic public proclamation
Graham’s crusades were never meant to be just a church pep rally. They were intentional public proclamations of the gospel in an effort for all to “come within the reach of God’s saving embrace through Jesus Christ” (1979 BCP, Collect for Mission). The Episcopal Church’s revivals are also focused on sharing with those who do not know Christ. All Episcopalians are encouraged to invite one or more friends. In the Evangelism 101 workshop trainings before the revival, we ask every Episcopalian to pray for one to three people God has placed in their lives who do not know Jesus Christ and to invite them to the revival.
Graham’s crusades aimed to bring together the entire body of Christ in a given region. Even though Graham’s style was perhaps more Baptist, people from across the Church came together for the revivals. Many Episcopal and Anglican churches across the world have spoken about how they experienced revival within their congregations as they worked across denominational lines on Graham’s crusades. The Diocese of Pittsburgh’s revival was intentionally ecumenical, and we are encouraging this approach in all our revivals. Jesus’ final prayer in John 17 was that we would all be one as he and the Father are one. The unity of the Church is central to evangelism and mission. “They will know we are Christians by our love.”
Graham’s crusades used all means to spread the gospel. With each technological advancement, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association used it to the full, from radio to television to the Internet. The Episcopal Church is working to this end with new special attention to the digital mission field.
The Role of the Evangelist
The role of the evangelist has always been twofold. First, the evangelist is one who proclaims the gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit. Second, the evangelist is a motivator, someone whose role is “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Eph. 4:12-13). Some are gifted public speakers. We need these evangelists, and yet the gospel has spread above all through followers of Jesus sharing their faith in everyday life. When Graham held a crusade in a place, he always had workshops before the event that provided training. This is key, and the Episcopal Church is doing this for all of its revivals as well. As the missionary and bishop D.T. Niles said, “Evangelism is one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.” The Episcopal Evangelism workshops focus on seeing where God is at work in another’s life, sharing our faith stories, listening to others’ faith stories, and inviting people to journey spiritually in following Jesus.
Faithfulness to the Gospel
Graham was steadfast in preaching Jesus Christ and him crucified. Graham faithfully centered every message on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and always gave an invitation for people to enter into relationship with the Lord. Graham used clear language, never seeking to sound clever. He was God’s humble servant, knowing full well the power of his message was always in the strength of the Holy Spirit. It was never about Graham and always about Jesus.
Some of my fellow evangelicals have asked why I would participate in a work of the Episcopal Church and especially public Episcopal revivals. I have sat on the front row of these Episcopal revivals, and Bishop Curry faithfully preaches the good news of Jesus Christ at them. He is a winsome preacher of the gospel. One might disagree with him on other matters of doctrine, theology, and church practice, but be assured that Bishop Curry centers every message on the gospel. The revivals are not about matters of dispute; they are centered on Jesus and the gospel.
A word of caution from the Graham crusades: Statistics show that only a small percentage of people who walked forward in a Graham crusade ended up becoming lifelong disciples of Jesus (some say as low as 10%). Most of this was due to follow-up or lack thereof. It is crucial that Episcopalians follow up with people who visit our churches and people who come forward at one of the Episcopal revivals. We need to contact them and invite them to our parishes. We need to have programs — like the Alpha Course, Transforming Questions, Q Place, Christianity Explored, Explore God, or Rebecca Manley Pippert’s Seeker Bible Studies — so they can explore the Christian faith further. We need to invite and welcome new followers of Jesus into our communities of faith. Our smaller church bodies can be a gift as people come to faith, because they can grow in Christ in a safe family-size environment. We must follow up and seek them like the shepherd after the one lost sheep. The revivals are a call to the church to ensure that congregations form new disciples in the faith once delivered.
And finally, a word of encouragement from the life and example of Billy Graham. He died at the age of 99 and exemplified a life of perseverance in the gospel. He never wavered from the gospel and the call to share it. His personal holiness was not perfect but was certainly exemplary. One of the best ways to evangelize the world is to cultivate the life of Christ in our lives. As Paul says, “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27).
And so we pray:
Give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen. (1979 BCP, The General Thanksgiving)