The Office of the Evangelist: Remembering Billy Graham

By Joe Boot / February 27, 2018

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Many will by now be aware that one of the most prominent and significant evangelicals of the twentieth century, Billy Graham, passed away last week at the age of 99. The death of such an evangelical giant is not the moment for a critical analysis of Billy Graham’s theology and ministry, but a time for thankfulness to God for giving his church such a fruitful and faithful servant. Graham was without doubt a gifted evangelist with exemplary Christian character and integrity and was used remarkably by God around the world to reach multitudes of people with the message of salvation. Most Christians in the West know or know of someone who came to faith in part through the impact of Billy Graham’s ministry.

We do not see in our time the gift of the evangelist as actively operating in the life of the church as we should. Nor does the evangelical church tend to recognize and support the office and ministry of the evangelist in the way we need to. The office of the evangelist is a very important one in Scripture. In Ephesians 4:11, the apostle Paul identifies five offices established in the church for the purpose of equipping the church for works of service and building up Christ’s body. Included in this list is the ‘euangelistes’ or the ‘evangelist,’ which literally means ‘a messenger of good,’ and primarily denotes a ‘preacher of the gospel.’[1] The term is specifically applied to particular individuals in the New Testament. Phillip the evangelist was one such individual with this designation (Acts 21:8) who was not an apostle, yet whose ministry was ‘itinerant’ for at least part of the time.

Though many of the apostles were also evangelists, not all evangelists were apostles; consequently, there is no suggestion that the evangelistic office in the church ceased to exist with the close of the apostolic era. St. Paul also famously charges Timothy to ‘do the work of an evangelist’ (2 Tim. 4:5). Clearly then, the offices of ‘pastor,’ ‘teacher’ and ‘evangelist’ have not passed away with the death of the first apostles and New Testament prophets.[2]

Given that the evangelist is an individual who, like pastors and teachers, performs a specific function and holds an ‘office’ in the church, there is clearly a distinction between the general witness of believers to the ‘evangel’ through word and deed – to which all Christians are called, and the work of evangelism exemplified in the gift of evangelism and the office of the evangelist. The ‘evangelist’ in this sense is one who spreads the good news by proclamation, sometimes travelling far from home to do so.[3] I have had the privilege to serve in this function for a significant part of my ministry over the past twenty-four years in the work of itinerant evangelism and apologetics.

The evangelist, both in the New Testament and in the history of the church, is one clearly called and gifted to proclaim the gospel and equip others to do the same. Because evangelism centres upon the declaration of the ‘good news,’ the evangelistic call obviously requires effective communication. The primary means of communicating the thought content of the gospel is verbal, as in preaching and teaching. In 1 Corinthians 1:17, Paul writes, “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not in cleverness of speech, that the cross of Christ should not be made void.” John Armstrong offers a helpful definition of evangelism as “communication of the good news of Jesus Christ to sinful human beings with the purpose of converting them through and by the power of the Holy Spirit.”[4]

The evangelist is therefore one peculiarly called to the task of preaching the gospel to those who have not yet heard or not embraced the salvation and Lordship of Jesus Christ (Rom. 10:14–15). All believers are called to bear witness to and defend the truth of the gospel when asked a reason for their hope (1 Pet. 3:15), and to identify themselves with Christ; yet by comparison relatively few (in terms of all those called to belong to Christ’s church) are specifically called to actually preach the gospel or occupy the office of the evangelist (1 Cor. 12:29; 1 Tim. 2:7). It seems to me that Billy Graham, undoubtedly the best-known Western evangelist of the twentieth century, was such a man, whose life and ministry testify authentically to his calling as an evangelist. His legacy is an important reminder of both the power of the gospel and what God is able to accomplish through individuals prepared to serve him faithfully.

Graham was noted most as an evangelist for his remarkable ability to draw very large crowds to public venues to hear the gospel, calling people to surrender their lives to Christ. There have been many more polished and eloquent preachers and evangelists than Billy Graham over the past hundred years in the life of church, so it was not Graham’s oratory alone that drew people. Neither is his name associated with revival as such, in the manner that a Wesley, Whitefield, Finney or Edwards is; no specific revival or general awakening of the faith is directly associated with Billy Graham’s name. However, his preaching reached many in the post-war and Cold War period as thousands flocked to sports stadiums to hear the message of hope in a time often marked by fear and despair. Moreover, in the providence of God, the American religious culture at the time of his prominence, the BGEA’s creative and effective use of media, the ecumenical model he employed, and the acceptable type of evangelist that Graham represented in his time, all worked together to mark his prominence and significance.

Some have tried to lay on him the dubious honour of being a ground-breaking innovator, and whilst he did put certain current methods to effective use I do not think we can accurately describe Graham as unique or as an ‘innovator,’ transforming an old order in evangelism and pointing us to an ideal pattern for the future. Rather, Graham clearly belongs very properly to the tail end of a specific lineage of nineteenth and early twentieth-century Arminian American evangelists, committed to crusade or ‘mass’ evangelism. He is perhaps more accurately identified as the last of a particular breed of internationally prominent mass evangelists from the West, rather than a Christian intellectual or practitioner who predicted future changes and developments (cultural, philosophic or missiological), blazing a trail for the next generation to follow in the twenty-first century.

Nonetheless, unlike many itinerant evangelists of his era, Billy Graham sought to build collegial relationships with local pastors and churches. He tried to run his parachurch organization in such a way as not to supplant or replace the local church. In Graham’s view, his kind of mass evangelism had only become necessary because of the broader weakness and even failure of the church in evangelism, and once this was addressed, he felt that the need for mass-evangelism organizations like his would cease to exist.[5] In this he was surely right, and Graham must be commended for these genuine efforts to engage the church and his recognition of the centrality and importance of the local church.

Without a doubt his personal integrity and faithfulness to preaching Christ, not just the results of his ministry, will preserve his rightful place as a great evangelical. Thus, it may well be that Billy Graham is, in our cultural moment, the last of a certain mould of evangelists, the last great Western mass evangelist of our era standing in the tradition of American revivalists and evangelists.

Accounting for Graham’s successes in leading people to Christ is not difficult. It was doubtless his relatively unswerving focus and commitment to preaching the cross of Christ and the core tenets of the gospel on the authority of the Bible that enabled God to use him in such a powerful way. Moreover, by all accounts, Graham was a man of genuine humility and integrity who wanted to work with others and pass on the grace that God had given to him. Graham’s ministry reminds us that God can raise up a simple farm boy at any time he chooses to take the gospel to presidents and kings. It reminds us of the power of the gospel and it calls to mind God’s absolute sovereignty and providential working.

Since the peak of his ministry in the 1950s-1970s much has changed in Western culture. The broadly Christian worldview which lingered in the minds of many of his unsaved hearers, a fact which Graham could rely upon as the underlying plausibility structure for his appeal to Scripture and forthright call to repentance, was still present in the first couple of decades after WWII. This broadly Christian perspective has since ceased to dominate in the popular consciousness and has been increasingly banished and marginalised in public life. Consequently, in our own time, we must not be discouraged nor feel like failures because low-hanging fruit is harder to find. Instead we need to recognise that a more robust Christian apologetic is now required as the West has shifted from being a primed audience like those gathered in Acts 2 to hear Peter preach, to the skeptical, biblically illiterate and pagan crowd that gathered to hear Paul in Acts 17.

Yet this should be a moment of thankfulness for Billy Graham and his family and also a time of hope. Graham’s ministry as an ambassador of the gospel for his time is a reminder to us that though he may be the last of a particular breed of significant evangelists, he cannot possibly be the last great evangelist. For God calls faithful servants of all kinds in every age and in every land to proclaim the gospel. Such faithful evangelists are found all over the world though we may never know their names.

 

[1] Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, W.E. Vine, Merrill F. Unger, William White. Jr. (eds.), (Nashville, New York: Thomas Nelson, 1985), 208.

[2] I will not intend to enter here into the theological dispute between cessationists and non-cessationists regarding the sense in which apostles and prophets function or do not function in today’s church.

[3] William J. Abraham, The Logic of Evangelism, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 42.

[4] John H. Armstong, Five Great Evangelists: Preachers of Real Revival, (Guernsey: Christian Focus, 1997), 239.

[5] Christopher Catherwood, Five Evangelical Leaders (Fearn: Christian Focus, 1994), 273.

Billy Graham leaves behind a legacy of faithfully proclaiming salvation in Jesus. His evangelistic zeal and personal integrity highlight the biblical office of the evangelist.