Just once in my life I had a face to face chat with Jim Packer. He was speaking at a conference on preaching in Edinburgh in 1992, and he had tried in his talk to describe what it means to preach with ‘unction’. Being a young man unhappy with a throwaway statement, I cornered him at tea time in the garden of Rutherford House and asked him what he meant. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘It’s hard to put your finger on it, but you will know it when it happens to you.’ I’m sure I had a good few follow-up questions ready to bowl at the great man, but I blinked and was elbowed aside by a late-middle-aged pastor in thick rimmed glasses and a decidedly obvious toupee, who said ‘Dr Packer, my people tell me I should preach like Dr Billy Graham. Are they right?’ The moment was gone to explore unction. Jim Packer told him that he shouldn’t mimic Billy’s preaching, though he admitted that God had his hand on Billy Graham in a remarkable way.
We have spent the last few days reflecting on Billy Graham’s passing. (I wanted to use the word ‘mourning’ there, but there has been too much rejoicing and praising God for that word to seem appropriate.) It has been so good to see news coverage of him in his prime in the 1950s and 60s. Watch Billy Graham on YouTube! There are interviews where he politely and capably deals with the likes of Larry King or Woody Allen. (I’ve also been touched by the sensitive way that he has been portrayed in the Netflix drama The Crown.) In all these recordings you gain a sense of the man’s integrity and transparent godliness that is refreshing and bold. But above all it has been the numerous clips of his preaching that have affected me. Tonight I listened to his sermon preached in Chicago in 1971, and YouTube is full of such videos. That leaves me wondering whether Jim Packer was wrong, and that there are some ways in which we should preach like Billy Graham. Here are some thoughts.
- He treated gospel preaching as a holy thing. He began with prayer as he started to preach, because he knew that he preached between two worlds. He knew that he had in his hands the Word of life to expound, that preaching its message was a calling from God, and that he could do no other. You sense that in his urgency and zeal. I wonder whether a new generation of preachers have that same zeal and seriousness. We want to handle the text right, and to expound the message that the original author intended us to read, and to illustrate it and apply it correctly. We want to be technically competent, but have we allowed a functionalism to creep into the mood of contemporary preaching? Have we forgotten that it is a holy commission to preach God’s Word to those who need to hear it? Does that make us tremble before God as we stand up to preach?
- He made the gospel clear and simple. Billy never assumed anything of his hearers. The problem for many of us is that we are preaching in our churches to the same lot of people week by week, so we assume that they learnt what we taught last week, and last month and last year. The danger with that is that we get beyond the gospel and become so sophisticated in what we are dealing with that we forget the simplicity of the gospel. If a completely unchurched person comes into your church next Sunday, how much will they understand? If you are preparing to preach this week, will you have them in mind? Of course, there is great breadth and variety in the way the Bible reveals the gospel to us, so it can be different every time, but do you make it clear and simple and vital enough for someone new to the gospel to be able to understand? Do you explain the jargon? Do you work the applications and illustrations to make sure they come from their lives, not just yours? I wonder whether we have forgotten the simple lessons of the seeker-sensitive debates of the 1990s, when we learnt to look at everything we do in church and try and make it accessible to the unchurched. We have a new wave of songs loaded with spiritual jargon (‘Awake, awake O Zion’ must sound alarming to a Muslim, and what does the average Joe Public make of ‘Lion and the lamb, lion and the lamb’??). Billy Graham’s approach was to make everything as clear and simple as he could.
- He took the gospel out there into the public square. He wanted to get the gospel out there, in public conversation, and he used the mass media to get his message across. He wasn’t content to let it hide inside churches, though he loved to preach in churches and saw his ministry as there ultimately to serve them, not bypass them. So much of our evangelism is based on the ‘come and see’ principle, where we invite people into our church events. When we do put them on, we often marginalise the message so much that you would hardly notice it. We need to look at ourselves and ask how much we have dumbed down our methods. Billy Graham wanted to fill the stadiums, to gather his crowd in public because he wanted the public to be talking about it. Today that mostly only happens on University campuses. We need to be on the front foot in local church evangelism, taking the gospel out into society with boldness in such a way that people will pay attention, realising that we are serious and sincere about proclaiming that message once again.
- He didn’t target the elites. A Billy Graham rally was a remarkably classless gathering. Look at the crowds on the videos. It is hard to say who they were – just ordinary people coming to hear the gospel. There was no niche marketing going on. The presentation wasn’t geared to a particular demographic. When Billy came to do Mission England in 1984, he bypassed London and went to Bristol, Sunderland, Norwich, Birmingham, Liverpool and Ipswich. He wanted to take the gospel around the whole nation. Explicitly he said in his Chicago sermon that this gospel wasn’t just for black or for white but for the whole world (to huge applause). Why do we allow class to define our churches so much in Britain? Different denominations still seem to know their place, either with an upper-middle-class initials-and-nicknames-for-everything approach, or a working class chip on the shoulder, or a lower-middle class focus on nice families at all costs. These things make it clear that something in addition to the gospel really matters. Let’s make our churches take the gospel to everyone.
- He preached with expectancy. He expected an all-powerful God to work through his Word, and this shaped everything he did. I wonder whether that is something we have lost because we are so intimidated by the unbelief that surrounds us. It may also be that we assume that people have to come inside a church to hear the gospel – which they rarely will – and since that is where we preach it we are unsurprised when they don’t come and no one is saved. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. Part of the expectancy of Billy’s preaching was that he knew it was a public event, where lots of non-Christians would be willing to come, maybe just once, onto neutral ground and hear this man, and so he preached his heart out because he believed that God was able to work in such situations. Do we dare to take the gospel out there, and do we expect God to work through it?
- He challenged people to decide for Christ. This is where reformed Christians get edgy. We didn’t like the invitation system. Some called it ‘protestant absolution.’ Others said it was manipulative. I don’t like ‘altar calls’, because they can become a work of salvation (‘I went to the front’). But you cannot escape this. Billy’s preaching put the issue on the line. How do you end an evangelistic sermon? Do you tell people what to do if they realise this message is all true? Do you spell out repentance for them? Do you tell them to come to Christ and labour the point? Do you offer them Christ? Do you insist that the only safe day to do that is today? I wonder whether we reformed preachers have just allowed ourselves to become blunted in these things. We expound the glories of Christ and his death just as any hypercalvinist would, and then like them we do not go that final step and offer Christ to our hearers with that urgent heavenly summons that should characterise gospel preaching.
Praise God for Billy Graham. I wish I could preach half as urgently as he did.