On 21st February 2018 at the age of 99, evangelist Billy Graham passed away. Premier Youth and Children’s Work’s editor, Ruth Jackson, spoke to Neil O’Boyle, the national director for Youth for Christ.
Ruth Jackson: How has Billy Graham’s ministry impacted your organisation?
Neil O’Boyle: Hugely.He was our very first youth worker. So he started in the United States with Youth for Christ. Then he came over in 1946 and launched Youth for Christ here in Britain but I guess my reflection on Billy’s passing is that it’s really not something that we should be sad about. It’s something to celebrate. He wasn’t a young man was he? He was 99. He lived a life just preaching the gospel, telling people how they can get to heaven and today and that’s exactly where he is. What a legend, what a life and it’s absolutely something we should celebrate. I don’t know whether the stats are real or not but they’re saying something between 215 and 220 million young people heard him speak at some point.
Ruth Jackson: What influence has Billy Graham had on you personally?
Neil O’Boyle: I think everybody knows someone who became a Christian though Billy Graham. I didn’t but I know a whole load of people who did. My father in law did so my wife is a product of the fact that her dad became a Christian and her faith can be directly connected to that. But, as an organisation, goodness. His influence has been profound. The approach that we take to evangelism – while we’re not in the pulpit preaching maybe like he did – we are taking the strategy that he gave us in 1946 when he said the best way to reach young people is through young people; peer to peer evangelism and we’re committed to that end. We just launched a new tool called Sync, where our goal is to equip and train up 10,000 young people to reach their friends for Jesus. Imagine how many young people could be reached because of that approach and I think it’s a solid approach.
Ruth Jackson: Why do you think Billy Graham reached so many young people?
Neil O’Boyle: Because he was passionate. He was passionately in love with Jesus. He absolutely believed every word he said and Romans 1:16 says: “The Gospel is the power of God for the salvation of those who believe.” He believed that. He believed that a life was changed, the assurance of salvation was immediate; in the declaration of Jesus becoming our lord. He was motivated by that, he was inspired by that. He was also hugely convicted because of that. He felt the weight of that. Every time he spoke, there was a real desire to get it right so that everybody could respond who was at a place to do so to know Jesus.
Ruth Jackson: Do you think Billy Graham still impacted young people as he got older?
Neil O’Boyle: I would have loved to have met him. I know plenty of people who did and were hugely impacted by him. He was relevant because the Gospel’s relevant. It hasn’t changed. He was a straight talker; he told it how it is. He declared and articulated the gospel very clearly and very well. You didn’t have to be an adult, you could be a child and hear exactly what he was saying and respond accordingly because his message was very much anchored to the rock in the times.
Ruth Jackson: How can we continue Billy Graham’s legacy among today’s children and young people?
Neil O’Boyle: The thing about Billy Graham is that he wasn’t just a preacher – he was a phenomenal preacher of course he was, amazing – he was also a pioneer. So when he started in the 40s and 50s what really excited him wasn’t the rally’s where he was speaking all the time to crowds of 20 to 30,000 it was technology because he knew that as he was speaking, he was also being recorded through the radio so he knew his message could go out to millions of people across the airwaves. And for us at Youth for Christ we really have to continue to push into technology, recognising the potential of the digital world and how we can utilise that to affect and influence millions of young people with the good news of Jesus.
Ruth Jackson: What encouragement or challenge do you think Billy Graham would give to youth and children’s workers seeking to reach the next generation?
Neil O’Boyle: Keep going! Because the Gospel changes lives. Our research – Gen Z: Rethinking Culture – tells us that 32 per cent of young people believe in God. And one in five young people want their friend to tell them about God. But really when we pressed into it, the reality is that God simply isn’t on the agenda and what Billy Graham did was put God on the agenda whenever he met someone and got the chance to meet them and talk to them. That is the role that we have, whether we’re Youth for Christ, whether we’re another organisation, whether we’re a Christian living our lives in whatever capacity, we are to put God on the agenda.
Ruth Jackson: Do you think stadium evangelism works today? Is it still relevant?
Neil O’Boyle: Yes I do. I think everything has its place in moderation. Youth for Christ does do it. We have our evangelists. Grace Wheeler who’s about 23 years old is our national evangelist and a phenomenally gifted communicator. There are many others across our organisation who are just as good and gifted but there are many other approaches through relationships, schools, whatever it might be in which we share Jesus in a culturally relevant manner but do I believe in proclamation evangelism today? Yeah I absolutely do.
Ruth Jackson: If there’s one thing you could take from Billy Graham’s ministry and use in your own ministry what would it be?
Neil O’Boyle: I think the one thing that really stands out for me is his integrity as a man. Character was everything to him. And I think if there’s one thing that we need to get right today it’s our character so that all people can see Jesus within us because of the way we live our lives. Our lives need to speak louder than our words and he absolutely nailed that and we need to do likewise.