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What youth and children’s workers can learn from Billy Graham

Jimmy Dale, the youth evangelism officer for the Church of England reflects on Billy Graham’s life, exploring the impact of Billy’s life on us and the children we work with.

On the 21st January the world stood still at the sad news that Dr Billy Graham, the world famous evangelist, had died aged 99.

Billy Graham has long been the bench mark when talking about youth evangelism. Famed for his evangelistic crusades, he died having spoken to over 210 million people on TV and radio, and 77 million in real life. He preached in 185 countries and spent over 60 years as an active preacher.

Billy Graham was a believer that the gospel was for all. As Archbishop Justin Welby tweeted: “He was one who met presidents and preachers, monarchs and musicians, the poor and the rich, the young and the old, face to face.”

Billy Graham is seen as being a key ally in the civil rights movement, standing up repeatedly for an end to segregation. In 1973 he once told a South African audience: "Christianity is not a white man's religion and don't let anyone tell you it's white or black, Christ belongs to all people."

Make what you will of his stadium style evangelism, one thing you cannot argue with is that he was a man sold out for Jesus. He was shameless in sharing the gospel message with all who he met. And the results are staggering when we consider that millions of people follow Jesus, partially because Billy Graham gave them an opportunity to respond and decide to follow Jesus.

Counter to this, last year’s Talking Jesus youth research found that among 11 to 18-year-olds in England confidence to share faith is at an all-time low with over a quarter (26 per cent) of Christian young people feeling unable to talk about their faith. Alongside this only 28 per cent said they were looking for opportunities to share faith most or all of the time, and 29 per cent said that they didn’t know how to share their faith.

When we look at what the life of Billy Graham has to teach us, I think the thing that strikes me most is the potential of what can happen if youth and children’s workers trust God and step out. Just imagine for a second if Billy Graham, at the age of 20, had decided he felt unable or unconfident to share his faith, and instead had chosen to not pursue being an evangelist? How many people may never have heard the gospel message?

It seems that in today’s church we have somehow built a culture of competence, which – whether intentionally or unintentionally – sets a perceived standard we must reach before God can use us. Our children’s and youth ministries (and arguably our churches) have seemingly prioritised ‘working on your personal relationship with Jesus’, rather than challenging children and young people to share these life changing truths with those around them. Additionally, we have bought into the fear of offence –  the narrative that no one is interested in Jesus and faith is something personal to each young person. I think if the life of Billy Graham teaches us anything it is that the gospel is good news for everyone.

Billy Graham once said: “God has given us two hands, one to receive with and the other to give”. I think in today’s church, we run the risk that the faith we sometime choose to encourage is solely focused on receiving and growing in our personal walks with Christ. My challenge to us all is this: how can we follow in Billy Graham’s footsteps, believing that the gospel is good news for all, and confidently and fearlessly stepping out in sharing that.

Billy Graham said: “Courage is contagious. When a brave man takes a stand, the spines of others are stiffened.” My prayer is that Billy Graham’s life might offer us and our young people an example of courage that sees many others begin to step out and share the life transforming love of Christ with these they know and meet.

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