Billy Graham: The Call to Evangelism

The Rev. Billy Graham speaking at the 1980 United Methodist Congress on Evangelism. Photo by Religion News Service.

The Rev. Dr. Billy Graham christened the decade of the 1980s by preaching at the United Methodist Congress on Evangelism meeting on the campus of Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Graham’s evangelistic ministry played a key role in the conversion of Good News’ founding editor Charles Keysor and he was an important inspiration during the formative years of the work of Good News. Three years before the Congress on Evangelism address, Graham wrote a personal note of encouragement to the staff and board of directors of Good News:

“I have always believed that The United Methodist Church offers tremendous potential as a starting place for a great revival of Biblical Christian faith. Around the world, millions of people do not know Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, and I believe that The United Methodist Church, with its great size and its honorable evangelistic tradition, can be mightily used by God for reaching these lost millions,” wrote Graham in 1977.

“I have been acquainted with the Good News movement and some of its leaders since 1967. To me it represents one of the encouraging signs for the church fulfilling its evangelistic mission, under the Bible’s authority and the leadership of the Holy Spirit. At the forefront of the Good News Movement has been Good News Magazine. For 10 years it has spoken clearly and prophetically for Scriptural Christianity and renewal in the church. It should be read by every United Methodist.”

Everyone associated with Good News in that era found considerable inspiration in Dr. Graham’s encouraging words. What follows is an adaptation of the transcript of his address on January 2, 1980, to his United Methodist brothers and sisters.

– Steve Beard, editor in chief

The Call to Evangelism

By Billy Graham-

The evangelistic harvest is always urgent. The destiny of man and of nations is always being decided. This may be one of God’s great spring times, when He is going to do a new thing. There seem to be periods of special urgency in history when it can be said, with great relevance, the fields are white unto harvest. And I believe that we are now in such a period. Our world is on fire and man, without God, cannot control the flames. The fire is a passion and greed and hate and lust are sweeping uncontrollably around our globe.

We live in the midst of crisis, danger, fear and death. The harvest is ripe. Never has the soil of the human heart and mind been better prepared than it is tonight. Never has the grain been thicker. Never have we had more efficient instruments in our hands to help us gather the harvest. Yet, at a time when the harvest is the ripest in history, the church is often floundering in confusion, especially concerning evangelism.

1. There is confusion in the church as to what evangelism means. Dr. George Hunter in his excellent book, The Contagious Congregation, says, “Evangelism is a much misunderstood word, capable of many possible meanings.” Most people swear either by it or at it. Some think of evangelism simply in terms of getting people into the church or persuading them to conform to a particular pattern of religious belief and behavior, similar to their own. Today there are many people who think of evangelism as social action and omit entirely the winning of people to a personal relationship with Christ.

In recent years, many have rejected the Biblical doctrine that men and women are individually sinners before God and will be held responsible at the judgment. Instead, they believe in a doctrine of collective sinfulness and the corporate guilt of society.

Two weeks ago, I attended the funeral of Bishop Fulton Sheen. He had been one of my dear friends for many years. And speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast last year, he began by saying, “President Carter and Mrs. Carter, you are sinners.” You can imagine how shocked the audience was. And then he said, “We’re all fellow sinners.”

Archbishop Sheen then pointed out that rabbis and preachers had stopped talking about sin. Then he pointed out that Dr. Carl Menninger, the famous psychiatrist, had written the book, Whatever Happened to Sin? to draw attention to the need for a rediscovery of our personal sin and responsibility before God.

Many have moved from a belief in man’s personal responsibility before God to an entirely new concept that assumes all men and women are already saved. There’s a spreading universalism, which has deadened our urgency that was had by John and Charles Wesley, Francis Asbury, E. Stanley Jones, and others like them.

This new evangelism leads many to reject the idea of conversion in its historical Biblical meaning and the meaning historically held and preached and taught by the Methodist Church.

The church – and I’m talking about all denominations now – needs to recover a Biblical definition of evangelism. And it seems to me that we cannot improve on the definition of evangelism given to us by the Lausanne Covenant: “Evangelism is the proclamation of the historical, Biblical Christ as Savior and Lord with a view to persuading people to come to him personally and be reconciled to God. The results of evangelism include obedience to Christ, incorporation into his church and responsible service in the world.

The Bible does not use the word “evangelism,” but the verb form of the word appears often in the New Testament, which basically means to proclaim the Good News and is used over 50 times. By using verbs to speak about evangelism, the Bible puts the stress on active communication.

Canon Douglas Webster of the Church of England pointed out, “In the great majority of the 76 instances of the word ‘Gospel’ in the New Testament, the verb that goes with it is to preach. However, evangelism is never mere words isolated from the total witness of God’s people.” There is no dichotomy between redemptive evangelism and our social responsibility. They go together. They are partners and we must recognize that.

2. There is confusion concerning the motive for evangelism. Our first motive is the command of the Lord Jesus Christ. Three of the four Gospels end with the commission to the church to evangelize the world. And the book of Acts begins with another similar commission. And Jesus repeated it five times. I don’t go around the world preaching the Gospel because I feel like it. I’m tired of flying airplanes. But to go from one town to another and one airport to another and live in a suitcase and all the rest of it, I wouldn’t do it for any other business or any other motive except one. I’m under orders from the Lord Jesus Christ who died for my sins and shed His blood and is alive.

Evangelism is the example set by the preaching of the apostles. They said, “for we cannot stop speaking of what we ourselves have heard and seen.” We are beggars telling other beggars how to find bread.

“Jesus had compassion on them” is the phrase that is used over and over in the Gospels. He looked on men, not only as separated from God by sin, but as sick bodies that needed his healing touch and empty stomachs that needed feeding and prejudiced hearts that needed his words.
Photo courtesy of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

It was natural for Andrew, when he found Christ, to go and tell his brother Peter, and for Phillip to hurry and break the good news to his friend, Nathaniel. They did not need to be told to do it. They did it naturally and spontaneously. They were all evangelists.

If we have lost our enthusiasm for Christ, our eagerness to share our faith, it’s because our faith has ceased to mean much to us. The apostle Paul said, I’m not ashamed of the Gospel.

Dr. John Stott, speaking before the General Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Nairobi said, “I would like now to suggest one way in which to recall to the urgency of evangelism those to whom requests for justice, love, liberation, humanization, and quality of life are paramount. It is to urge that their concerns are absolutely right.” Certainly, it’s right to be concerned about those that are oppressed, those that are hungry, those that are starving, those that are orphans.

But many times he said it becomes too narrow and too superficial. If justice means the securing of people’s rights, is it not one of their most fundamental rights to hear the Gospel? If love seeks to serve men’s highest welfare, can we leave them alone in their spiritual lostness and still claim to love them?

John the Baptist came preaching judgment. Jesus preached judgment. There is a day of accountability coming and people do not seem to be aware of it.

I believe the scriptures teach that people outside of Jesus Christ are lost. In Matthew 7, our Lord says to some men, “Depart from me.” And hear His final judgment. He again said, “He that believeth not is condemned already.” If we really believe that men are lost apart from Jesus Christ, it should become a burning incentive to evangelize with zeal and passion.

The great Methodist preacher of London and a long time personal friend of mine, Dr. Leslie Weatherhead, once said, quote, “We do our generation a great disservice if we make light of sin and pretend that it does not matter and that we are all going to the same place and that God will pat everybody on the head and say, there, there, it doesn’t matter. I’m sure you didn’t mean it. Come now, enjoy yourselves.”

Dr. Weatherhead went on to point out that there are many things we don’t know about hell, but that Jesus used every image in His power to tell us that hell is real and that it’s terrible, that it’s something to be feared and it’s something to avoid.

“Jesus had compassion on them” is the phrase that is used over and over in the Gospels. He looked on men, not only as separated from God by sin, but as sick bodies that needed his healing touch and empty stomachs that needed feeding and prejudiced hearts that needed his words.

Evangelism and social compassion have always gone together. That’s one reason I love the Salvation Army. Salvation and soup. They put them together.

And the Methodists have always done it. Today, the evangelist, whether he is Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, or Catholic, cannot ignore the diseased and the poor and the discriminated against and those who have lost their freedom from tyranny.

These social evils cry loudly in our ears and we too must have compassion on them. Some of the greatest social movements of history have come about as a result of men being converted for Christ. And I am convinced that if the church went back to its main task of proclaiming the Gospel, it would have far greater impact on the social, moral, and psychological needs of men than any other thing it could possibly do.

3. There is confusion also concerning the message of salvation. Many times, when traveling internationally, we encounter the customs agent who says, “Have you anything to declare?” And some day I’m going to surprise one of those fellows and say, “Yes, I have to declare to you that Jesus Christ died for your sins according to the scriptures, was buried and rose again the third day. Repent and believe.”

But tragically many times the church doesn’t have much to declare. Any other message than the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not evangelism. Call it something else. It may be good and fine and great. But Paul sums up the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, “Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures. He was buried and He rose again the third day, according to the scriptures.” Now, notice, he said “according to the scriptures.” And I want to tell you, I believe the Bible is the authoritative Word of God.

Now, I accept by faith that this is God’s Word. And everything we need to believe for salvation is in this book and also for our daily lives. And when Paul preached this message in Corinth, nothing seemed more irrelevant to the people of that day. Think of it. Pagan, immoral, secular, intellectual. Corinth, and Paul, the only Christian in town, and he was going to start a church.

How would you start a Methodist church in ancient Corinth? Well, Paul said, “I determined to know nothing among them except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” and I was scared and fearful and trembling and weak and I didn’t use enticing words and I didn’t use my intellectual ability, I just declared to them, Jesus and Him crucified, and God touched Corinth. And one of the great early churches was born.

While methods may change, brothers and sisters, the message never changes. It is relevant and transforming in every generation. I’d like to preach the sermons of John Wesley and George Whitfield because I’m convinced they still have the power today as they did 200 years ago. The message doesn’t change.

4. There is confusion concerning the strategy of the enemy in evangelism. To Jesus and the apostles, Satan was very real. He was called the prince of this world, the god of this age, the prince and power of the air. And names indicate something of his character and strategy. He was called deceiver, liar, murderer, accuser, tempter, destroyer and many other names. And the evangelist, in the work of evangelism, is opposed on every hand by tremendous spiritual forces.

When the seed of the Gospel is being sown, he is always there sowing the tares. But more, he has the power to blind the minds of those whom we are seeking to evangelize. His strategy is to use deception, sometimes force, sometimes evil and error to destroy the effectiveness of the Gospel. If we ignore the existence of Satan or our ignorance of his devices, then we fall into his clever trap. However, we have the glorious promise, “Greater is He that is in us than he that is in the world.”

5. There is confusion also concerning the method of evangelism. You go to any part of the world and they use different methods. The method I use may not be the most effective method. We try to use a multiplicity of methods in our crusades. No one method will be right for every person in every situation at any given time.

The Holy Spirit can take any method and use it to win souls. But our goal is nothing less than the penetration of the whole world. Jesus said, “This Gospel of the kingdom shall be preached throughout the world.” Paul said to Timothy, stir up the gift that’s in you. And it’s the picture of a poker being thrust into a dying fire until the embers flare up again.

When the church fails to stir up that gift, it dies. As someone said, the church exists by mission. Fire exists by burning. But what we need most is revival in the church.

One of the great mission fields of the world, let’s confess it, is the church itself. George Whitfield would go from church to church and he would preach a whole week on “you must be born again.” And do you remember, the leaders came to him in one place and said, “Brother Whitfield, we’d appreciate it if you’d change your text. We’re just tired of hearing that same text over and over again, ‘you must be born again.’” He said, “I’ll change when you get born again.” We need a little bit of that.

The Holy Spirit has not been withdrawn from us. He still waits to work through those who are willing to meet His conditions. We are tempted at times to cry with Habakkuk the prophet, “Oh, Lord, how long shall I cry and thou will not hear? How long, oh, Lord?” Let us not limit God in His working. Sometimes the working of the Holy Spirit may seem slow in your church or your conference or in your denomination. But let’s get ready for a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit. It could happen.

If the church was supernaturally blessed of God at its birth, who will say that in the closing days of its witness here on earth, it will not be blessed even in a mightier way? And perhaps, God will reply to us, as He did to a discouraged Habakkuk, “I will work a work in your days which you would not believe in even though I told you.”

Let me tell you, God hasn’t lost step. Nothing takes him by surprise. Everything is according to plan. And the plan is, to put Jesus Christ on the throne.

We all know that great statement by Wesley in 1784. “You have nothing to do but to save souls, therefore spend and be spent in this work.” Observe. “It is not your business to preach so many times and to take care of this or that society; but to save as many souls as you can; to bring as many sinners as you possibly can to repentance and with all your power to build them up in that holiness, without which they will never see the Lord.”

Let it be remembered that the Methodist church began in the white peak of conversion and intense evangelistic energy. Let it be recalled that the Methodist church is an evangelistic movement. Let this be a decade when the great revival that many are praying for and many believe is on the way is going to sweep the Methodist church.

Billy Graham is an evangelist for Jesus Christ, friend of sinners, and a greatly beloved Christian leader and author known around the globe.

1 Comment

  1. The great sorrow of my heart is that this message has been lost. Lost in the UMC, yes, but not just the UMC. We travel a lot and attending church around the country have come to learn how truly rare it is to hear salvation preached.

    I fully believe God is about to write Ichabod over our doors for this.

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