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Preaching beyond the stadium: Billy Graham's use of technology for evangelism

Jan 23, 2019

“Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ . . . But how will they hear without a preacher?” Romans asks. This urgency of the gospel message drove the apostles to preach to all who would listen. Yet, the voice of 12 men could only reach a limited number of ears. So they trained other preachers, like Timothy and Titus.

But the apostles also took advantage of the technology available to them—the scroll and the pen—to “preach” to others in places where they were not present. These sermons, written to be read aloud in churches, became the New Testament epistles. The canon of Scripture is closed, but the challenge remains: How can we extend the voice of gospel preachers beyond their physical presence?

The greatest innovator in the art of preaching to those not present was Billy Graham. His ministry took advantage of nearly every significant communications development of the 20th century—newspapers, magazines, radio, television, movies, and the internet—to cast the seed of the gospel as broadly as possible.

Billy Graham's rise to prominence

Billy Graham rose to prominence after his 1949 Los Angeles crusade, quickly leading to the idea of a national radio program. Graham decided to commit to the project if the necessary $25,000 was raised in one night, a condition fulfilled at his 1950 Portland, Oregon, crusade. Appropriate management of these funds required the creation of a nonprofit organization. So, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) was born.  

“The Hour of Decision” radio broadcast launched in November 1950. Soon, Graham started a nationally syndicated newspaper column called “My Answer.” He would also help found the magazines “Christianity Today” (1956) and the BGEA’s own “Decision” (1957). Both the radio broadcast and the print ministry took advantage of technologies that were “tried-and-true” for evangelicals.

But Billy Graham was just getting started.

Billy Graham and the TV

Graham’s greatest ministry-technology breakthrough was with television. He produced a 30-minute program also called “The Hour of Decision,” which ran from 1951–1954 on the ABC network. This program laid the foundation for Graham’s use of TV during the 1957 New York Madison Square Garden Crusade, which opened on May 15, 1957. A weeknight TV program, “Insights,” carried reports from the services. But on June 1, ABC carried the last hour of the Saturday evening service live. The arena held 18,000 people, but that first national TV broadcast reached an estimated 6.5 million viewers.

Using live TV to preach the gospel required a new way of receiving responses to the invitation. Both the “Insight” program and the national broadcasts invited people to call the crusade’s telephone counseling ministry. There, they were able to speak to counselors trained in personal evangelism and were referred to local churches for follow-up. The “call center” became a key feature of the infrastructure supporting Graham’s evangelistic use of TV.

Graham’s live TV ministry peaked with the 1995 crusade in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the 1996 Billy Graham World Television Series. The San Juan services were simulcast via satellite in 48 languages all over the world, reaching millions. The 1996 television series reached 200 nations in 50 languages. As a result, an estimated 1.5 billion people heard Graham preach on a single day, with an estimated 2.5 billion reached by the end of the month-long series.    

Billy Graham and movies 

Another major aspect of Billy Graham’s use of visual media was the production of evangelistic movies, originally to be shown in churches. Early films, such as “Mr. Texas” (1952), told stories of skeptics, sinners, and seekers, culminating in footage from Graham crusades with which the stories were associated. “Mr. Texas” drew from the 1951 Fort Worth, Texas, crusade. Other films were tied to the London (1954), New York (1957), and Australia (1959) crusades.

In 1965, the BGEA shifted to a movie theater strategy. Graham’s first feature-length movie, “The Restless Ones,” depicted teen troubles with peer pressure,
dating, and drugs. The film ended with footage of Graham preaching the gospel, and when the house lights rose a live speaker gave an invitation. Graham’s strategy followed his crusade model, training and deploying live decision teams with each film. In the long run, this was difficult to sustain, so later BGEA films gave the invitation as part of the movie.

Remaining faithful to their evangelistic mission while generating fresh interest also presented a unique challenge to the ministry’s filmmakers. In response, they chose to vary the genre of their movies, ultimately making 33 movies including westerns, love stories, comedies, adventures, and historical films. Graham’s greatest success was “The Hiding Place” (1975), based on the story of Corrie ten Boom, a Dutch Christian who was imprisoned in a Nazi death camp for hiding Jews. Jeannette Clift was nominated for a Golden Globe for playing the lead role.

In the mid-1990s the ministry again shifted its strategy, producing made-for-TV movies and direct-to-video projects. One such movie was “The Ride” (1997), a cowboy film shown in Graham’s quarterly time slot on national TV. It earned a larger audience and a higher decision rate than Graham’s televised sermons from the previous quarter. Taken together, the BGEA claims over 2 million first-time decisions for Christ as a result of its various movie projects.

Billy Graham and the Internet 

Despite innovations in the use of mass-media technology spanning nearly 50 years, Graham’s ministry continued to embrace new means of communication. In 1996, the BGEA launched its website, BillyGraham.org. It continues to make Graham’s sermons, materials, and movies available to the world.

Most significantly, it is the hub for the BGEA’s “My Hope” campaign of home-based evangelism events. This strategy provides access to evangelistic training online, downloadable and printable promotional materials, and evangelistic videos. Its purpose is to equip churches and families to share the gospel in home settings, mixing the power of video with personal relationships. Coordinated campaigns using this approach have resulted in more than 10 million people worldwide making decisions for Christ.

Billy Graham was probably the greatest “in-person” preacher of the 20th century. But the impact of his evangelistic ministry cannot be measured by stadium seating capacities alone. Graham took full advantage of nearly every possible way to preach where he could not be present. That ministry continues today.

The number of people who will hear Graham preach in person has been reached—tens of millions of souls, which is more than any preacher reached before him. Yet, the number who have heard him through his use of mass-media technology reaches into the billions, and will continue to grow until Christ returns. 

Benjamin B. Phillips

Benjamin B. Phillips is an associate dean and professor at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Houston campus. Read More