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

January 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 by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24