By / Nov 24

Peyton Hill, pastor of First Baptist Prattville, Alabama, talks about how the gospel continues to go forth during coronavirus.

By / Nov 5

Ever since Adam’s rebellion plunged mankind under the curse of sin, humans have sought to answer the question of how to live full and flourishing lives. Historically, individuals known for providing answers to this question have been given the distinction of philosopher. At the thought of this title, most will recall thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, or Kant, but one influential figure typically left out of such a company is Jesus Christ. This exclusion is probably unsurprising to most. After all, both Christians and non-Christians agree that he was primarily a religious figure, one concerned with making humans right with God. This project seems to be in an entirely different category than the philosophical pursuit of happiness in this world. 

In his new book, New Testament scholar Jonathan Pennington (Reading the Gospels Wisely, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing) charges that though this vertical, religious view of the person and work of Jesus is correct, it only tells part of the story. He argues that the Holy Scriptures are concerned with more than simply how to get to heaven when we die—they also present us with an ethic for the Good Life. By walking through the big ideas presented throughout Scripture, the Christian approach to emotions, relationships, and other themes, Pennington’s Jesus the Great Philosopher provides a rich and relevant guide into how the Christian gospel gives a whole-life philosophy that makes possible a flourishing existence in the here-and-now. 

Summary

Pennington begins with the observation that modern evangelical Christianity often presents a truncated picture of Jesus’s message that is bereft of his philosophical whole-life wisdom. He argues this has resulted in four key problems:

  1. Our faith has become disconnected from every other “non-religious” aspect of our lives.
  2. We turn to alternative sources for wisdom for the Good Life.
  3. We fail to seek from Scripture its answers of how to live rightly in the world.
  4. Our inability to confront these questions has limited our witness to our neighbors (10).

To address these problems, Pennington builds his case for seeing Jesus as a philosopher, beginning with a survey of whole-life teachings in the Old and New Testaments. He then explores three different issues and presents their Christian solutions. These issues include educating emotions, which involves liturgically shaping (not coldly disregarding) them in accordance with Scripture (104). Next is a discussion on restoring relationships with both individuals and broader society in which the local church is the central “worshiping polis” (168). To conclude, Pennington asserts that the goal of the Holy Scriptures is to return mankind to a life of happiness by “reshaping humanity into the image of Christ” (204). In this manner, he shows that the Christian faith is a philosophy that not only presents answers to the religious questions, but also a whole-life ethic that gives instruction for the Good Life.

A philosophy the world needs

Jesus the Great Philosopher is a welcome and well-reasoned rediscovery of the full scope of biblical teaching. It speaks to a multiplicity of issues that encompass human life, highlighting areas often thought to be separate from that to which the Word speaks. While the breadth of topics Pennington addresses is wide, the reader never gets the sense that he has overstepped his bounds. His insights are broad yet concise, informative yet nourishing.

The recognition of our union with God in Christ as our greatest good does not render our horizontal relationships with our neighbors and the world superfluous. Instead, it equips us with the proper tools to rightly relate to it all and advance his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven (Matt. 6:10).

It is also a timely and important work given the tumultuous state of affairs of the past year. For a time in which people are more isolated, angry, and confused than anything in recent memory, Pennington’s book demonstrates that Christianity addresses these issues by offering salvation through faith and the instruction that makes possible a full and abundant life (John 10:10). 

Thy kingdom come

Jesus the Great Philosopher also speaks directly to the belief often implicitly held by modern evangelicals that the redemption offered by Christ merely affects our individual souls rather than creation in its entirety. Its commentary challenges the common American anticipation of an eschatalogical departure from the physical realm to a heavenly existence. Indeed, Pennington’s work helps remind us that the redemption Christ brings isn’t an escape from this world. Rather, “It is the message that God reigns and he is now finally bringing his kingdom from heaven to earth—through Jesus himself” (165)!

This kingdom-focused mindset prompts us to defy a detachment from this world and adopt a God-and-neighbor focus that allows us to embrace and enjoy life to the full. As such, the human experience and its enjoyment are dependent on a right view and ordering of our emotions. While it is important to recognize the necessity for contentment in all things (Phil. 4:10-14) and to model the Lord’s impassibility, to imitate our Savior means to reflect him as he was: “fully emotional, but in a way that was always harmonious, not imbalanced, inappropriate, or disordered” (111). A biblically-informed shaping of our emotions helps us to rightly order the objects of our love such that the Good Life is made possible. 

This right ordering of our desires finally gives us the capacity to delight in this world as God intended. This is not to say that we enjoy such blessings apart from the One who gives them. On the contrary, we delight in them through him. But the recognition of our union with God in Christ as our greatest good does not render our horizontal relationships with our neighbors and the world superfluous. Instead, it equips us with the proper tools to rightly relate to it all and advance his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven (Matt. 6:10). Pennington writes that the Christian philosophy emphasizes “an honest assessment of the brokenness of life that is always oriented toward a sure hope for God’s restoration of true flourishing to the world” (218).

Overall, Jesus the Great Philosopher is a clear and enjoyable text that presents an important rediscovery of the broad and robust message of the Holy Scriptures. Pennington effectively addresses a wide range of issues with a skillful yet conversational tone, providing the reader with an active and engaging text. Timely and relevant, this book gives Christians the important reminder that our Lord and Savior is also our Philosopher who gives us not only redemption and salvation, but also the tools necessary for the Good Life.

By / Feb 7

It was 2005. I was a farm boy who found himself pastoring a church in the center of a major city. I had no idea what I was doing.

Another pastor I knew had just returned from a church planting conference at which he heard some guy speak and gave me the 23-page handout. “Nathan, you’ve got to read this! This is all about where you are.”

The title of the paper was “Ministry in the New Global Culture of Major City-Centers.” The author was Tim Keller, who was starting to be known more widely outside of New York City where he had planted and pastored Redeemer Presbyterian Church since 1989. I devoured and marked up that document and shared it enthusiastically with many others.

Keller helped me understand for the first time how the gospel is not just the ABCs of the Christian life, but the A to Z. He also connected the dots for me to see the city as an exciting, strategic, and necessary place for gospel ministry. I had never encountered anything like it before, and Keller’s continued influence has profoundly shaped me personally as well as pastorally.

The unique blend of biblical and practical theology with sociology that I first discovered in that handout has now been fully developed and expanded in the substantial tome titled Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City. Here ministry practitioners will not find a plug-and-play model to use but rather be challenged to develop a theological vision to guide them in their own context.

It begins with the gospel

It all begins with the gospel. Keller carefully distinguishes what the gospel is and what it is not, looking at it systematically as well as redemptive-historically. Yet an accurate grasp of the gospel’s content is not enough. The gospel must penetrate our hearts and in turn affect all areas of our individual and corporate lives.

Envisioning this kind of genuine gospel renewal, Keller writes, “When the gospel is expounded and applied in its fullness in any church, that church will look unique. People will find in it an attractive, electrifying balance of moral conviction and compassion” (51). Revival like this is a gift of God and cannot be manufactured, but we can pray and preach toward that end, and Keller gives some rich insight into how to do that.

Reaching the city

Keller believes that we also have a role to play in contextualizing the gospel to our culture. By this he means lovingly and boldly expressing the Bible’s answers to the human predicament “in a way that avoids making the message unnecessarily alien to that culture, yet without removing or obscuring the scandal and offense of biblical truth” (89). Some may quibble with exactly where Keller falls on the continuum, but no one can honestly deny that we are all doing contextualization at some level. Nor can anyone maintain that Keller has sold out to the world.  

In this section Keller also makes his best case for Christians to be in cities. He traces the urban theme throughout the Bible and history, showing convincingly that city life has been God’s design all along. In fact, the New Jerusalem portrayed at the end of Revelation is the Garden of Eden fully developed. He does not hide the costs and ugliness of the cities of Man, yet he points out the beauty, benefits, and opportunities that many have perhaps not considered.

Keller is quick to make the caveat that “there must be Christians and churches everywhere there are people.” He is clear that he is not calling for all believers to “pack up and go to live and minister in urban areas.” What he is saying is that “the cities of the world are grievously underserved by the church, because, in general, the people of the world are moving into cities faster than churches are.” Keller is “seeking to use all the biblical, sociological, missiological, ecclesial, and rhetorical resources at [his] disposal to help the church (particularly in the United States) reorient itself to address this deficit” (166). He makes a compelling case.

“Even those (like Wendell Berry) who lift up the virtues of rural living,” notes Keller, “outline a form of human community just as achievable in cities as in small towns.” Keller believes that “a person with an ‘agrarian’ mind can live in a city very well” (170). As someone with rural roots who has often wistfully read Berry’s tales of Port William, I think Keller is right. Despite many challenges, I am trying to apply the best of where I came from to the place that my wife, five kids, and I now call home.

Chapters 15 through 18 deal with cultural engagement, revisiting H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic categories of how Christ relates to culture and interacting with more recent developments in the debate. After seeking to charitably assess strengths and weaknesses of each camp, Keller (in classic Keller form) tries to advocate for a balanced, blended approach between what he calls Two Kingdoms, Relevance, Transformationist, and Counterculturalist schools of thought. One might lean a little more into the Two Kingdoms camp and Keller may gravitate more to the Transformationist/Kuyperian side, but the discussion here will be stimulating for anyone interested in thinking through the Church’s role in this world.

The Church on the move

Keller maintains that churches must assume a missional posture, always having an eye toward the unbelievers around them. Yet his sights are set on more than mere church growth. He desires a movement where many new churches of different shapes and sizes are started throughout the city and beyond. And this requires a gospel ecosystem that involves more than just local churches, but also campus ministries, seminaries, trans-denominational prayer meetings and other specialized parachurch ministries.

The final chapters include priceless pieces of wisdom for the church as an organization, like how to structure the worship service to both edify and evangelize, preaching to the heart, ideas for community building, etc. There are also practical suggestions for equipping and sending gospel-renewed Christians out into their workplaces and neighborhoods, serving the poor and doing justice—the church as an organism.

Conclusion

The length of the book can be daunting (the publisher has actually now broken it up into three shorter paperbacks to remove that obstacle). Keller’s “third way” instincts can become predictable and somewhat hackneyed at times. But in an era of divisiveness and vitriol, Keller’s gracious, thoughtful, winsome engagement with the world provides a model worthy of our attention. And in a day of high-profile pastoral malpractice, Keller’s long-term faithfulness is admirable.

This book best encapsulates Keller’s ministry. And familiarity with his story is a great boon to us all, demonstrating the power of the gospel in cities, rural settings, and throughout the world. 

By / Jan 21

In high school, during the summers, I volunteered as a camp counselor for the YMCA. Back then, part of the training materials they gave me was a book called The ‘C’ in YMCA. (YMCA stands for Young Men’s Christian Association). It was a book explaining some of the history and purpose behind the Christian aspects of the YMCA. 

The ‘E’ in ERLC (Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission) can also perhaps be a bit obscure to some. What exactly is “ethics”? And how does it connect with the Church’s mission to advance the gospel?

What is ethics?

Ethics is also commonly called moral philosophy. Encyclopedia Britannica defines ethics as “the discipline concerned with what is morally good and bad and morally right and wrong. The term is also applied to any system or theory of moral values or principles.” Put more simply, ethics are what people might commonly call “values” or “morality.”

But why should Christians care about ethics? Why is it such a big part of the ERLC’s work? The short answer is because ethics is deeply connected to the gospel and the Christian life. Every day, we make decisions which are ethical in nature. Any given situation could invoke the question, “Is this the right thing to do?” That is the essence of an ethical/moral decision. 

As Christians, we must let our ethics be shaped by the gospel. Let’s explore why this is the case.

The gospel and repentance

People can often have a truncated view of the gospel that limits it to only the knowledge or acknowledgment that Jesus Christ died for our sins and salvation is found in him. But the gospel requires more than mere mental assent (or agreement) to these propositions. The gospel also requires us to repent of our sins.

I was reminded of this when listening to Russell Moore’s recent interview of former Klansman Thomas A. Tarrants on his Signposts podcast. Tarrants grew up going to church and even made a confession of faith in Christ during his early teenage years, but he noted that this didn’t change his heart or stop him from giving into a life of hatred and racism that was prevalent in his culture. He was just afraid of going to hell. Genuine repentance and transformation did not come until much later when he had been thrown in prison for an attempted bombing.

By understanding the moral demands of the gospel (ethics), we can learn what is means to follow Jesus faithfully and in such a way that displays the beauty of the gospel and the glory of our Lord and Savior.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus likewise taught of the indispensable nature of repentance to salvation (Matt. 4:17; Mark 1:15; Luke 5:32, 13:1-5, 24:47). Peter, when giving testimony of Jesus at Solomon’s portico, told the audience, “Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out,” (Acts 3:19). The gospel is never less than the good news of the forgiveness of sins found in Jesus Christ, but if we are not preaching a gospel that calls sinners to repentance, then we are not preaching the whole gospel.

Note, this is not salvation by works, for salvation only comes by grace through faith in Jesus Christ and his work (Eph. 2:8-10). Rather, this is an acknowledgment that the gospel requires more than just mental assent to the facts about Jesus. The gospel requires repentance, a change in heart, a submission of our very being—our very wills—to Christ as Lord.

So while we can see the necessity of repentance to the gospel, how does ethics tie in?  

Repentance and ethics

Repentance, in its essence, means to turn away or turn back from something. Ethics, on the other hand, is the framework which helps you decide what to turn away from (sin) and who to turn to (Jesus). So, when we call someone to repentance and to receive the forgiveness of sins offered through Jesus, we are also calling them to forsake the sins associated with their “old self” and to make new ethical choices in accordance with their “new self” (Eph. 4:22-24).  Thus, ethics and our ethical choices are influenced directly by the gospel. We are called to be Christ-like, which means that we are called to adopt Christ’s ethics.

This is most clearly seen in the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in our lives (1 Cor. 6:9-11; 1 Thess. 4:3-8; 2 Thess. 2:13). The Spirit is constantly at work within us, bringing about a transformation of our hearts and minds. When we submit to the Spirit through obedience to the Word, over time he molds our character and desires to be in accordance with the Lord’s will. And when we submit to the Lordship of Christ, this inevitably affects our moral decision-making (i.e., our ethics).

Conclusion

Ethics is not the entirety of what the gospel is, for salvation cannot be gained through ethics or obedience to God’s law (Rom. 3:28). On the other hand, ethics, which encompasses not only our character but our decision-making, is ultimately born from our decision to repent, believe, and follow Jesus, which is the core of the gospel.

This is what the ERLC seeks to foster. Our mission statement states that we exist “to assist the churches by helping them understand the moral demands of the gospel, apply Christian principles to moral and social problems and questions of public policy, and to promote religious liberty in cooperation with the churches and other Southern Baptist entities.” By understanding the moral demands of the gospel (ethics), we can learn what is means to follow Jesus faithfully and in such a way that displays the beauty of the gospel and the glory of our Lord and Savior.

By / Sep 10

Children are captivated by the extraordinary, the dazzling, and the spectacular, and the gospel is the most wondrous of all. At our national conference, Andrew Peterson shares how we can feed the imagination and wonder of our children with the beauty of the gospel.

By / Feb 7

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there will be more people over age 65 than children by 2035. This swell in the aging population is what some are calling the “grey tsunami.” But I think Jesus would call it the white harvest. In the coming years, onr in every five residents in the U.S. will be elderly. Our neighborhoods, churches, and hospitals are filling with the boomers of the 1940s to 1960s. But is the church looking to reach them?

I have had a general malaise brewing in me the last year about the overwhelming need of the rapidly growing elderly population in the U. S., both as a nurse and a Christian. I work as a nurse in a hospital in Sun City West, Ariz., where the mean patient age is 72. Every day I’m overwhelmed by the needs of our elderly population. Stroke, heart disease, infection, diabetes and disability leave almost all of my elderly patients in need of 24-hour care when they discharge from the hospital.

Most of my patients do not have younger family members available to help them. Many are being cared for by their elderly spouses because their adult children don’t live in the same state. Many are without financial resources to pay for the care they  need. These long-retired citizens, moms, dads, teachers, service men and women, nurses, secretaries, engineers, and more all find themselves in need of help with no one to give it.

I often hear from these elders, “Why is this happening to me?” and, “Don’t get old!”  Many have a history of going to church and might even call themselves Christians, but is the gospel of Christ giving them hope as they face the rapid decay of their bodies?

There is a mission field surrounding the church in America. Many of them will not enter our gatherings because they can’t. They fill long-term care facilities, group homes, rehab facilities, skilled nursing facilities, memory care facilities, hospitals, and, if they are wealthy, 55+ resident communities. The poor often live in trailer parks on the fringes of our towns and in homes with their relatives who are tired and weary of the constant care they require.

So what can we do? Where should we start? I suggest at least three avenues we should take to work at harvesting souls among the elderly in the U.S.

1. Christian healthcare workers, use your gifts to heal and serve the elderly

I wanted to be a midwife when I went into nursing 18 years ago. I worked in a labor and delivery unit for several years and couldn’t bear the thought of doing anything else in nursing. When I began working in Arizona at my local hospital, I kept wanting to go back to women and infant nursing. Babies are cute. Old people aren’t always cute. But the draw of the Holy Spirit on my heart to serve these bent and broken, infirm and often bitter elderly image-bearers overwhelmed me.

Yes, there is a need for healthcare workers in serving women and babies, but there is an even greater need for healthcare workers to serve the old, the least glamorous part of healthcare. Caring for the needs of a human body decaying from age, disease, and memory loss is undignified and laborious.

When Jesus set out to preach the coming of the kingdom in Matthew 9, he went about healing and addressing physical needs. Seeing the lack of help and guidance the people had, he called for his disciples to see the harvest of souls surrounding them and pray for workers to go there. I pray God will call your attention,Christian doctors, nurses, therapists, assistants, to the lost and helpless elderly and send you to work in that harvest.

2. Repent of not sharing the gospel with the elderly just because they’re advanced in years

I lived for awhile with the subconscious idea that when you’re old you don’t sin anymore. I know it sounds ridiculous, but I don’t think I’m the only one who falsely—or subconsciously—assumed the elderly aren’t in need of the gospel. But working in the hospital with the elderly, I see a prevailing sin among many: pride. There is pride about being old, having paid their dues, and now expecting life and people to treat them well. They can be bitter, entitled, and angry.

While complaining about the ugliness of the sin I was seeing in my elderly patients, the Holy Spirit convicted me that I was assuming they shouldn’t be sinners just because they’re old. The truth is, sin doesn’t go away with age; it sometimes gets more entrenched. The elderly, as a result, need the gospel just as much as anyone; they need their sin to be exposed and forgiven.

One centurian patient I had was so angry that she was still alive in her fractured body that we had to put her on a suicide precautions. As I assessed her, asking the standard questions we healthcare professionals ask to screen for suicidal thoughts, she expressed her anger: “What’s the point of being here? I don’t want anyone to take care of me!” At that moment I got on my knees beside her bed and asked if she’d heard the story about Jesus. “Have you ever thought about the fact that God chose to send his son as an infant, totally dependent on others to care for him?” I asked. “Have you thought that maybe it is God’s will for you to be dependent on others now?” A little light flickered in her clouding eyes, and she thanked me for making her think about something she hadn’t thought of before.

3. Connect your church’s kids ministry to the elderly  

This serves a dual purpose: it renews the vitality of the old and brings hope to the young. Psalm 71 is a psalm I call “The Heart of the Silver-Headed Saints.” The psalmist remembers God’s faithfulness to him from childhood and expresses his desire to keep living by that faithfulness even into his elderly years:

“Do not cast me off in the time of old age; forsake me not when my strength is spent. . . . But I will hope continually and will praise you yet more and more . . . So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to another generation, your power to all those to come.” (Psa. 71:9, 14, 18)

I serve as the leader of our kids ministry at my local church. We are a growing church plant and have lots of young families, but we have a handful of healthy retired folks, and our building is next door to a retirement facility that includes a locked memory care facility. In general, connecting the kids and young families to the elderly, even those with dementia, is not the first step in getting your members involved in kids ministry. It should be, though.

In Titus, Paul teaches the older women and men to turn from their retirement mentality and invest their lives in those young families that are always marching noisily back to their classrooms on Sunday morning. We need elderly saints to proclaim the power of God to us. Mothers and fathers with toddlers need to hear of the faithfulness of God from aged lips. They need to be reminded that God is working all things together for their good to conform them to the image of his son.  

Young church, go to the elderly ones who are confused, infirm, and shut-in. Sit with them. Listen to their stories. Read the Psalms to them. Pray with them. Sing with them. Give them the opportunity to remember the hope of the resurrection of Christ our Lord! Surely we are closer than we were before to the day of our Lord’s return. Pray that the Lord of this harvest would send his workers to bring his older children home.

“. . . even to your old age I am he, and to gray hairs I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save” (Isa. 46:4).

By / Jan 30

The first mention of women is in Genesis 2 where God says, “It is not good that the man should be alone. I will make him a helper fit for him” (2:18). Since these words were first penned, cultural bias and views have skewed what this really means. The word for helper is “ezer” in Hebrew, which beside describing woman twice in Genesis, is also used 16 times in the Old Testament to describe God himself.

Genesis also tells us we were made in the image of God, men and women. We also see from the very beginning the promise made through Eve (and future women) that God would bring about the One who would crush Satan’s head. God begins history and his Word by making clear both genders have an equally vital and unique role in his redemptive plan.

In the Old Testament, women play a major role in the story of the Israelite people. We see Egyptian midwives who fear God and are used to save Moses, the instrument of the Israelites’ delivery from slavery. We see Deborah as a prophetess and judge for the Israelites, calling out their idolatry and leading them into victory in battle. In the New Testament, we see out of all the names in the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1, five of those names are women. We see in the gospels how crosscultural Jesus was in how he valued and esteemed women—healing, befriending, discipling, and sending them.

God begins history and his Word by making clear both genders have an equally vital and unique role in his redemptive plan.

Jesus let a “sinful” woman wash his feet with perfume and her own hair despite breaking numerous cultural and societal norms. Jesus said because of her faith, the bleeding woman who touched his robe would no longer be seen as unclean but would be healed.

Jesus sat down and talked with a woman—a cultural outsider—to share about the living water he provides, despite knowing her scandalous past. After rising from the grave, he first appeared to Mary Magdalene, and in Acts, we see Paul mention numerous women as important leaders and servants in the church.

The value given to women in Scripture is undeniable and could be used as an apologetic to the authenticity of Scripture, as it was so countercultural to the time in which it was written.

Women in South Asia

This biblical esteeming and valuing of both sexes is still outside of the norm, especially in certain parts of the world. The highest concentration of unreached people groups is in South Asia, and one of the clearest evidences of the lack of the gospel there is the treatment of women. In 2018, India was named the most dangerous country in the world for women, factoring in lack of resources, sexual and physical violence, cultural practices, and human trafficking. This starts in the womb, as some sources say there are 63 million missing girls in India, many missing because of gender-selective abortions.

In the home, family resources are prioritized for the boys including education, healthcare, and later in life, job opportunities. Often, girls are married off as children, with 44 percent of child marriages taking place in South Asia. Women are often viewed as initiators of sexual violence because of how they dress, talk, look at men, or because they choose to be out at certain times of the day. According to the BBC, there are over 100 rapes every day in India, and those are just the ones reported.

Physical and sexual abuse in the home is rampant and even normalized as its viewed as just a private family matter. More statistics and stories could be shared, but the point is, women are routinely dehumanized and devalued. This is a human dignity issue which means it is primarily a gospel issue.

Gospel transformation

What does this issue have to do with the gospel? There has been no gospel ethic guiding the way Indians see gender issues for centuries, and because of this, norms run deep into the culture. But there is hope in the gospel!

I lived in South Asia for some time and vividly remember sitting on the floor of a home watching a Jesus film while the husband served my friends and I (all women) tea and snacks. Typically, hospitality is the woman’s job, but this husband had been so dramatically transformed by the gospel and wanted so badly for his sister-in-law to watch the film that he was more than willing to serve us.

What if this kind of transformed life multiplied a million times over? We could see men treat women as they should be, as they are made in the image of God. That would be an incredible testimony to the lost world around them, of light penetrating the darkness.

Would you pray for men like him? Would you also pray for the women—that they would hear the stories of Jesus and know how much he cares for them? I pray women in India would know they are remarkably and wondrously made and are worth their Creator dying and raising back to life for them. Would you pray to this end? And if God calls you, go and share this radical gospel message with those who desperately need it.

By / Jan 23

“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. 

By / Nov 3

Ray Ortlund preaches on Marriage and the Mystery of the Gospel at the 2018 ERLC National Conference.