An Ordinary Man and His Extraordinary God
(Paraclete Press, 2018)
WHO: Lon Allison, pastor of teaching and outreach at Wheaton Bible Church in Wheaton, Illinois, and former executive director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College.
HE SAYS: “I am quite sure that anything good we witness in Mr. Graham’s life, he would readily credit to the gospel of the living God working in him.”
THE BIG IDEA: This book isn’t simply another biography; it is an eyewitness account of both Billy Graham’s life, his ministry and the message he preached.
This 10-chapter book is an insightful look into both the life of Billy Graham and his ministry. It also clearly relates the gospel message that Billy spent his life proclaiming.
Beginning with a brief look at Billy’s childhood, the text moves forward through his conversion and education. Well-documented throughout, each chapter strives to show readers Billy’s character, obedience and humbleness.
This biography also focuses on the importance of mentorship in Billy’s life, his close connection with God and how he was led to become an evangelist.
Later chapters detail his marriage and family life, with his well-known crusades and his spirit of lifelong learning.
“He was a friend of Jesus and passionately devoted to telling Jesus’s story to everyone he possibly could in the world.”
A CONVERSATION WITH LON ALLISON
What can younger pastors learn from Billy Graham?
Humility. Billy Graham was perhaps the most humble person I’ve ever met. Younger pastors and leaders may be surprised to know Mr. Graham became a national phenomenon when he was 31 years old. At that age it’s hard to be humble if the world is telling you that you are something special. How did he keep from having a big head?
First of all, he had people around him to hold him accountable to live a Christ honoring life. His wife was very important in this regard. When Lyndon Johnson wanted Billy to run for the presidency, he shared it with Ruth. She told him that if he ran, he would lose. “Why?” he asked. Her response was, “Because no one will elect a president who has been divorced, and if you run for the presidency you’ll be divorced!”
He also had a team of brothers around him to keep his ego in check. In October 1948 he formed accountability relationships with the team. Together, they challenged each other to live Christ honoring and devoted lives. Finally, I think Mr. Graham was always surprised that God used him so effectively when he was deeply aware of his own sinfulness. A good dose of recognizing one’s frailty and sin keeps one from hubris. Pride comes before the fall, and by God’s mercy, Mr. Graham while sinful was increasingly humble until the end.
What did you learn about Billy in writing this book?
I learned so much as I researched his life. My own relationship with Mr. Graham was limited to his last decades of life. I didn’t meet him and work alongside his organization until he was 80. But the books I read and the interviews with those who knew him from the early days were very informative. Here are just a few of the things I learned.
He was so young when all heaven broke loose on his ministry. He was 31! He had deep theological struggles with believing in the infallibility of the Scriptures in his late 20s and until the LA Crusade when he was 30. The story of how he found peace and trust in the Scriptures alone is in the book.
He was just an ordinary American boy growing up. He liked baseball, girls, and cars and didn’t like having to go to church. His conversion at age 16 occurred over a process of weeks, not in just one moment. The two things that led him to Jesus were an increasing conviction that he was not a very good person, and a longing to have a personal relationship with God.
He was more well-read than I thought. While he tried to preach simply so that people far from God could understand the gospel, he had an incurable intellectual curiosity. He kept theologians close to him and read theologians like Niebuhr and Barth. His first book published in his early 40s, How to Have Peace with God, is theologically informed and displays his fertile mind. Billy clearly understood he had to preach God’s mysteries with a simplicity on the other side of complexity.
What can pastors and ministry leaders struggling with burnout learn from Billy Graham?
He seemed to live a rather balanced life. As you’ll read in the book there is a story of a prominent pastor who asked Billy what he did on those days when he was so busy he had no time for personal worship of God. Billy paused and paused longer. When he answered he said something like, “I cannot remember any day when I didn’t have my personal worship time.” His personal life of prayer and devotion gets a whole chapter in the book.
Good teams. I’m told that Mr. Graham had great trust in his team. While being a highly gifted leader, he seemed to have little need to micro-manage. A big task requires a trusted team. He encouraged them and he checked in on strategic plans, but he truly believed his team could do the jobs.
Last thoughts: Mr. Graham was far from a perfect man, husband, father or Christian leader. He was very aware of his faults. Again, I give a whole chapter to his regrets in life, and they were many. I don’t want to come across like he was the perfect man. He didn’t think he was and that may’ve been why God used him so mightily.