Mourning the passing of a legend and one of the greatest Christian heroes of our time.
Eighty million people. That’s the number of people that Rev. Billy Graham is thought to have preached the gospel to during his years of active ministry. This doesn’t include those who heard via radio or film. Millions have come to faith in Christ as a result of his commitment to his Savior and his pursuit of the call of God on his life. He has held the position of one of the most admired people in America more than any other individual.
Billy Graham was beloved by both Christians and non-Christians, admired by those who love Jesus and those who have rejected him. And with his passing today, we are at a loss for words in many ways.
His impact on modern global Christianity is unparalleled. And yet his life calling was one of simple obedience. “My one purpose in life,” Rev. Graham once said, “is to help people find a personal relationship with God, which, I believe, comes through knowing Christ.”
In the Billy Graham Center, where I work, we have an entire section devoted to the life and ministry of Rev. Graham. On the walls are panoramic pictures of him at crusades, him with his family, him on magazines and perhaps most importantly, him praying to the God he loved so dearly.
These walls tell the story of Rev. Graham, from the time he was born in 1918 through his latter days. Having walked through these sections many times, it is hard to believe he is now face-to-face with the One he told millions about.
William Franklin “Billy” Graham Jr., the eldest of four children, was born on November 7, 1918, near Charlotte, North Carolina. He grew up on a dairy farm and at the age of 16 went to visit evangelist Mordecai Ham. He first placed his trust in Jesus at one of Ham’s revivals. Graham attended Florida Bible College, where he received his call to ministry, and later Wheaton College, where he met his future wife, Ruth Bell, the daughter of a medical missionary. The couple had five children.
While attending Wheaton College, Graham became pastor of the United Gospel Tabernacle in Wheaton, Illinois, and later served as pastor of First Baptist Church in Western Springs, Illinois, after which he took over the radio program “Songs in the Night” from his friend and fellow evangelist Torrey Johnson. In 1947, at the age of 30, Graham was named as president of Northwestern Bible College in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He served in that position until 1952. During this time he became the first full-time evangelist with Youth for Christ and in 1949 held a crusade in Los Angeles, which launched him into national prominence.
Over his ministry career, Rev. Graham held over 400 crusades in 185 cities. He also spoke at InterVarsity’s Urbana Student Mission Conference nine times.
In 1950, Rev. Graham founded the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
It is nearly impossible for me to imagine the welcome he is receiving in heaven, the “Well done,” spoken directly to him from the One he spent his life telling others about.
As an Evangelical leader, and now holding my position as head of the Center that bears Rev. Graham’s name, it is hard for me to put into words how I feel and respond knowing that he has passed into heaven. Thankfulness and extreme gratitude top my list—gratitude that he rarely lost sight of his true calling to proclaim Christ to a lost and hurting world. Rev. Graham was on a mission to tell people about our Savior so much so that he once said, “I’ll preach until there is no breath left in my body. I was called by God, and until God tells me to retire, I cannot. Whatever strength I have, whatever time God lets me have, is going to be dedicated to doing the work of an evangelist, as long as I live.”
Awe and admiration come in a close second. Rev. Graham was a man who knew what was important. His God, his family, his friends. He didn’t waver in the face of numerous opportunities to be esteemed and lifted high in the sight of man. He didn’t cower in speaking the name of Jesus at all times, in all ways, to all who would hear. His singular vision to see our world know Jesus is nearly unparalleled.
Humility and self-reflection is a close third. In no way do I count myself the prayer warrior Rev. Graham was. His time in Scripture and prayer formed him in a way that countless people, including myself, aspire to be and do. Rev. Graham had an extraordinary balance of quiet time with God and active ministry and leadership. He held the two in perfect balance. As I reflect on my leadership at the Center, and in numerous roles God has called me into, my prayer is that I too would allow more time for quiet and rest with the God I desire all to know.
And last, but really not least, I feel sorrow upon his passing. Yes, he is in heaven and we are rejoicing. But we have lost a model, a hero of the faith. We have lost a man who impacted our world for Christ profoundly through preaching and ministry, as well as through intercession—which he did in many of his final years.
Billy Graham was an amazing model for the Christian faith—a person whose mind and heart was fixated upon Jesus. There shall never be another person like him. And yet I know that if he were here, he would continue to remind us that we are all to proclaim God’s love in a world that is lost and drowning in sin. Rev. Graham once said, “I have found that when I present the simple message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ with authority, quoting from the very Word of God, he takes that message and drives it supernaturally into the human heart.”
Rev. Graham would also call us to open our Bibles and let the words soak in long enough to convict, guide and transform us more and more into the image of Christ.
The world has lost an amazing man. And yet, the Spirit of Christ lives on in all of us. My prayer for you and me is that we too would let the words of life come from our lips at all places, at all times and in all sorts of new and creative ways. It’s time for all of us to continue on where Rev. Graham’s passing has left a void.
Ed Stetzer, an Outreach magazine contributing editor, holds the Billy Graham distinguished chair of church, mission and evangelism at Wheaton College and the Wheaton Grad School, where he also oversees the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. This article originally appeared on The Exchange.