38: Jim Garlow

38: Jim Garlow

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Billy Graham & Me

• 38 •
JIM GARLOW

Bestselling author, pastor of Skyline Wesleyan Church in San Diego, California; host of daily radio broadcast

My first time going to a Billy Graham crusade was at the Aksarben Coliseum in Omaha, Nebraska, when I was a child growing up on a farm in Kansas. I invited a neighbor, a farm boy who lived down the road from us. His parents never went to church — they had a very low opinion of church — but for reasons I can’t understand, they allowed him to go with us all the way to Omaha, a four-hour drive, and he was one of those who went forward to receive Christ. That’s quite a thrill for me to look back on.

When I was an undergraduate in college, the Billy Graham organization started the School of Evangelism. The classes ran simultaneously with his crusades. One of the workshops was held at a large, old church in Kansas City. It was only for pastors and seminarians, so you had to be a graduate student, which I wasn’t. But my Greek professor somehow prevailed upon them to allow a group of about ten guys from his class to attend. So we undergraduates got to sit in with all these pastors at this huge conference.

I can remember everything about this as if it happened this morning. I remember where I was sitting in the balcony, listening to a talk about how, ultimately, ministry wasn’t attached to the pastor. Ministry, properly understood, was lay ministry, that is, it belonged to all of God’s people. It was so breathtaking.

I began to study this concept, and I kept studying it even when I went to graduate school and earned a Master of Arts from Southern Nazarene University, a Master of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary, a Master of Theology from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a Doctorate of Philosophy from Drew University.

Following the workshop at Billy Graham’s School of Evangelism, I wrote to his organization asking, “Please send me instructions on how you organize a crusade.” I look back and think did I really do that? Writing the Billy Graham team, asking how to organize a crusade when I was still just an undergraduate in college. I remember that the address was Billy Graham, Minneapolis, Minnesota. That’s all the address you needed — just Billy Graham, Minneapolis, Minnesota. I soon received three pages of instructions.

In my hometown of Concordia, Kansas, I was part of a Wesleyan church. I am still pastor in a Wesleyan denomination today. The Baptist church was on the same street, about five or six blocks away. The two churches had some theological differences, but they had a great relationship. The Baptists asked me to become their youth pastor. I’d done a lot of youth work in our little town of just 6,000 people. I agreed, but I told them that I’d been dreaming of something. “I have these three pages from the Billy Graham organization on how to organize a crusade,” I explained, “and I’m going to organize one in our town.”

So I organized a crusade, forming committees just like the instructions said to do. I took youth groups to seventeen small towns around us, knocking on nearly every door. We handed out literature, blitzing everything until our town was abuzz about the upcoming crusade.

We also brought in a rancher-farmer who was a very good Youth for Christ speaker. Billy Graham was one of the founders of YFC. We had an incredible response the last night of the crusade — we did it just like the Billy Graham Crusade — in a football stadium, and we had 2,000 people, one third of our town!

People were so enthused, they began saying, “Let’s do it again.” I had started working on my master’s degree in Oklahoma City, which was several hours away, so I had to organize it long-distance, but we had all the committees set up, and the town was so motivated. I did it all over the phone, making trips back and forth from Oklahoma City to Concordia. When it came time to get a speaker for the second crusade, I called a man who had been featured in Billy Graham’s Hour of Decision magazine. He directed me to a young seminarian named Ross Rhoads, and we became friends from that point on. Little did I know that Ross would later become the chaplain of the Graham organization.

Billy Graham not only provided a model for how to organize a crusade, he was also a role model for many of us on how to conduct a ministry with integrity. One time, at one of Graham’s crusades, a reporter told him to climb, turn around and wave at us as he was getting into the car, and so he did. His newspaper had also snapped a picture the night before at the crusade of the ushers standing with the offering baskets stacked so high. Then the editors took the two pictures, put them side by side, and wrote something like this, as I recall: “Graham ‘Love Offering’ Collected at Final Service.”

Well, he didn’t. He was a man of integrity, but he realized then that he had to form the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Everything was set up with an independent board, and his salary was established by others to avoid any question about how much he was earning from his ministry.

We used to be told when we were young that pastors, male ones that is, shipwreck on three things: gold, glory, and girls. As young pastoral students, we realized we were going to have to be careful about money and relationships with the opposite sex. I remember hearing the stories of the overtures that young women would make towards Billy Graham. He had to have guys around him to protect him. Billy Graham’s model of ministry played strong in the hearts of young college guys — that we were going to have to be very careful in all that we did, that we needed to walk with integrity. So the model for us became, “Billy Graham did it; we can, too.” And many of us follow that to this day.

Billy Graham would not allow himself to be tempted by women, riches, or power. Despite attempts to get him to run for President of the United States, he wisely realized that it would be a huge step down from his calling. He not only resisted these temptations, but he also was able to resist the intellectual challenges that had shaken the faith of many of his contemporaries.

During his early years as a preacher, many types of liberal academic approaches to the Bible were being discussed in U.S. seminaries and undergraduate institutions, such as redaction criticism, form criticism, literary criticism — all of them questioning the reliability of Scripture. Billy Graham began a profound intellectual struggle. Like many of his young colleagues, he was wrestling with basic questions: Is the Bible really authoritative? Is it really true? His answer came while at a Christian retreat center near Los Angeles, founded by the great Henrietta Mears. During a walk one night, he laid his Bible on a tree stump, and prayed something like this: “God, I can’t understand all this,” he cried out. “I don’t know it all. I can’t figure it all out. But I’m going to trust that Your Word is true.” From that moment on, Billy Graham’s preaching was punctuated by one phrase: “the Bible says…” That’s the hallmark of Billy Graham.

Yet his friend, Charles Templeton, made a different choice. Templeton was one of the early young evangelists with Youth for Christ International, founded in 1946. He was a young, effective, ruggedly handsome evangelist, and partnered with Billy Graham as one of the organization’s preachers. They traveled together, even introducing their new organization to pastors across Europe. But during his studies at Princeton Theological Seminary, Templeton decided to embrace much of the modern academic criticism, and he eventually became an atheist. He had lost confidence that the Bible was true.

So Billy Graham was not only a role model for organization and integrity, he became an intellectual model for so many of us who wrestled with these same academic issues. Billy Graham was the model for how to read the Bible, saying, “I can’t understand it all, but I choose to cast my lot on the side that believes it is true.” So many of us, like Billy Graham, have no regret that we did.

When we were young college students, everyone’s goal was to sound like Billy Graham. Everybody tried to sound like him, and it was somewhat humorous. We all wanted to be like him. But it really was more than just imitation. We were honoring a wonderful characteristic, an unwavering faith that I’m still thankful for, since like Billy Graham, I still believe the Bible is true.

My favorite figure in the Bible is Thomas. Many call him the doubter. But, I don’t think so. He was just a questioner. I too question things — a great deal. I’ve had struggles with doubt. But, the power that Billy Graham brings to his preaching is a model that has helped hold me and my generation of preachers to this day. Our faith is stronger than ever.

I was once told that before preaching, Billy Graham would spend the afternoon meditating. All he would eat was a piece of toast and some warm tea. He’d be alone the whole day. That had a big impact on me. I was so moved that Billy Graham — the great Billy Graham — had to be alone with the Lord before he would speak. Even the fact that he would limit his food intake showed such a deferential attitude toward his calling. I have found myself following similar practices before speaking at Skyline Church, where I serve as lead pastor here in San Diego, and before other speaking engagements.

In front of our church is a sidewalk that’s nearly 100 yards long and 8 yards wide. Etched in tiles down the center of that walk are the top leaders in church history, from every century and from all six continents. Billy Graham is one of those prominently displayed alongside his devoted wife, Ruth.

I think back to those days when I was just a kid, sitting in the basement of our farmhouse, glued to the TV, watching Billy Graham’s crusades. I look across the decades and see the impact he has had on me, my fellow pastors, and on so many tens of millions of others. It’s as if God reached down, and said: “I’m going to pick a North Carolina dairy farmer — William Franklin Graham, and do something with him the world will never be able to explain.” And God did.

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